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Colin McCabe: “Bootstrap out of the gate”

Eye-catching packaging. The packaging used needs to accomplish a few things well. It needs to be bold and pop off the shelves. It needs to clearly communicate what you are selling. It needs to be environmentally conscious. In the case of FREE RAIN; like a lot of small beverage companies, we use sleeved cans, BUT […]

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Eye-catching packaging. The packaging used needs to accomplish a few things well. It needs to be bold and pop off the shelves. It needs to clearly communicate what you are selling. It needs to be environmentally conscious. In the case of FREE RAIN; like a lot of small beverage companies, we use sleeved cans, BUT our sleeves have a pull strip so that the label can be removed rendering the can fully recyclable. It is both novel and effective.


As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Colin McCabe, father, athlete, outdoor enthusiast, and entrepreneur, who founded FREE RAIN. It is a venture in his pursuit of ‘more’ in every day — more health, more balance, more presence. As co-Founder of the pioneering, salad-focused restaurant chain, Chopt, Colin has shared this philosophy with millions over the course of nearly two decades. Now, he’s also trying to reach people through what they drink.

Colin noticed a gap in the market when looking for delicious, convenient, and functionally beneficial beverages. Turning to an unending source of inspiration, he found in nature the surprising power of adaptogens. Fusing these ingredients with just the right amount of all-natural flavor led to the creation of Free Rain: a refreshing sparkling water that actively enhances mental and physical function.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in NYC. My parents were both fantastic cooks and instilled in me a love of cooking and an adventurous palate. I knew from early on that I would be in the food business. I started working in restaurants in high school and fell in love.

Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?

A few years ago, I was training for an Ironman triathlon; and because the training was intense, my work life as a founder of Chopt was busy and I had a full apartment with two young children, I decided that I didn’t have room for alcohol. Giving up alcohol made me take a hard look at the beverage space, because I was left with sparkling water, and I wanted more. I saw two things: one, that there was an opportunity for more flavor in sparkling water and two, that I still wanted to feel something from what I was drinking. I had been using adaptogens and nervines in my day to day life, especially to support my training, so I had this idea to create a bolder sparkling water infused with full doses of natural ingredients to support me during different times of the day. That was the ‘aha’ moment, but the ‘eureka’ moment came once I had finally developed and tasted them. I’m proud of the flavor and functionality of FREE RAIN.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Mistakes are only funny when you get away with them! I’ve made many mistakes, but in many ways business is mistake mitigation and the ability to have a sense of humor about your mistakes in order to learn and move forward is key. You can run a company without a sense of humor, but it won’t be any fun.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?

They love the idea more than the product. At the end of the day, all that we do is in support of the product, and if it isn’t exceptional, the road ahead will be rough. If you go in with the mindset that it is the product above all else, you will be starting in a stronger position.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

This first part is about you. Write the idea down and spend time with it. Analyze it. Do you have the time, support, money, etc. in order for it to be successful. Can you pull it off? Be honest.

  1. This next part is about the market. Analyze it. Is the product novel, is there a market for it, can you create it and sell it for a reasonable price, will anyone care etc.? Be honest.
  2. Find as many smart people as possible, and talk to them. Don’t be overly worried about revealing your secret (something I have been guilty of). Once my product was well developed, all the best things happened to me and FREE RAIN came from meeting with people who knew more than me.

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

There are natural constraints for everyone. Work around them. I think those obstacles are often financial, but also related to bandwidth. There’s not enough money and time, and maybe I don’t have all the skills necessary. If you don’t have a lot of money, produce a small amount and sell it to your friends. If you don’t have the bandwidth or skill, sell people on your vision and incent them to help you along the way. These obstacles can be overcome.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

That’s an interesting question and a lot of it depends on your resources and experience going in. I have had success and failures with consultants, and some have been costly in dollars, but they all have helped get me to where I am in one way or the other. An alternative is to take on a partner. There is tremendous risk in that, but when it goes well it makes getting to market that much easier. If you go that route, know that it will be the most important decision you make.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

Bootstrap out of the gate. It will help you understand and respect the financials of your business and give you the freedom to see your vision through. Venture capital has a time and a place, but for further along in the company’s life.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

I have filed and received a utility patent for an invention some years ago that I still work on. It is a costly process. It is important to know that it is an expensive and the fees do not end with the application. Also, one should decide on whether they should file a design or utility patent. There is a school of thought that a design patent is hard to protect versus a utility patent.

I digress, on the food side, for ingredients and manufacturing you need to hit the streets. Talk to everyone; sample their product and visit their warehouses. Get to know the people involved and make sure that you can develop a level of trust in them and their service.

Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food Line or Specialty Food” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. An excellent product. I tasted FREE RAIN for 6 months in many iterations before finally landing on our formula. There were so many times when I wanted to say, ‘OK, this is good enough.’, but i resisted the urge.
  2. A clear message. We already have one extra thing to communicate to our consumers; the idea of ‘sparkling water with more’. We need to, across all touchpoints, share that the power of our product lies not only in the flavor, but in the powerful functional ingredients that we use. This work will be ongoing…
  3. Eye-catching packaging. The packaging used needs to accomplish a few things well. It needs to be bold and pop off the shelves. It needs to clearly communicate what you are selling. It needs to be environmentally conscious. In the case of FREE RAIN; like a lot of small beverage companies, we use sleeved cans, BUT our sleeves have a pull strip so that the label can be removed rendering the can fully recyclable. It is both novel and effective.
  4. A purpose. Some may disagree with this one, but our partnership with 1% for the planet is important to us all at FREE RAIN. And we think it is important to our consumer.
  5. Distribution. You have all of the above, now what? If you don’t have a clear distribution strategy your audience will never get to try your excellent product. It is important to note too, that your distribution should align with your intended customer and that you should walk before you can run in terms of volume.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

In my opinion, it has to be personal. While we are all different, we all share many of the same interests, passions, convictions. If your product is a personal reflection of those, you can be sure that it will resonate with others.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

It is important to me to have my businesses align with my personal values. At Chopt, our main charitable partner is Wellness in the Schools. For nearly a decade we have helped support better food programs in public schools for children who mostly live under the poverty line and get most of their nutrition from school cafeterias. At FREE RAIN, we have partnered with 1% for the planet. So much of my personal life is spent in the pursuit of outdoor activities and it is important to me to help support charities to help protect our environment now and forever.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

FREE RAIN’s goal is to harness the power of nature so that we can find more in our lives. The intent with this product is to lead consumers to a better appreciation for the environment and an understanding that nature is the source for what we put in our bodies. My goal is to leverage the FREE RAIN platform to start a movement for people to spend more time outdoors. We all need some time in the elements, moving our bodies, breathing fresh air and appreciating nature.

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