The counters and shelves of 7-Elevens in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake were already filled with bottled and canned promises of nearly boundless energy – usually in five-hour increments – before little packets of Strike Force Energy began showing up .
But if anyone can disrupt the hyper-competitive $13 billion energy-drink market dominated by Red Bull and Monster, retired Navy SEAL Sean Matson and his business partners are confident their startup can.
Selling online since January 2016, the company recently launched a physical trial run – with 14 locations in Hampton Roads carrying its brand of liquid energy. The small packages, little larger than a stick of lip balm, can be emptied into any beverage without stirring.
The size has been key to setting Strike Force apart and appealing to its primary customer: active-duty military.
Matson should know. He served from 2005 to 2015 and co-founded another company with fellow SEAL Zach Steinbock: Matbock, which aims to sell lighter and more efficient combat gear . Matson was well aware troops had long relied on caffeine, namely from cans of Rip It energy drinks. But the cans can be bulky and don’t necessarily keep a person hydrated, especially in parched war zones, he noted.
Plus, “try to ship a 12 pack of Red Bull to Afghanistan,” Strike Force Energy founder and CEO Bruce Schlee said, referring to the cost.
A box of 40 Strike Force packets, carrying 8 ounces total, would cost $39.99 and only $3.99 to ship, whether the destination was within the United States or an overseas military base, he said.
Packets are also sold in the Coast Guard Commissary and the company is in talks with the Army Exchange. In lieu of a Defense Department contract to supply an energy fix to troops, the company has been banking on soldiers, sailors, Marines and SEALs buying their own, offering subscriptions and active-duty military discounts.
The company has been selling about 200,000 packets a month, Matson said, a steep climb from where it started eight years ago in Palmetto, Fla., selling flavored water.
Schlee’s uncle, a chemical engineer, was renting a building to a struggling water company when he pitched the idea of flavors. There was a hitch: Shipping water, flavored or not, was pricey. That’s when Schlee, a robotics entrepreneur helping his uncle, thought the flavored juice could instead be put in a separate packet and marketed to the military. Double Tap was born, but short-lived. The Double Cola Company sued to put a stop to it, so Schlee said he shelved it for three years.
It wasn’t until Schlee’s robotics company was working on a project for a new customer, Matson’s Matbock, that the idea returned. He said Matson walked into his office for their first meeting with an energy drink in hand when, on a lark, Schlee asked if he wanted to try one of the packets with “pretty much the same formulations as it is now.”
Matson liked it and thought he could sell it to troops he knew.
Not long after, Schlee got a call: “Hey, I think I just sold $10,000 of this stuff, how quickly could I get it?”
That was November 2015. Schlee hustled to form a limited liability company, ordered equipment and cleared out space in his robotics warehouse to start making the packets in mass quantities.
“It’s a classic built-in-the-garage, trial-and-error story,” he said.
Now, Schlee is CEO and Matson is president, as the company’s product is poised to be carried in a couple thousand 7-Elevens across Florida by the first of the year. The company also has had talks with Quick Trip and Stop-n-Go, and has high hopes for a nationwide 7-Eleven rollout. 7-Eleven declined to comment for this story.
Matson said the company is expecting sales of at least $1.8 million this year. If its product was carried in each of 7-Eleven’s nearly 11,000 stores, he estimated annual sales of more than $40 million – if the company sold at least 10 packets a day per store.
But that’s if it can gain attention in a flooded marketplace. A May 2017 report from the Mintel Group said 18 percent of the 2,000 people the research firm surveyed were “overwhelmed” by the number of drinks promoting energy.
Energy drinks can also come with a stigma because of the health effects of drinking too many. Schlee likened his to a medium cup of coffee with a hit of B vitamins without much of the unpronounceable ingredients in other energy drinks. So what does it have? Niacin (vitamin B3), vitamins B6 and B12, potassium citrate, sucralose, taurine, sodium benzoate, malic acid and citric acid.
Strike Force’s sugar-free, zero-calorie packets in original, grape, orange and lemon flavors retail for $1.19 each and have less than a quarter-ounce of clear liquid and 160 milligrams of caffeine that can be added to any beverage . A tall cup of Starbucks’ Pike Place Roast can contain 235 milligrams in 12 ounces, 5 Hour Energy has 200 milligrams in 2 ounces, and Red Bull has 80 milligrams in 8 ounces, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group.
On a recent morning, Matson drove a loop of 7-Elevens in Virginia Beach in his Strike Force pickup featuring the company’s slogan #kickthecan on the side, checking supplies on the counters .
At one stop, the driver of a red Mustang pulled up and yelled, “Were you on Shark Tank?”
Matson wasn’t – another energy shot maker had been – but the driver still seemed interested in the energy mixer, noting the 7-Eleven was part of his morning routine.
Strike Force was on “Fox & Friends” though, an appearance Matson credited with giving the company an immediate 20 percent sales in 2016 . The company has kept more than half of the new customers , and has been spreading the word of its products via sponsorships of indoor skydiving athletes, an MMA fighter and a few bikini fitness models.
Seizing on the popular the president’s campaign slogan, it plans to market one of its most popular flavors with the advertisement: “Make America Grape Again.”
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