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Kyle From 'Summer House' Shares How He Grew His $38 Million Hard

Sep 21, 2023Sep 21, 2023

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Kyle Cooke, 39-year-old Loverboy founder and star of Bravo's 'Summer House.' It has been edited for length and clarity.

I always had the entrepreneurial itch, whether it was putting on magic shows and lemonade stands to earn some money as a kid or selling Cutco cutlery when I was 18. Even if I wasn't passionate about the product itself, I could sell it.

After I went to business school, I tried to get several startups off the ground, and none of them worked. The problem was that I was stuck thinking I had to be in tech, constantly chasing projects that I thought were trendy — like a beauty app or a restaurant reservation app — instead of what got me excited.

It wasn't until 2017, after my first season on 'Summer House,' that I got the idea for Loverboy. An alcohol brand would have the winning factors my past startups were missing: Namely, it was a product I was passionate and knowledgeable about, and it was easy to integrate into our reality show.

Now, we've generated about $38 million in total sales and work with over 150 distributors across 44 states — but I definitely faced my fair share of obstacles along the way.

Trying to get those first few startups off the ground was a rude awakening. I realized it's very difficult to raise venture capital if you don't have a technical co-founder. If I was going to be a solo founder, I needed to be able to get off the ground myself.

When we filmed the first season of 'Summer House' in 2017, I was working on a nutrition coaching app. I'd been trying to figure out a way to incorporate it into the show, but it was almost impossible to include it organically — plus, it didn't really go hand in hand with a show about partying in the Hamptons.

But I'd started to notice that Bravo's audience was paying attention to what the cast was drinking. We'd generated incredible exposure for brands like Whispering Angel and Twisted Tea because we were drinking them every episode. I figured, what if I create the first better-for-you hard tea? Tea adds flavor without adding calories, and less sugar equals less of a hangover.

It took a year between 2018 and 2019 for me to figure out all the complexities and logistics of launching an alcohol brand. You have to get your federal brewer's permit and a state brewer's permit and pay federal and state taxes. Then, it becomes a patchwork of distributor negotiations — you have to sell to a wholesaler, who sells to a retailer, who sells to the consumer. You can't circumvent those three tiers unless you sell a wine or wine-based product. (Loverboy hard teas technically fall into the beer category, even though they don't contain malt.)

What it really took to break out in the industry was a cheat code — and it ended up being 'Summer House.' Marketing can get incredibly expensive. When I agreed to do the show, I definitely saw an opportunity for brand exposure. I realized I didn't need a massive advertising and marketing budget if I already had consumer awareness.

And Summer House is pretty much the perfect show for alcohol product placement. Yes, our audience sees us drinking it at a house party, but they can also watch our behind-the-scenes plans for the company's growth. When my wife Amanda and friend Carl, both costars, joined the company, it helped amplify Loverboy's integration into the show even more.

When the pandemic hit, you couldn't do any of the traditional brand-building act activities that big alcohol companies do: going into the bar, passing around samples, doing tastings at Whole Foods. When you're stripped of all the traditional moves in the playbook, it's a true test of a brand's loyalty and engagement.

Shortly after soft launching in New York in the fall of 2019, we rolled out a wine-based spritz product with zero added sugar. We launched this direct-to-consumer spritz in April of 2020, which ended up being the first month of lockdown. We immediately sold out, and that's when we realized that we were onto something special.

One of the major challenges of running an alcohol brand is that you're separated a few degrees from the consumer because of that three-tier system. We were able to sell to our fans directly because we'd built a strong relationship with our consumer base through 'Summer House.'

Chase something you're passionate about. I've heard a lot of VCs say, "You have to be all in — if you're still working a day job, you're not fully committed." Well, sure, they want you all in because they're investing in your company.

Instead, I'd always encourage budding entrepreneurs to burn the midnight oil and put in the work while still holding down a job to pay your bills. Don't quit if you need a salary because it might be a few years before you can pay yourself anything from your business. I went two years without paying myself a dime, and I self-funded Loverboy for the first year.

Success as a CEO is to be able to take a vacation and the company doesn't grind to a halt. Currently, we have 21 employees, but I was stretched too thin last year on top of filming three TV shows. We're hoping to grow our headcount to about 30 people by the end of the year, and we plan to quadruple our sales in 2023.

You don't need a TV show to reach a base of potential consumers. Small brands are using TikTok and Instagram to get their message out there. I think that the creator economy has been the only thing capable of coming into alcohol and posing a threat to all of the legacy brands.

You can compete with the big guys who are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on Super Bowl ads and product launches to generate buzz. You don't have to do any of that to grow a huge following and get your idea off the ground.

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