If you’ve been to a juice bar or health-food store recently, you’re likely familiar with acai. Whether you know how to pronounce acai is one thing (for the record, it’s ah-sigh-EE), but you may know that this Amazonian superfruit is loaded with macronutrients like protein and fiber, micronutrients that boost brain and cellular functioning, and antioxidants that protect your body from both environmental and biological toxins. And with an estimated 1 million tons of acai consumption by 2026, acai bowls are becoming a mainstay on health-conscious menus across the globe.
As a health-conscious entrepreneur himself, Will Anderson found the perfect opportunity to channel that entrepreneurial spirit in the acai market. He’s the founder and CEO of Acai of America, which supplies those juice bars, grocery stores, and individual consumers with pure acai pulp sourced straight from the Brazilian Amazon. Here’s how he broke into this promising market.
Anderson wanted to be an entrepreneur since he was a kid, but he knew he needed the skills, experience, and acumen necessary to start a business that would survive over the long term.
So he started his entrepreneurial training regimen early. As a college undergrad, he chose to major in accounting, since he knew he would benefit from having a hard business skill under his belt down the line. He then went on to earn a graduate degree in finance. After school, Anderson primarily worked in the financial industry, but he really cut his teeth at Deloitte, the consulting firm behemoth.
“Of all my professional experience in corporate America, my most recent and most valuable experience was as a valuation specialist at Deloitte,” he says. “I learned how to analyze the value of companies and identify their value drivers. It was essentially half of what a stock analyst would do. But the job also helped me understand how different industries are structured. That enabled me to understand the difficulties of getting into and out of companies, and what the landscape might look like when performing or competing within a certain industry.”
Having the right skill set alone isn’t necessarily an indication that a person will be a successful business owner—yes, Anderson felt ready to start his own business because he knew he had the right formal and professional training as his foundation. He also had the deep knowledge of industry structures to understand how to start a business within particular fields. But the other indication was far less measurable.
“I knew I could start my own business because I had the emotional temperament for it,” he says. “I had the ability to work under prolonged stressful situations. That’s something that people in banking and the financial industry are more tempered to. And actually, I’d say New Yorkers in general are better suited to stressful situations!”
The timing was key, too. At Deloitte, Anderson was in a transitional phase in his consulting career. That fork in the road offered Anderson a natural opportunity to evaluate his professional ambitions, and to switch gears if he wanted to.
“At Deloitte I got to the point where I was a senior associate, and I was staring down the barrel of manager. But when you become a manager and make your way up to partner at Deloitte, you’re essentially a salesperson. So I would have the hard skill under me—which is my core competency here at Acai of America—but I’d be primarily selling services. I’d be putting my skills to work trying to develop a business at Deloitte, rather than a business of my own.”
That’s when Anderson decided it was time for him to leave. “I knew that if I wanted to, I could stay at Deloitte for the rest of my life and I’d be okay with it. I wouldn’t be disgruntled about it,” he says. But at that moment, the pieces were seemingly falling into place that would enable Anderson to launch his own venture. Certainly too, he was willing to take on the risk of starting his own business, but the faith he had in his entrepreneurial and managerial abilities helped mitigate the feeling of that risk.
Anderson had made the decision to fulfill his dream of becoming an entrepreneur, though he didn’t yet have the right business idea to launch. But with a combination of research and luck, Anderson backed into the opportunity to start an acai business.
“My line of thinking went this way: I want to be an entrepreneur, I like brick-and-mortar, and I like tangible products. Then I thought, what tangible product has the industry structure whose barriers are favorable to the money that I have available to jump into? So while I was out there looking for industries with low barriers to entry, such as distribution opportunities, a family member put me into contact with people who had a product that I could sell—acai. And not only that, but they needed a bit of my expertise to break into the American market.”
In other words, Anderson didn’t find acai—acai found him. And honestly, Anderson says, it’s not always the case that people become entrepreneurs in order to proliferate a product or service that they’re passionate about. Some people, like Anderson, are passionate about entrepreneurship itself. Their business is the conduit for that passion.
But Anderson soon became passionate about his product after learning more about acai, especially as the tropical berry aligns with the healthy lifestyle he embodies as a New Yorker. And by leading an acai business, Anderson thought, he would be able to make the aspirational elements of that health-conscious, urban lifestyle available to people all over the country.
“I’m a healthy New Yorker who loves to work out,” Anderson says. “Acai fits very well with that lifestyle, and that’s what our brand is about. People in New York are in our 20s and 30s until we’re 45 and beyond. We love the energy of the city, we’re always pushing ourselves, and we have lofty goals.”
To keep up with the city, of course, New Yorkers need to be in good physical and mental health. Loaded with nutrients and antioxidants that enhance brain functioning, and which help the body stave off the harmful effects of pollution, acai is the perfect addition to an urban warrior’s diet.
“So I stumbled upon the opportunity, but now I’m turning it into something that New Yorkers will love,” Anderson says. “Many other acai companies keep it traditional as to how Brazilians see it. And I don’t think that’s the right thing for our brand, or for acai in this country. If acai is going to stay here, it has to be an American thing.”
And thanks to this country’s robust logistical processes for importing foreign goods, and his connection to an acai source, Anderson doesn’t encounter too many snags in delivering his product from Brazil straight to the consumer.
Anderson had an idea of how acai would suit an aspirational lifestyle. But as any entrepreneur who’s crafted a marketing plan understands, establishing a brand identity requires its own, dedicated focus, if not a dedicated professional entirely to take on that task.
“I’m a right-brained finance guy; I’m not artistic at all,” he says. Instead, Anderson funneled his efforts on the side of the coin he knows best: the numbers.
“What I focused on most was the practical aspect of acai. I knew that there was a body of people who eat this product, they tend to be healthier, they tend to be 65% women and 35% men, they tend to be between the ages of 18 and 27, and they tend to have a certain lifestyle. And so I focused on carving out that segment of New York and targeting it. I knew I was going to find that segment in certain neighborhoods, companies, and food-service establishments. That’s where I was first and foremost, before I even thought about optimizing the business’s brand.”
The lesson here? Small business marketing is crucial for building your business, but if it’s not within your wheelhouse, you can hold off on launching a comprehensive branding campaign until you have the right staff in place to delegate to. In fact, as the business owner, you reserve the right to delegate any tasks you don’t feel completely comfortable with, especially at the very beginning of your venture when you’re laying the foundations of a lasting enterprise.
What you do need to prioritize, however, is your market research. Without understanding how, where, and to whom to sell your product—and whether you have a market for your product at all—then your business will flounder.
Still, you don’t necessarily need to conduct a thorough market research initiative, as there is an element of common sense involved in this process. For their part, Anderson admits that it took a little bit of trial and error to initially understand who their market was, and to which outlets they should sell their acai.
“When we started, we had a foggy idea of who our customers would be, which was later proven. We knew the lowest-hanging fruit for acai was the juice bars. And as we continued to go into the juice bars, we continued to encounter the same crowd. Then, we did samplings in grocery stores, where we sell now. When you do that, people approach you, they ask you questions, and you see who takes to it more than others, who’s speaking your language. So you make these soft observations, and from there you definitively say, this is my crowd.”
Once you’ve nailed down your target demographics, you can tailor your initial marketing tactics to reach your target audience. As your business grows and you gain a better understanding of what resonates with your customers, you can establish a more sophisticated marketing plan.
Although his education and professional experience instilled in Anderson the proper skills to run his own business, he still encounters challenges in the field. In particular, as a sales organization, Acai of America’s success hinges on its salespeople performing optimally. Anderson has needed to focus much of his managerial efforts on ensuring that all of his salespeople are aligned on the business’s overall goals.
“The most delicate aspect of the business is motivating your team to move at the beat of your drum. That’s partially because of the type of industry we’re in. When you look at the financials of a CPG [consumer packaged goods] industry such as Acai of America, all you find is cost of goods sold, sales, and general administrative expenses. So really, your business is all about being able to finance the product, and being able to motivate the sales team to sell when, where, how you like. I spend much of my time ensuring that the sales team is moving in the direction they’re supposed to be moving.”
Anderson has also found it challenging to scale his team as demand for his product grows. To better understand how to navigate this challenge, Anderson turned toward “Good to Great” by Jim Collins. In the book (the “prequel” to Collins’ bestselling “Built to Last”), the author investigates how once ordinary or underperforming companies transitioned into becoming industry leaders.
Spoiler alert: The CEOs of these good-to-great companies understood the importance of hiring the best possible people for open roles. In fact, the quality of the team can be more crucial to the business’s success than the leader’s original game plan. Specifically, Anderson cites Collins’ bus analogy as being especially useful advice when he’s considering candidates for Acai of America. Here’s an excerpt:
“The executives who ignited the transformations from good to great did not first figure out where to drive the bus and then get people to take it there. No, they first got the right people on the bus (and the wrong people off the bus) and then figured out where to drive it. They said, in essence, ‘Look, I don’t really know where we should take this bus. But I know this much: If we get the right people on the bus, the right people in the right seats, and the wrong people off the bus, then we’ll figure out how to take it some place great.’”
Anderson runs Acai of America with that advice in mind—that once you’ve hired the right people for the right seats, you can trust that the bus is going to go where it needs to go.
On top of that, Anderson says, “I have a management style where I let people run the show. And I believe that if you pick the right person, you can trust them enough that you don’t need to micromanage them. So you don’t have to concern yourself as much with, ‘Is this a person I want to go to lunch with?’ That doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re contributing to the organization.”
That said, Anderson also understands that it’s important to maintain culture as the business grows. And culture isn’t a “set it and forget it” thing.
“Sometimes I feel like culture can get away from you. If you don’t instill these things into your team, and almost make culture law, then people come up with their own ways of handling problems that may not jibe with yours. I don’t think culture happens automatically. I think culture is something you have to continually talk about.”
However, hiring is another process that Anderson hopes to delegate in the near future. That way, he can contribute his time and energy toward the areas of the business that he’s uniquely qualified to handle.
To fund Acai of America, Anderson followed what he calls the “traditional ladder of financing”: He started by using his own funds, then he approached friends and family, and now he’s in the process of looking for angel investors.
But as is the case with many small business owners, during his search for equity financing Anderson still found himself in need of immediate funds. He began researching online lenders, but most of the options he discovered were limited to merchant capital advances. Anderson knew he didn’t want to take on this kind of financing, as MCAs are notoriously expensive, and their high, frequent payments can end up trapping borrowers into cycles of debt.
Then Anderson found Fundera. “Fundera had lines of credit, term loans, other financing methods—they were able to provide a variety that other companies didn’t,” Anderson says. So he filled out Fundera’s application one Sunday evening. Early the next day, Anderson got a call from Ben Fusaro, a senior loan specialist at Fundera.
Anderson appreciated that Fundera presented more loan options than other lending companies did, with a roster that included traditional business loans, not just merchant capital. But for Anderson, what also set Fundera apart from other online lenders he researched was the transparent and personalized experience he had with his loan specialist.
“There was a special quality to Ben,” Anderson says. “He would just not allow the situation to dissolve without finding us a satisfactory loan option. He had to find it. That persistence and resourcefulness is what stood out about Fundera. He’s a great guy, and I didn’t work with anyone else but him throughout the whole process. But I’m also impressed by the way Fundera maintains relationships. Fundera is a very open company, and I understood that from the outset. That creates an edge that other companies just don’t have.”
After working with Fusaro to find and compare his loan options, Anderson secured a loan he can dip into while he continues to seek angel investors for an even bigger cash infusion. With that financial security in hand, Anderson’s main focus is on growing Acai of America in an effort to introduce this miracle fruit to as many Americans as possible.
“Our ultimate goal is to make acai ubiquitous throughout the United States. Because acai is a wonderful food. It has Omega 3, 6 and 9 fatty acids. It has anthocyanins, an antioxidant that helps your blood flow and your brain function. It has 19 of the 20 amino acids, it has dietary fibers that help you feel satiated after you eat it. There’s a reason why it’s a staple food for the natives in the Amazon of Brazil, and we need more clean, organic foods like this in the U.S.”
It’ll take dedication, determination, and strong leadership skills to make that dream a reality. But as a business owner, and a New Yorker, Anderson is no stranger to making (and achieving) such ambitious goals.