How do you know when the Gods of Great Ideas have smiled down upon you?
Just ask Paul College alumni Galen Hand ’16, Alex Febonio ’16 and Richard Roy ’16. They met as students in Paul College's Atkins Investment Group, became fast friends, graduated to careers in high finance and, in September of 2018, reunited to form NOCA, which stands for “no carbonation,” the name of their three-man outfit as well as the trio of fruit flavored spiked still water they produce.
In May 2019, 4,000 cases of the 12-ounce cans shipped from the packaging plant in Baltimore to distributors in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. And, before you could say “cheers!” the batch sold out.
“We knew we had a great product because we’d tested it,” explains Hand, “but we were surprised by the level of interest.”
Emboldened by their success, NOCA doubled production of the second batch. Almost at once, the 8,000 cases were locked in for distribution to more than 500 stores and “on-premise” (i.e., bars and restaurants) establishments, says Febonio.
So, that’s one way you know the Gods of Great Ideas are smiling down upon you.
It takes a university
One person not surprised by NOCA’s success was John Turner ’82, a member of the Paul College executive advisory board and partner in a private equity firm in Boston.
“I knew Galen as a student at UNH and have been a mentor ever since,” says Turner, to whom Galen turned for advice early on. “When I evaluate a company, I ask myself three questions: ‘Are they passionate about what they want to do? Are they confident about their success? And have they thought things through?’”
Galen Hand ‘16 credits his experience in Paul’s Atkins Investment Club with sharpening his ability “to analyze opportunities holistically” and the Holloway Prize Competition for “planting an entrepreneurial seed” for inspiring NOCA.
When the answers were “yes” on all three counts, Turner put them in touch with Jude Blake ’77, a fellow member of the advisory board and an accomplished beverage marketing executive in her own right. Blake met with the founders and liked what she saw. A lot.
“They’re so driven and delightful … such hardworking young men,” says Blake. “It turned out FIFCO (a New York-based brewer that makes spiked still water) had actually got there first, so I told them not to get down about it and that sometimes it’s better to be a ‘fast follower’ who learns from the leader’s mistakes. I advised them to get out of the starting blocks quickly with a solid distribution plan and superior product.” She also became an early investor.
From September 2018 to the first shipment in June 2019, Hand, Roy and Febonio leapt into action, widening their UNH network and getting some key assists: Pete Beauregard ’00, co-founder of Stoneface Brewing Co., advised them on engaging with distributors and connected them with his own distributor, Tyler Kelly ’00, who helped NOCA gain traction in Massachusetts as well as the Granite State.
NOCA’s Roy says a student-run digital marketing agency from Paul College’s pioneering Business in Practice program (See related story, page 3) discussed marketing strategies and objectives with the NOCA team prior to the launch.
And, when it came time to test a prototype of the product, Professor Clayton Barrows’ beverage management class served up 100 students as a focus group.
“We did a blind taste test that included NOCA, FIFCO’s Pura Still product, and a popular hard seltzer,” recalls Febonio. “NOCA won hands down. The tasters appreciated the drink’s clean taste, which was exactly what we were going for.”
Galen Hand ’16 credits the Atkins Investment Club with sharpening his ability “to analyze opportunities holistically when considering an entrepreneurial venture.” As a sophomore, Hand competed in the Holloway Competition. His product — a device to prevent the overpouring of cocktails — may not have won but it did “plant an entrepreneurial seed” in his brain, one that just may have foreshadowed the birth of NOCA. Febonio says his Atkins experience taught him how to present to an “intimidating crowd” that would put hard questions to him.
“You learn how to stand behind your decisions. To trust the process,” he says.
Today New England. Tomorrow … America!
While NOCA got in early on spiked water, the brand must also compete with a growing marketplace of ice teas, lemonades, ciders and other spiked beverages. Hand says he and his partners believe that NOCA’s low sugar, low carb, low calorie and unique flavor profile are all factors that set it apart from the pack.
“A hard seltzer lover will love us,” Hand says. “They’re often after the same thing. Our generation also appreciates drinks that are organic or natural and have no artificial ingredients.”
The brand is young enough to fly below the industry radar; but this won’t last long, not with a marketing work ethic that has seen Hand, Febonio and Roy run tastings continually from 4 p.m. to midnight across greater Manchester and beyond.
NOCA hopes to go national someday but understand doing so will require greater investment capital and a large corporation with which to partner on distribution. When this happens, you can be sure NOCA’s UNH network will be there with them, working behind the scenes.
In fact, the smart money would probably bet that it already is.