2019 SVP Startup Profile: Maja
The usage of CBD (cannabidiol) as a health and wellness product has skyrocketed in recent years due to its calming and relaxing effects. But despite its apparent health benefits and non-psychoactivity, CBD remains a controversial product because it is extracted from the cannabis plant. One team in this year’s Summer Venture Program is out to destigmatize CBD with their new line of two ounce “super shots,” combining CBD with other natural ingredients. Learning from the successes and failures of their first CBD venture Nectar, Roberto Salinas ‘19, Trevor Grode ‘19, Ryan MacDonell ‘20, and Jack Rokous ‘20 have launched Maja. I spoke with the entire Maja team to learn more about this new venture and its progress in SVP. Here are the highlights of our interview:
Tell me a bit about yourselves and Maja?
Roberto: Maja is the second company that we have started in the CBD industry, but this time we’ve decided to serve a more targeted audience of people who are looking for a functional quick dose of CBD in a friendly way. I’m the chief sales officer. My day-to-day involves acquiring accounts, selling the product, talking to distributors, and managing our customer relationships. I’m constantly looking for more opportunities for us to expand.
Ryan: I’ve been working with startups for the past four years, first with my brother’s startup as a marketing and data analyst. I really got into marketing and I’ve previously helped two startups with their implementation strategy and going to market. Now I’m doing my own venture with these guys, and I am the CMO of Maja. I help with day-to-day operations and moving the company forward, while also working very closely with Jack on our design and marketing campaigns.
Jack: I’m the chief product officer. I’m responsible for Maja’s branding and design, as well as creating our marketing materials and social media content.
Trevor: I am the CEO of Maja. I’ve worked in the hemp industry for the past four years since I was 19.
How did you start Maja? What specific experiences led you to pursue this venture?
Trevor: I was a Legislative Assistant on Capitol Hill and actually got to work with the team that passed the 2018 Farm Bill which legalized CBD. We decided to start a CBD company because we identified an unserved customer segment. These are people who really want the functional effects of a cannabis beverage, but don’t want to feel like they’re engaging in a vice. They want something they can drink guilt-free in public, on the go, or wherever they want, and we believe Maja is that beverage.
Jack: The original reason that I wanted to get into a CBD drink was that I’ve been using CBD for more than four years, and I really see a lot of potential value in bringing it to the masses for treating anxiety and insomnia. We really saw an opportunity to give people a stigma-free option which streamlines the CBD experience rather than having to use an oil, tincture, or vape.
Ryan: Our previous venture Nectar CBD Superdrink was going very well. We sold eight and a half ounce bottles filled with an all-natural, function-based CBD beverage. We also released our second product which was a CBD shot, and the shots flew off the shelves, generating a lot of interest from distributors and retailers. After we had disputes with the initial Nectar company and then had to separate, we decided that the best path to take was just to focus completely on shots and give the shots different functions to differentiate ourselves, such as sleep, energy, and focus. We have added new ingredients which work in tandem with CBD for a more full-bodied experience.
What activity or resource from SVP has helped you the most so far?
Trevor: Definitely the Babson Speech Center for me; they are amazing. They’ve really helped us refine the way that we talk about our company and iron out some of the awkwardness of our original pitch. I feel personally much more comfortable talking about the business after having met with them.
Roberto: Also, the sales coaches who visited SVP gave us a lot of very helpful advice on how to approach new customers and how to make them feel that working with us is in the best interest of both parties. Working with SVP’s sales coaches gave us a whole new approach of how to open those lines of communication between us and both our potential and current customers.
In what ways have your SVP peers and mentors supported you and your venture?
Ryan: SVP Director Bob Stringer has been instrumental in the founding of this new company and has helped guide us through this pivot to shots. We made a lot of mistakes the first time around with Nectar, but Bob has helped us navigate those waters and avoid those mistakes again, doing things right in terms of funding and founding. Beth Goldstein has also been instrumental in helping us with branding, pitching, and what to avoid when marketing a controversial product.
Trevor: We love Beth! One of the best things SVP does is it connects you with people who have experience in your industry. The dynamic of the cannabis industry is very interesting right now because the floodgates have been opened for something that was illegal for eighty years. Having access to people who have experience navigating that kind of scene and are up-to-date about the industry happenings has been extremely helpful to us.
Jack: I second all of that, and it has been great working alongside an SVP cohort of entrepreneurs. They’re in the same boat that we’re in which has allowed us to use them as a soundboard to bounce ideas off of, and we offer them help where we can. It’s been a great time just hanging out with everybody all summer.
Ryan: I think a lot of our ideas and decisions over the past few months have been influenced by our peers in SVP, from just bouncing ideas off of them, getting their opinions and business advice. The little pieces of information or knowledge our peers have been giving us here and there have really helped us move this venture forward.
Roberto: Overall, it’s been an overwhelming community of support.
What major milestones or accomplishments do you hope to achieve during your time in SVP? Or have you reached any already?
Trevor: We came into SVP with the goal of having Nectar in one hundred stores by the end of the summer, and we were about halfway there. We ended up finding a fatal flaw in our first company that forced us to start anew with Maja. On one hand, it was very frustrating to have so much traction and have to walk away from it. But on the other hand, it was very liberating to have an opportunity to start the business over again and sidestep a lot of the really basic mistakes that we made as founders our first time around.
What is a valuable challenge or learning experience you have faced as founders?
Ryan: Getting everything in writing is a huge lesson we have learned. And especially for founders who need money to start their venture, make sure you’re taking smart money; don’t just take money from the first person who offers it. It seems really attractive, and you might think “We need this money to start the business; we have to take it!” But that mindset can really mess things up for the future, and with our first business we fell into the trap of taking the wrong money which came back to bite us later. Raising money is a challenge in and of itself, but it takes a lot of restraint to know that you’re taking the right money that will help push the business forward rather than restrict it.
SVP ventures commute to Boston to our workspace at WeWork as well as the Babson Boston campus. Maja, what do you like to do for fun in Boston?
Ryan: Two blocks away from SVP’s WeWork space is a place called Versus which has an arcade where five dollars gets you unlimited games. So if you’re looking to take a break from work, going to play video games at Versus is a great stress release.
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs? Or for yourself at an earlier stage?
Trevor: The best advice I can give to people is to make an MVP, the lowest-fidelity version of what your vision is that you think might sell, and go out and get some real-world confirmation. For us that real world confirmation was a test run of Nectar that we ran in New York last summer. We had an idea for what the product could be; Jack came up with a logo and label, and I came up with the formulation. We went to a commercial kitchen and made a hundred samples of the drink as an MVP, and then gave the samples to stores on consignment. At the time, I knew it could be a great product someday, but I figured I would have to go back to the stores to pick up some of this initial batch which didn’t sell. We started off in 20 stores, and I got a call back that same day saying that they’d sold out. I asked them which store sold out and they said, “No, no. All of them!” They wanted a really big reorder which we couldn’t handle because we were not a real company at the point. But the fact that, without advertising or promotion, people were attracted to the product really confirmed to us that some part of our concept was strongly resonating with people, and that made it a lot less scary to take the next steps with our venture.
Where can we find Maja online?
Jack: Our website is maja.life!
If you enjoyed learning about Maja’s progress in SVP, check out some of our other SVP team profile blogs! To meet the entire SVP cohort and celebrate its progress, join us for the Summer Venture Showcase on Thursday, July 25th. RSVP at this link. We can’t wait to see you there!