“Don’t be yourself. Be OK.” It sounds like a cynical run at a motivational mantra, but it’s actually the slogan for the University’s newest start-up company — OK Energy. The brainchild of Evan Nied, Jefferson Scholar and second-year College student, the energy drink business officially launched on Grounds and in nearby locations Wednesday. Nied’s product enters a competitive market, up against popular drinks like Celsius and Monster. Nevertheless, the team behind OK Energy believes that their comedic, outside-of-the-box branding will attract the everyday people they envision as customers.
Nied’s entrepreneurial project sprouted from an unusual source. While he was creating a website to connect fraternities with DJs during his first year, Nied met Liam Shields, Delta Psi social chair and fourth-year Engineering student. Shields mentioned that his brother works in consulting, prompting chats with Nied about career possibilities in the field — a post-graduate path that Nied was considering at the time. Shields explained that his brother’s consulting firm had been integral to the creation of Coca-Cola’s touch screen fountain drink machines. This consulting project piqued Nied’s interest and sent him on an internet searching spree.
“I was [down] the Wikipedia rabbit hole, and I didn't find the consulting company [responsible for the machines], but I discovered this little-known, discontinued subsidiary of the Coca-Cola corporation called OK Soda,” Nied said. “It was created to appeal to disillusioned Gen X-ers in the early 90s — like our parents when they were teenagers, or the Nirvana crowd, grungy, nihilist types.”
Nied wanted to give the failed concept a second chance — an idea that he believed was simply ahead of its time. After several conversations with his corporate lawyer father and alcohol-manufacturing uncle, Nied reclaimed the public domain trademark and decided to enter the most viable sect of the beverage industry.
“I realized that my only options were either sparkling water or energy drinks,” Nied said. “Liquid Death already has their toes in [sparkling water] — they're already a comedic brand. With energy drinks, though, all the marketing is exactly the same, and the market is expected to double by 2030. I realized if [OK Soda] came out now, it would blow up and be huge.”
With an idea in mind, Nied set out to form the OK Energy team. He recruited second-year Engineering students Jack Deutsch and Ali Rizwan and second-year College student Maxwell Mitchell as company advisors. They support the business in several ways — most notably as artistic visionaries that help Nied develop marketing schemes. The four met as first-year hallmates in Balz-Dobie dormitory, and they bonded over what once seemed like outlandish project proposals.
“Evan always had his door open, and he would run ideas by people,” Rizwan said. “We'd be walking past, and he'd pull us in and tell us how he had this crazy idea for an energy drink company.”
With a $25,000 grant from the Jefferson Foundation and the counsel of his fellow students, Nied began his start-up journey. After selecting the playful oxymoron “OK Energy” to serve as the marketing motif, Nied turned to his friends for advice about what buyers would seek in an energy drink formula.
“[Customers] care about taste. They care about caffeine content. They care about calories. That’s kind of it,” Nied said. “Then I was like, ‘What’s the best thing on the market? It’s Celsius. What if we make a formula similar to Celsius and add one more milligram of caffeine?’”
The first OK Energy drink on shelves will be “Meh-Ango” — a name that keeps with the brand’s trademark nonchalance. “Feeling Blue Raspberry” and “Passionless Fruit” are on deck for release, rounding out Nied’s first collection of 10 calorie, 201 milligram caffeine beverages.
“The real differentiating factor is the marketing,” Nied said. “We have ‘OK girls’ and ‘OK guys’ as brand ambassadors instead of supermodel Red Bull and Monster Energy girls. We’re regular people — just OK people.”
To reinforce the “OK” concept at the core of the company, Nied plans to donate a portion of profits to mental health organizations that help people who may not feel “OK.” Until the brand generates enough revenue to begin donations, it will support mental health organizations in non-monetary ways.
“We're partnering with a mental health CIO called Active Minds at U.Va.,” Nied said. “We're going to be giving them a bunch of free cans and shouting them out.”
OK Energy will be sold in 30 vending machines on Grounds, as well as at both 7 Day Junior stores on the Corner. Nied also wants to tap into the local bar scene to promote OK Energy sales.
“We are working with some bars to develop a special mixed drink called an A-OK,” Nied said. “It will launch at Crozet on February 8 and [will mix] OK-Energy, Bacardi, Basil sweet and sour mix, and soda water. [I think] it’s incredible.”
While the University-wide launch of OK Energy may seem like enough of an accomplishment, Nied has ambitious aspirations for the brand’s future.
“I would love for this company to become a staple not just at U.Va., but [on] multiple other college campuses,” Nied said. “Long term, we hope to launch at Virginia Tech, James Madison University, William & Mary and maybe a D.C. school like George Washington University.”
Nied expressed that pursuing his business passion was personally rewarding, and he encourages others to take similar leaps of faith.
“I've spent thousands of hours working on this in the last year or so, but it has been one of the most stimulating and interesting projects I've ever worked on in my entire life,” Nied said. “Jump headfirst into it. Do things that make you uncomfortable but proud later.”