As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Nicholas Greeninger, CEO of Tolago Hard Seltzer.
Over the course of his fast-paced career, Nicholas Greeninger has overseen all facets of bringing beverages to market. His true loves are branding, marketing, content creation, and storytelling, yet he is equally adept in compliance as well as supply chain and distributor management. In 2020, Greeninger assembled a group of like-minded artists, musicians, athletes, and creative entrepreneurs to create Tolago Hard Seltzer.
Greeninger received his Bachelor of Science in Business Administration with an emphasis on Integrated Marketing Communications from San Diego State University-California State University. An internship at Rip Curl USA led to his first job as the Rip Curl Team & Promotions Manager upon graduating.
Greeninger then spent 5 years as the Sports Marketing Manager at Rip Curl during the largest North American growth stage in the company’s 40-year history. After Rip Curl, he managed high-profile athletes while also raising funds for and working with the founders of Saint Archer Brewing Company. In 2011, Greeninger was appointed its Director of Marketing and the company was purchased by Molson Coors in 2015 for an estimated $35 million. Following that, Greeninger spent a year consulting in the beverage space.
Most recently, Greeninger led the marketing for FutureProof, in particular for its flagship product, BeatBox Party Punch. Greeninger had been tapped specifically for his ability to develop, launch, and quickly grow authentic brands geared toward millennial consumers. Greeninger facilitated influencer endorsements across his broad network of extreme athletes and modern musicians, as well as developed highly successful sales partnerships with leading music festivals such as Rolling Loud, Insomniac, and LiveNation, among others. During Greeninger’s tenure, BeatBox’s distribution footprint grew to 22 states and more than 10,000 retailers — including 7–11, Circle K, and Kroger, among others — and the company met its $8M top line sales revenue figure months ahead of schedule.
For Greeninger, Tolago Hard Seltzer represents the moment in his career at which he was able to associate himself with the right people to create the right brand around a unique product. With its launch, Tolago challenged the hard seltzer category and changed its paradigm, in effect elevating hard seltzer. As a result, consumers are gravitating toward Tolago because it aligns with their views and values.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
Growing up in California influenced me deeply. It is where I found my personal love of surfing and became aware of the importance of environmental conservation. I was also attuned to a healthy, natural lifestyle long before that was a trend. Tolago’s name evokes Southern California and its long-lasting Mexican and Spanish influences; we source all of our fruit juices, purées, and botanicals from The Golden State; and our founders are all native Californians.
I received my Bachelor of Science in Integrated Marketing Communications & Business from San Diego State University, and while studying took an internship at Rip Curl, which changed my life. After graduation, I worked my way up the ranks at Rip Curl, and then I helped launch Saint Archer Brewing Company while managing athletes. Saint Archer was a slow build — as many startup businesses are — but eventually the business merited my full focus, and I became the Director of Marketing. In 2015, we sold Saint Archer to Miller Coors. After a year of consulting for a number of regional beverage brands, I was tapped by Future Proof to lead their marketing nationally. With an all-star team and distribution in 22 states my time with BeatBox was an incredible experience. All of this background prepared me to be the entrepreneur I feel so fortunate to call myself, and to launch a brand that fully aligns with my beliefs.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
My California upbringing and love of the environment are clear in Tolago. My work in athletic and festival marketing, plus my beverage experience were the next parts.
The creation of Tolago represents the moment in my career at which I was able to associate myself with the right people to create the right brand around a unique product. It was a culmination of my life experiences and the incredible people I met along the way. I found myself surrounded by a group that shared a common vision and once we saw the opportunity in front of us, we did not hesitate to jump. I was inspired by brands that are authentic and transparent and I wanted to emulate that in my own unique way. I wanted to encapsulate the California lifestyle and communicate that feeling through my product.
The journey of any entrepreneur is never a straight line; it involves unexpected, but welcome, twists and turns. Every moment and every experience are lessons that help me better prepare for my future — even though I of course have no idea what is in store.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
There are no funny stories with Tolago. I take everything about it very seriously.
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?
It’s important to have an open mind about gaining knowledge from others because there is always something to learn from others no matter your level of experience. I consider myself fortunate to have had such impactful mentors early on in my career; particularly an old boss of mine from RipCurl, Dylan Slater, and a friend who is an expert at brand development, Ryan Kingman, who have been continuous inspirations to me. I’ve relied heavily on them when it comes to personal and professional development and they have advised me throughout every point in my career.
It’s these types of relationships that are the culmination of years of friendship, trust, and comradery that truly shape your life and career. Even today, as I run my own business, I seek them out for advice and even partnerships.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
We fully dove into Tolago in February 2020, and never could have predicted the global pandemic. We quickly learned to adapt, which I am very proud of. It was truly sink or swim. We had to change the way we sourced and obtained ingredients. We learned to navigate strained supply chains and adapted to a fast-changing retail landscape. Additionally, a shortage of aluminum cans was and will continue to be a challenge for beverage manufacturers. All of this forced us to find new ways around traditional systems, and I am hopeful that what we do as a company will set precedents for the years to come, so we are very driven to continually push for innovation.
Looking back, I’m proud of how my team and I stepped up to the plate. We never settled on our vision for the brand, which was a particular challenge as we created the recipes for Tolago and had to find the right person to create them. From sourcing and using organic ingredients to differentiating the product in a way that was true to the Tolago vision, we pushed until we had exactly what we wanted.
The biggest takeaway from these experiences was that in order to succeed, you have to have the right people around you, those whose will to succeed matches yours. Talent can be hard to come by, especially with the Alcohol Beverage space exploding with new innovation — but I know we have the best team out there.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I knew Tolago’s foundation of authenticity and transparency would resonate with consumers, which gave me the drive to see our launch through, no matter what. Not only that, but we have always had more of a “we” mentality rather than a “me”; we wanted to be the one to elevate the hard seltzer category. Because of these reasons, everyone was — and is — willing to give 110%. That was a crucial factor which allowed us to adjust to the pandemic, and I know will see us through the future.
Another important part is being able to map out the end goal and every stepping stone along the way. Considering the circumstances, I knew there would be mountains to climb, but I know we will overcome them. Because of our vision, we are able to pivot with ease when necessary.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I am proud to say that Tolago is in a great place. We shipped our first case less than three months ago and are already seeing traction. I have to give credit to the team for having a great mindset and wanting Tolago to succeed. We have momentum in our favor and are seeing emails from customers stating they are moving 50 cases of Tolago every few days, which is of course a very rewarding message to receive. The best part is that when our distributor partners see these, they get more involved, so success is breeding success.
We are seeing consumers gravitate toward Tolago because it is a hard seltzer they can relate to, one that aligns with their views and values. This demand is showing us that there is a bright future for Tolago, and we are expanding. We are getting requests for Tolago from all around the United States. We are opening New Jersey this coming month, and New York will likely follow soon after. In the west we are looking at Arizona and Nevada, and then potentially the Pacific Northwest. We are ready and eager to go as fast and hard as needed, while methodically moving into states that we know will have demand for a product like Tolago.
It’s important to remember that there will always be naysayers and those who doubt your vision, but it’s even more important to lean into those who gravitate toward your brand and stand behind what you are doing. Those are the people that will build your brand — because right now in these early stages, we are not just selling cases of Tolago, we are selling the vision of Tolago to make something special for the long term.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
A major point of difference for Tolago is that the brand was created — and is being built — collectively. Our team of high-profile owner advocates have invested their money in the business and have taken an ownership stake in the company. Our collective consists of extreme athletes, artists, musicians, designers, and producers; all creatives with a vision to inject energy and innovation into an otherwise repetitive category. We all surf, skateboard, or snowboard, so have strong values tied to environmental awareness. This is why we are also aiming to set new industry standards for social responsibility, weaving this into everything from our packaging to our messaging and also putting our money where our mouth is.
Our influential and diverse collective uniquely bridges art, music, culture, and sports, uniting them behind a product. Everyone in our network has an ownership stake in the business; they are investing their time and money, and getting involved in elevating the category.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Finding balance in the fledgling stage of your business is a challenge for any entrepreneur. A big help for me is reading and listening to podcasts, as both help me stay continually inspired and focused. Knowledge is power; the more information you seek out, the more comfortable you will be with all that comes up in daily life — less stress means less burn out! Another important key to avoid burnout is make time for yourself. For me, surfing is a huge part of my life, and I make time for it. Surfing allows me to clear my mind and even allows me to feel better prepared to take on the day.
Getting myself in the best mental and physical state possible is vital to have a clear mind to properly visualize and achieve my goals as well as efficiently achieve tasks, supported by focus fueled by passion.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Personally, environmental responsibility is a top priority — so I have made sure that Tolago represents that. That is why when it came to designing the packaging, it needed to be as eco-friendly as possible. Tolago comes only in fully-recyclable, printed aluminum cans, whereas most aluminum cans are actually wrapped in plastic, making them non-recyclable.
Tolago also has an annual commitment to 1% For The Planet, a foundation comprising more than 3,000 members which are committed to protecting the future of our planet. More than this, I believe Tolago will be a catalyst in raising awareness of environmental responsibility. I hope we will inspire change in our competitors and set a new category standard, one everyone will rise to meet together.
Through Tolago, I want to be a positive role model in society. I stand behind my beliefs and values, and also represent them through the Tolago business. Our collective further rallies behind the same beliefs. We aim for our values to shine through the brand in a big way, and resonate in everything we do.
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
- Everything will take longer than you think. Time management is a challenge for many people, including myself. We have an idealistic view of how much time we have in a day, and often spread ourselves too thin. I’ve had to actively shift my mindset to see things on a longer timeline, which has been super beneficial to my productivity.
- Always aim past the target. It might not always be a straight line, but always go above and beyond. More often than not, you’ll surprise yourself with how much you can accomplish and sometimes the “idealistic” goals are much more within grasp than you had initially thought. For example, when starting out we had our “normal” goals and then our “stretch” goals. We eventually ended up achieving more than we thought possible, like our distributor putting us on quota in an off season for hard seltzer, and Tolago seeing 88% growth from December to January. Had we stuck to our basic goals, we might not have achieved this. So, keep pushing: you never know what’s right around the corner.
- Passion begets focus, and focus begets progress. Passion is the key to a thriving business. My passion for Tolago and the team that we are building allows me to relentlessly focus toward success. Because of this, progress just seems to flow constantly.
- Hiring people will be one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. I’ve never had the hiring process fall on me in its entirety before Tolago, so learning how to find the right people for the right role is challenging, but extremely rewarding once you nail it. I found this even more challenging being in the start-up phase, during which team members have to wear multiple hats. The best advice I’ve heard for this is to hire slow and fire fast, I think that’s an important mindset to have when starting a business.
- Firing people is the hardest thing you’ll ever do. Normally, I am very open to conversations around missing a mark or not executing against a certain responsibility. However, being a startup, we have to be very conscious of our resources. You have to be prepared to let some people go when they just aren’t the right fit. Looking at my team, I know that every step was necessary to achieve the synergistic energy we have today.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
The most valuable thing I have learned is the importance of synergy. I see every day how important it is to be surrounded by a team whose passion matches yours. Being able to work together seamlessly has allowed us to tackle even the most difficult hurdles. We are all on a level playing field, striving to create the best, most authentic brand we can. No matter what we are working on, we are all pushing toward the same goal. Of course, it is natural to come across roadblocks and moments of discouragement; however, the constant effort from peers that you respect really makes you push yourself. I strongly believe that working well together creates the strongest business.
The effort put in fuels the results put out. When you gain knowledge from past experiences, it makes new endeavors feel effortless and makes you appear as though you know what you are doing. It doesn’t take away the time and energy needed to bring things to life again; it simply means you know how to do it better. On a human level, knowing what drives each individual is the only way to keep people going.
Everything from ideation to execution comes down to believing in yourself and visualizing your end goal. If you have a whole team of people doing just that, it is truly an unstoppable force.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
Experience is everything. Gain knowledge from people who have it! Learning from the experience of others will drastically streamline processes and shorten timelines. Having been close to a number of start-ups allowed me to learn a little bit of everything, and that experience has gotten me to a great place of understanding all facets of the business.
Yet, it is unavoidable to make mistakes and need to learn through trial-and-error; this is a tough, resource-consuming process but makes you better equipped and continuously strengthens you.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. :-)
This is it! Tolago is the movement. A great tasting beverage is just the vehicle we are using to bring people together and mobilize change. It is about values and beliefs that this group believes in and stands for, and which we will push our fans to partake in. It’s about equality across so many different things.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow Tolago across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter at @tolagoseltz! You can also visit our website to learn more about our co-owner ambassadors, find Tolago near you, or purchase exclusive merchandise designed by Matt McCormick.