Episode 142

Alessandro Roco ·  Starting Sanzo, the First Asian Inspired Sparkling Water

“We decided to build this brand by hitting the streets of New York city, pitching this to retail buyers, restaurant owners with literally a backpack full of sparkling water that I would take on the subway with me”

Sandro Roco is the founder and chief executive officer of Sanzo, the first Asian-inspired sparkling water. Sandro graduated from Villanova University with a degree in chemical engineering and began his career as a nuclear engineer at Exelon Corporation. He previously worked on the credit derivatives trading floor at J.P. Morgan and most recently served as head of growth and then chief-of-staff at Bombfell, an online personal styling service. He launched Sanzo in 2019 with a mission of bridging cultures by connecting people to authentic flavors.

 

Social media handles:

 

Instagram/Twitter: @drinksanzo @alessandroroco

TikTok: @drinksanzo

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Podcast Transcript

Alessandro Roco

[00:00:00] Maggie Chui: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the Asian hustle network podcast. Today, we have a very special guest with us, his name is Sandro Roco. Sandro is the founder and chief executive officer of Sanzo. The first Asian-inspired sparkling water. Sandro graduated from Villanova University with a degree in chemical engineering and began his career as a nuclear engineer at Exelon Corporation.

[00:00:22] He previously worked on a credit derivatives trading floor at JP Morgan, and most recently served as head of growth. And then Chief of staff at Longfellow and online, personal styling service. He launched in 2019 with a mission of bridging cultures by connecting people to authentic flavors. Sandro, welcome to the show.

[00:00:40] Alessandro Roco: It’s great to be here. Thank you so much. You both for having me. It’s an honor. 

[00:00:44] Bryan Pham: No, it’s an honor for us to have you on the show, man. You’re a major celebrity now. There’s no one that we talked to who doesn’t know what your product is as to what Sandro is, and it’s dude it’s hard to believe that you guys started in 2019.

[00:00:55] And it’s so recent about everything that’s happened to you, like your massive grill, see you everywhere. See all the Asian celebrities rave about your product. So walk us through your story, man. What was your upbringing like? And how’d you become the person you are today? 

[00:01:07] Alessandro Roco: I appreciate that. So yeah, as to launching the brand in 2019, I had the idea about a year before that and when and really like for me. It’s interesting to stand as a combination of I guess my own in many ways, like a personal journey that I’ve had over the last few years.

[00:01:22] I grew up in central New Jersey. I’ll say I wasn’t picked on for being Asian, but I also wasn’t necessarily invited to have this massive, cultural identity exploration about myself.

[00:01:31] In my late 20s I really started to dive further into what my Asian American identity was, and what it meant. Like I started actually, becoming more interested in my parents and learning about them as people, not just seeing them as like mom and dad. 

[00:01:45] And ultimately just wanting to go, I guess, like, we’ll both like one has a way of celebrating all of what’s been happening in AAPI culture over the last few years, with a brand like Sanzo. But then also, I’m not shy to say it. A lot of my friends and a lot of my even college experience and even post-college experience are around folks not in the Asian American community and so I wanted to create something that could also help bridge those cultures as well. Introduce my friends to another side of me that they’ve maybe not seen before. It’s been an incredible journey. I know we’re going to dive a lot further in, but that’s kinda that’s I guess like how yeah, the initial inspirations for the brand.

[00:02:22] Maggie Chui: That’s so amazing. And like Bryan mentioned, I just want to echo what Bryan said. We’ve seen so much growth with Sonza in the last couple of years and we’ve been just seeing it everywhere and I know that’s so amazing. I think it’s also even extra amazing that you say that your personal culture is not only within the Asian community, making sure that these drinks are getting into the hands of people outside of the Asian community too.

[00:02:44] And it’s a really great way for them to know about our own food culture or drinks or on flavors and fruits and everything like that. So that is so amazing. I know you were recently or you were previously an engineer, and so I think you grew up and went through that typical Asian journey.

[00:03:00] A lot of our Asian parents want us to become engineers, doctors, lawyers, and stuff like that. I want to know, how did you get this entrepreneurial mindset? Did you get up from your family? Was your family from an entrepreneurial background as well? 

[00:03:12] Alessandro Roco: Sure. So I will actually have to say in all fairness because if they listen to this, they would very much reject the notion that they forced me into my craft.

[00:03:22] I love math and science they’re my two favorites, two best subjects. They’re one that just gravitated to earlier on. And yeah, neither of my parents are engineers. But to answer your question, it came from my grandfather, on my mom’s side, who was a very successful entrepreneur in the Philippines.

[00:03:36] And my mom oftentimes will say yeah, like it skipped a generation. The entrepreneurial bug, I think for them when they came over here. I’m Filipino on both sides. And when they immigrated here in the 80s they were both, fortunate, grew up with, and got college degrees in the Philippines, but really when they got here, they just wanted to provide the best possible life they could for my brothers and me.

[00:03:55] It was the mid-80s that were a bit of a tough political time for the Philippines. And they just wanted, for their own selves and for us to just build as solid of a foundation as possible for us to pursue our own dreams. But so yeah, they did not go that route, but that bug definitely came from my grandfather.

[00:04:10] Bryan Pham: Yeah. Your parents should be so proud of you. And I’m wondering too what was that transition for you like personally to become an entrepreneur? Because I would imagine that, most of your life. You’re you listen to your parents, you want the best for you and you work a very stable job and now you see a world of great uncertainty.

[00:04:27] Like what that joke is like, a trade of nine to five to work 24/7. I think this is really true in entrepreneurship. And what was that transition like the first couple of months for you? Was it really rough? How’d you overcome that? And was it like, okay I want to continue working on this product. 

[00:04:42] Alessandro Roco: Yeah. So I was very fortunate that my parents are somewhat primed for this, with the job that I took beforehand.

[00:04:48] As you laid out in my intro, I started out as a nuclear engineer for three years, then went up to wall street for two years. And I ended up taking a close to 75% pay cut to leave my banking job for this startup gig, where I was basically working the customer experience desk. I just wanted to build. 

[00:05:04] Those were my first two jobs out of college. I graduated right into the financial crisis. And I’m not saying that I wouldn’t have done those either way, but it was definitely one of those scenarios where it was as much my first job. I just kinda had to take something that felt stable.

[00:05:17] It was just nice to have a job after college. I remember when I left my banking job for the startup job, that one was a difficult one for my parents. I think they understood what I wanted to build. There’s definitely the feeling of, oh, is this the right one? Basically, enumerating all the risks that could, that could happen.

[00:05:34] Basically since I did that already I think they gave up on the second go around and I was like, five years later okay, mom and dad now I want to start my own company. I think I just beat them into submission on the last startup gig, but they were just like, okay, like we don’t get it, but the first one worked out pretty decently.

[00:05:48] So we’ll just follow your lead here. But I will say, my own journey to starting the brand was, I think it was a very fortuitous one. So at my last startup the growth kind of stalled. And I was looking at it, and the seedlings for the idea were planted in me for about a year before I left.

[00:06:07] And in that year, I was very fortunate to have a very supportive CEO who said yeah, do the work that you need to do here, but also sure. On nights and weekends, we’ll support you in doing this. It was completely non-competitive anyway and that was fine there.

[00:06:19] But just for this business being as expensive as it is, and as labor-90pkinda did benefit from being able to keep a day job and like really moonlight for about a year. And like that year, it was very like, I just didn’t really stop working. I didn’t really have much time on the weekends.

[00:06:35] Very much saved up any money that I was still getting from the job to put it into this business. So it was crazy in that regard. But I just had such conviction behind what I thought the brand could be, and I was having so much fun doing it, even though it was by myself. Like it was the most stimulating experience that I’d had by far professionally. 

[00:06:52] Bryan Pham: Man, that’s a great story to hear. And, it’s totally unheard of to have a boss that’s supportive. The support in side-hustling because I know it’s not competitive, but still it’s like knowing that this person can leave you like a key person in your team for a startup, especially. Shout out to your old boss for supporting that.

[00:07:09] And I do want to point out one more thing too. I know you mentioned earlier that you graduated during the financial crisis. Is this 2008 or 2009 or 2010? 

[00:07:16] Alessandro Roco: 2009 

[00:07:18] Bryan Pham: Yeah, that’s a rough time. And I feel like a lot of people on our podcast that came as entrepreneurs are from that time period. It’s like at that time period for you guys don’t understand, it’s like you graduate, the stability is key. Right? I just remember applying for like a hundred job and you’d get one interview it’s insane. 

[00:07:33] Nobody wants to hire us. It’s really sad. And then once you get into your job, they’re now laying off people in that company, what is company loyalty? What would I be in my 40s and 50s? And that’s something that I think all of us think about this, so impacted by that generation. That’s the reason why we became entrepreneurs. 

[00:07:48] Alessandro Roco: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more. And I feel like you’re actually seeing something similar now with the advent of web three, during the pandemic and we talk about the great resignation. I think there are other terminologies folks are throwing out there. But, what has been very interesting. Let’s call it the last 13, 14 years is that there’s really been like a, I think for folks who are willing to and want to like step into it, there’s a really like a moment of like empowerment for folks who are working jobs to either diversify revenue streams or just be able to like, just like tap into their creative self in ways that may not have been open to them, 15, 20 years ago.

[00:08:25] It’s very interesting what a level of uncertainty in the market, like how like the yin and yang of that, where people just adapt and create their own mechanisms for their own personal growth, professional growth generating income and what have you. So yeah, I couldn’t agree more.

[00:08:39] Bryan Pham: Yeah. I definitely agree with that statement too. And I know for sure that you definitely paid your dues in like the first two years, you’re still paying your dues now. Like we just talked about earlier, right before the podcast, you’re always working really hard, like keeping your head low and just working hard on your business and everything, but I’m curious too, at what point as you’re grinding it out did you realize that, Hey, like I need to do this full-time or I need to leave my job. I need to grow my team. I need to fundraise. That’s a huge transition, right? It’s scary for most first-time founders. How did you handle that? At what point came first? 

[00:09:11] Maggie Chui: I want to piggyback on that too. I was just going to ask the same thing, cause I know there was an overlap between when you were working in corporate and when you were working at Sanzo. And so, I want to know if you had any goals that you set in mind, getting to a certain revenue projection or getting to the next product or something like that. Was there some sort of benchmark that you were looking forward to? 

[00:09:30] Alessandro Roco: Sure. A lot of things are very different, right? What, like when to leave a job? When to fundraise? Whatever, like a lot of these for me happened at different parts of the journey at the beginning. I think there’s probably a logical progression that most founders would take is, Hey, let me Moonlight until I can pay at least like the rent. So maybe I’m not paying myself a salary. But at least paying myself a rent and then, I’m at least de-risk there. And I think it’s important for any first-time founder, depending on what you’re doing to which is in beverage and what that you couldn’t like there’s no way that I was going to be able to do all the things that I needed to do to build this brand and also work a full-time or even really like a part-time job. 

[00:10:06] And the reason is that the way I decided to build his brand was like basically hitting the streets of New York City, pitching this to retail buyers, restaurant owners literally would have a backpack and a hand truck. Full of sparkling water that I would take on a subway with me and just be going like, literally like up and down and LES, East Village, or whatnot. And you just these folks work during the day like you’re, you know what I learned these retail and grocery buyers, they’re the best time to go in there is maybe like 9:00 or 10:00 AM. Restaurants like chefs, like they’re not usually walking in and then, you know, because they closed down the restaurant from eating before they’re not walking in until around the same time, also a good time to catch them, maybe like right after lunch. So like literally it just gets in the way of a regular Workday.

[00:10:52] And so the calculation for me, it really became a leap of faith. It was, here’s how much money I have in my own bank account. Here’s how many months of rent I can survive? I did build up throughout my last couple of jobs, a decent level of savings. But it was like, this thing has got a hit for roughly 15 months.

[00:11:11] And I was like, That’s it, I’ll assess, I’m going to give myself that period of time, and then I’ll assess as I get closer to that. I’m going to make this decision and not like seed ground and so it wasn’t a day, I’m not going to be committed to making the decision and not revisiting it for at least several months unless things are going horrendously. But yeah, that’s a pretty leap of faith. 

[00:11:31] Bryan Pham: What a relatable piece of content that you just said right there. Yeah. It’s a lot of the concept like burning those ships and not looking back type of thing, or it’s you really have to swim now, otherwise, you’re going to a sink, right?

[00:11:43] Alessandro Roco: Yeah.

[00:11:43] And I feel like that with that feeling like you do, you would do things you would never do because you have no other choice to do it. I would say it’s a great motivation, but also something that you don’t want to do that often can make the best decision with your back against the wall every single day.

[00:11:54] Yeah. Like for me, and again, like I very much empathize with founders and I look out, I mean, we can get into some real candid stuff, like in the food and beverage industry. An unfortunate truth is. You do need some money in the beginning, whether it’s your own or someone else’s, it’s like very hard to get started with $0, like in the way that you might with if you’re coding an app or a SAS program and you can just spin up an instance, AWS, and a text editor. 

[00:12:19] It’s just like food and beverage, we literally need to buy raw goods. You need to pay someone to make the goods, you can develop your own branding for free, but you just need to pay for these goods.

[00:12:29] And yeah. The reason why I felt like I could make the leap was exactly that like you mentioned how, if you don’t have any runway and I do feel this, if your runway is like low, I think it’s actually been shown, like for folks who have less money in their bank account, like you actually drop IQ points because you’re not making rational decisions.

[00:12:46] And so that’s why I gave myself as okay, I need this. I need enough runway for that long a time. So that I at least have several months to make at least intelligent decisions and hopefully some of these would lead to extending my runway on being in enough of a mental state to make decent enough decisions. So I very much agree with that. 

[00:13:06] Bryan Pham: I tend to think of it as a racing game. So you keep running into hidden checkpoints, there’s “ding!” every time. 

[00:13:12] Alessandro Roco: Yeah. That’s so good. You get to the checkpoint. Yeah, exactly. Could not agree. That’s good, that’s a great analogy. 

[00:13:18] Bryan Pham: Yeah. I’m curious too. Like I know that you gave yourself as much time. The mindset from my becoming an employee to an entrepreneur, to growing my company, to raising money is a scary leap. Just going out there and asking for your first check. And I know that in Asian culture we typically don’t like to do that.

[00:13:34] And let’s be honest here. A lot of us don’t have the luxury of doing that. Can you imagine asking your mom for 50K or 100k, to be like the hell that’s my smart retirement? What are you saying? I want to hear more about your fundraising story and what kind of mindset and investee hat you needed to put on in order to go out there and raise these funds.

[00:13:51] Alessandro Roco: So, Yeah, I went down that route of saying in the beginning, I was pretty committed to it’d be my own money. So it really was mine. And over the course of all of the 15 months, I’d say put in about like this, I’d say about a hundred thousand dollars of my own money. It wasn’t, it didn’t take my bank account all the way down to zero, I’m definitely rebuilding it back.

[00:14:09] Like as we speak. And so I really was focused on generating enough proof of concept with just the money that I had. And again, I know not everybody has that a hundred thousand dollars to put in and get it off the ground.

[00:14:22] And I guess what I would say is I got fortunate that with that money that I put in over that year I was able to get enough proof of concept where I could then start raising around. For me, it was literally, unfortunately like April, May 2020 in the heart of the pandemic, but that’s also when our business got really hot we started, you know, when folks are unfortunately sheltered in place folks are quite scared to go to the grocery store, or I don’t know if this may even some grocery stores weren’t open. Amazon orders were taking three, or four weeks to arrive. And so we had a direct-to-consumer site and yeah, my former experience was ahead of growth at a startup.

[00:15:00] And so I basically went all-in with all the remaining money that I could afford to put into the business and just put it to Facebook ads, Instagram ads. I also wanted to make sure I saved a little bit to contribute to the community. A big thing for me was that I worked in certain restaurants earlier in my life. One of the earliest stories that I heard was those undocumented workers, we’re like going to immediately be incredibly vulnerable because they couldn’t get employment. PPP loans are taking forever to get, and even then they’re still murky, whether they get access to that.

[00:15:29] I was pretty big on Hey if our business is going to have any success like it can’t just be me benefiting from it. It just felt weird and unfair for that to be the case. After that, it was like we have a whole potential for growth here that I just can’t fund. And that’s usually a good reason to raise capital. And usually, you can get people to give you money or invest money in your business when that is the story that you’re telling it. Over basically six to eight weeks I was able to put together a little over a million bucks to be our first outside financing round.

[00:15:59] And a lot of that was a combination of like folks in the AAPI community who had heard of us in a couple of months before that. It kind of starts flushing it out to their networks. And then I’ll also say like the director, like the D to C and just generally e-comm community founders and like heads of product and early-stage VCs who either were Asian American or in the Bay Area. And like they’re really integrated into these communities. And just an extra 10, 25, or 50 kicked in. And that’s just we can go deeper into that if you’d like, but we are off to the races after that. 

[00:16:27] Bryan Pham: Let’s go deeper. I know you raised a lot from prominent AAPI leaders, right? And you built relationships with a lot of them. I have never seen investors rave about a product so much. Whenever I come out of these AAPI events and trust me and Maggie go to a lot of AAPI events. We see your products everywhere. 

[00:16:48] Maggie Chui: Your posts were everywhere. And I think especially during the pandemic. I’m so glad that you were able to see that, there was an opportunity for us as Asians to really represent and bring more of our culture out there.

[00:16:58] And we saw the same thing with the Asian Hustle Network. Like we started Asian Hustle Network like a couple of months before the pandemic, we’re like, shoot like this is really bad. What’s happening with the Asian community is really bad. But then at the same time, we saw a lot of Asians coming together and actually like learning more about their heritage, learning more about their culture.

[00:17:13] And I think that’s what makes Sanzo special. And I think another thing, what Sonza does really well is like you guys have such a unique story and a lot of other companies that have these sparkling water brands, Most of these brands are just labels produced by large multinational corporations that don’t have a unique story.

[00:17:29] And they don’t have a community, but you’ve really built that community. And you’ve really pulled on a lot of the Asian community’s heartstrings and you’re just like, reeling them in because a lot of these people, they have this as it goes back to the memories like, wow, I had these flavors when I was younger. I want to try these flavors. This brings me back to my childhood. So you’ve really created that unique story with Sanzo. 

[00:17:50] Alessandro Roco: Thank you. The only thing I’d say back to that is that we and I guess I’ve tried to reach out to the community, but more importantly as the community has gotten behind Sanzo. I see it very much as a two-way street and one that I think I owe even a more significant back the other way. But yeah, I think what you said is correct, and what I do believe is our defensibility as a brand and just like what I just take such pride in is that we have that relationship. I think both sides have invested in that relationship. And we’re just very grateful for, the way the last two years have gone for us. 

[00:18:22] Bryan Pham: I love it. And again, like Maggi and I loved seeing you grow. We will know that we see a lot more of your growth in the future.

[00:18:30] I want to talk about something really funny or like a fun subject. And I want to hear about how you came up with your flavors, and how many lists of flavors did you have initially? And which ones do you like? Oh, heck no. Even though you thought that flavor was going to taste good, it tastes horrible. Let’s just talk through brainstorming sessions like how you choose your flavors so far. 

[00:18:47] Maggie Chui: And talk about the bottles you had to cause I know you went through some bottles. 

[00:18:52] Alessandro Roco: Yeah, that’s right. I forget. Y’all do your research. So the first flavor and actually the first idea was I’ll say the Genesis of it wasn’t even necessarily just oh, it needs to be an Asian acquired sparkling water. One of the first things that I actually thought about was as a Filipino American, I was like, Hey, Calamansi is like a pretty special citrus fruit. It’s got obviously like these pretty obvious lime hints, but also has a roundedness in Tangerine flavor and an orangeness. And I was just, that’s great. And then as Filipinos we only, we typically use it more just as a garnish or just like the added acid to sisig or other like other dishes. I just felt like there was room here to explore that flavor more. And part of my thought was like, if folks can get around pronouncing Asahi or drinking kombucha and like getting their arms around that and make those big things, then surely to me getting close to connecting with and to fruit like Calamansi it shouldn’t be like as difficult as long as, there’s a good brand and a good story behind that.

[00:19:54] So I actually originally started making a very popular Filipino drink called Calamansi Juice, but it’s really like a limeade. The only problem was it has way too much sugar and while delicious, it just, wasn’t something that I was willing to drink a lot of, because of the high content, sugar content

[00:20:12] And that’s actually become like a big thing for me, like, okay, if I’m feeling this way and that was a bit of a thing for me too, I wanted to consume it over and over again. Unfortunately, I felt like as much as I love our legacy Asian brands that are mostly coming from mostly imports.

[00:20:26] I’m just being honest. Like I can’t drink them every day. Like I just, I know too much. I used to be a very obese child and got out of that phase and I’m like, I can’t go back. Yeah so then I then just started thinking about, okay what if you put Calamansi in sparkling water? At the time I still do we’ll drink like a tequila soda or a vodka soda or things like that.

[00:20:44] And that was how those wheels started turning. And so the Calamansi is the first one, so like the next two, I just kind of figured three was going to be the magic number to launch with that one was going to be my sour or tart flavor. And then it was, I was just looking at other sparkling water brands and I was like, okay, you need one much sweeter flavor just to accommodate that profile.

[00:21:06] I originally started using Philippine mangoes but we, since obviously, now I have migrated over to the Indian Alfonzo mango. But that one was actually like a weirdly intuitive thing for me. And then the last one, which actually for most folks would probably think it would be the most intuitive, was actually my last waiver and was recommended to me by my friend.

[00:21:24] Who’s just if you’re starting an Asian sparkling water brand, like you absolutely have to have Lychee and so it actually came together relevant. Like quickly like that. I did try it out And it actually was delicious. So I did a tamarind one. It was delicious.

[00:21:39] Unfortunately, if you can imagine tamarind paste dissolving in water to me, food and beverage are every bit as much like you eat with your eyes as much as you do with your nose and your mouth. I’ll just say the color of the beverage was not That we thought it was going to scale well with customers.

[00:21:56] So that was a fun one. We did something with a papaya blend sort and oh, that was terrible. I haven’t yet tried experimenting with Durian but I would imagine that durian is going to be much stronger than the papaya was. And so those are definitely two eye-opening experiences because carbonation takes any flavor profile that is in the underlying liquid and just amps it all the way up.

[00:22:21] And that’s why I think we’ve had some success here with Calamansi. We just launched Ginger, Lychee. I think we’ve had some success, but then you also learn about certain fruits and flavors that have certain things that you just dismissed or you just fold them into the overall profile.

[00:22:38] Oh no. Those things get multiplied by a lot. Once you start carbonating the drink. 

[00:22:43] Maggie Chui: Wow. I am going to be on the waitlist for the Durian one. You should do it. I don’t care. I’ll have the Durian Sonza on one hand and a pack of gum on the other. 

[00:22:51] Bryan Pham: We’ll single-handedly keep your sales up for Durian.

[00:22:55] Maggie Chui: So when you were creating these flavors were you the only one who was taste-testing these? Like trying to see what tasted good. And then did you eventually get a food scientist to start like actually going down to the specifics and the chemistry of it? And then when was that point when you were like, okay, we need to be doing it as food scientists.

[00:23:13] Alessandro Roco: Yeah. So the very first formulations were done by me. It was mostly in my kitchen apartment with a weighing scale, kitchen scale, Google sheets and measuring cups, and 12 ounces of Canada Dry. And so what I would do is I would make a formulation and then it also records the cost to make it. We know that chefs do that all the time.

[00:23:31] Make something good. Can it scale to be done in a kitchen set? And then also we still have to pay for them, yeah. We still have to pay the rent here. I built up that model and literally, we’d have liked this, and then how much does it cost? So that was step one.

[00:23:43] To your point, I did learn pretty early on from talking to other, food beverage founders Hey, there are certain FDA requirements or certain food science, health and safety inspection things that just have to be you know, bided by, in order to like, not just sell legally, but for me also, I’m like, I really cared that as I think as I would hope most food and beverage entrepreneurs care about not harming their customers.

[00:24:04] And obviously something that you ingest can do harm to your body. If not, it’s not done well. I got connected with Cornell University called Cornell food labs. And basically what they do is you send them the recipe. And then they tell you, Hey, you need to incorporate these steps to make sure it’s a safe product. For ours specifically, because we use real fruit juice. But folks can now buy the drink, it’s shelf-stable. It doesn’t need to be refrigerated when you buy it.

[00:24:29] It had to undergo pasteurization, which essentially just means heating, like feeding the can up to a certain temperature and holding it there for a certain period of time. So it kills all the microbes in the juice that could possibly cause it to ferment and cause the taste very badly.

[00:24:44] As far as timing goes like that, you have to do it early on. You can’t actually sell a beverage like this without getting that done. That was probably within the first, three months of starting the company even like having the initial idea.

[00:24:58] Maggie Chui: That’s amazing. I just love hearing the background information and the process behind it, because I’m sure there are a lot of other people who are just selling it without even going through the correct protocols. But I love how you’re just doing everything correctly. 

[00:25:10] Alessandro Roco: It takes more time. It costs a lot more headaches. But I think we’re reaping the dividends, for the rewards for doing so. 

[00:25:17] Bryan Pham: And even if it ferments you can call it Kombucha, right?

[00:25:20] Alessandro Roco: To a certain point, it becomes basically vinegar. 

[00:25:25] Bryan Pham: All right. Let’s talk about the not-so-fun part of running a business and especially this past year or so, especially in 2021, the supply chain issue. I know for a fact that it’s causing a lot of the inflation that we see nowadays, and I would imagine, it probably has heavily impacted your business.

[00:25:41] I wonder what is going on with this production and the impact that has on your company? 

[00:25:47] Alessandro Roco: Yeah. I guess two things that I would say are, we’ve been pretty fortunate that Yeah. Obviously have had a lot of growth over the last few years. With growth comes some margin for error and I’ll say inefficiencies for things like higher costs, the freight that’s probably the biggest one for higher costs of frights especially.

[00:26:05] So we have been very fortunate there. We also, and again, like it’s something that we’re constantly looking at. We do sell our product for a bit of a premium over what else is in the market. I’ll say at the beginning that was necessary. It’s still very much so.

[00:26:20] But as of now for different reasons, it was necessary at the beginning because I was buying things on a small scale. It was the only way I could even keep myself afloat in the early days. And so we were pricing in line with other, premium sparkling beverages in our category.

[00:26:34] What that has allowed us to do though, as we’ve scaled, is basically have a little bit more money available to pay for the higher freight costs. Basically, folks that operate already very low margin businesses, they’re the ones who got incredibly squeezed, and their business models really turned upside down.

[00:26:53] Fortunately for us, we’ve been able because of our growth to get a lot of efficiencies, to be able to couch some of those basically simply calculate those higher freight costs. 

[00:27:03] Okay. That’s good to know. I’m really glad that you’re mainly unaffected by the supply chain and continue to grow. And I want to focus a little bit more on your day today. And I know in your life, you are currently engaged, right? 

[00:27:15] Yeah. 

[00:27:15] Maggie Chui: Congratulations. 

[00:27:17] Alessandro Roco: Thank you!

[00:27:18] Bryan Pham: You met your significant other, I’m curious. It sounds like you’re working all the time. And how do you balance, like your work-life balance and your relationship? It seems so healthy. I looked at your social media accounts. It’s you guys are so in love and it’s dang, how’s he doing at all? So just walk us through your day-to-day. And how do you manage your time? 

[00:27:36] Alessandro Roco: Yeah. I have a very supportive partner, so that’s like number one and then, and that is big.

[00:27:40] Last night I was having dinner with Sarah Nguyen from Nguyen Coffee Supply and she’s also just recently got engaged. And we both talked about how our partners are such actual and active supporters for us. Like we don’t have co-founders, but they’re about as close as you could possibly get.

[00:27:57] It’s also saying that I don’t do this alone. Not by any means. It’s not easy. I’ve gotten better at compartmentalizing weekends. We also need to, because we are planning a wedding and so again, like creating that constraint. We need to just be more efficient throughout the course of the week. Everything has its trade-offs right. I have the same 24 hours a day and seven days a week that anybody else would have. Unfortunately, I probably don’t talk to my friends nearly as much as I would like to.

[00:28:20] I think in some ways, It’s a little easier because I’m now 34 and turning 35 this year. And a lot of my friends already have kids, so they, so several of our friends have already moved on to that phase in life. But yeah, between the business, planning of the wedding with Ysa. I’ll occasionally see my parents.

[00:28:37] That’s most of my time, it’s not actually that exciting. It’s just a lot. It’s just really me working a lot. 

[00:28:44] Maggie Chui: But I love seeing your posts with your fiance and, I see the same thing in like Sarah and her fiance too. Like they are so supportive of each other, just like how you and your fiance are. And that really goes a long way, just to have someone be supportive of you and just push you forward and be a sounding board whenever you need them. It is so important.

[00:29:02] Bryan Pham: Yeah. And I’m so glad that you guys found time for each other. And so glad that you’re able to.

[00:29:06] Compartmentalize your schedule because that’s still important. And I think used to tight things are kind of funny when my friends are like, oh, I need to like the schedule in my calendar when I’m having a date night with my significant other. And now it’s like, when you’re running your own business, yeah, like you need to do that.

[00:29:19] Alessandro Roco: Yep. Most importantly, we put it on the calendar because it’s then harder to remove it. If we just say, Hey, we’ll get there on Tuesday night, but then something else can come up. We have our wedding planning, and touch bases every Wednesday night. We’re getting obviously more frequent with it now if we’re getting married like two months from now. So those are getting more frequent. Yeah, cause in the beginning it was on every Wednesday night. It was like, okay. I know. I just know I’m not planning anything for Wednesday night. In the world of beverage operations, we talk a lot about creating processes that are better truly brick walls, not a stop signs, not a speed bumps. Anybody can roll over a speed bump, anyone. Unfortunately, go through it, go through a stop sign. You have a much harder time going through a brick wall and for us, yeah. Putting something on the calendar is about as close to a brick wall as you could get.

[00:30:04] Bryan Pham: That’s a great tip. And for your listeners, that’s how we manage everything. Okay. You have to set and schedule and include our personal lives. 

[00:30:11] So we have one more part to the podcast where I want to bring it back to your company a bit more. I want to hear more about how you create your culture and how you hire people correctly. Because I think that it’s such an important thing where you’re at and where you used to be, growing and scaling. If you have the wrong people in the wrong places, it actually causes you a lot more work. And if you don’t have the right culture, you’re kind of doomed. And I want to hear about you as a leader.

[00:30:36] How do you, one, hire people and how do you maintain a strong culture in your company? 

[00:30:42] Alessandro Roco: Yeah. The two biggest things that we screen for, and a lot of it ends up being, personality, but you can also see it through we give certain take-home assessments and things like that. If you observe behaviors throughout the interview process, do that. It sounds so simple, but I think it’s a very different mentality going into an early-stage startup versus a company that’s more pre-established and nothing’s better or worse per se than the other. But it is just what fits at what stage someone who might be, like the most organized person who thinks like everything through might be an amazing senior leader for a big company, because any little steer of that huge cruise ship can have ripple effects down downstream. For us, like we are, we really privilege folks who are just like we just move to act like they’re there, they have a bias toward the action.

[00:31:36] And it just appears usually we can see it typically through like the way that they talk about the works that they’ve done. We even put in our job descriptions that we’re specifically giving extra looks who have demonstrated. We’ve actually seen it either in your job or you or your parents have had either a side hustle or your parents are a small business owners.

[00:31:55] Something like that. Just like it is something that when you’re around you just get it done. But if you have not been around, you need to like, oftentimes just like learning. And so that’s like a big one for us. And then the second half of that, More of a personality perspective is we really screened for folks who are empathetic.

[00:32:12] It’s actually, empathy is actually our number one core value at the business. And a lot of times would come through just like how a person, like how a person answers some questions, how they respond back to emails, like scheduling a time. If they’re talking to other team members what’s their reaction? Are they respectful? How do people comport themselves? And I think those are easily the two biggest things that we screen for. 

[00:32:31] And then after that, the hope is when they come on, our big thing is our goal is to empower you. The way that our brand is growing. I don’t have the bandwidth to micromanage, we’re going to really screen to make sure that folks who are coming in, can empower them to be autonomous. Like maybe not on day one, but pretty closely after. And I will say in full candor like we are moving fast.

[00:32:53] We do need folks to keep up. We think this is an amazing place to work if you’re able to. But also yeah, like we do screen for folks who are able to get off the starting block pretty quickly. 

[00:33:02] Bryan Pham: Yeah. I really liked the answer a lot. And Jason Y. Lee of Jubilee Media would be quite proud of that.

[00:33:08] Maggie Chui: Yes. He preaches empathy all the time. And that empathy piece is so important though because I feel like that could so easily be like a domino effect. Like when you notice that one person isn’t being empathetic or, the opposite of that, it causes other people to have a bad mood as well. So it’s really important. 

[00:33:25] I also want to learn more about. From the pandemic, we know that there have been a lot of new CPG brands, especially in the sparkling water field. And so I want to know, and just curious about how you view competition. And like, how often are you going into just researching the market and seeing if there are any other new brands out there that are coming up with a new sparkling water brand? It doesn’t have to be Asian, but I want to know how you’re viewing the competition right now. There’s just been so many new brands of sparkling waters and drinks and everything on the market recently. 

[00:33:56] Alessandro Roco: Yeah. I was literally just texting yesterday with Jeremy Kim from Nectar. So, if that’s any notion, and then we were at an event together he was at my table back in December.

[00:34:05] That’s any notion like it’s to say competition. Sure. But much more collaborative. I mean it, especially in the world of CPG. Like you need multiple brands to build a category or a set. And so we’ve all been at least the ones that I know. We’ve all been pretty collaborative and looking for ways to help each other out.

[00:34:24] They’re obviously picked toxaphene and where we think we’ve done well in distribution, I think we have a product that has resonated, but then in beverage it’s people have to be able to find it or if they want it or if they’re in a store even if you being in the right place where a customer can discover you is I think something that our team has done pretty well in our early days.

[00:34:45] And so we’re all like whether it’s sparkling water or hot sauce or sauce starters or coffee, like I just see it as all collaborative and all moving, like pushing the ball forward. The best way that I would say it is like we celebrate it. And am I actively looking at other brands?

[00:35:02] I would say less so, maybe I was a little bit more if I’m being honest, looking at brands that are ahead of us branded or maybe raising a couple more rounds of funding. I specifically look at. And what I consider is global iconic brands like San Pellegrino, Perrier, Topo Chico, and basically how we can be that.

[00:35:20] And then, for the folks who started after us, how can I uplift them? But as far as where I go from my inspirations, we’re more looking at folks who are a bit further ahead of us. 

[00:35:31] Maggie Chui: Yeah, I think you put that perfectly. And it’s the same thing with Asian Hustle Network there’s been a lot of Asian communities that have come from, the pandemic, but we need more of them, it’s always better to see more of them so that we have a category to refer back to then to see none of it at all.

[00:35:45] So Sandro, we have one last question for you, and that is if you could give one piece of advice to an AAPI entrepreneur, what would that one piece of advice be? 

[00:35:56] Alessandro Roco: I guess this would go for any founder. But I guess, for an AAPI founder, I would say something very simple and it’s just built. There are so many distractions today. Maybe I don’t need to say this to folks who have already taken the leap into the co-founders or maybe folks who are considering it.

[00:36:08] There really are so many ways. There are so many disincentives and so many ways in which there are so many things out there that will dissuade you from doing it. You are really the only person. With enough willpower and conviction or what you’re building that will actually get it off the ground and moving.

[00:36:25] And so if this is something that you want to do, isn’t that you’ve aspired to do in your life, be some kind of creator, whether it’s in entrepreneurship or let’s say, or in, let’s say like the entertainment industry, you’ve always wanted to write a script or app or what have you are staying or something or write music.

[00:36:42] Literally the only thing you could do is to stop reading about what other people are doing or getting taken off your path. I do think in any form that I can get in with the founder, it’s I think the best thing I can do is just do it. Give them the reassurance that like, if you just build a kinship, actually zone out stuff and just focus.

[00:37:01] It’s amazing the things that you can accomplish, but unfortunately, I think this world is just creating so many opportunities for folks and not hit that deeper level of focus and flow state create those opportunities to actually be able to create. 

[00:37:15] Maggie Chui: That’s so much. The bottom line is to just do it.

[00:37:21] Bryan Pham: Take action. 

[00:37:22] Maggie Chui: Thank you so much for that, Alessandro. So where can our listeners find out more about you and Sanzo online? 

[00:37:28] Alessandro Roco: Yeah. So you can visit us at drinksanzo.com. Our primary channel on social media. Our handles are @drinksanzo and that’s across Tik Tok, Instagram, and Twitter. 

[00:37:38] If ever you’re listening to us. You could buy, you gotta buy the biocentric sensor.com or Amazon, or increasingly we’re getting a lot more distribution. So we have a store locator on our website where you can look and find it. 

[00:37:49] Bryan Pham: I’ll go pick this up some time after this podcast right now.

[00:37:51] I’m thirsty. Well, Man, thank you so much for being on the podcast today. I know we heard sorta bits and pieces of your story before and it’s always great hearing it again and again. It’s crazy hearing how much growth you have. So we’re going to for sure, tap you on the shoulder again in a year or two to have you back in the podcast. We want to hear all about your updates and your progress, man.

[00:38:11] Alessandro Roco: Thanks so much. And thanks for all you do. Really. Folks like me couldn’t do it without communities, like what you’re building. So thank you so much. 

[00:38:18] Bryan Pham: Appreciate it.