Updated: Feb 22, 2022
About 85% of consumers in the US use energy drinks to boost their energy. Lia Lee was one of those consumers. She found herself drowning in Red Bulls and using conventional methods to recover the next day. But she found herself never fully recovering no matter what product she consumed. Lia wanted a drink without toxic ingredients that didn't cause hydration and where the energy lasted more than an hour.
While in between jobs and waiting for clearance for a potential position, she felt compelled to solve this energy drink problem. She said, "I wonder if I could build a million-dollar company out of $250. I'm going to do $250, and I'm just going to try to create some prototype in one weekend. So that did not happen. But within the next few weeks, I leaned on my chemistry background, and I created the first working formula."
Lia Lee is the founder of UNLIT. A plant-based adaptogen recovery drink packed with nootropics and essential nutrients like electrolytes and B vitamins. UNLIT's tagline is about soul recovery. They coin themselves as self-care in beverage form. Through personal and shared experiences, she learned that when you've had a long night studying or even partying, the body suffers and creates dehydration. People were spending way too much time recovering. UNLIT shortens that amount of time while also helping people to feel better.
But before going to market, she tested the formula at a food accelerator. The food accelerator wanted 10% of her business, among other strict guidelines, and helped validate her idea. Lia didn't feel comfortable with the contract. She cold emailed VCs and VC attorneys through Twitter. One Black VC attorney responded, reviewed the contract, and told her why she shouldn't sign it.
That exact VC attorney became a board advisor. That relationship was what helped to accelerate the success of UNLIT. Lia said, "I started with a dream. Through more cold DMS, I pretty much had to figure out the process. I knew nothing about food. I knew nothing about the food industry, and it was constantly speaking up and constantly asking and then getting resources and then exploring. That's how I found my food scientist."
Lia's food scientist also assisted her with packaging her bottles using FDA guidelines and packaging them for mass consumption. Through relationship building and cold emails, she then found a distribution consultant. This helped her learn how the grocery industry operated, how to open up store accounts and how buyers think about shopping. She then met her graphic and design team, which operates in Colombia. It was one relationship introduction after the next.
What are you most proud of when it comes to UNLIT?
Lia is proud that she took her business as far as it's gone, all by bootstrapping. Everything started from zero. Lia didn't have a community or a social media following and funding, only her personal funds. Despite those limited resources, UNLIT is becoming the go-to natural recovery drink for millennials and beyond. Although, she mostly loves connecting with her community and building personal relationships.
What fears did you have along the journey?
UNLIT worried about fulfilling orders. Lia had a constant fear of running out of her runway. She said, "I know they say to have a runway and be aware of your burn rate and stuff, but those types of bits of advice and that type of thinking it is good.
It's a good North star to guide too, but I feel like the reality for underrepresented founders is that you have to go with everything you have, no matter what. And when you have such a limited budget, you have to be so strategic and so exact on what you believe the ROI to be."
Many Black and Brown founders worry about not having enough revenue to maintain a business.
What's the biggest risk you've taken so far?
Lia's biggest risk was staying true to who she was from the day she started. She firmly believed in UNLIT as a hangover recovery drink with nutritional benefits. Lia recalled feeling tremendous pressure to pivot to a functional beverage that met everyone's needs and to change the name. She said, "So my risk is being a bit stubborn about advice and saying, thank you very much. I respect your opinion, but we're going to stay true to who we are."
Tell us about any major setbacks that you had and how you recovered.
In the food industry, a product has to undergo a scheduled process. This wasn't something that Lia was aware of. This process helps ensure that the product is adequate for use under manufacturing conditions and does not grow microorganisms that might harm the public. Scheduled Processes in Lia's area cost between $250-500. She didn't have the funds and couldn't move forward without this.
Thankfully, she used the knowledge and affordable rate of the food scientist to assist her in preparing the beverage to meet those conditions so that she could receive the Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP). The HACCP is an international seal of approval that says this food product is safe for the public.
For UNLIT to be certified as an organic product, it needs the certified organic or certified non-GMO label costs between $1500-3000, which requires a ton of documentation and paperwork to prove that the product is legitimate.
Lia suggests these rules and regulations change to support underrepresented founders by creating tiered food certifications. These founders are automatically excluded from certain stores (and revenue potential) regardless of their breakthrough products and ideas.
Describe what it was like preparing for the pitch competition.
Lia received an email about the Pull Up & Pitch Competition. Despite having pitched before, this was her first live pitch competition. She was nervous and impressed by the other contestants. Lia battled with second-guessing herself while also encouraging herself to keep going. Although, what she practiced wasn't what she delivered.
After being rejected for PPPs and other loans, she couldn't pay her graphic designers or UNLIT's labels. Luckily, the company Lia owed gifted them 5,000 labels, and their graphic designers worked without getting paid for four months. She used the funds to pay her outstanding debts.
She said, "I cleared up my invoices, and I felt so proud to pay my vendors and people who invested in UNLIT's success." Lia then used the funds for marketing and raw materials. She continued to say, "We really needed those funds. And I wish that we got like the PPP, but we didn't. So it couldn't have come at a perfect time because, without the grant, I wouldn't have been able to settle those invoices honestly."
Lia's advice to those pitching is, "The biggest thing that stood out to me at the Pull Up & Pitch event was some women who just exuded confidence. So, I would say number one, be confident and be aware of your business and the value you offer because that makes your confidence go further.
The audience immediately interprets that and understands why that offering is valuable. Even within my pitch, I had those elements that I truly believed in the value I had to offer and what I was bringing. And that's really where it resonates in pitch competitions.
If you're not clear on the value and why someone should listen—I would definitely get really clear because it goes kind of beyond pitch competitions, content, and social media. Even on your website, you have to communicate what makes you different, your product different, or your service different—and what value you're offering that no one else can offer to that audience."
Support isn't always given to Black and Brown women in business; when has this shown and hurt or disappointed you the most?
Lisa says, "I will say that there is a paradox going on. For instance, we started from nothing on social media. At the same time, some collaborations and partnerships that you seek to increase your presence and match that target demographic and market don't want to work with you because your presence isn't that high. It's so funny because you get the advice to be authentic, and this is how, you know, you gain followers, and there's so much emphasis on gaining those followers. And then the more you do have, then suddenly more opportunities do start to open up, but the ROI is not there.
Some people, services, and some business models, you can thrive off of social media, but the ROI really isn't there. And there's so much time, effort, energy, and money put into content creation, followers, and engagement, and those types of things don't necessarily transfer over into sales. And you can't stop doing it because once you stop doing it, you become a stale brand. And so, I guess what disappoints me the most is just how heavily this aspect of business and running the businesses is weighted. You get so much pressure to do it, but there really is so little return, but if you don't do it, then your business won't survive."
How do you measure success?
Lia first measures success by recurring revenue and creating positive relationships with their partnerships. However, what she loves the most is receiving messages from her consumers who are impressed with how they feel after drinking the drink and how it positively impacted their health.
She said, "I know a lot of people say there's money in the game, but I place more value on the fact that I made something that truly makes a difference in other people's lives. I may not have focused on how many units I can move and how many millions of dollars it's going to do. But at least I know that the people that I did touch—it made a difference.
What do you think is an important skill or asset you need to succeed in business?
Lia says it's essential for people to stay curious. She believes curiosity leads to humbleness because you have to accept that you don't know everything. However, by remaining curious, you'll be open to finding the answers you need.
Whenever a question comes up for Lia about her business, she will search for the answers nonstop until there's an answer. She believes most people won't commit much time and effort to a business. Lia encourages people to do more outreach, send messages and ask questions but be mindful about a person's time. She said, "Some people are asking questions, but they really don't take into account what that person had to go through to be able to give the answers."
In addition, she believes entrepreneurs need to learn how to make decisions fast. This is something she took away from The Lean Startup. Stick to your decision and weigh the pros and cons, then watch and track that decision based on reactions and results of that decision. Lastly, be open to pivoting quickly if you need to.
What's the most exciting part of your business?
Lia loves the people; she loves doing events and pop-ups that give her a chance to meet those in the community. She loves seeing people's eyes light up when they see the drink and are curious about what it does. Lia thrives off the energy exchanges, the messages in her DMs, and social media—it helps her keep going.
What do you think the future holds for Black and Brown women founders?
Lia said, "2020 was a huge booster. Many people asked how was it, starting a business in a pandemic? I said it couldn't have been better. People were listening. People were purposeful. People had a lot of intent.
And if we started without a pandemic and things were the way they were, I wouldn't have gotten the attention from brands and partnerships and store accounts that I got. They would be like, okay. Yeah. Who cares? You know, so I have nothing but positive things to say about the pandemic, despite, you know, some of the negative things.
For Black and Brown entrepreneurs, I would say that the time is now before the world kind of goes back to what they're doing. I think it's optimistic to think that things have changed permanently. Maybe in some folks' minds, it really has, but we're all creatures of habit at the end of the day. So I would say, now's the time.
Don't dim your light. Don't dim your voice. Go after your idea."
If you and I were meeting three years from now, looking back, what would it take for you to feel over the moon about your progress?
Lia would like to take UNLIT nationally. She hopes to see their products shipped to national drugstore chains from nationwide distribution centers.
Being a business owner is a tough job. How do you take care of your mental health?
Lia will watch something every day on Bravo. It helps to clear her mind and transports her to another world. Periodically she'll go for walks or hikes to bring more movement to her body and enjoy nature. Lia enjoys eating great food at local restaurants. Lastly, she'll have quiet moments by herself with a book or without.
What is your favorite quote or mantra?
You don't know what you don't know. Practice makes perfect. Actions speak louder than words.
What book and podcast would you recommend?
Arlan Hamilton's, It's About Damn Time and First Pitch by Debi Kleinman.
What's your favorite business hack or app that you can't live without?
Any SAASs or vendors that are mobile accessible. If she can't ship, do inventory, edit her website on her phone, she selects another service. She enjoys any applications that allow her to manage operations, marketing, fulfillment, and supply chain from her mobile phone.
Name one food item you have a hard time saying no to.
What's next for UNLIT?
UNLIT is working on new product lines. One specific product is turning UNLIT into gummies. They are also working on merchandise.