Hello! Who are you and what food business did you start?

Hello to you! We are Zach and James, childhood friends and co-founders of Bissy Energy, an innovative and exciting social enterprise that crafts delicious, plant-based alternatives to coffee, tea, and energy drinks. Both college athletes, we were on a quest to find a healthy, great tasting, alternative to coffee. It wasn’t until Zach read a book written about his great grandfather’s life as an igwe (chief) in Onitsha, Nigeria that we arrived at the answer; kolanut.

bissy founders

Bissy Energy co-founders Zach (left) and James (right).

In Nigeria it is believed that the kola tree was the first to grow and therefore the first to bear fruit. This belief has made kola a cultural and spiritual staple for thousands of years and is still the main source of caffeine for Nigerians today. There is a saying in Nigeria, “He who brings kola, brings life”

Our flagship product is a single origin kola powder that is sourced directly from our smallholder farmer partners in Southwest Nigeria. Together with our farmers, the Cocoa Research Institute of Nigeria, and our processing partners, Bissy will soon be the first to certify kolanut as a Fair Trade ingredient, thereby making us the first ever registered Fair Trade operators in Nigeria’s 60 year history. 

In addition to our powders, we also have a limited supply of our original product, a delicious, 100% plant based energy shot that uses kolanut as the source of caffeine. In the last year and a half we have successfully completed a kickstarter for $30,300 and took first place in Orgain’s Grants for Greater Good competition earning us $50,000 and a number of PR and marketing opportunities we would not otherwise have had. We hope to expand our product line into new categories in 2021.

What’s your current revenue?

Revenue has been steadily climbing since our kickstarter ended a little over one year ago and we are now pulling in over $3,000 a month in online sales and from a small group of natural food retailers in Washington and California.

How did you come up with the idea for a kolanut energy powder?

We both grew up in the same town in Kennewick, Washington and met through our youth basketball team when we were 8 years old. We quickly became friends over our shared love of sports, the outdoors, and generally getting up to no good. As we grew up we went to the same middle and high schools, excelling at sports and in business classes. 

how it started

How it all started.

After 10 years we went our separate ways for college where Zach pursued a degree in Political Science from Columbia University in New York City, playing basketball on scholarship for the Lions. Meanwhile, James pursued a degree in Finance at Pacific Lutheran, playing football on scholarship for the Lutes. Our love for sports, nutrition, business, and civics kept us close throughout college and by the time we graduated we knew we wanted to pursue a social venture together but when and how we didn’t know.

Zach working as a corporate paralegal and James working in civil litigation, we were looking for an alternative to coffee that could help us keep up with new jobs and busy social lives in the city. We began experimenting with various teas, energy drinks, and energy shots but had trouble finding the right fit. Then, one day while in Kennewick visiting his family, Zach found an old book on his family’s bookshelf. 

The book was the only copy of its kind, written by Zach’s uncle about his great-grandfather’s life as an Igwe in Onitsha, Nigeria. As Zach read, he began to notice a common trend; kolanut was mentioned over and over again. Zach had heard tales of kola growing up from his father, but did some more research and found that kola contained three times more caffeine per gram than coffee and also contained a special molecule called theobromine that dilates red blood cells in the lung wall, allowing the cells to carry more oxygen through the body to the brain and muscles.

blessing kola

Zach’s great grandfather blessing the kola.

Zach immediately ordered every form of raw kola he could find on Amazon and spent the next week experimenting. Convinced, he told James what he had discovered and once James tried it for himself he was immediately hooked. Weeks went by and productivity soared, much to the delight of our respective bosses, as we shopped kolanut around in our social circles. One thing was abundantly clear, no one knew what kolanut was, but when they heard the story about its significance in Nigeria and its potency they were immediately intrigued.

This led us to a of week of obsessive market research on various industries from energy bites and bars to energy drinks and energy shots. There were zero consumer packaged goods on the market that used kolanut for its stimulating effect; we had found our venture. 

gifting the kola

Gifting the kola.

Working our jobs by day and decreasing the useful life of our laptops by years in the span of a few long weeks, we banged out the beginnings of a brand and a business plan that aimed to disrupt the energy shot market with a delicious, natural, 100% plant based energy shot that had 160mg of caffeine and as little sugar as possible without sacrificing flavor. 

This led to a weekend retreat at an AirBNB outside of Sausalito, CA where, armed with a saucepan and just about every ingredient we could find in Whole Foods, we developed our first rough formula. 

Once we had the formula, we worked with a friend to organize a community event back in Eastern Washington where we would attempt to break a world record for the biggest game of knockout (basketball game) ever played while also hosting a 15 business street fair outside the gym in the parking lot at the same time. This is where we had our first Bissy booth and where we tested our homemade concoction on our hometown community. It was an absolute hit.

recipe development

Inside the recipe development process.

Take us through the process of developing your kolanut powder?

The initial validation we received from our friends, family, and community on our homemade formula sent us on the hunt for a professional beverage development company to help us take things to the next level. Eventually we settled on a fantastic partner out of Edison, New Jersey called MetaBrand.

Over the course of a few months we worked closely with MetaBrand’s team through a number of iterations, each time testing them with friends and family who had experience in food and beverage as chefs, wine tasters, yelp reviewers, etc. to make sure our formula was delicious to even the most critical palates. After four iterations we landed on our first formula.

kola nut recipe

Iteration #1, #2, and #3 – our first attempts at a commercial product.

While working out the formula we were also on the search for co-manufacturers who could help us alleviate some of the other pain points we identified with the current energy shot market in addition to poor tasting products and overcomplicated artificial ingredients.

  1. We didn’t like the size of the mouth on the current shot bottles. They already tasted bad enough, the small mouth only prolonged the agony and turned the “shot” into more of a slow pour.
  2. We committed ourselves to zero plastic and the only shot sized bottle offerings in the US market were plastic. Finding glass bottles proved to be a really big challenge

James, having studied and worked briefly in Bangkok, Thailand, was familiar with South East Asia’s style of energy energy shots, 3.4 oz glass bottles with aluminum caps. At the time a popular Kickstarter by the name of Morning Recovery was (and still is) utilizing DHM, a popular ingredient in Korea for preventing hangovers. 

They were an American company and the drinks sold in the bottles that James had remembered from his days in Bangkok. A few LinkedIn messages later, James was on a plane to Los Angeles to meet with Sisun Lee, the founder of Morning Recovery. That is where we landed on a co-manufacturer in South Korea.

food manufacturer

Co-manufacturer.

The process of launching a company isn’t rocket science, but it does take you on a journey of discovery that is an absolute thrill for anyone who enjoys difficult challenges and learning on the fly. 

What we learned in the validation to pilot stage was a crash course in international supply chain management, brand design, product development, and the power of just reaching out when in need. We have consistently been surprised at the generosity of the food and beverage community and their willingness to offer advice when it is asked for. 

Describe the process of launching Bissy Energy.

We live in an incredible time as entrepreneurs. Never in the history of business has there been a better climate for launching and running a start-up. From an ease of doing business perspective, it is as simple as registering your entity with the state of your choice (we chose Delaware), applying for a trademark on your word and logomark through the USPTO (this isn’t really even necessary but highly recommended if you want to scale), creating an ecommerce website through someone like Shopify, and listing your products.

On the product side, there is no shortage of third-party developers, creatives and experts at your disposal through individual contractors working in the gig economy through Upwork or Fiverr. For Bissy we hired a friend of a friend to help us with our logo, worked with a developer from Fiverr on some custom Shopify code, contracted a third party to develop our formula, and trusted in a manufacturer to pack and fill our formula. We did the rest, but a big chunk was handled by others.

Related Case Study: How Two Moms Launched Keto Cracker Company Defy Foods

When it comes to marketing and sales, things have also never been easier. An entrepreneur today can employ a number of strategies for free to immediately elevate their online presence. From SEO strategy, email tools like MailerLite, CRM management tools like HubSpot, and social accounts like TikTok, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, it has never been easier to communicate your message, find people who need your products, and track your progress. And for the most part all of it is free.

Financing is perhaps the most difficult challenge in running a business. You can have a killer product with fantastic pack