I first had a bottle of MatchaBar at the Natural Products Expo West. I opened it with a bit of trepidation. I love matcha and I was worried how it would translate to a ready-to-drink beverage in a glass bottle. In that first sip, my worries vanished. It was authentic, believable, and delicious matcha, how cool.
I wanted to learn more which led me to Graham Fortgang, who with his older brother Max founded MatchaBar. It started in a storefront in NYC and has grown into a nationally distributed brand. When I was doing my research, I went to the "about us" page on the MatchaBar website. As you would expect, it had a brief blurb on both Graham and Max. But, what I found both unique and incredibly real, is that they also featured their parents. Giving them a big chunk of credit for the success of the business. I knew then this was going to be a special interview and I was not disappointed. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did.
Why are you doing this crazy thing?
“MatchaBar exists to share what we think is a better energy source with the rest of the world. We're not re-inventing the wheel. Matcha has been around and consumed for over a thousand years. You go back to the history in China, in Japan, with the culture of the tea ceremony. There have been people who've been writing about, consuming, and infatuated with matcha for hundreds of years. Our story is not too dissimilar to a lot of the tea masters and monks who pioneered matcha in Asian culture. We fell in love with the way it made us feel and we're here on a mission to bring matcha to the people. We do that in two ways, we sell it by the cup in our cafés, and we sell it by the bottle in grocery stores around the country."
Where is MatchaBar in five years?
"MatchaBar is, first and foremost, a community. The matcha fam, as we like to call it, is very real. What sets us apart from a lot of CPG ready-to-drink brands is that we actually have storefronts you can go to and create a relationship with the barista and try not just four flavors but 15 and meet other matcha enthusiasts. It's a breeding ground. We bring these activations outside of our café to places like Coachella and almost every major music festival this year."
He went on to share, "our vision is to continue to educate, continue to raise the standard of quality, promote a ceremonial-grade matcha and teach the consumer why it makes you feel the way you feel and the benefits of consuming it on a regular basis."
Then Fortgang added "our focus will be in the CPG space because the opportunity to reach more people is limitless compared to opening stores around the country, which is a model that I think in 2017 is becoming outdated.
What's the biggest obstacle right now?
"The challenge ahead of us is finding the right people to build the company culture and get the job done. I think that from our relationship directly with the farmers in Japan to our relationships with the customers on the ground, we have a good thing going. The challenge every businessperson faces is scaling the business, and how it scales from one city to two cities to the entire country."
What have you learned about leadership in this process?
"I think the biggest lesson is understanding that what you're doing is bigger than yourself. The energy you bring into an office is not about your agenda or what happened to you that day, it's about the energy you need to inspire the people that are working around you."
How do you instill that same passion you have for the product and for your mission?
"It's all about taking the time to find the right hires, and often I've found that's waiting for the right people to come to you, as much as a job search is mandatory. The people that are really going to go the extra distance are going to find their way to you somehow, whether it's in the field, whether it's in your stores, or through the Internet. It's time and a lot of TLC."
What keeps you up at night?
"All sorts of things. It changes month to month. Anyone in a founder position will tell you that they don't sleep much, and that's for good reason. At the end of the day, we try to have a real belief in the vision Max and I saw, why we started the company. I think more than anything, that provides a little comfort. Seeing little manifestations of that come to fruition every so often, it's what keeps you going."
What would your current self tell your former self?
"My honest advice would probably be to learn to meditate earlier and spend more time alone. I think every lesson I've learned is super important and I've found that as a business leader, the most important thing you can do is take care of yourself. For me, that's a mix of meditation, going to the gym, my yoga practice, and eating well and trying to sleep when and if I can.”
What advice would you offer aspiring entrepreneurs?
"I would say that you really have to look at yourself in the mirror and make sure that this isn't for the financial gain, but this is something that you think will make the world a better place for the long haul, because number one, there's a very high chance this won't work out. Number two, there's going to be many moments where you're going to be like, "I had no idea it would be this hard." But if your pitch is something that someone can look into your eyes and really believe in, and not only believe in but believe enough to tell their friends or to sell their bosses or to tell their buyer at their store, whatever that situation, that's when the magic starts to happen."