How I Started a Sparkling Water Business That Raised $2 Million
- Maddie Voge, 27, is the co-founder of Aura Bora, a sparkling water company she runs with her husband.
- Last year, they secured $2 million in seed funding and also appeared on “Shark Tank.”
- Here’s what she had to say about starting and growing the business, as Claire Turrell said.
This narrated essay is based on a conversation with Maddie Voge, the 27-year-old co-founder of the sparkling drink brand Aura Bora. It has been edited for length and clarity.
When my husband Paul and I started playing with sparkling water, fresh herbs and fruit in our kitchen in early 2019, we never imagined it would turn into a full-time business with the support of ” Shark Tank”.
Our love for sodas as adults came from our crunchy mothers being kids who wouldn’t let us drink pop. But we didn’t like many of the sparkling water flavors available, so we started making our own at home.
As soon as we mixed crushed fresh basil and frozen strawberries with sparkling water, we knew we’d hit something interesting.
We’ve created four more flavor combinations by mixing fresh cactus with rose petals, lemongrass with coconut, and lavender with fresh cucumber. Not all combinations made the cut – frankincense and birch being one.
When we were testing different combinations on our friends, they said, “You should sell this”
In October 2019, inspired by the enthusiasm of our friends, we used our savings to make 1,000 cans of five different flavors. We were living in Denver at the time and took the cans to a trade show in Boulder. The cost of the cans was small enough to put on a personal credit card, but large enough to be stressful if we didn’t do well at the show.
Luckily, not only did customers love them, but we piqued the interest of a buyer for Whole Foods, who became our customer a year later.
We also got interest from our first store, a local organic food store, who took our leftover cans.
We immediately started compressing our credit cards and raising money from family and friends to make more cans.
Every day was a learning curve. We didn’t know how to make legal nutrition labels, where to get barcodes, or why grocery stores were charging us to be on their shelves. Luckily, other startup owners we’ve met have been very generous in answering all of our questions.
In the summer of 2019, Paul decided to take the plunge and quit his job at a venture capital firm. However, I had just gotten a new marketing job at a tech company in San Francisco, so we moved to the Bay Area. Paul worked full time for Aura Bora, while I worked for the brand evenings and weekends.
Instead of taking our cans to trade shows in Colorado, we started tossing samples in the trunk of our Subaru and knocking on the doors of health food stores in San Francisco. Then a few months later the pandemic hit and everything changed.
When the pandemic started, people stopped shopping for impulse buys or to try new things
Most shoppers bought the essentials and went home. Due to supply chain issues, aluminum was hard to come by at one point, so we also had concerns about whether we would be able to get enough cans from the factories that worked with us to fill our inventory. Deliveries were also hit as trucking companies had to give up space for emergency items.
Despite these challenges, we still managed to fulfill our orders and our deliveries always arrived at their destination, even if they were slightly delayed.
But being a new brand actually helped us, especially when the pandemic created increased costs for everything from ingredients to shipping. Although stronger brands had to struggle with rising costs, we were still young and flexible enough to incorporate these changes into our business plan and spending.
There have also been some fun surprises during the pandemic, like when we were asked to film an episode of “Shark Tank” in the summer of 2020.
After receiving an email from the TV show producer asking if we wanted to participate, Paul and I immediately kicked into high gear. We watched over 100 episodes of the show to help prepare for our presentation. When we continued we had amazing reactions. Robert Herjavec liked our pitch the most and invested $200,000 in our business.
When the show aired in January 2021, we generated more revenue on our website that day than we had previously in our site’s entire history. It was a big moment for us.
Since then, the company has continued to grow. We now manufacture with three factories in the United States and are sold in 2,500 stores nationwide. In addition to Paul and me, we also now have three employees: a commercial manager, a social manager and a graphic designer. We have also started creating limited edition flavor drops which are available exclusively on our website.
But as the business grew, we still received a few curve balls
In February 2021, the cold caused a deep freeze in several areas where we ship Aura Bora waters, causing our canisters to explode in the back of delivery trucks due to the dramatic temperature drops. Some Texas customers said cans delivered to their doorstep were so cold they turned into slushies.
Waking up to an inbox flooded with emails from people who love our brand saying their cans had exploded was definitely our toughest day so far. We immediately started replacing cans and put in place a strategy to hold back future orders if the temperature were to drop again. Now, if we see the weather changing, we hold the shipments and let customers know they will arrive next week once the temperature warms up a bit.
In 2021, we raised $2 million in seed funding
This funding helped us restock inventory for our contracts with retailers including Whole Foods, Sprouts Farmers Market and Fresh Thyme.
I left my tech job and joined the team full time in February 2022. I was hesitant to leave my job – wondering what it was going to be like working full time with my husband and I wondered if I had learned enough to do it. Good. But at the end of the day, I felt like I learned a lot during my time with the tech company. Paul and I felt ready to work as a team and wanted to play a bigger role in growing the brand I had helped create.
Although we had some tough days, I couldn’t be happier. Every time we release a new flavor and I choose the creature to illustrate for the box and write the decorative haiku, I feel like I’ve given birth to something in the world.