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Building Brands From the Ground Up: Sweet Leaf Tea and Deep Eddy Vodka

Sweet Leaf Tea bottles

By Katelyn Markley

Clayton Christopher kicked off his Nov. 12 appearance at The Herb Kelleher Center for Entrepreneurship with a disclaimer: "I asked if we could serve everyone some Deep Eddy Vodka, but I was told I couldn't do that."

The laughs rolled on as the founder of Sweet Leaf Tea and co-founder of Deep Eddy Vodka and Rhythm Superfoods awed listeners with his likable humility and down-to-earth sense of humor.

Sweet Leaf Tea is one of the fastest growing beverage companies in the U.S., with more than $60 million in sales, but the horizon was not always so bright. "It was not the good old days, looking back," says Christopher as he describes starting Sweet Leaf Tea on his own in 1998 with $10,000, an old delivery van, and a recipe from his grandmother.

Even when the prospects were grim, Christopher maintained a positive outlook. He described calling Whole Foods nonstop for one year, only to receive a postcard notifying him that they were not interested in his product. "All I could think was, 'They're talking to us! We have a foot in the door!'" exclaimed Christopher. His enthusiasm paid off when Whole Foods later placed Sweet Leaf on the shelves of their southwest division. It took only six months to become the division's number one selling tea.

One of the biggest hurdles Sweet Leaf Tea faced entering the beverage industry was its high cost when compared to large companies like Pepsi and Coca Cola. But Christopher maintained a strong confidence in the product. "You're never going to be the low-cost provider as a small startup, so you have to have a high quality product," he said. Sweet Leaf Tea is organic, made of all natural ingredients, and is better than any other bottled tea you'll find, according to Christopher.

After reaching success with Sweet Leaf Tea, Christopher started a new beverage company, Deep Eddy Vodka. "I knew it was a really good product. I mixed sweet tea and vodka for years," said Christopher. After just three years, Deep Eddy is the leading brand in six of the 30 states where the product is currently sold.

A member of the audience asked what he looks for when hiring employees. "Free vodka is huge. We encourage people to drink on the job," joked Christopher. "I look for people living company values." He went on to explain the importance of identifying values as an entrepreneur. "Every company needs to figure out its purpose and values. If you don't know your values as a person or as a startup, you're likely to fall for anything...like using high fructose corn syrup," Christopher said with a grin.

Never missing a marketing opportunity, Christopher didn't arrive empty-handed. The audience was encouraged to grab Deep Eddy swag on their way out, including mini bottles of the flavored vodka.

A version of this article originally appeared on the BBA News blog.

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