In 10 cities around the world – from San Francisco to Sydney, Berlin to Buenos Aires – hand-picked teams of entrepreneurs are building new startups with the support of Coke’s marketing muscle, distribution network and other assets. 

“We’re trying to create a win-win,” David Butler, Coke’s global VP of innovation and entrepreneurship, says about the new Coca-Cola Founders platform. “First we partner with experienced entrepreneurs and invite them to join our global co-founder network. Next we connect them with a senior-level advisor inside one of our business units and go deep into the challenges and opportunities we’re facing at Coke. And finally, we give them open access to Coca-Cola’s relationships, resources and reach before they develop an idea into a startup. Our goal is to help our founders grow big new, high-growth businesses while helping us grow Coca-Cola at the same time.” 

Tackling ‘Shark-Bite’ Problems 

Coke is partnering with the Co-Founder network to tackle what Butler calls "shark-bite problems."

“Some problems create a ‘mosquito-level’ of pain for people,” he explains, “and others create much more pain—‘shark-bite’ kind of pain. Those are the types of business challenges we’re going after. We believe if we can solve big problems that a lot of people have, we can build them into new, high-growth businesses.”

One of the first startups to come out of the Coca-Cola Founders platform, Wonolo (shorthand for “Work Now Locally”), was founded to simultaneously tackle a big Coca-Cola business challenge – reducing out-of-stock product inventory – and the “shark-bite problem” of youth unemployment. An app connecting “Wonoloers” with hourly or daily jobs in merchandising, fulfillment, event staffing and more went live in December 2013 with a handful of customers in San Francisco, Calif. and Albuquerque, N.M.



Founders
Wonolo co-founders A.J. Brustein (standing) and Yong Kim in their San Francisco co-working space.

“Internally, we sometimes refer to out-of-stocks as our next ‘billion-dollar brand’ because if we can crack this problem, we could capture $1 billion in untapped revenue,” Butler explains. “When Coke or any of our other products are not on the shelves, shoppers can’t buy them. The Co-Founders recognized this, but then thought beyond Coke by asking the question: ‘What if we could make it easier for companies that have on-demand, daily or hourly jobs – such as restocking store shelves – to connect with workers who want these kind of jobs?’”

Three years ago, Wonolo co-founder A.J. Brustein was building business plans and creative campaigns for one of one of the world’s most beloved brands: Coca-Cola. Today, he’s working with his partner, Yong Kim, to build an entirely new company in an entirely new industry from scratch.

“I love marketing because I enjoy doing things that affect people,” says A.J. Brustein, Wonolo co-founder. “When you create a new product or campaign, you see people interacting with and responding to your work. Wonolo is that times 100 because we’re not just building on top of a brand people have a strong affinity for. We’re creating something entirely new, from the ground up, that will affect people’s lives.”

Entrepreneurial Roots

Entrepreneurship is part of Coke’s DNA. In 1886, an Atlanta pharmacist named Dr. John Pemberton invented Coca-Cola. Knowing he couldn’t build an entirely new industry alone, he partnered with pharmacy owners to distribute his tasty elixir to thirsty customers via soda fountains. Two years later, he sold his business to Asa Candler, a serial entrepreneur who was approached shortly thereafter by two Chattanooga, Tenn.-based businessmen who had a vision to build a network of independent bottlers who could help bring Coca-Cola to the masses.

“They built their businesses by helping us grow ours,” Butler says. “The Founders platform offers the same value proposition… we’re continuing to empower entrepreneurs in a way that only Coca-Cola can." 

Over the last several years, Coke has invested in emerging beverage brands such as ZICO, Honest Tea and Innocent, as well as tech startups focused on Coke consumers’ core passion points, like Spotify and Misfit Wearables. This new platform is one more way to partner directly with entrepreneurs.

“Our goal is to create new startups, rather than find existing startups to invest in.” Butler says. “We invest in people first and ideas second. We give founders the time and attention required to truly validate a problem, design the best solution, identify the right market and find a business model to create a sustainable company.”



Founders
The Singapore Co-Founders at work.

Finding the Right Fit

Every Coca-Cola Founder is selected for his or her ability to hit the ground running: to bootstrap a business, test hypothesizes, design a product, build a team, and develop a customer base.

“We are looking for entrepreneurs who are naturals at using the Lean Startup Method,” said Ross Kimbel, director of global innovation. “The Lean Startup Method emphasizes minimum spend and maximum speed. This enables our founders to solve problems quickly using the least amount of resources. And once we find the solution and create a sustainable business model around it, we scale it.”     

Coke isn’t looking for first-time founders or people with dreams of running a startup. Sometimes, it comes down to timing. Several founders joined the network after a failure or significant exit, Kimbel notes.

“We partner with experienced entrepreneurs who’ve been there and done that,” he adds. “They’ve built companies of their own, and they’re ready to build something again with the kind of impact that can only be achieved by partnering with Coke.”

Managing a large multinational is night and day compared to building a startup. “At Coke, it’s all about effective business planning,” Kimbel said. “Startups, meanwhile, start with nothing. For them, it’s not about planning… it’s about learning quickly and adapting to the market as fast as possible.”

Launch First, Plan Later

For Coke, a company loaded with talented “scalers”, attracting “starters” meant creating an entirely new operating model, recruiting processes and more. Since its launch in 2013, the platform has undergone three major pivots—significant shifts in how the platform works inside of Coke.

“We decided to learn by doing,” Butler says. “We’re not sitting back and planning our way forward. Its very messy, but it’s all about learning as fast as possible."  



Coca-Cola Founders logo

At first, Coke recruited employees to become founders on a part-time, stretch-assignment basis. “We tried to force-fit the program into existing roles, but immediately realized that didn’t work,” Kimbel explained. “We needed to partner with experienced founders who had built companies on the outside. And they needed to be out in the field because that’s where the true problems we’re hoping to solve are – not in Atlanta.”

The first team of founders was hired in February 2013 in Sydney, Australia, followed by Yong and Brustein in San Francisco about a month later. As part of a global network, founders gain access to talent, contacts and ideas.

“We’re building a community of like-minded entrepreneurs. “It can be really lonely out there for founders,” Kimbel says. “Our network provides support to help them win.”

Each team creates a new legal entity – they own 100 percent of their startup from the get-go – then work closely with a Coke senior manager in their local market, who serves as an advisor and link to the company’s resources. This structure creates an “inside” connection to Coca-Cola while maintaining the flexibility and speed required to build a startup.

Once a team validates its business model and is ready to scale, Coke converts its investment to a minority equity share based on market valuation. To date, the Coca-Cola Founders platform has spawned 10 startups.

“At the end of the day, this is all about people,” says Butler. “We want to solve big problems lots of people have by connecting directly with entrepreneurs. We believe this can unleash enormous growth for our business but also create more jobs, more diversity, and ultimately, more happiness in the communities we touch around the world.”

Learn more about the Coca-Cola Founders Platform at www.coca-colafounders.com.