In Conversation with Camila Soriano of Volley
What made you take the leap to start Volley with Chris?
It all started when I read The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker, which is about disturbing trends in the food industry. One of these being the excessive use of ‘natural flavors’ and what those really are. ‘Natural flavors’ are the fourth most common ingredient in the USA, and each flavor can have up to 100 ingredients. So that “grapefruit natural flavor” you see on your seltzer cans can be composed of up to 100 ingredients!!! No wonder it doesn’t taste like an actual grapefruit. More surprisingly, one of the many ingredients in a popular ‘natural flavor’ is caestorium, which is a substance that comes from the castor sacs of beavers. YUCK!
I felt deceived and was angry. How can these flavors be called “natural” and why do they appear on almost everything in the grocery store? Having been in the beverage industry for several years we decided to make a change. At around the same time, these new drinks called spiked seltzers were popping up. Along with everyone else, I was excited at the idea of a lighter drink, but began to question what the alcohol was in these products? And of course, noticed they all used ‘natural flavors’! This is when we decided to take the plunge. We couldn’t be the only people out there looking for that cleaner convenient drink and so Volley was born! We knew that it would be a huge undertaking, but that our previous experience and lessons learned gave us a bit of a head start.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
I began my career in the banking industry doing institutional equity research sales at Wells Fargo. This was my first job out of college and at the time had zero experience in finance. I wanted to learn something new and decided to dive right in by also studying for the CFA exams. From there I left Wells Fargo and started working with Chris in a brand he started while in college, the American Cocktail Company. ACC makes high quality cocktail mixers and sells a subscription box. I had no experience in operating a beverage company and wow! was that a steep learning curve.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Never! I still don’t think of myself as one even though I guess I am. I am unbelievably risk averse, so starting a business is definitely not something I ever thought I would do. It does help that my husband is the complete opposite, extremely comfortable taking calculated risks and pushes me to get out of my comfort zone.
Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?
Absolutely nothing went as planned. We knew that as a new consumer product in a relatively crowded space, getting liquor to lips was extremely important. People had to taste and experience this new product and we were excited to spread the love! We had the entire year planned with festivals, trade shows, concerts and events filling our calendars. The only few weeks we had blocked off were around my due date in mid-July. Of course, once COVID turned the world upside, everything changed. Not only were things delayed and uncertain, but we had to quickly pivot to get people to try our product in other ways. It seems like such a blur looking back, but it took many late night Google Meets brainstorming our launch and path forward.
We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?
Do you have all day? I’ve definitely made many mistakes, probably more than I even realize or have reflected on quite yet since we are still running at 100 mph. One that is top of mind though, was back when I was heavily involved in American Cocktail Co. We have a monthly subscription box that ACC sends out that includes 4 cocktails. A great gift and one that is extremely popular close to the holidays. One year, the box just exploded. We got more orders than we ever had gotten in the past and despite knowing that, we decided to keep the shop open. We were not prepared – orders were shipped late, some with missing ingredients and many arrived damaged. This was not the way we wanted to convey our brand and ended up spending lots of money making up for it. I learned to know what your limits are, to delegate and get help when you need it, and the importance of preparation and of good customer service. With a bit of compassion and some hard work, you can please an angry customer and convert them to brand evangelists.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
Launching a product and giving birth to my first child 3 weeks apart, all while fundraising and moving into a new home in a new state during a global pandemic.
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
A good friend gave me great advice: it is important to ask behavioral questions. Anyone can BS their way through typical interview questions, but if you ask for specific examples it makes it that much more difficult to BS. A lot of my questions typically start out with “tell me about a time when…” but I try to incorporate that into our conversation. I find interviews can be awkward and dry, so having a normal conversation while weaving in the questions helps to make both of you feel comfortable and helps you get to know the candidate in a different way. Now that we are all remote and it is difficult to read body language which is super important.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
Everyone has been affected by this pandemic that has paralyzed the world. The beverage industry has been fortunate to ride this wave quite well and to show record sales numbers especially for RTD’s and agave tequila. As a business it’s definitely been a ride. Staying nimble, being patient and being 100% plugged into what is going on is always important but especially now. We’ve been affected in so many ways from delayed freight (due to excess demand on logistics), to difficulty importing our products, to distributors being extra cautious about what new products they bring in. We are trying to keep one step ahead of what’s happening so we have some wiggle room to fall back on if necessary.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
Oh boy, this is a loaded question! We hope to be found nationwide and possibly internationally. We are launching a big packaging update this year, so stay tuned. It’s going to be incredible and we hope you follow along with us!
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
Patience. Know what you can and can’t change, and if you can’t change it, be patient. This pandemic will end, my son will sleep through the night (sooner rather than later would be great though!), and we will be able to eat at that favorite restaurant again, hopefully with Volley on the menu. There are some things you can’t control, so it’s important to enjoy the ride.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
The importance of learning to manage people. As a founder you wear 1,000 hats and a lot of time spent is making sure all the pieces you’ve put into place are working. It’s important to stay plugged in and to clearly communicate with the team.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
We were lucky that we moved down to Charleston, SC from NYC about a year ago. I grew up in the tropics and after nine years in NYC I am enjoying the slower pace of life, seeing palm trees every day and having the beach 10 minutes away! I didn’t realize how much I missed this lifestyle. Being able to go for a walk and breathe the salt air has been extremely grounding.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
It’s necessary to survive, but it honestly has been extremely tough. Working with your husband doesn’t help (we need to be better at segmenting work & play), but before our son was born, we were working 12-15 hour days. We were even pitching to an international investor at 10PM when I went into labor!
It is extremely difficult to unplug and can be daunting especially during the early days of the business. I think people can put pressure on themselves to create that balance when it sometimes feels impossible to achieve and that isn’t healthy either. Having said that, it is important even if it’s for a few minutes a day. If you can’t disconnect for an extended period of time, find something simple that you love and that puts a smile on your face. For me that’s cooking or working out. I absolutely love to cook with a glass of wine and good music to sing to. Even if I’m making a salad that takes 5 minutes. It is an activity I love and that disconnects me from my phone. When I am up early with my son I try to fit in a quick workout – a 5 minute plank series counts! Every little break is worth it and helps clear your mind!
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
I am fascinated by sharks and marine life in general. When I was younger I wanted to be a marine biologist. One of the happiest days I remember as a child was seeing baby turtles hatch and rush towards the shore. It was so beautiful.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
Wake up early (and for that matter sleep early), eat a nourishing breakfast you love and enjoy it with good music, and finally have a plan for the day and be ready to attack it at the same time every day. This gives you the opportunity to have some time for yourself before you dive into work!
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
It means trusting your gut, working you a$$ off, listening and being plugged into everything and everyone around you and looking at the big picture. Plan your day well (especially important so you can set aside some time during the day to be with your children) and be confident. You may surround yourself with smart people but you know your business better than anyone else. Being an entrepreneur means listening but knowing what to filter. Finally it means empowering and encouraging others and creating a community to share ideas, experiences and contacts to move everyone’s success forward.