How one man took coconut water to the masses

Vita Coco CEO Michael Kirban.
Michael Kirban/Moris Moreno

Michael Kirban is the CEO and one of the founders of Vita-Coco, the best-selling coconut water in the United States. Not only is Kirban ahead of the curve on beverage trends, he has also negotiated celebrity partnerships with everyone from Rihanna to Madonna to Denver Broncos star Eric Decker. Along the way, he’s made coconut water a recognizable product in American households -- selling hundreds of millions of dollars worth of the stuff. We spoke to Kirban about how he grew his company and his management secrets.

MoneyWatch: What is the biggest challenge you’ve overcome on your path to success?

Michael Kirban: I think it would be doubt -- others doubting me or my ideas. I’m definitely an “I’m going to prove you wrong,” kind of guy and Vita Coco’s success is the greatest example of that.  So many people doubted coconut water would become as popular as it is, and I’m proud we helped change that perception.

MW: How have you retained great talent while growing your company exponentially?

MK: The employees of the company are all shareholders. I think it’s important that they have a stake in what we’re all building; a global consumer products brand. I’m proud that many of Vita Coco’s employees -- we started the company in 2004 -- have been with the brand five years or more.

MW: What do you look for when you're hiring new people?

MK: Vita Coco’s culture is a strong one, based on a no-task-too-small attitude and living the brand outside the office. It’s a happy, dedicated and intense culture, and that’s what we look for in any hire. When you go to a family picnic, you bring it -- not because you need to but it becomes part of your life. Not everyone we hire is an extrovert, but the environment around the office and in the field is such a social, energetic one, and I think it changes people.

MW: What is the one question you always ask in a job interview?

MK: I always want to know what people didn’t like about their previous job because it gives good insight into them as an individual. It shows how they might do well or struggle with a certain role here. I would also never hire someone who didn’t like the brand. It’s okay if they’ve never tried it. But you have to believe in it.

MW: What advice would you give to a college student who wants your job?

MK: As a college drop out, I feel funny giving any college student advice, but I can offer this: A university education won’t make or break an entrepreneur with great ideas and the passion to realize them. Corporate America places a great emphasis on education and credentials, but for high-growth businesses, it’s more about the big idea and passion versus the list of degrees.

MW: If you weren't doing what you are doing now, what would you be doing?

MK: I’m an entrepreneur at heart, so I’d be building some other company or brand, but some days I fantasize about having a small café in Rome and working the espresso machine for guests. That said, I’d be bored as hell in a week.

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