Feel-Good Drinks: No Alcohol Required

The Origin Story of Beverage Startup Leilo

Man wearing Leilo shirt standing next to Leilo cans.

There are lots of energy drinks out there, many of which apparently make you want to drop whatever you’re doing and launch yourself off of a cliff or out of an airplane with rock music playing in the background. But what if you just want a natural way to relax? 

That’s the promise of Leilo, the polar opposite of an energy drink. This self-described “calm in a can,” which contains kava, B-vitamins, and l-theanine (an amino acid found primarily in tea and some mushrooms), claims to relax you without alcohol or pharmaceuticals. The drink was inspired from a trip that founder and CEO Sol Broady took to Fiji, where locals have been cultivating and enjoying kava for generations. Sol set out to commercialize a kava-based drink that would “counterbalance the caffeinated, ‘work hard, play hard’ culture of our time.” This is Leilo’s origin story.

Multiple Benefits

Broady never set out to start a beverage company per se. But entrepreneurship runs in the family, so he was always looking for business opportunities. One presented itself when he traveled to Fiji in 2017. There, he befriended someone who told him about kava — a root that’s endemic to the South Pacific and incorporated into many native Fijian ceremonies.

“The traditional consumption method is to grind it up and put it in a tea bag like a strainer and add lukewarm water in a big bowl, and then muscle out the fibers from the kava into the water for like 30 to 45 minutes,” Broady says. “And then you sit in a circle, and you say a little prayer and drink out of coconut shells on the beach. It’s an incredibly relaxing, supercool, culturally-immersive experience.” 

Broady says that kava can work as a pain reliever, muscle relaxant, antidepressant, anti-insomnia drug, and cognitive booster. “However, the last quality – boosting mental cognition and enhancing your mental functionality – completely separates it because you're not slurring your words,” he says. “You're not acting out of character. You're not becoming more aggressive. You're very much within yourself. You feel very grounded, but your body is increasingly relaxed, and you're feeling increasingly euphoric.”

After he personally experienced the beneficial qualities of kava, the wheels started to turn. “It was at that moment that I said to myself, ‘I don't know what this is. I don't know why it's not bigger. I don't know what the obstacles are, but this is really powerful stuff.’” He thought it could make a huge difference in the lives of stressed-out people in America and elsewhere, especially due to work-life balance issues brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. From that realization, Leilo was born.

Testing and Feedback

It’s one thing to have a business idea, but as any entrepreneur knows, bringing an idea to fruition is an entirely different matter. 

“The problem that I immediately ran into when I was trying to sample this with friends and family is that I'm not Fijian,” he says. “We weren't on a beach. It was taking me way too long to grind the stuff out. It tasted terrible, so people wouldn't drink it. They were all turning their noses, and then they weren't feeling the effects because they weren't drinking enough because it tasted bad. So it was just a massive rejection across the board from all of my [friends and] everyone that I cared about in America.”

Broady says he immediately started researching a solution by “making random concoctions in my kitchen.” He started with smoothies and eventually found a way to mask the so-so taste of plain kava. He negotiated wholesale pricing with his supplier and tried out his newly reformulated drink at college fraternity parties, concerts, and wherever else people congregated, getting as much feedback as he could. Two years later, at the end of his freshman year at Columbia University, Leilo 2.0 was perfected. 

Of course, COVID hit shortly thereafter. But instead of viewing it as another setback, Broady saw the pandemic as an opportunity. “This was the perfect time to show them a product that can reduce alcohol consumption while they're in quarantine,” he says. “It can relax them and get their mind off something. It can remind them of the good times of the vacation or the leisure that they're missing out on right now. So, we leaned really heavily into that identity.”

Broady now believes he has a uniquely beneficial drink.  The I-theanine and B vitamins in Leilo combine to make you relax while still keeping you energized and functioning. Leilo produces no hangover and contains very few calories and little sugar. It’s all-natural ingredients are vegan, kosher, halal, non-GMO, gluten-free, and non-addictive. “This is a new-age product for a new-age consumer,” he says.

‘The Red Bull of Relaxation’

Broady stresses that Leilo will never become just another company that sells drinks. “I'm not the right CEO to run a beverage company. I'm the right CEO, I hope, to run a relaxation brand that's going to be a global presence. But, I'm not interested in the cookie-cutter way of doing things, and our investors aren't either.”

For example, Leilo won’t adopt a typical scattershot approach and try to get into every possible retail outlet. “We're not going to get into a retailer unless we think that retailer is going to be really, really successful with our product. We're going to play in this space where we have a defined niche, where there's a value proposition built-in.” 

In other words, he wants to target establishments that cater to customers who are already thinking about kava and similar products. “It's an easy sell. We have to invest less marketing dollars, the retailer gets off to a fast start, and we can show our investors a real path to scale with this type of model.” That could mean sports, hospitality, music, travel, food, and a variety of other markets. 

No matter where it’s sold, "We want to be the Red Bull of relaxation," Broady says. “We want to have a similar impact for our consumers and for the world.”

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