Russ Weiner is not your typical entrepreneur. Son of two herbalists, he spent the first three years of his life in a botanical arboretum in the Monoa Valley on the island of Oahu. Then he traveled with his mother and father, Dr. Michael Weiner (now known in conservative radio talk show circles as Michael Savage), on plant collecting expeditions in the South Pacific. At age 28, he unsuccessfully ran for a California Assembly seat as a Republican before finally landing in the soft drink business. In 2001, he launched Rockstar, which has become the second best-selling energy drink in the country, behind Red Bull. Now having bought a house above Sunset Boulevard dubbed "Rockstar mansion," Weiner has 50 full-time employees and projected sales of nearly $100 million in 2004, almost double that of a year earlier.
Question: How did you come up with the idea?
Answer: I used to drink a lot of Red Bull, truthfully. And I said to myself, "Why doesn't someone come out with a bigger size?" Everyone was copying them with small, eight-ounce energy drinks with different animal names like Blue Ox, Dark Dog, Red Bat. The worst brand names you could ever think of. I went to (Skyy Vodka founder Maurice Kanbar) and said, "You should come out with an energy drink. You have the distribution, you have the name brand, you have the connections, but most importantly, you have the money to launch it." He said no. He wanted to stick to vodka and spirits.
Q: Before Rockstar, you and Kanbar worked on a beverage combining regular and diet soda, but that didn't work out. What happened?
A: Hey, it wasn't my idea. Not everyone wins every time. You have to have a gamble but the lesson is always try. He had failed in the past with different ideas but he struck it big with Skyy. So if you fail 10 times and you have one big one, you still have one big one. It's better than having zero big ones, right?
Q: And Rockstar is a success.
A: Right. I didn't mess around. This category happens to have very large margins 50 percent gross margins. It happens to have a gigantic retail price point.
Q: So you went out on your own.
A: I mortgaged my condo in Sausalito and I went for it $50,000 was all it took. I basically went to Southern Wine & Spirits, which is the largest liquor distributor (in the nation). I said, "Hey, I have an energy drink. I've got a warehouse full of it." And I didn't. I had one mock-up can. They said "All right, we'll try it."
Q: How did you do come up with the drink?
A: My dad and mom have done consulting for GNC, Twin Lab, Nature's Herbs and Amway, developing products for them throughout the '80s and '90s. I also worked with a flavor company. It took a year-and-a-half and 700 formulas. I would tell them what I wanted it to taste like. I gave them the list of ingredients. And then, I'd tell them what to add in, what to take out, a little, more, let's say, vanilla, a little more raspberry. Lower the guarana level, raise the ginseng level. Back and forth, literally, that's why it took so long.
Q: You didn't do any market research before you launched it?
A: I was the market research.
Q: But suppose not everyone likes what you do?
A: So what? I would have started something else. I had 50 grand and was 29. I had the whole world in front of me. I did it at the time in my life where I could invest all that energy and focus.
Q: What harm would there have been in focus groups?
A: We did do sample research, but it wasn't with a focus group in a room. They were all friends. I remember the final sample I got that I liked. I was driving from the hotel to Mt. Bachelor early in the morning in Oregon. I had two final samples and I had to pick between whatever was in the car with me. We all tasted it and said, "That's the one."
Q: Your mother, Janet, is chief financial officer. What's that like?
A: Hey, the money's safe. People compliment us for always paying our bills on time.
Q: Why did you name the company Rockstar?
A: I went to Vegas and we were all saying that we partied like rock stars. And I'm thinking, "It's the perfect name" because that's what it means. A lot of people mix with it in bars, but it's a coffee substitute, so people are drinking it in the morning if they're hung over. People are always using it for a different purpose.
Q: Do you do any advertising?
A: We haven't yet. We want to give as much free product out there as people can get. I think it's the biggest waste to spend $75,000 on a page in a major magazine. It's crazy.
Q: You recently purchased a house in the hills above the Sunset Strip. What will that be used for?
A: Beverly Hills has the Playboy Mansion. The Hollywood Hills has the Rockstar mansion. This will be our entertainment center. We can bring clients in here; have parties here, do whatever. We're going to use it for photo shoots and probably TV shows. (Weiner has a separate residence, also in the Hollywood Hills.)
Q: Do you have any problems getting people to take you seriously because of your age?
A: No. How old is the guy who created Dell computers? How old's the guy who created Google? Those guys are all young. I know why there are so many young people who have created products. It's because the baby boomers were raised to think that the government should take care of them when they get old. And our generation, Generation X, knows that's not reality, that we have to take care of ourselves when we get older. And so, our group is much more entrepreneurial.
Q: Tell me about your run for state Assembly in '98.
A: I was a Republican nominee in the 6th Assembly District (covering Marin and Sonoma counties), a district that was two-to-one Democrat. It's a very safe, clean, homogenized, sheltered area, and people there think the whole world should be that way and everyone should be as fortunate as they are and they felt guilty about it. I think they had very confused political viewpoints.
Q: What issues were you focusing on?
A: Environmental protection, measured development protect old growth redwood forests. Lower taxes California is overtaxed. Immigration control legal immigration through a screening process is good for America. Stop illegal immigration. Education reform focus on academics, not soft subjects.
Q: You wound up losing in the general election, but it doesn't sound it was a lost cause.
A: I met a lot of great people. I met Maurice Kanbar, who liked my political beliefs. But he also liked a young guy who was aggressive and not afraid to go out there, because at that age to run for political office is crazy. I didn't win the general election and he offered me a job helping him create new products.
Q: What are your goals for your company?
A: Our goal next year will be to double again (in sales). We're working on getting into Canada, Mexico and England. When we're trying to enter these new markets, there are restrictions on ingredients, there are tariffs, there are so many barriers to entry they make it difficult for American companies to succeed. Those are my challenges, but that's OK, we'll make it work. That's my business goal.
Q: What about a personal goal?
A: Find a good girlfriend. Find a good girl in L.A.
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