After almost losing everything to the COVID-19 pandemic, Aussie drinks business Calm & Stormy has secured partnerships with Woolies Metro and 7-Eleven, getting its products in stores all over the country.
Almost two years after disaster struck, the founders are seeing double pre-COVID revenues — and they expect that to continue rising.
Calm & Stormy produces still and sparkling water products, substituting plastic bottles for classy aluminium cans.
Bootstrapped since 2017 and growing steadily, the business hit its stride in the summer of 2019-20.
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Founders Murray Raeburn and Troy McKinna had drinks on the shelves in hundreds of independent cafes and grocery stores. But that summer they secured partnerships with major festivals, marking a huge uptick in business.
The team was “scrambling to keep up with the demand”, Raeburn tells SmartCompany. He himself was driving trucks around the country just to get stock where it needed to be.
The cherry on top was a partnership with the Australian Grand Prix, providing drinks for the drivers and crews of some of the teams.
But this was 2020. The Grand Prix was infamously cancelled at the 11th hour, and Raeburn was asked to pick up his stock.
Over the next few days, he got more calls and more event cancellations. As restrictions came into effect and uncertainty mounted, restaurants and retailers started cancelling their orders too.
“By the end of March, we were down 90% to 95% in sales,” Raeburn says.
The co-founders were forced to cut costs, batten down the hatches and continue to support whatever customers they could. Then, facing an unknown future, they focused on how they could pivot and move forward.
Calm & Stormy had been going through a period of rapid growth. So a pause allowed the founders to take a step back to refine back-end processes, preparing the business to emerge strongly.
They started to focus on their direct-to-consumer online business, and found some interest there.
But revenues were nowhere near pre-pandemic levels, Raeburn says. That is, until they turned their attention to bigger retail accounts.
After a successful trial in 200 7-Eleven stores, Calm & Stormy has now rolled out two products with the chain around the country.
The founders also secured a deal with Woolworths Metro stores, which are stocking a range of six products.
Combined, that means Calm & Stormy drinks are now on the shelves in 700 stores across Australia.
That success has led to revenues that are “about double” the pre-COVID peak. But Raeburn has high hopes that this is just the beginning.
As the hospitality sector continues to ramp up, and as more consumers discover the drinks, “I’m hoping it will go well above that”.
Close to bust
This could have been a very different story. Raeburn admits it was partly down to sheer good luck that Calm & Stormy was able to survive at all.
The business had relatively low overheads, he explains. And the pandemic hit towards the end of the summer season, meaning they didn’t have a huge backlog of stock to deal with.
“If we had just put through a production run, for say $100,000, that would have been enough to sink us,” he says.
Had COVID-19 hit just a few months earlier, “absolutely we would have been out of business”.
Attracting retail giants
Landing customers like 7-Eleven and Woolies doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long process, and success comes from building and nurturing strong relationships and mutual understanding.
For Calm & Stormy, there was an element of educating the decision makers about what the product was, and how the brand fit into the healthy drinks segment more broadly.
The trial in 7-Eleven stores also built confidence in the products and how they would resonate.
For other business owners hoping to pique the interest of retail giants, Raeburn says the key is to put yourself in the decision-makers’ shoes. These are high-profile customers that a lot of brands want to work with; they’re being pitched to constantly.
“How are you going to stand out?”
There is power in knowledge, Raeburn says. Business owners need to know their category, as well as their products, back to front, inside and out.
Buyers also want to know the product is right for their customers. That means business owners should consider what they can offer those particular consumers, and how they can position or adapt their product to be the exact right fit.
“Because they’re not going to change for you, and nor should they,” Raeburn says.
That also means it’s prudent to choose your prospective partners carefully. You have to select the partner you think is the best fit, and get to work building that relationship.
Buyers will see through a ‘spray and pray’ approach, he explains.
“They’re the people that won’t get a meeting.”