Vita Coco CEO Michael Kirban on overcoming a tough childhood to become a thriving CEO

Courtesy Vita Coco

Michael Kirban was destined to fail, or so that’s what people told him.

In his youth, Kirban, the CEO of Vita Coco, the coconut water empire that operates in 30 countries worldwide, split his time between regular and special education classes. He couldn’t write well and reading wasn’t his strong suit. When a teacher asked him what he was going to do in life without those skills, he said he would hire someone else to do it for me (He uses spellcheck today).

Kirban, 44, built himself a beverage empire. The Vita Coco CEO, who also owns Runa and Ever & Ever, opened up to Ladders about skirting the obstacles he faced as a child with learning disabilities, to starting Vita Coco with his best friend, and what he’s still learning about himself as a CEO.

Coconut water was a foreign beverage in other places. To introduce it into a new market seemed like a risk. How did you assess it?

“When we started, coconut water was pretty much non-existent in the US. You could find it in a can with sugar under the Goya brand in the ethnic aisle at the grocery store or the bodega. Down in Brazil, we were seeing it everywhere in the Gatorade aisle. It’s right next to Gatorade and consumers were drinking it after a run and they were drinking it after exercising. We started to learn about what was going on down there. It had really been probably one of the most popular beverages in the tropical world for generations, but now it was being packaged in a format that we could package and export.

“Perfection was not always, and today is not, my number one priority.”

“That’s kind of where the idea came from. It was a side project — it was a passion project. I wasn’t sitting there saying, ‘This will take or should take X percent of Gatorade sales or water sales.’ It was kind of like, ‘This stuff is delicious — I can’t believe Americans aren’t drinking it. Maybe there’s an opportunity. That’s kind of the way we went about it. I would love to say, in retrospect, that I knew it but I didn’t. I thought it would be a fun project with my buddy thinking we could sell a couple of containers a month that would generate some nice, little cash on the side which we could use to travel around and have a good time with. That was really the start of the business.”

vita coco
Courtesy Vita Coco

What did you do before starting Vita Coco?

“I started a computer software business when I was 19. I still have it today — it’s a really nice business that is very specific and different from consumer goods. At 28, when I started Vita Coco, I had saved up a little bit of money to invest in the new project and I had some time still doing that. That’s kind of what I was doing when I got into this.”

You split your time between regular and special education classes growing up …

“For me, it’s been a big part of my success. I was always destined to fail, you could say. The bar was not set very high for me by others and by myself. For me, it always enabled me to take risks, do things because what was the worst thing that could happen? I would fail. That actually set me up for success a lot more potential than some of the A students who were so driven to be perfect. Perfection was not always, and today is not, my number one priority. It’s kind of moving forward as opposed to perfect. That’s always been my driver and how I operate.”

“Everyone in the organization has the ability to impact the business, which is rare in an organization of this size.”

Did anyone just tell you that you couldn’t do things?

“I think I always had a lot of self-confidence. I couldn’t read and really had a hard time writing. To this day, I can’t write a hand-written note to somebody — it’s too embarrassing. The spelling is horrible. You can’t read it. As a kid, it took me a long time to read. Today, I read just fine but I had a hard time as a kid with learning disabilities. I remember teachers saying to me, ‘What are you going to do when you’re older? You can’t read, you can’t write.’ And I used to say, ‘I’m going to have my own business and I’ll have an assistant who will be able to write for me.’ That was always my answer. Luckily, there’s a spellcheck today so I don’t need an assistant. It all worked out pretty well [laughs].”

You started the company with your best friend, Ira Liran. Has there ever been a power struggle or differences you had to hurdle over?

“There really hasn’t been. We’re still really close friends. What worked out very well here — I have a lot of other friends and associates who start their businesses in partnership — and usually there are issues. A lot of times, these things don’t work out with partners because there’s a power struggle. Here, Ira stayed in Brazil, wanted to stay in Brazil and raised a family there.

“He’s always been super involved in the business. He likes to know what goes on. He’s active in the creative stuff, but he’s always let me run the business. That’s enabled us to work together. I know what his strengths are and I go to him when I need him, but he’s not here on a daily basis and he’s not involved in running the business on day-to-day. I think that’s allowed us to build this thing together without the issues a lot of partners face.

What’s changed for you, as the CEO, from when you first started to now?

“I’m still very involved. Last week, I spent a day in trade doing sales with one of the salespersons going store-by-store, negotiating with deli owners about $2 here and $2 there — I love that. Getting to that level again is super humbling and super interesting. I go to every level of the organization regularly. I think it’s beneficial to the extent that I know what’s going on. I know what it takes to sell a case. I know what it takes to open a new account. I know what it takes to deal with collections issues. I think it helps me make some of the higher-level decisions knowing what’s really going on around the organization. I do feel, as the business has grown, we’re operating in 30 countries — we have a pretty substantial business with 400 employees.

“One of the things that has benefitted me as a CEO is I make quick decisions. I don’t overanalyze things.”

“I had to learn how to delegate, which was a challenge for me. It takes a lot of trust in people and luckily my team has been with me for a long time. The majority of my direct reports have been with me for eight-to-ten years. They are really my partners in running this business which is great because it allows me to delegate and enables them to make decisions. Everyone in the organization has the ability to impact the business, which is rare in an organization of this size. Anybody comes to work here every day and they have the ability to have an impact on the business. It’s nice, even though I’m around, even if people are just running things by me. It enables us to move very quickly.”

Would you say delegation has been the hardest struggles for you as a CEO? Or has something else been harder to grasp?

“As we transitioned from really a start-up to a mid-sized company, I think that was a bit of a struggle. I think it’s an area I’ve really worked on and improved quite a bit. I just forced myself to let go of some situations and I actually forced people not to come to me. I think my personality in the way I operate with an open door policy. I’m floating around the office constantly and I think people want to come with me with too many little things that start to add up. I really had to force people to just make decisions.

“That’s one of the things that has benefitted me as a CEO is I make quick decisions. I don’t overanalyze things. That’s great because we move very fast. But at the same time, I make mistakes — I make mistakes all the time. I think that’s how this business was built. I run hard, I trip, I fall down and get up again and I run again and trip again! It’s a cycle that continues to this day, but I think I’ve trained the whole organization to operate this way. If you overanalyze things, you just can’t move and you end up being Coke or Pepsi.

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What are you still learning about yourself as a CEO?

“Going after confrontation sometimes as opposed to avoiding it. I’m not a confrontational person. I don’t thrive on confrontation, but unless you’re willing to go for it and deal with confrontation, you procrastinate and it creates all sorts of problems in an organization. That’s one thing I continue to improve on and make a real effort to improve on.”

How has your philosophy changed from when you were a start-up to where Vita Coco is today?

“It’s really delegation. In the early days, I was doing sales, marketing, bookkeeping in QuickBooks, I was doing the demos. After two years in business, we really had nobody — it was just me. I had to learn how to not just be a doer, but a coordinator.

You mentioned how you recently were out on the streets arguing about pricing with deli owners. To me, that doesn’t seem like something in the CEO job description. Why do you like getting out there so much and showing your face?

“I don’t (tell them I’m the CEO). Last week, for example, I did this in New York and a few weeks ago in London. I go out as the intern or the assistant for the salesperson for that area. It’s really great. Nobody knows who I am — that’s why I think it’s so humbling. You walk into a deli and the guy who manages that fridge is the king of his castle. I’m going in there trying as hard as I can to take a new product or a larger order or build a display — it’s a really humbling and amazing experience. It’s not like I’m going in with a CEO shirt and schmoozing.”

“If we force Coke, Pepsi, Nestle, and Danone — the big water companies — to look at more environmental-friendly packaging because we’re taking business away from them … that’s a win too.”

What’s been the most memorable interaction you’ve had from those experiences?

“It goes back to the early days when people would tell me what the product tasted like. I’ve heard all sorts of crazy things. I’ve been kicked out of so many stores. I hate repeating this, but I always do. It was one of the first stores I went to. I went into the store and gave the guy the product and he said, ‘This tastes like if I were to squeeze my socks after a workout and drink the liquid that comes out.’ At the same time, that one guy who said that, ended up buying three cases, sold out. The next week, he bought six (cases) and over time, he became a really important customer for ours. That was 15 years ago. To this day, he sells our entire portfolio and it’s a great account. It’s like overcoming those obstacles has always been really enjoyable.

You recently launched Ever & Ever, a new purified water line packaged in an eco-friendly aluminum bottle. Why now?

“As we’re building out our business, we have this vision of becoming the biggest better-for-you beverage company. As Vita Coco grows and expands into different spaces, we acquired a brand called Runa, which is an energy drink made from this incredible leaf that grows in the Ecuadorian rain forest. We’re really getting into the energy drink category in a big way in a natural, better-for-you side. As we look to really build this platform of multiple brands, water is clearly a place we wanted to play. At the same time, the negative impact that plastic bottles are having on our oceans and environment is tremendous. It’s not a space we wanted to get into unless we could differentiate and packaging is clearly the primary place we’d like to differentiate.

“It’s really two-fold: 1. It’s about building a business. As we build this better-for-you beverage platform, the water’s going to come into play. But it’s also about having an impact and making an impact. At the end of the day, if we build a massive business in the water space — great. If we force Coke, Pepsi, Nestle, and Danone — the big water companies — to look at more environmental-friendly packaging because we’re taking business away from them, which we already are after launching in (July), if we force them to do that, that’s a win too. This is a place that a small little company could potentially have a significant impact on the planet. It’s not just by us building a business, it’s by us forcing the big guys to act, which is really rewarding. It’s a great place to be.

ever & ever water
Courtesy Ever & Ever

Owning three brands — Vita Coco, Runa, and Ever & Ever — seems like it might create a bit more work for the CEO. What’s your life like now with multiple branches as the CEO?

“We have three brands now — Runa, Vita Coco and Ever & Ever. We’ll probably add more in the coming months and years. It makes my job different. I really have to switch gears more often. I spent 15 years being laser-focused on Vita Coco. Now, I’m still laser-focused on Vita Coco but I also have to switch gears and be laser-focused on Runa and get the Runa team doing what they need to do. I have to make sure the whole sales organization is not forgetting about that product.

“It’s the same thing with Ever & Ever. It’s clearly an evolution for me. It is a change, but I think it’s a positive change because it gives our whole organization the ability to rack up wins in a whole new space. You figure a Vita Coco sales guy has been walking into the same Walmart week-after-week for the past several years and selling the same exact product, but now he walks in and he’s got Runa, Ever & Ever, Vita Coco Sparkling, and soon he’ll have Vita Coco hemp-infused. He’s got all of these other products that are exciting for them and exciting for the retailers. It’s great.”

Vita Coco got a big boost from celebrities like Madonna in its early days. Was targeting celebrities something done on purpose?

“It was a total accident. Back in 2009, a friend of a friend introduced me to Madonna’s manager because he wanted to meet me. I went to coffee with Guy Oseary, who manages Madonna and U2, and we sat down for coffee in New York and he told me Madonna loves the product. She talks about the product, she drinks it on stage, she talks about it in interviews, and he said we should do something together. I asked what he wanted to do. I didn’t have money since it was 2009. I didn’t have money to pay an endorsement deal to do a deal with Madonna. Even if I did, I don’t have money for advertising to use her in anything, so it just didn’t make sense. I jokingly mentioned how I was opening a funding round if she wanted to invest, she could. That was it.

“He then got Madonna and all these other celebrities in. They took the entire investing round. Not only did they invest in millions of dollars, but then they started working in business by talking about it, promoting it, and other things. It was a really big moment for us. It was a huge help by pushing coconut water in a larger way with a larger voice to more people. That’s when the brand and category broke through.”

If you launched Vita Coco today, with all the other competition, would it be as successful as it has been?

“It would be hard. We see different companies come into this space and they really struggle. We have such a big market share in coconut water globally, specifically in the US. I think today there are so many beverage options. We were really a driver in this whole better-for-you, healthier beverage space. Before us, I think there was Vitamin Water and that was basically it. That was then healthy because it was healthier than what was out there. But we were the first nutrition drink to really make an impact on a broad scale.

“Today, there are so many healthier options for consumers who are leaving soda and everything else. It’s so competitive today. There are very few brands in the healthier, nutritional beverage space that have ever gotten to our size. I think the timing was perfect for us. If we (launched) today, it would be too competitive.”

What’s your daily routine like to help you excel at your job?

“I wake up. I look so forward to my cappuccino, I go to bed thinking about it in the morning. I do a very quick, 20-minute yoga session pretty much every day. Then, I take the kids to school. That is my time. First, to be by myself and spend time with the kids. They are super busy. I’m super busy. Then, I see them again at bedtime if I’m home. … A few days a week, I could be out for something. It’s kind of my time to spend with them. Then I get to the office and start my day. Those couple of hours are critical to me both mentally and physically to get my day going.

“Never listen to the ‘What are you nuts?’ people. If you have an idea that you think is going to be successful, go for it and go at it 100%.”

What’s your work-life balance like? I imagine it must be tough to balance your personal life with your CEO life…

“It is, but I make such an effort to do it which is one of the reasons why my house is a block away from the office. I need that. Bringing the kids to school is so important to me, as is being able to spend time with the family. I take a good amount of vacation — I’m a huge believer in recharging. Even when I’m on vacation, I’m always working but at least I’m away and with the family. In the company, we have unlimited vacation time so anyone can take as much vacation time as they want, as long as the job is getting done. I live by that, so I expect everybody else to take what they expect they need to operate on at 100%.

What’s the last book you read?

“I recently finished “Billion Dollar Whale.” It’s really interesting if you’ve ever read it. I read a lot of thrillers — I should really read business books. Everyone says, ‘Did you read the book by so-and-so?’ And I’m like, ‘Who’s so-and-so?’ I probably should, but it’s not my thing. If I”m going to read, it’s to let my brain focus on something else.

Do you listen to podcasts?

“I don’t and I don’t watch much TV either. I don’t know what the hell I do! I don’t listen to a lot of podcasts but I get into a few Netflix series’ here and there.”

What advice do you have for someone who thinks they might have the next best idea that’s doubting themselves?

“I deal with this all the time. I spend a lot of time with entrepreneurs — both start-up and people who’ve created smaller businesses looking for advice. I try to give the same advice as my father gave me. I grew up with my dad and he was an entrepreneur. My grandfather was an entrepreneur and my great-grandfather was an entrepreneur. No male in my entire extended family has graduated from college or had a real job or worked for anybody else. I grew up with my dad, who always used this expression: Never listen to the ‘What are you nuts?’ people. If you have an idea that you think is going to be successful, go for it and go at it 100%.

“If people tell you you’re crazy and nuts, then just don’t listen to them. If you think you can do it, you’re going to be successful. It’s similar advice I give to people unless their idea is really bad. Then I’d try to walk them through something else. Even if it’s something I don’t believe 100% in, if people are passionate about something, they usually have a great likelihood of success. It’s about passion — it’s about the drive and a good idea.