Heath Evans is a marketing and communications strategist, innovator, entrepreneur and Coach.
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Stuff I write

Selling Coke: The Day I Realized I Was an Entrepreneur

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It was approaching the end of 2001, and like most high-school students I had been seduced by the prospect of going to the infamous “schoolies” festival and was desperate to find a way to fund this adventure.

For those not familiar with the concept, it’s the Australian version of “Spring Break,” and certainly not something you want on your CV, but that’s not the purpose of this story.

My mind was swirling with haired-brained money-making opportunities, and on that warm summer afternoon, I would later discover I wasn’t the only one looking to make a quick buck.

In a small canteen office, a group of tuck shop ladies had noticed the recent spike in soft drink consumption (likely correlating to the hot weather we were experiencing).

I had come up with the bright idea of introducing a 50c price hike, a severe blow for young whippersnappers just trying to get their daily sugar fix.

I was incensed! How dare they take advantage of the monopoly they had over the soft drink trade within our school, where was the ACCC!

That night as I walked the supermarket aisles, with my mum, I paid particular attention to the price of soft drinks, wondering how much these greedy fat cats were actually netting per can, and then all of a sudden it hit me!

24 Coke cans for $12.

Bloody hell this was highway robbery!

My blood boiled with injustice, but at the same time I was hit with that boom moment when you begin to see the opportunity.

I was no mathematical genius, but I knew a chance to make a sweet profit when I saw it, and with an angry group of sugar addicts demanding action this would be the perfect chance to “keep the bastards honest!

That night I went home and spoke to the smartest man I’ve ever known — my Grandpa — sharing my grand plan and importantly the role he would need to play as Chief Technology Officer (aka: The Fridge maker).

Whilst I didn’t know what an NDA was, I made it very clear that Mum was not to know about this project, and I think there was a general agreement that at this early stage this was probably for the best — and he went to work.

His role would be to find a way to keep the cans cold at school, and whilst I’m sure he wasn’t completely rapt with the idea, as a man in his 70s who loved a good project I knew he would find an ingenious way to turn my locker into a fridge (or at a minimum a cooler) — and of course as history will show he did just that.

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I now focused my attention on the marketing side. I had two days to raise the $25 and whilst I may have been able to scrape it together myself, I chose (without knowing it) to build my very first-ever crowdfunding campaign — taking pre-orders to build the hype.

My business was built on the Henry Ford model.

“You can have any can you want for only $1 (as long as it’s Coca-Cola).”

For some this wasn’t ideal, preferring other varieties, but a lucrative 33 percent saving on your daily sugar hit was just too juicy to refuse.

Within two days I had the money, and although there was no social network I could use to tell anyone about how I was feeling, I don’t think I’ve ever felt as energised!

We were in business.

Monday morning I unpacked the 48 cans from the fridge, placed them into the hi-tech freezer boxes my grandpa had built and headed to school.

The locker-bays were a buzz, and come recess I’d filled my blazer pockets with Coke cans and began strutting the halls like Al Capone, exchanging handshakes of gratitude for taking a stand and making dodgy slight-of-hand transactions along the way.

The rebellious character I embodied quickly helped me learn my second critical business lesson around the power of the narrative a person tells themselves when purchasing.

People weren’t purchasing these products for what they contained, but rather they were purchasing these products because of what they represented.

For those young kids who came with their gold coins to exchange it for a 275g tube of the infamous black gold, this wasn’t about buying a can of Coca-Cola, it was about experiencing the rush, the ultimate buck the system, and recognising this I played to this more and more as the days went by.

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By the end of week 1, I’d turned over nearly 240 cans of coke (around two slabs per day) and like many startup businesses I needed to start thinking about scaling, and fast.

I simply couldn’t keep up with demand. I had a PR nightmare on my hands, with rumors spreading that a few kids had received warm cans of Coca Cola.

Others were becoming disgruntled that they had missed out on their daily sustenance having arrived five minutes late to my locker only to discover we had already sold out

I needed my 70 year old CTO to step up to the plate, and that night as I shared the extensive insights and data I had gathered a week in the game, he agreed that it was time to create Operation Coke 2.0.

I now turned my attention to the growing challenges facing our retention, and began implementing a new loyalty program which would allow my most loyal customers to prepay at the beginning of the week to guarantee them delivery of two cans of the black magic every day at recess and lunchtime.

We were back on track, and business was booming.

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I needed to start focusing on scaling the business.

During that week, there had been a number of young go-getters who had approached me and were interested in becoming franchisees.

They presented their case, showing me the names of the customer base they believed they could introduce, and simply wanting the supply, a little protection over the school region they could operate in, and a tiny cut for the chance to be part of the operation. I agreed.

Now we were growing rapidly, exponentially

Our team had expanded from one to eight. Our sales had increased by 1000 percent, and whilst I’m sure the Commonwealth Bank weren’t trigger by the $300 spike in my account, I felt like a young Pablo Escabar with no end in sight.

And then it happened….

Every young entrepreneur has felt that pain in their stomach when they encounter their first real competitor, and what I learned this day was that while it’s great to be first to market, without protection you’re just a sitting duck waiting for the big boys to crush you….and boy was this a big boy!

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The Vending Machine.

As word had spread, those in the Year 12 committee whose sausage sizzles weren’t proving as lucrative having been running for six weeks straight, had seen not only the gold mine I had uncovered, but also the critical weakness in my business model.

They had a big VP backer (Vice Principal) and knew just the man to lead their new company — a six feet mountain of solid steel that had brought so many mom-and-pop operations to their knees before and would do so many times after.

This brand new vending machine not only often every variety of soft drink you could ever imagine, it boasted a production line that could afford to undercut me and sell at 90cents a can.

I was done…cooked…capice.

Whilst many of my loyal fanbase begged me to stay in business, it simply wasn’t worth my while — I had been sucker punched by the very customers I once had served.

The next day I removed the coolers from my locker, acknowledged those who helped me build this business to the behemoth it had become, and went back to being your everyday student, with an extra $500 in my sky rocket.

What a ride it had been. I was 12 years into my education, and yet I’d learnt more in this three weeks in the entrepreneurial school of hard knocks than I had at any other point in my life, and I was certain I wanted to become a lifelong student of this philosophy.

I’m still so uncomfortable identifying myself as an entrepreneur, as I feel like an imposter every time I use that label.

But one thing I ‘d quickly learned is that for me it didn’t matter that we had failed or how brutal it had been, because it was now less about the winning and more about finding a way to stay in this exciting new game. I believe this is a critical part of the entrepreneurial mind, and I’ve since come to accept that maybe we just see the world slightly differently in this way.

I’d love to know if this connects with you, and learn more about the moment when you realised that maybe you see the world differently too. To an observer I was just a naughty 17 year-old boy, trying to make 50 cents on selling a couple of cans of coke.

But for me this was the most exhilarating chance to try to build something bigger than myself, that would disrupt and even change the game, and I think that’s what being an entrepreneur is all about.

I’d like the chance to hear your story too.

Heath Evans