After sports drinks disappoint, Farmer School grad creates his own

November 2018

Jay Murdock

After four years of playing ice hockey, Brandon Smith may not have graduated from Miami University with an NHL career in his future, but he did leave Oxford with an idea. After 3 years in the minors, he and his hockey-playing brother at Brown University set out to turn that idea into a business.

It had to do with the sports drinks that they were provided as they competed, which didn’t have the desired effect on the Smith brothers. “Ask any of my old buddies, I was the sweaty guy on the team. I was drinking tons of sports drinks to keep from getting cramps and headaches from being dehydrated. In a couple hours of practice I could easily drink over 100 grams of added sugar on top of all the fake ingredients," he said.

"My brother used to get acid reflux from those same drinks too, so he’d be on the bench popping down heartburn tabs like they were candy just so he could stomach them,” Smith recalled. “We were crazy enough to set off and say, ‘Let’s try to make a healthy sports drink.’”

After starting their company in 2014, Brandon and his brother discovered that perhaps they weren’t offering the right option to thirsty people. “When we got it on the market, we saw that there was a need, but it wasn’t exactly how we thought it was. What consumers really were asking for were clean labels and low sugar,” Smith said.

They also discovered that the target for such a drink wasn’t necessarily football, baseball, or soccer players, he noted. “We learned that our product resonated with activities like yoga and Crossfit, running and spinning, versus a lot of the ball and bat sports that other sports drinks position themselves towards,” Smith explained. “If you go to a yoga studio, Crossfit, any of those places, the first thing people do when they pick up a bottle is turn it around and look at the ingredients.”

He said that three years of revisions and rebranding, of demonstrations and free samples, led them to the current drink called NOOMA, an acronym for “No More Artificials.” “Most of those sports drinks have more than 30 grams of sugar. We have zero added sugar, there’s only five total grams in ours, all from organic coconut water,” Smith said.

Brendan Dugan of Whole Foods first met Smith while working at a family-owned grocery store in Bay Village, Ohio. “He was a hustler and highly motivated to be successful. I remember I would place an order at 3 p.m. on Tuesday and he was here at 7 a.m. Wednesday morning with our order in hand. A lot of vendors would leave the product there, but without hesitation, he would take it to the shelf and stock it.”

“When our store first opened, there was a lot of uncertainty on when to expect the product in the store from our local vendors, but with Brandon, I knew that it would be there within 24 hours and probably sooner if he had the time,” Dugan recalled.

The years of work paid off when NOOMA was picked up by Whole Foods Market nationwide last year, and is now available at Miami's recreation center. But Smith said he doesn’t count that as being successful. “It’s a great start, but when we come in every day, there's always something we can be doing better, some new goal, something we haven't thought of. We're in such a competitive market that's there's no time to stop and smell the roses,” he pointed out.

Smith said the things he learned while at Miami have been a big help along his path to success. “My finance education at the Farmer School translated amazingly well to what I’m doing now. As we’ve been going, more of those finance concepts that I learned were starting to show up as we went a little further along in our business,” he said “I’m responsible for our budget so many of those finance, supply chain and accounting lessons are my life. It was kind of cool that it translated so well.”

Smith said he considered finance associate professor David Shrider to be a valuable instructor and mentor, and Shrider remembers Smith well. “Even as a student, Brandon had everything necessary to be successful. He was smart, extremely hardworking, got along well with everyone, and he never quit,” Shrider said. “With those qualities, I guess I’m not surprised that he has done great things, but Brandon’s continued success has still been fun for me to watch. I have no doubt that he will continue to make Miami and the Farmer School proud.”

Brandon Smith talks with a student in the Armstrong Student Center about NOOMA NOOMA on display in the Armstrong Student Center during a tasting event A student drinks some NOOMA Brandon Smith and Ben Milgrom talk with students in the Armstrong Student Center about NOOMA