Laser focused and ambitious, Eric Schnell, Co-Founder of BeyondBrands and mood33, and Michael Christopher, mood33’s Co-Founder and CEO, are on a mission to make the cannabis connection — creating a cannabis beverage brand with products that, in their own words, “offer people an improved ability to connect with themselves and each other in more meaningful ways, which cannabis has been known to do for centuries.”
Leveraging their unique skill sets and experiences, Schnell and Christopher are strategically building mood33 with the goal of it becoming the most trusted, credible cannabis beverage brand in the U.S. We caught up with them to learn more about their journey launching mood33, inside the team’s vibrant culture, exciting future innovations, and more.
ForceBrands: Tell us first how you two became co-founders of Mood33. How did your paths cross?
Michael Christopher: Infusing a functional cannabis experience into a beverage format has been a multi-year journey for my partner and fellow co-founder Eric Schnell and I. The mood33 brand story began when Eric and I met in 2015. I found myself inspired to develop a line of smoke-free cannabis products with Eric that we could enjoy “risk-free” to manage pain and recovery while also using a plant-based solution as opposed to prescription painkillers. I also wanted to develop a cannabis product that would help remove the stigma around cannabis and bring it into the homes of regular, everyday people. As a lifelong asthmatic who overcame debilitating respiratory issues as a child due to a life-threatening lung operation, and then a collegiate athlete who faced multiple injuries, cannabis seemed like an unlikely solution until its repeal of prohibition started to occur in the U.S. around 2012. I had recently left a tech career for legal cannabis, and had been consulting a handful of cannabis startups as I was crafting and experimenting with my own cannabis beverages, kombucha, and sparkling teas from my Brooklyn loft.
During my exhaustive search for resources and information on how to create a hemp beverage concept, I met with ForceBrands’ Co-Founder and Chief Strategy Officer Sean Conner at Tea Bar in Williamsburg to learn from Sean and pick his brain about how to bring an idea to market. We discussed Eric Schnell and how the former brand that he created, Steaz — an organic ready-to-drink green tea format — sold nationally and inspired the sparkling cannabis and hemp beverage format we produce today, now under the mood33 brand name. It was after meeting with Sean that I sought out Eric to seek advice on how to commercialize these early beverage concepts. Thankfully, Eric was very responsive to the idea and concept from the very start. I was able to meet with him and his team at the newly formed BeyondBrands — now a leading eco-conscious, New York-based CPG brand accelerator and brand development agency — that very next week.
Eric has helped create many disruptive healthy beverage brands that feature novel ingredients. I thought cannabis and hemp beverages needed a similar brand building effort and mission to educate consumers to further destigmatize the plant, hasten legalization across the nation, and thereby co-create an accessible and safe category of trustworthy cannabis/hemp beverages for all. We hit it off and quickly set out on a mission to co-create a new cannabis-infused beverage brand for the world to enjoy. We wanted to create a better-for-you alternative to current offerings that was inspired by popular cannabis strain experiences and their unique benefits they provide consumers, hence the band name mood33. Through my lifelong passion to develop a smoke-free solution for cannabis consumers like myself, matched with Eric’s 20+ year beverage brand-building expertise and his vast network of CPG collaborators, we discovered a niche category opportunity for better-for-you, functional cannabis-infused beverages. Together, we began the development of what would become mood33 today almost five years ago.
FB: What differentiates Mood33 in the rapidly expanding CBD-infused beverage category?
MC: mood33 aims to simplify cannabis strains and their terpene profiles for consumers by infusing each of its SKUs with cannabis extracts, functional tea, herbs, fruit, and flowers, which provide unique flavor experiences and functional benefits to the mood state of our customers. Terpene and flavonoid profiles are what dictate the flavor, aroma, and sensations of widely-known cannabis strains, and marrying these unique compounds with other synergistic botanical ingredients is a primary differentiator for mood33 and an essential part of its brand DNA. The synthesis of the mood33 brand was built on providing consumers an ability to choose how they want to feel simply by selecting and enjoying one of our mood-lifting beverages.
ES: We opted to own the power of the word ‘mood’ and its connotation in our brand name and chose to offer SKU naming formats of the feelings inspired by each proprietary formulation: Joy, Passion, Calm, Peace, and Energy. We understand cannabis shoppers what to know how a product is going to taste and how it will make them feel, so our goals for mood33 were to offer consumers an easy way to select and engage with the products, and to determine the best usage occasion for each proprietary formula with a quick glance at the bottle and its label from the cooler shelf. We also have a proprietary aluminum can with a resealable cap as our packaging differentiation on the upcoming fall launch of our new mood33 Hemp CBD Tea line.
FB: What are your current focus areas and target markets for Mood33?
ES: Mood33 targets consumers seeking natural ways to feel their best and preserve their passion and exuberance for life. We target consumers who are not necessarily new to cannabis, but by no means are they connoisseurs who consume cannabis at all hours of the day. Our customers are busy, successful, and time-constrained, just as most modern consumers are, and they seek to capture life’s small moments when they can — so mood33 helps them reach that happy place in quicker time and in a healthier manner than other edible cannabis products that rely on full digestion to take effect. Avoiding hangovers from alcohol is also important to our customers, as is avoiding sluggishness so our customers can keep up with their busy schedules. Moderately dosed, fast-acting. and hangover-free healthy cannabis beverages bring new options to those who want to stay in the moment, enjoy the benefits that cannabis can bring, and maintain the performance levels that life requires.
MC: We currently find most of our new customers online and in-store during our educational events. From geo-targeted mobile advertisements using audience segmentation based on lifestyle preferences and shopping habits we believe mood33 consumers align with, to influencer marketing and reviews, social media campaigns or brand collaborations and cross-promotions, we aim to reach mainstream audiences and bring them into the fold of the new legal cannabis marketplace using the mood33 as the brand vehicle they trust.
We have success educating and converting shoppers who typically seek smoke-free or odor-free product formats into mood33 customers during in-store events at flagship retailers like Harborside, Cookies, Harvest Shops, and Caliva. Having a physical presence in store with recurring promotional programs in place to induce trial and ensuring that the retail staff enjoys and recommends the products to their customers is also very advantageous to any cannabis brand, and is a key strategy for mood33 to discover new customers as well.
FB: What have been some of the biggest challenges of building a brand in the highly regulated cannabis industry?
MC: Overregulation and taxation of THC in state-sanctioned marketplaces like California have been some of the biggest challenges for us. We are still competing with a very healthy black market, resulting from high state and local taxes imposed by legislators that see cannabis legalization as a solution to budget issues and deficits. While cannabis can improve communities through taxation as seen in Colorado, over-taxation to the point where price competitiveness pushes consumers to illegal black market dealers and unlicensed retailers is the harm. Losing sales to the black market makes it very hard for licensed cultivators, product manufacturers, and retailers to reach profitability, and has caused many business closures already. This hurts the entire industry and reduces consumer access to affordable legal cannabis products.
No access to banking for licensed cannabis stakeholders is another challenge. Until the federal government repeals cannabis prohibition, federally insured banks are not allowed to bank cannabis revenues — causing a dramatic increase of cost of capital to the rapidly growing industry. This results in a largely cash-only industry that offers no ability to finance itself or accept digital and credit card payments. In addition, being a cash-only industry brings a high propensity for loss/robbery, criminal activity, and tax evasion by bad actors.
ES: No regulation of CBD online is another big challenge. CBD has become a panacea for many ailments in the consciousness of consumers due to the proliferation of information on the Internet. However, this has also resulted in a vast, unregulated online marketplace of untested and unsafe CBD-infused products manufactured for human consumption. Unsafe or adulterated products might reach consumers without proper medical, supplement, or food and beverage regulations, and are a risk to the entire cannabis legalization effort. We want to see CBD regulated like any other functional ingredient in food products, and the FDA is the key to solving this industry problem.
FB: How have your bi-coastal locations (California and New York) influenced the business and your roles in it?
ES: We specifically chose to have a bi-coastal presence as our vision has always been to build a Gold Standard trusted national beverage brand. With the core THC team based in Santa Monica and the CBD iced tea team being centered in New York City, where we will build our first-year penetration, we love the ability we have to speak to our core consumers on both coasts simultaneously. Our investors are pretty well spread between LA and New York City, too, which is advantageous as some are going to be leaning in and helping with the build out. We speak throughout the day and often are on Zoom calls so we can all see each other. In this modern time, we are in with technology — we are fortunate that being locked down in an office is no longer mandatory to be a successful management team.
FB: Describe the culture at Mood33 and how you’ve been working to cultivate it.
ES + MC: We operate the business with a core set of promises to ourselves as founders, colleagues, and collaborators, which breeds a culture for the brand.
We created the brand to launch products that can offer people an improved ability to connect with themselves and each other in more meaningful ways, which cannabis has been known to do for centuries.
Cannabis is a solution for consumers to improve their well-being and how they interact with the world around them, while increasing their creative expression and helping people feel their very best. In a world full of digital media overload and intense professional and social competition, it is hard for modern consumers to overcome challenging health and wellness issues, causing a lot of chronic illness in our society. Our brand is intended to offer solutions for these issues via the help of the cannabis plant. We intend to invigorate local communities and empower people to increase their happiness levels and sense of well-being through functional cannabis and hemp products and a captivating and colorful lifestyle brand. Our overall goal is to infuse the world with more compassionate cannabis products, created by compassionate people who seek to protect nature’s gifts to mankind through sustainable sourcing and manufacturing practices across all of our hubs of operation.
FB: When it comes to team building, how have you approached hiring? Who were your first key hires and how did you go about sourcing them?
ES: Fortunately, one of our greatest assets as a startup cannabis beverage brand is that most all our founding management team is made up of seasoned CPG experts who have built their careers working at successful companies. Based on all the relationships we were able to leverage, we started with a strong advisory board and group of founding investors as well. Our core team is made up of peers who all have worked together over the years, so the vibe and friendships are solid. Everyone has equity as well, so we are starting in a true partnership fashion where everyone is rowing the boat toward the larger national vision as a brand. As an example, our partner Errol Schweizer was Global Grocery Coordinator at Whole Foods Market during all the years we built our Steaz brand in that retailer. He was a great friend to us and helped us build the brand nationally in their system into a leading Category Captain. Our partner Veronica Park spent 27 years in executive roles for Starbucks and brings us a wealth of experience including licensing, foodservice, and ingredient sourcing. Dr. Rob Streisfeld worked with me as our head of education back in the vitamin days 25 years ago and is a well-respected cannabis expert who regularly speaks on behalf of the industry. Having a doctor on board when trying to educate and market this very special “herb” is extremely advantageous and will go a long way with making our consumers feel good about the integrity of the brand. He will be a forward-facing brand ambassador as we build our distribution and has been an advocate for plant medicine for years. We will be announcing a few key hires joining us in the months to come, many of whom are well respected in the beverage industry.
It’s awesome having a brand and product that is so attractive to top tier talent as startups generally do not get this much interest as the risk is too high to bank a career move on. We believe we have magic in a bottle with mood33.
FB: Do you have any big plans for expansion into more states in the coming months? Any exciting new launches you can share with us?
MC: Yes, yes, and yes! Our vision is to build the most trusted cannabis beverage brand nationwide. We foresee a country in 10 years where cannabis is legal in every state and the days of some states not being on board with legalization will be a thing people will eventually laugh about. We are laser focused now on owning our home market, California. When that mission is complete, and we’ve built our core base of ‘Loyal Brand Evangelists,’ we will then move on to Nevada, Colorado, Washington, and Massachusetts (hopefully New York and Florida will be on board and legal for consumable brands by then). We are in talks with partners already in all of those key states to win. On the exciting news front, stay tuned for an announcement soon on our new mood33 hemp CBD iced teas launching nationwide in grocery and natural channels this fall. We will be using Natural Products Expo East in September as our first trade show where we will be exhibiting. We are already in talks with a few key retail partners who are excited to partner with us. Some of our former Steaz team will be joining on that side of our business, which is super exciting and a bit emotional as well. When you can work with people again that you truly care about and had success with, it’s a win-win.
ES: Too many companies are trying to become the next Coca-Cola or Budweiser of legal cannabis, and they often expand too quickly into new markets before truly owning their home markets. We chose to build mood33 in California because it is a perfect place to build a cannabis beverage brand, and until every cannabis consumer from SoCal to the Bay Area knows of mood33, we will be focused on building our brand in our home regions first. When we can safely say we own our home marketplace, we will be exploring every new adult-use state marketplace for our THC-infused line with a focus on Nevada, Massachusetts, and Canada — while also paying very close attention to New York, Florida, Texas, and Illinois as those states improve their cannabis regulations for adult-use consumption.
MC: Some recent news and developments that we are very excited about is the recent launch of our fourth THC-infused SKU for the dispensary channel that was previewed at the Hall of Flowers trade show in Santa Rosa, Calif., in April, and we accepted pre-orders for this summer. This new SKU, PEACE, has been in development for quite some time and mirrors our other mood-based formulations (JOY, PASSION, CALM). We are excited to be launching this new high-CBD/low-THC SKU just in time for summer with warm weather-friendly flavors of watermelon, mint and basil, which is a great option for consumers looking for the benefits of the cannabis plant without the euphoria that THC sometimes brings. We are also announcing our fifth SKU/line extension on July 4 as well, so stay tuned for those announcements!
ES: As far as our fall season is concerned, we look forward to announcing our completely new line of ready-to-drink hemp-based CBD iced teas to be sold in mainstream retail nationwide, with a focus on natural and organic channels for the first two years of launch. This line celebrates the benefits of domestically grown, non-psychotropic hemp. It is a very exciting time for the company, after waiting years to launch this particular line intended for mainstream audiences. When hemp was finally legalized in the U.S. for agricultural production via the U.S. Farm Bill passed in late 2018, it initiated a landmark moment for the natural products industry that can now harness the power of this amazing plant in all its forms — not only CPG. We are humbled to have the opportunity to be one of the first brands to bring hemp into the mainstream. This brand will be launched in partnership with my former Steaz master distributor, World Finer Foods, whom are owned jointly by UNFI and KEHE. World Finer’s reach will give us national access to a few thousand key retailers in the first year. Exiting time to be playing in this space!
Interested in working at an innovative brand like mood33? Explore our specialized cannabis division HerbForce.