Jeremy Kim and Nectar Hard Seltzer: unflinching entrepreneurship
This article was written by Benjamin Davison.
Hard seltzer has taken the beverage world by storm. One of the fastest-growing and most exciting hard seltzer brands is Nectar. Nectar offers consumers a high-quality hard seltzer with Asian-inspired flavors like yuzu, lychee, Asian pear, and mandarin. Nectar is also renowned for being crisp, with no awkward aftertaste.
Nectar’s story is not about overnight success. Indeed, the company’s strong trajectory was hard-won by Jeremy Kim, a good-humored risk-taker from Los Angeles. Kim has been very public about the ups and downs of the company, which has endured a rocky start. Nectar represents an exciting new brand that’s fun to drink for consumers. For Kim, the brand represents his first opportunity to exercise meaningful control over his destiny. Before launching the brand, Kim was a worker bee like the rest of us, trading his time for a paycheck and enduring the uninspiring grind of corporate life.
Photo courtesy of Nectar Hard Seltzer
Kim’s joy in entrepreneurship informs the brand. A firm believer in transparency, Kim has thoroughly documented the company’s life on their social channels, highlighting his journey’s achievements and setbacks. By providing a brutally honest take on the real life of an entrepreneur, Kim hopes to inspire people to leap in their own life, whether starting a new hobby or quitting their day job to do their thing.
Bumps in the road
In late 2019, Kim found himself enduring an uninspiring career in the music industry and looking for something else. Eventually, as Kim observed the sudden rise in the popularity of hard seltzer, he began developing an idea for a new kind of hard seltzer. After some discussion and planning, Kim and his co-founders formally launched their business with about $40,000 of pooled assets, representing most of his co-founders’ life savings.
As we now know, their timing was less than ideal. As the relentless chaos of 2020 raged on, Nectar encountered problem after problem. Global supply chain issues and the overall dysfunction of 2020 hit the fledgling company hard. For one thing, skinny cans were impossible to get. Kim knew that customers expected hard seltzer to come in a slim can. The optics of hard seltzer served in a beer-size can didn’t sit right with him. Hard seltzer is lighter than beer, and Kim believed the can needed to reflect that reality to meet the consumer’s expectations. First impressions are everything, and customer perceptions rarely change, so optics were critical in developing consumer loyalty.
Once the canning issues were resolved, the general fuckery of 2020 continued to affect the company. They ran out of money and needed to do another fundraising round among family and friends. Their first production run was delayed by months and months. Their first batch was ruined by defective canning equipment, and as the failures mounted, Kim and his co-founders contemplated walking away.
But early challenges were met with early successes. Despite the external issues, Kim knew their product was good. Taste tests among family and friends were highly successful, and hard seltzer continued to thrive in the marketplace. These factors helped Kim maintain hope even as the challenges mounted.
Door-to-door seltzer sales
Hope can be great, but it can also be a setup for disappointment. Thanks to California’s relatively enlightened liquor laws, producers like Nectar can sell directly to stores without going through distributors. While this theoretically makes it easier for a new beverage company to market, getting even a few cans on the shelf took a lot of legwork. Kim’s hopes of an easy sale were soon dashed as he and his co-founders went to 200 separate storefronts in the Los Angeles area, enduring rejection after rejection from surly shopkeeps.
Kim’s struggle to get Nectar on the shelves coincided with an explosion in the popularity of TikTok. He had been documenting the brand’s activity on TikTok since the beginning, and as the business struggled to gain traction, he turned to the hivemind. He produced a video and asked the audience for feedback: what were they missing? Unfortunately, as the video built momentum, TikTok’s AI pulled it from the platform, handing Kim yet another setback.
Aggravated but not thwarted, Kim reposted his video on Black Friday of 2020. Despite his low expectations, the video dodged the AI and exploded. Within three days, more than 300,000 people had engaged with the video, and Kim began receiving hundreds of customer inquiries.
This was a pivotal moment. Had things gone differently, Kim says, there’s a good chance the brand would have imploded. But the surge in attention provided by TikTok gave Kim a new tool. He brought the video around on sales calls, explaining how social media marketing worked to dubious store owners across LA. Eventually, Kim got Nectar on the shelves at two storefronts by offering to buy back the products if they still needed to sell.
Now that there were cans on the shelves, Kim produced another TikTok explaining exactly where and when customers could buy Nectar. The strategy worked. Customers lined up for blocks and blocks around the store for a chance to sample this new ambrosia. The first batch sold out in less than an hour. Kim posted footage of the lines on TikTok, gathered feedback from people in the crowd, and leveraged the excitement into another social media blitz.
After gaining a toehold in Los Angeles, Kim and his co-founders traveled to Orange County and San Diego, enduring the same endless slog of salesmanship he had done in LA but gaining some promising results. At their launch in Orange County, they sold out within fifteen minutes. The product’s launch in San Diego was similarly fruitful, with consumers happily snapping up as much seltzer as they could carry. After countless setbacks, Kim was starting to build some momentum.
Quit the Claw
After putting out roots in California, the brand launched a marketing campaign called “Quit the Claw,” designed to contrast its brand with White Claw, a dominant hard seltzer brand. The idea behind the campaign was that if 300 people in a city texted the company, they would bring a Nectar Drop to the city. The response was overwhelming, and soon, Kim and his co-founders were touring cities like New York and Seattle to share their products with enthusiastic seltzer drinkers. Wherever the brand went, people showed up in droves. To Kim, this proved two essential facts. First, their formula was a winner. People loved the flavors and the lack of aftertaste. Second, the positive response proved that the brand was viable in the long term.
Kim and his co-founders didn’t just stumble blindly into success. They put in countless hours of work and endured seemingly endless rejections. The chaos of 2020 derailed their plans multiple times. Social media AIs seemed to hate their content. Nectar faced challenge after challenge. So how did Kim keep going in the face of so much difficulty?
Driven, but not to destruction
Successful entrepreneurs are driven by powerful internal motivation. Entrepreneurship is nearly impossible without a psychological need for success and a vision you’re willing to sacrifice for. It takes work to build a business from the ground up. Despite Kim’s drive, launching Nectar was exhausting and deeply frustrating.
Early on, Kim thought the brand might be doomed. But then, the setbacks and obstacles piled up quickly. With every new hurdle, Kim wondered whether he was even supposed to do this. “We just kept getting beat down in so many ways before the launch,” he says. “Every single thing that could go wrong went wrong. And at that point, you second guess, like, was I supposed to do this business? Is that the sign that I should give up?”
In many parts of American culture, negativity, pessimism, and self-doubt are signs of personal weakness that will rocket your business or your life straight into the dumpster. This is unfortunate. Frustration, doubt, and pessimism are reasonable reactions to major business setbacks, especially when launching a brand-new business during a global pandemic and the ongoing collapse of western society. The simple fact is that only some get to be an astronaut when they grow up. Only some businesses succeed. Sometimes it’s okay to contemplate burning it down (figuratively, not fraudulently) and starting from scratch.
In Nectar’s early days, Kim was tempted to walk away. “The only thing that kept us…from giving up was the fact that I [needed] to finish this product,” Kim says. “I would feel foolish if I went through all this hell not to have even a can in my hand that I could give to somebody and be like, do you like this or not?”
Kim’s motivation to complete at least one production run was driven by the fact that he often feels like he’s fallen short. “I’ve never been great at anything. And I wouldn’t say I’m a great entrepreneur now either,” he explains. “I’ve always felt like I’ve fallen short.” So completing at least one run was very important for his psychological well-being.
Stubborn from birth
Kim attributes part of his success to his upbringing and another part of his success to who he is as a person. His parents signed him up for countless extra activities: math tutoring, piano lessons, swimming lessons, etc. While many of these opportunities did help him build a robust skill set, his stubborn nature also played into his success. As a kid, Kim would stonewall when forced into an activity he didn’t like: he wouldn’t engage in unsatisfactory activities. The flip side of this stubbornness is that when Kim finds something he loves, he is tenacious.
Eventually, Kim learned how to harness his tenacity. In high school, Kim became curious about what it takes to succeed. “I don’t have the natural ability. I’m not book smart whatsoever,” he explains. “I don’t have any kind of secret talent. So, something in me was like, the only way you’ll ever get out is by working hard.”
Kim’s internalization of the idea that hard work mattered coincided with his entry into a junior college and his reading of the book “Outliers” by Malcolm Gladwell. Learning about the 10,000-hour rule and developing an understanding of the power of persistence was life-changing for Kim. “That’s when I really started to just focus on things I enjoy and work hard at it,” he says.
Hard work pays off. LeBron James, for example, works extremely hard. He spends hours and hours shooting hoops repeatedly until he has complete mastery of the court. That level of focus and determination is a critical factor for engineering your success. The more time you spend doing something, the better you get at it. And while we all know that, it’s harder to apply it to our own lives.
An honest accounting of the self
Consider that many people today have a side hustle, but few, if any, ever convert that into a full-time job or an actual startup. Perhaps they have a natural talent for something or a freelancer skill. Maybe they operate a small business of some kind on the side. But, despite big dreams, most of these enterprises only go so far. It could be external factors, like lack of capital or systemic economic issues. It could be an application of the Peter Principle, where someone thrives until they don’t. But sometimes, your destiny and your interests differ. So, taking his own experience into account, what would Kim say to someone who wanted to make the leap?
Kim says that anyone who wants to make the jump should do some meaningful self-reflection and take a brutally honest inventory of their skills. “There are parts of society that magnify [the idea] that you can do anything because that story feels good,” he says. Despite our penchant for a happy narrative, many people fail, and sometimes that failure is driven by a lack of talent or willpower. You have to be honest with yourself: will I put in the effort? Do I really want this to go the distance? Am I any good at this? It’s important to ask yourself difficult questions and to question your assumptions to gain an appreciation of your situation.
Taking an honest inventory of your skills and an honest look at your work habits is invaluable to someone thinking about making the jump to real entrepreneurship. After all, for every inspiring success story, a thousand people fail. The Wright Brothers built the successful powered airplane, but many other inventors failed to get off the ground. Persistence is no guarantee of success. Reckless optimism can evolve into delusional behavior. But the only way to know what’s happening in your specific situation is to take the time to engage in that deep thinking and meaningful self-reflection. Look inside yourself: do you honestly have what it takes to succeed in whatever enterprise you’re pursuing?
Another factor in successful entrepreneurship is your social circle. It’s hard to overstate the importance of cultivating your milieu. Hard work and persistence matter much, but for any enterprise to experience real growth requires partnership. Kim has put in long hours and worked extremely hard to get where he is, but he attributes his success to the people around him.
Truly, the beloved American myth of the authentic individual can be counterproductive. It’s ridiculous to pretend we operate in a vacuum: we all have friends, families, business partners, or coffee chums at the local business incubator. The company we keep and our environment play a much more significant role in our destinies than we would like to admit. Toxic friends will try to drag you down like crabs in a pot, but good friends can elevate your performance in a new way.
The same goes for family. Most people are sentimental about family, and the cultural norm is to uncritically accept the idea that blood relationships are unique and sacred. That is not necessarily true. Sharing DNA with someone doesn’t mean you owe them anything. When family members act in hurtful or obstructive ways, asking yourself how close you want to be with them is okay. It’s often said that blood is thicker than water, but the totality of the saying is that the blood of the covenant is stronger than the water of the womb. A good friend is better than a bad brother.
To succeed, you must build an environment in which you can thrive. When people consistently demonstrate that they don’t have your best interests at heart, excluding them from your environment is okay. Exercising control over your social circumstances is an often-overlooked step toward success.
Kill your ego
Of course, the voices around us are matched only by the voice inside us. Many entrepreneurs have egos that match their drive. But ego can lead to conflict. Some conflict is healthy and essential, but ego-driven conflicts often become ugly interpersonal quagmires. An enterprise shared among co-founders is everybody’s baby, and the stakes are high. Everyone wants it to succeed and has big ideas about how to make it happen. It is essential, therefore, to find emotionally intelligent partners. “Emotional compatibility is hyper-important,” Kim explains. “It’s [like] a marriage but almost harder. In a marriage, you can get divorced. It’s tough in a business to get divorced. Especially if you’re building it.”
Kim sees a therapist and employs a business coach to develop and strengthen his emotional intelligence. My leadership skills weren’t necessarily where I felt like they needed to be in order to…go the distance,” says Kim. “And even with those things in place, I still fail. Right? I still get into arguments, I still yell, I still am short-tempered or impatient. …One of the hardest parts about this business is just growing as a human.”
Becoming more emotionally intelligent has helped Kim build his leadership skills and better understand how to navigate the intricacies of human relationships in the business world. He admits that he still has his moments but is working on them, and continuous improvement is a proven concept.
Be kind to yourself
Part of thriving in a high-pressure environment is learning how to separate your worth as a human being from your net worth or your business success. Inevitably, you will face rejection and external problems and make mistakes, and you may be tempted to view these failures as evidence of personal flaws. So how can you recalibrate yourself to handle the emotional stress of entrepreneurship better?
First, Kim says, self-talk is critically essential. This includes listening to how you talk to yourself and learning why you speak to yourself that way. For example, do you engage in defeatist or negative self-talk? Are you hard on yourself? Why? Where does it come from? What drives these patterns of thought? Often, the challenges of everyday life drive maladaptive psychological coping mechanisms that gradually become assimilated into our personalities. And while these mechanisms might serve a purpose at some point in life, it’s important to learn how to let them go and re-engineer your internal dialogue in the face of new circumstances.
That kind of authenticity and self-understanding is hard to achieve. We’re socially conditioned to view self-care and kindness as ridiculous fluff. We use words like sacrifice and grit, which tend to create a verbal culture of toughness and hardness. On top of that, people are vicious.
“The world has come to a place where it’s difficult to sometimes speak your mind in fear that people will tear you down for it. We live in a very PC culture, and there are a lot of things that are important and good, but at times now, if you have an opinion, there are people who will tear you down in an instant versus allowing you to learn and grow from it,” Kim says. Indeed, contemporary American culture seems configured to get somebody honked off at you no matter what you say or do. This dynamic is another good reason to consider talking to a therapist or getting a good business mentor. Maintaining kindness to yourself in the face of massive internal and external pressures will help you thrive.
What’s next for Nectar
While it’s off to a strong start, Nectar is still growing, building, and climbing. The brand seems poised for massive success, and Kim is doing everything he can to actualize that vision. So what does he see as the endgame for Nectar? Where is this enterprise going?
To Kim, business is all about community and connection. Since the beginning, he has been very public about what’s happening in the company. He sincerely believes that ownership and community matter. Indeed, Kim is realistic about his business–a drink company, and he wants people to drink his hard seltzer–but his vision of drinking is helping people build community and togetherness, not making a quick buck.
Kim sees Nectar as a springboard to that vision. He uses the example of Red Bull, which famously operates not just an energy-drink company but a break-dancing team, various ground-based racing teams, air races, record studios, and a constellation of non-drink-related enterprises. “The end goal,” he says, “is to build a platform where I can create freely.” Kim wants to continue building and growing until it is no longer fun. He loves creating with his peers and wants to be able to continue flexing his creative muscles until he cannot anymore. It is a lot of work to build a company, and Kim is willing to put in the hours and take the time to achieve his dream. Nectar is just getting started. The future is wide open, and it’s thirsty for hard seltzer. Jeremy Kim and his enterprise are here to stay.
Photo courtesy of Nectar Hard Seltzer
3 things other entrepreneurs get wrong and why
Jeremy Kim is a humble man. He will happily admit that he does not know it all and is just beginning to spread his wings as an entrepreneur. But this position gives Kim a unique insight into successfully navigating a startup’s early days. Here are three things entrepreneurs often get wrong:
1. Data isn’t everything
Data matters, but it is not infallible, and it is only sometimes an accurate portrayal of the overall context of reality. According to Kim, things like gut feelings and general observations have tremendous value. Data, after all, is subject to countless outside forces. Is your data comprehensive and robust? Is it accurate? Is the sample size or sample group genuinely representative? Is your math correct? Are you using the proper statistical methods? Was everyone involved being honest? Data is great, but it’s not perfect, and it’s essential to understand that there is more to the world than an endless series of nested data sets.
In the context of Nectar, Kim’s inspiration came from a simple observation: many people were drinking hard seltzer, and there were no Asian-inspired flavors. This simple observation eventually turned into market research, which helped Kim validate his idea. Of course, data is valuable, but engaging with the human nature of things is also beneficial.
2. Don’t go alone
The myth of the rugged individual appeals to the American psyche, but the truth is that nobody is truly alone. Nobody succeeds completely independent of everybody else or builds an empire by themselves. Kim says there’s “no way in hell” that he could have succeeded without the help of his co-founders, funders, and peers.
3. On the flip side, some things have to be done alone
And many parts of the journey can be lonely: only some understand the unique pressure of being an entrepreneur. Many successful entrepreneurs do a lot of work alone. But nobody exists in a vacuum and finding someone who can help you is valuable. This brings us to the third point: everybody involved has to be a visionary. You don’t want to go at it alone, but only some are capable of enduring the journey with you. It would help if you found a counterpart who complements your skill set and shares your vision. When you have a big idea and share it with someone on a similar wavelength, you gravitate together. If, on the other hand, your partners or co-founders aren’t visionaries, you’ll end up doing something less visionary than you intended. To be blunt, you have to be a little crazy to be an entrepreneur, and your partner should also be a little crazy. Your partners and co-founders must operate at the same level as you.
That said, it’s essential to find people with broad skill sets. Two tech guys might be able to launch a brilliant SAAS product, but if they need to learn how to operate a business or do basic accounting, the enterprise is likely to collapse. The ideal setup for a partnership is when the people involved share a vision and have a diverse skill set.
On top of that, you have to be able to get along with your co-founders. Launching a startup takes a humongous amount of work. You must develop an almost familial bond with your co-founders and partners because you will spend much time together. In Kim’s case, he and his co-founders are blessed with compatible personalities and wide-ranging skill sets.