Find a great co-founder. Being an entrepreneur means you will have to be successful at many things with which you might have zero prior experience. Having a partner who you trust and who has aligned priorities will make your decision making better and improve your odds of success
As a part of my series about “Lessons From Inspirational Women Leaders in Tech”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vivi Mullen is the Co-founder and Co-CEO of GO BIG, and the only female CEO in the energy drink industry. Mullen founded the company in 2020 alongside her best friend and business partner Ben Koren shortly after becoming a new mom. Born and raised in Brazil, Mullen’s career as a female executive in the male-dominated corporate culture of Brazil both stoked and shaped her ambition to make a difference — in a toxically masculine energy drink industry that often portrays women as objects, a critical motive for Mullen in starting GO BIG was to build a brand based on values of empowerment and inclusivity, because wanting to feel better is a universal desire.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Earlier this year, I co-founded the first clean label, natural energy and wellness shot, GO BIG, and became the only female CEO in the entire energy drink industry. I launched the brand with my best friend and co-founder Ben Koren, shortly after giving birth to my son Oliver. Growing up in Brazil, I had always used guarana in my own personal diet but after becoming a mom, I rediscovered its power and realized that it provided a healthier solution to something we all battle daily: exhaustion. Current energy drinks only cater to a certain type of masculine audience, but it’s 2020 — about time we change that. I am determined to build GO BIG on the values of empowerment and inclusivity, because wanting to feel better and take care of our bodies is a universal desire.
Entrepreneurship is in my blood. My father, grandfather, and great grandfather all started their own businesses. My grandmother always tells me the story of when I was about 4 or 5 years old and would try to sew men’s ties with the fabric scraps from the dresses she was making. I would then try to convince her to go to Praca Portugal (a famous square in my hometown of Fortaleza) to sell the ties so we could buy a car and drive to the ice cream shop. Other kids dreamed of being firemen or ballerinas, whereas I dreamed of wearing a suit and carrying a briefcase like my dad. I was different from other girls because girls in Brazil were not taught to be ambitious. We were expected to be pretty and well-mannered. I had this recurring dream as a kid of being in an auditorium in a suit giving a speech about how I, a woman, had aimed higher and succeeded. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the men in my family, continuing the tradition in one sense, but also breaking it because I am a woman.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began at your company?
There have been tons of challenges and unexpected turns while bringing our product to market. However, by far the most interesting thing to happen was when we finally launched and two weeks later a once-in-a-generation pandemic locked down the whole country! GO BIG was in large part created in my co-founder’s CrossFit gym, and a big portion of our launch plan was initially focused on selling to and through the NYC fitness community. Luckily, we had also built out our DTC (direct to consumer) channel ahead of launch, so we pivoted entirely to online sales. This pivot in turn was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed us to acquire more customers quicker than we had forecasted, and build a communication channel with those customers in order to continually improve our product.
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?
I started my career selling fabric for a textile company in Brazil. I was the sales manager and would travel around visiting clients with our sales representatives. Soccer is a big deal in Brazil (obviously), and devotion to your local team is almost a religion. I’m the rare exception in that I don’t follow soccer, but I always tried to remember my clients’ favorite teams. When one of my biggest clients had a baby, I thought the perfect gift that was guaranteed to result in adoration from the client and many future orders was a customized baby soccer jersey onesie. I executed perfectly on the gift except for one detail — I got the team wrong! Instead I chose his rival team. In Brazil, it doesn’t get much worse than that. Every time I visited him from then on, I was made fun of. But in the end, he kept buying from us, and I learned two things: 1) it’s the thought that counts, and 2) always take notes when meeting with clients and always read the notes before meeting with them!
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
When we were just about to do our first run of GO BIG shot we discovered that one of our ingredients was simply not what we had ordered. It was ingredient fraud. My background is not originally in the food and beverage space, so I had no idea that was even a possibility, but we had hired a very experienced food safety expert, and she insisted on us doing a battery of tests before producing anything. The tests were expensive, and ultimately discovering the fraud set us back a costly 6 months. That was really hard, and we had to make some tough choices to get through it. But if we hadn’t done the tests, I believe our company would be over.
I have never thought of giving up. I am just not built that way. I also knew from the beginning that taking on our misogynistic industry would be extremely difficult. I knew that it would be challenging to produce a tasty and effective energy shot without all of the artificial, sugary junk that dominates our industry. But I chose to do things the hard because I sincerely believe that people need a healthier alternative that empowers them, rather than objectifying at least half of the population.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am very fortunate to have started a company with my best friend. I joke that since we started GO BIG, I spend more time with Ben than anyone else (including my son). We are great friends and have a very aligned vision. We also have very complementary skill sets which makes dividing up the work very easy. We know each other well enough to manage each other and give a little boost whenever needed. Finally, going through the entrepreneurial journey with a partner who has your back makes it less lonely and more enjoyable. And did I mention that he’s really smart and funny? I am not sure I could do this without Ben, and I am sure it wouldn’t be half as much fun.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“Entrepreneurship is not a linear journey.”
I actually came up with that in my 20s when I was reflecting on the journeys of my father and grandfather. They showed me that sometimes there are ups, sometimes there are downs, but as long as you keep your eyes on the prize and keep going, you can get to where you want to go. If somebody says ‘NO,’ go talk to someone else. If ingredient fraud messes up your formula, reformulate. If a global pandemic disrupts your launch strategy, pivot.
Ok super. Thank you for all that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview. We’d love to learn a bit about your company. What is the pain point that your company is helping to address?
The pain point is very simple: people are tired.
We were actually solving our own problem. I had recently become a mom, and my co-founder was crazy enough to be regularly waking up for 6AM CrossFit. Coffee and matcha just didn’t cut it for us. And energy drinks and pre-workouts were filled with junk, so we never even considered them.
Guarana is something that all Brazilians know about, and I would always take it when I needed energy and focus beyond what coffee could give me. I shared guarana with Ben along with a traditional Brazilian recipe for drinking it like a shot. Ben took it every day, and then started sharing his homemade shots with his CrossFit classmates. When they started asking to buy the shots in bulk, we realized that we could help people on a larger scale.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Our product itself is pretty differentiated — we are the first clean label energy + wellness shot crafted using only a handful of natural, recognizable ingredients. When thinking about the type of daily booster we wanted, we realized that it was a cross between a natural version of a 5 Hour Energy and a wellness elixir. So that’s what we created.
Before we launched, our hypothesis was that we would be most successful with the Soulcycle crowd. Basically, people in major citiies on the East and West coasts who would never consider a traditional energy drink, but wanted something functionally superior to coffee.
What we found was that over half of our customers are actually energy drink consumers who want to be healthier but simply had no other options. A lot of them are not from major metropolitan cities. One of our best customers, Mary, lives in Wyoming and buys four boxes of our Blueberry Açaí flavor every month to help her get through her night shift. She shares the order with her co-workers because, according to her, “we are all trying to get off of 5 Hour Energy.”
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
We are launching a new and improved GO BIG in the winter. Since we’ve been selling DTC, we were able to get tons of feedback from our customers — what they loved, what they hated, what they desired — and we put all of those comments into the reformulation. We added apple cider vinegar because a number of our customers said that it’s something that they looked to incorporate into their daily wellness routine, and the research supported its benefits. We also made tweaks to the flavor profile based on what people said. And we’re excited to launch a brand-new flavor — Raspberry Pomegranate.
Let’s zoom out a bit and talk in more broad terms. Are you currently satisfied with the status quo regarding women in Tech? What specific changes do you think are needed to change the status quo?
I am definitely NOT satisfied with the status quo. From harassment, to just being ignored or patronized, women have to deal with a lot of BS. Unconscious biases are a real thing that manifest themselves both overtly and covertly. And this is especially true in entrepreneurship.
HBR published an article that really illuminates how biases play out for female entrepreneurs seeking funding. One study cited by the article showed that when men and women pitched an investment using identical slides and scripts, participants rated the same pitch delivered by men significantly higher than when delivered by women. Another study found that men and women face different questions from VCs. Across 180 entrepreneurs and 140 VCs at a TechCrunch pitch contest, men were consistently asked more ‘promotion’ questions (highlighting upside and potential gains), while women were asked more ‘preventive’ questions (highlighting potential losses and risk mitigation). Entrepreneurs posed promotion questions raised at least six times more money than those posed the prevention questions.
I believe the first step towards a solution is awareness. There is an abundance of evidence showing that portfolios representing diverse founders/CEOs outperform. It’s also clear that women are subject to biases when seeking VC funding (see above). Yet an anonymous survey by Women Who Tech revealed that 70% of investors believe that the underfunding of minority entrepreneurs has more to do with the lack of qualified entrepreneurs than systemic bias. 56% of these same investors said that lack of funding for underrepresented founders really isn’t an issue.
Another important part of the solution is institutions that have been started to support female founders. I was fortunate enough to be a part of Project Entrepreneur by the Female Founder Collective. Female Founder Collective is an incredible initiative by Rebecca Minkoff and the great Alyson Wyatt that connects and supports female founders. Through Project Entrepreneur, I gained unbelievably valuable insider information about the fundraising process, and even more importantly met incredible entrepreneurs, like Laura Cox, founder of Oars + Alps, who have become respected mentors. Such networks will be an invaluable part of changing the status quo.
In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges faced by women in Tech that aren’t typically faced by their male counterparts? What would you suggest to address this?
I have a male co-founder, and we have walked out of meetings where the difference in the way we each were treated was so obvious that he felt uncomfortable. For example, we met with a high-profile lawyer from NYC who only addressed Ben during the meeting. I would literally ask a question, and he would respond to the other male in the room. The meeting ended with the lawyer telling us a story about his 2 kids. His daughter was very smart and was going to Harvard while his son was very lazy, but somehow he knew his son had something different and was going to be more successful than his daughter.
Another example: One of the most common criticisms we have heard from male VCs in meetings has been “I like what you are doing and how 70% of your consumers are female. But… if you’re going for the female consumer, isn’t “GO BIG” too masculine of a name?” My answer is always: “Do you think women can’t go big?”
Gender bias is still unbelievably present. I think one of the most effective ways to combat it is for more women to become decision makers — and that includes not only achieving positions of power, but being included in conversations and taken seriously every step of the way.
What would you advise to another tech leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth or sales and “restart their engines”?
Listen to your customers, but also listen to the people who chose not to buy your product. They will literally tell you what you need to do to get better. Your job is to figure out how.
Do you have any advice about how companies can create very high performing sales teams?
Set achievable goals along with your team and hold them to it.
Share the upside — make it variable based on performance.
Find people who truly love your product and company, because it’s much easier to sell something you strongly believe in.
When people are not performing as expected, let them know and try to understand from them what they need to improve. If that still doesn’t work, let them find another place that is a better fit for them. It is not fair to the company nor the employee to prolong a relationship that is not working.
In your specific industry what methods have you found to be most effective in order to find and attract the right customers? Can you share any stories or examples?
We found that Facebook and Instagram ads were the quickest way to get the product out there and start getting sales and feedback. But the most effective thing has been word of mouth. When we have super fans (people that end up subscribing to multiple boxes each month), we have observed other orders start to come in either directly or through search from people in close geographic proximity. Word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing around, even during a global pandemic!
Based on your experience, can you share 3 or 4 strategies to give your customers the best possible user experience and customer service?
Talk to your best customers, on the phone if possible. They will give you tons of ideas to increase their fanaticism and loyalty.
Talk to your worst customers (and by worst, I mean people who are unhappy with your product). They will show you where you have problems, so you can start working on fixing them.
Start all standups and prioritization meetings with “customer insights.” This will help to instill a culture of customer centricity in the whole company.
As you likely know, this HBR article demonstrates that studies have shown that retaining customers can be far more lucrative than finding new ones. Do you use any specific initiatives to limit customer attrition or customer churn? Can you share some of your advice from your experience about how to limit customer churn?
At the risk of sounding like a broken record… talk to your customers who churn and they will tell you. Besides obvious reasons, I think each business is going to have different reasons for churn. But it’s pretty easy to find out what the problems are. Figuring out how to fix them is the hard part.
Here is the main question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful tech company? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Find a great co-founder. Being an entrepreneur means you will have to be successful at many things with which you might have zero prior experience. Having a partner who you trust and who has aligned priorities will make your decision making better and improve your odds of success.
- Start with a real problem suffered by real people. In the consumer sector, a great place to start is with your own problems. You have unique insight into them. GO BIG started with my own problem.
- Don’t quit. Entrepreneurship is not linear. If it was easy, someone else would have already done it.
- Talk to your customers.
- Talk to your customers. 🙂
Wonderful. We are nearly done. Here are the final “meaty” questions of our discussion. You are a person of enormous influence. 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. 🙂
We need to fight for female empowerment. Women represent about 47% of America’s labor force and hold more than 50% of Bachelors, graduate and PhD degrees. Yet women earn 80% of what men earn. Not only do women make less money for the same jobs, but they also have fewer opportunities. In 2018 45% of S&P 500 companies’ employees were women, yet only 5% of CEOs were female (we are now at 6.4%). Venture capital investment in all-female founding teams represented 2.8% of capital invested across the entire U.S. startup ecosystem in 2019.
The game is rigged and we have to do our part to change it. I am the only female CEO in the energy drink market, and I am working hard to change the way this industry portrays and treats women. The movement for female empowerment has already started. There are many women and men out there that have joined. We just need to keep on fighting. Equality is not only a fundamental human right but also a critical economic opportunity that benefits everyone. Societies cannot operate at their full potential with hurdles for the half of the population. According to the World Bank, human capital wealth could increase by 22% globally, and total wealth by 14% percent with gender equality in earnings.
We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
Serena Williams. I can’t even express how much I admire her. She is the greatest tennis player, and some say athlete, of all times. She got to the top against all odds, with pure grit. She won the Australian Open while pregnant, took a year off to have a baby and came back to the top of her game. She is an entrepreneur and businesswoman. She is a black female rights activist and always takes a stance. She is a huge inspiration for me.
Thank you so much for this. This was very inspirational, and we wish you only continued success!