In the latest edition of Park Street University’s Startup Spotlight, Mike Zig of Coconut Cartel sits down to talk about reinvigorating the rum category and how leveraging the authenticity of your brand can take you a long way. 

Tell us about Coconut Cartel. 

Mike Zig: Coconut Cartel is a brand I co-founded with my sister Dani. We started importing fresh coconuts for drinking from El Salvador in 2012, it’s where we cut our teeth in the on-premise. By becoming an Instagram beverage sensation, we created demand for the coconuts in places we could not fulfill due to perishability, and therefore couldn’t scale beyond the Miami market. After years of working with various rum brands to create delicious cocktails in our coconuts at hundreds of accounts, we saw an opportunity to leverage our brand, access to fresh coconuts, and some of the world’s best rum to create a Super Premium Aged Rum cut to proof with fresh coconut water… a first of its kind! We bottle and blend in Guatemala, and import via the Port of Miami. 

What sets Coconut Cartel apart in the marketplace?

MZ: The rum category has been stagnant for so long with stories of pirates, plantations, and legacy brands. As a result, the rum aisle has lost a bit of the spotlight. We identified an opportunity to reinvigorate the rum aisle by creating a unique, premium quality offering with a brand story that is exciting, authentic, and relevant to today’s consumers. Staying true to our identity, we based the brand aesthetic on our hometown of Miami, with an ode to our family’s past in Guatemala via the juice inside the bottle. 

Coconut Cartel is Miami in a bottle, it represents a smuggler’s paradise and capital of Latin America. Our label design was inspired by the ’70s ’80s golden era, where celebrities and smugglers alike both mingled at spots like the Mutiny Hotel in Coconut Grove. We made our bottle feel like a premium Japanese Whiskey to give it a luxury edge. Using Coconut Water as the proofing agent also sparks curiosity, and differentiates our product from the pack. 

Does your business have any causes it supports? 

MZ: We were proud to support our local USBG, by donating all our online profits in May 2020 to the USBG Bartender Relief Fund.

What’s the one lesson you learned during the pandemic that will stick with you? 

MZ: When the Pandemic hit we were devastated. 99% of our clients were shut down indefinitely. But as entrepreneurs do, we pivoted into the unknown and doubled down. By following our instincts a year before the pandemic we decided to partner with a company that could help us sell online and “Direct to Consumer.” The industry at the time was not looking in the DTC direction, but we knew that it would eventually be an important channel in our business, as it is in Non-Alc businesses already. By leveraging this capability as a means to an end to keep the business going during a difficult time, we grew our brand reach, multiplied our sales, and learned more about our customer demographic than ever before! 

What is your best business finance tip for other brand owners?

MZ: I’m more on the creative side of the Cartel, so my advice would be to have a Babson-educated finance whiz partner like my sister Dani.

What is your best advice for a mutually beneficial relationship with your distributors? 

MZ: Look to partner with distributors that gain value from having you in their portfolio. Consider whether you fill a gap in their portfolio with your product and brand and what your goals are for that particular market.

What has been your most successful strategy for pitching a new retail partner? 

MZ: Explaining our one-of-a-kind proofing process and liquid to lips, coupled together, is by far our most successful strategy for pitching a new retail partner. When someone hears the words “coconut” and “rum” in the same sentence, they automatically have a certain perception of the product based on what’s already available in the mass market. When they taste our proprietary blend of fresh coconut water and Guatemalan añejo rum, their perception of what a coconut rum could be is completely changed. Our most successful strategy is making the retailer realize that they have nothing like our rum on their shelf and that we are truly one-of-a-kind!

What are the resources you can’t run your business without?

MZ: People. My Co-founder and sister Dani, our Marketing Director Lenaand our National Accounts manager Joey. They have kept Cartel running smoothly and on an upwards trajectory through thick and thin. Like I mentioned before I get to do the fun stuff like branding, product development and innovation. Dani and Lena make the business grow.

Do you have a go-to book on business or leadership you recommend? 

MZ: ‘The Fish That Ate the Whale’ is my bible. It’s the story of Sam Zemurray, an important figure in the fruit business we know today. He is my idol disruptor. 

If you were starting a new venture today, what’s the first thing you would do?

MZ: I want to find something authentic that I love just like when I found the coconuts that started Coconut Cartel. As soon as I figure out what to do with said find, I am having the best legal team write up all the docs to make my new venture bulletproof from the beginning.