As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Ayotte, founder of Ohza.
Ohza was founded by 26-year-old Ryan Ayotte after attempting to mix mimosas with his friends on a tippy boat off of Cape Cod, MA. The result? A mess. From making a mess on the high seas, to lugging bottles, juice cartons, and cups to the beach — they knew there had to be an easier way. Based in Cambridge, MA, Ohza is set out to bring a taste of brunch wherever you wander using quality ingredients, sustainable packaging, and always supplying a good time.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I come from an entrepreneurial family where my mom started and ran a successful business for 10+ years and my dad was self-employed. I saw the passion they took to work every day, and I realized early on that was something I desired to achieve in life.
I had the bug relatively early to start and run my own business in high school and in my early days of college. Though I went to school for finance, and prior to Ohza I was in private equity, I knew at some point I would love to build something of my own. There is nothing more satisfying to me than doing work that is meaningful which meant to create something.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
At the time I wasn’t planning on starting a business, Ohza came to life when some friends and I tried mixing mimosas on a tippy boat off Cape Cod. After endless spilling, I thought I’d look for a premade option for the next trip, but it turned out there wasn’t an option.
As fun as a canned mimosa would be though, I was mostly interested in the whole “non-beer” segment of the alcohol industry. It felt like consumers had to pick one of two sides: “healthy” alcohol or “flavorful” alcohol and nothing in between. Hard seltzer was the choice if you wanted a low-cal and no sugar, but the downside was they were rather bland tasting. On the flip side, if you wanted something flavorful, you went for more traditional malt beverages like hard lemonade which tasted great, but they are packed with sugar; or you went for one of the really authentic canned cocktails that were just starting to be available. Though these cocktails used great ingredients and tasted like the real thing, they weren’t sensational (hard to sit down and drink a 12% ABV can). The drinks are packed with calories and sugar because current laws don’t require nutrition facts and ingredients on 99% of alcohol, negating the “healthy” angle.
Given this, I set out to create the perfect balance: something similar to calorie in count to hard seltzer, but with the bold flavor of a traditional cocktail — all while being far less caloric and sugary than the competitors or the classic cocktail you’d make at home or get at your local bar. Given the popularity of mimosas, and that no one was really pre-mixing them, I thought it was the perfect flavor vessel.
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?
One of the funniest mistakes I made was not planning for delays during one of our early production runs. The plant was about six hours from where I live, in the middle of nowhere, so I planned for a long day trip. There were issues that pushed the schedule to the following day, and since I made no plans to stay over, I was out of options and had to sleep in the back of my car. While not the worst problem to have, it taught me to always plan for the unexpected — whether it be as simple as booking a hotel in advance, adding extra buffer time in our supply chain, or saving backups of our new website prior to launch.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Ohza aims first, to be an honest alcohol company and secondly, do good for the environment.
It’s absolutely crazy to me that 99% of alcohol isn’t required to list nutrition facts and ingredients. Unlike just about everything else we consume, where we know where it came from, what’s inside, how it affects us etc., alcohol provides none of it. We believe this misleads consumers greatly, and we’re on a mission to bring accountability to the industry by being proudly transparent about our product, but also pushing for regulations that require this of all brands.
Secondly, as a culture that has single-use, fast, and unsustainable products all around us, we’re aiming to do as much as we can to bring a great product while making as little of an impact on the environment as we can. This means using zero plastic in all of our packaging, shipping boxes, and ensuring that every component is consumable or recyclable.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
I believe that from the very beginning, even during the interview stage, you should make it known what the company’s values are, how we see our employees as an extension of the brand, and what we will do to set them up for growth and success. By doing this, it enables you to hire people that align with your values, but also set the tone for their career.
Secondly, leading by example is the best way to show people that we’re doing more than just what is written down on paper. If the founder is following the guidelines set up by the company, then employees and customers will know they’re authentic.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I always try to take things one step at a time. Running a startup is a rollercoaster ride, but if you can put one foot in front of the other, I like to think you’ll always come out on top.
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?
We had some large issues with our first official production run, which was funded by essentially all the money we had left after development. I thought there was a very real chance we were going to have to destroy it all, and right then and there before the company even sold product, we’d be out of business.
After so many taste tests, panels, and discussions with buyers, I knew the market loved our samples and saw clear market fit. This is what motivated me to keep going after our first big hurdle and find a solution that ultimately made us a better business and product in the long run.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
The year 2020 has certainly been a challenging year for many businesses, however we have been extremely lucky at Ohza to be having an excellent year. Being so new still — we will just hit our two year in June 2021 — I couldn’t be more thankful to see such loyalty from our retail and DTC customers. We’ve grown our business almost 30 times from what it was in 2019, and it couldn’t have been done without our great employees, partners, and customers believing in and sharing the brand. I’ve found that if you stick to your fundamentals, your values, build a strong team, and have a great product, success will follow.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Have excellent customer service: this is crucial in building a relationship with customers. Ensure you have someone manning all outward facing channels, have clear guidelines, and that you always look at problems from a customer’s point of view.
- Now what the customer wants: Always be asking your customers if they like your product, what they would change, if there are new products they’re looking for, etc. If you’re making something that is only for a small pool of people to like, then the business may not be sustainable in the long run.
- Make the transaction easy: It takes a ton of effort to get a customer in the door and ready to buy, so do what you can to make things seamless. Offer every payment option available, offer subscriptions or one click reorder, and anything else that creates less friction
- Know your core business and stick to it: I think founders (myself included) can quickly lose sight of their core market. You can start thinking about different channels you can sell to, new brand extensions, etc. and you lose sight of what you’re best at doing. It’s hard enough to do one thing really well as a young brand, making it virtually impossible to do five things well at the same time. Execute on your core competency and build out from there.
- Build a great team: It is absolutely crucial to find the right people to help grow your brand. You won’t be able to do it alone, so always seek to hire people who are able to do things better than you and will align with your company mission
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?
There are so many people who have helped get Ohza to where it is today. Everyone from my family who spent far too much time tasting samples, investors who believe in the product and my vision, advisors who have donated their time to mentor me, and employees who feel as much pride in building the brand as much as I do.
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. :-)
I think the modern day work week is outdated. Certainly 2020 has shifted what we do, but I think flexible hours and the ability to work from anywhere should be an option and available to all workers that allows for it. I think this could have a huge effect on the happiness and work/life balance of people, which is good for everyone!
How can our readers follow you on social media?
Check us out on Instagram, Facebook, and Linkedin @ohzamimosas