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When Maya French and Dustin Baker met in 2013, the timing couldn’t have been better.

Both were in the midst of making healthy lifestyle changes. Baker, inspired by the health problems he saw in his medical sales career, tried to move beyond his unhealthy college diet. French, reckoning with her newly discovered lactose intolerance and a lack of products that suited her needs, increasingly found interest in bringing nutrition to the masses.

They dreamed of starting a juice bar and dove into research and development. Before long they pivoted to selling in grocery stores, instead. Soon, the friends-turned-business-partners were selling their Rawnature5 cold-pressed juices in Chicago-area stores and conducting intensive customer research in the form of demos. During this time, the pair began experimenting with nut milks as a dairy-free alternative, spurred on by French’s lactose intolerance. Through that process, they saw an even bigger opportunity: a market need for a plant-based, low-sugar protein drink that tasted great.

“When we came out with that product, it was an immediate winner,” says French, noting that customers responded positively right away.

Thus began Koia, which today is sold at local and national retailers across the country. Here, Baker and French share how their creation grew from a locally loved favorite to a national health trend.

Their first big break

French and Baker readily admit they didn’t always know what they were doing. But what they lacked in experience they made up for in passion and persistence as they hit the streets for potential connections.

“In those early days, there was a new store called Mrs. Green’s coming into Chicago, and I saw a ‘now hiring’ sign,” Baker says. He called the number and eventually got on the phone with the buyer. “Not knowing what to do, I offered to take the buyer to dinner.”

That dinner at a swanky restaurant stretched their startup budget. And later on, they realized it wasn’t a typical move: “That’s not what you do at all,” Baker says. But by putting themselves out there, the pair conveyed their enthusiasm for the health-conscious food products that were Mrs. Green’s specialty.

"We made it personal, and that became our first store." - Dustin Baker, Co-founder, Koia

An unexpected ticket into the Health Food Industry

As the product hit shelves, people began to take notice and share their praise—a task made easier due to a small but impactful decision Baker and French made to print their name and address right on the bottle. With their contact info available, fans of the product reached out directly to them.

In a few cases, so did interested investors.

One investor, a food industry veteran from Michigan, loved the simplicity of the product so much he sponsored their attendance at a trade show called Expo West—an event French and Baker quickly realized was the premier gathering in the natural food world.

The trade show boosted their name recognition and opened doors to connect with key players in the market.

It was, Baker says, “our admission ticket to the natural health food industry.”

A high-stakes pitch

By 2016, Koia was growing with a primarily regional customer base. That’s when the chance to present at a Whole Foods buyer meeting presented itself.

“Everybody around us—our investors, our advisors—they were pretty much like, ‘If they don’t take this product, you guys might not be in business,’” Baker says. It was a lot of pressure, admits French.

They prepared their pitch and hoped for the best. The result? The grocer signed all five of their products for a national rollout.

“It was the biggest pivotal point of our business,” French says. “It led to where we are today.”

Rapidly expanding, Baker and French knew they needed more support. They found an additional cofounder and CEO in Chris Hunter, a beverage industry veteran and lover of Koia’s products. Hunter soon realized they were outgrowing their existing banking relationship and needed more robust service. He formed a close relationship with J.P. Morgan, and together they’ve stayed ahead of Koia’s banking needs at every turn.

Today, Koia’s commitment to innovation means continued expansion in the form of new plant-based drinks, most recently with Koia Keto in 2019 and Koia Coffee in 2020, and a footprint in more than 10,000 stores.

By trusting their instincts, pivoting along the way and persevering through it all, Baker and French may transform the protein drink market.

Find more inspiring founders’ stories at JPMorgan.com/startups.