Three college friends hope to cash in on the thirst of their generation.
“Think spiked seltzer without the bubbles,” said Richard Roy, co-founder of NOCA, which last week launched a new non-carbonated spiked water aimed at female millennials.
With a friendship forged in a college investment group, Roy and two fellow 2016 grads of the University of New Hampshire quit their finance jobs to form the Newmarket-based beverage company.
The 20-something trio tapped not only what they learned while pursuing their degrees but also used school connections to meet new advisers and investors.
Without help from UNH, bringing NOCA to market would have been “impossible literally,” acknowledged co-founder Galen Hand.
It took a university to make a beverage company.
Even before graduating, the trio brainstormed ideas about new startups or business opportunities.
“The three of us became very close friends,” Hand said.
After college, however, they went their separate ways — to Illinois, New York and Massachusetts — and kept in touch by text message.
Hand quit his job first, leaving a Chicago investment banking position last July.
“I took the 17-hour drive back to New Hampshire and moved back into my house and spent six to eight weeks idea-generating and doing due diligence,” he said. The trio identified industries they liked, and then worked to see if “there was some area where we could carve out a niche,” Hand said.
He called the non-carbonated spiked water idea a “golden ticket” because no company had developed that particular niche. But before they got their product into stores, they were beaten to the market by Pura Still, another spiked water without bubbles.
“That was a little bit of a shell shock,” recalled Hand. But later, “we realized it was probably the best thing that could have happened to us,” he said. “They proved out this was a market.”
Active UNH ties
One of Hand’s mentors connected him to former beverage executive Jude Blake, who had served on the University System of New Hampshire’s board of trustees and already had pledged $8 million of her estate to the university to support students.
Blake, who chairs the board of directors of the Peter T. Paul College of Business and Economics at UNH, already was familiar with Hand and NOCA’s third co-founder, Alex Febonio of Boston, through the business school.
She became an early adviser and investor of NOCA.
“I think they’ve got the drive to be successful,” Blake said. “I’m betting my money on them.”
Hand valued Blake’s advice on the importance of getting their product into stores quickly.
“We took that very seriously and escalated our timeline to make sure we’d get to market this spring,” Hand said.
Blake, who served in high-level marketing roles for Pepsi and the G. Heileman Brewing Co., was happy to share her insights with the grads.
“I said be a fast follower,” she said. “It’s often good to be Number 2 because Number 1 has to create the market. Number 2, with a better product — which I think NOCA has — can beat the market.”
She said startup companies are “as much about the team as the idea.”
Blake offered four pieces of general advice for would-be entrepreneurs:
The product has to deliver.
Distribution is key.
Speed to market.
Don’t be undercapitalized.
Blake also hooked them up with Vital Design, a digital marketing agency in Portsmouth that designed the colorful NOCA cans.
NOCA has raised more than $400,000 in financing, Roy said. And Blake wasn’t the only UNH investor.
Peter T. Paul — yes, the same UNH grad who gave the millions that built the new business school — and Morgan Rutman, who’s heavily involved in UNH, also were “investors, advisers and early supporters,” according to Roy.
The trio also received help from current students.
A UNH student-run digital marketing agency “helped us strategize a marketing plan at launch, what things to be thinking about as well as helping us with some social media content creation,” said Roy, who lives in North Hampton.
A UNH beverage management class “helped us prove out the viability of the product relative to our competitors through a blind taste test with roughly 100 students,” Roy said. “The results were overwhelmingly positive and NOCA ranked roughly 60 percent higher than our only direct competitor.”
In stores soon
While headquartered in Newmarket (in Hand’s residence), the NOCA contracts with a company in Baltimore to make and can the product.
Roy said their company has sold 4,000 cases to four distributors who will place the beverage in stores in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. NOCA will launch in roughly 100 New Hampshire stores, but not in supermarkets. A six-pack will cost between $8.99 and $9.99.(tncms-asset)7cbf62cc-7d7c-11e9-9fb5-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
NOCA comes in three flavors: watermelon lime, dragon fruit mango and triple berry. A 12-ounce can has 95 calories and 4.5 percent alcohol by volume.
NOCA is planning a launch event at WeWork in Boston on Thursday.
Blake said the trio needs to sort out job titles and duties soon, something Hand said would come in time.
Hand, who estimated the company would turn an operational profit in three to nine months, said he isn’t looking back.
“This venture suits me. It gets the way I think and my personal aspirations more than my previous occupation,” he said. “We’re building a brand and company, and I’m also working with my best friends.”