In Conversation with Hilary McCain of Sweet Reason
Describe your business in a few words?
Sweet Reason is a hemp and cannabis beverage company that exists to calm the minds of humankind. We are obsessed with bringing the health benefits of cannabinoids into the mainstream through beverage. Sweet Reason gets you from AM to PM with our core line of award-winning Sparkling Waters and brand new Evening Blend beverages. We believe that the health of our minds should be top of mind, which is why we donate 1% of sales to mental health initiatives.
What made you take the leap to start your own business?
In the summer of 2017, I became obsessed with the idea that, one day, hemp and cannabis beverages were going to change the way we socialize, and could have powerful effects on our physical and mental health. When I discovered the health benefits of CBD, I couldn’t shake the idea that calming beverages were the future. Today, we are passionate about bringing the health benefits of cannabinoids to people through beverage.
What was your background prior to starting your own business?
Prior to Sweet Reason, I worked at Riverview Capital, a consumer-focused search fund based in Toronto, and also got my MBA from Harvard Business School. My career has been focused on the food industry, including time at the Boston Consulting Group, Chobani and Maple Leaf Foods.
Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Definitely not. I always wanted to do something on my own terms, be in control and run a business – but I didn’t think I would start one. Starting a business requires a certain conviction for an idea – a conviction that is so strong that you’re willing to make significant personal sacrifices to see that idea come to life. When I started to learn more about the powerful health benefits of hemp and cannabis, and thought about the role that beverages play in people’s lives, I developed that conviction.
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?
We had a very limited marketing budget, so our strategy was really to build buzz through word-of-mouth. We did this by sponsoring events and building a community on social media. We were also very focused on getting people to taste the product, because we were so confident in the product itself.
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?
The most challenging time in this business was dealing with significant regulatory changes in our first year. We were supposed to launch in Toronto in the summer of 2018, and a month before our first production run, the regulations changed and CBD beverages were no longer legal in Canada. The US market was just starting to take off so we quickly pivoted and rebuilt our entire supply chain, team and product to launch in New York in December 2018. Since then, we have had many regulatory challenges – it’s a reality of the CBD industry today. We’ve learned to be persistent, to be resilient, and to actively choose to see everything as a blessing in disguise.
What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?
I am most proud of the team that we have built. They’re passionate, committed, and kind; they work hard everyday to bring Sweet Reason to more people in more places.
When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?
The biggest thing that I have learned in hiring is to spend a LOT of time interviewing candidates to make sure it’s a good fit. A mentor told me something early on that has always stuck with me: “everyone is great in the first interview.” I think that in order to interview well, you need to spend 10+ hours interviewing a candidate (depending on seniority) – really digging deeper on their past experiences, successes and failures, and what makes them tick.
How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?
COVID-19 has forced us to be leaner, smarter, and more creative. Challenging times force you to be better at everything you do. Of course, it has been an incredibly difficult time for small businesses, but we’ve built up resilience as a team to handle it.
What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?
Over the next few years, we will continue to focus on our mission of calming the minds of humankind. With the recent launch of our Evening Blend, we now have a CBD beverage for every occasion. Our Sparkling Waters are your daily go-to for calm, focus and productivity. Our Evening Blend helps you take the edge off, naturally, at the end of a long day. It’s an alcohol alternative that replaces both the taste experience of a cocktail AND the effect. Now more than ever, we are passionate about helping people find calm in their daily lives.
What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?
To take care of yourself, first and foremost, in order to take care of others. And that a positive attitude will help you conquer all challenges.
What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?
The sooner you hire the right people, the sooner you will grow your business.
How have you managed to stay grounded this year?
Sleep, walking, exercise and time outdoors.
Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?
Work/life balance means different things to different people. Personally, I know what I need to make time for in order to stay balanced, motivated, and happy. I prioritize those things – sleep, exercise, a consistent daily routine, time with my family, dinners with friends – and then work is everything else. If you start a business, only one thing is certain – you will work harder than you have ever worked in your life. But it’s a marathon not a sprint, so – to use the marathon analogy – you need to find ways to keep up your motivation and stamina.
What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?
I spent most of my career in pretty corporate places – most notably the Boston Consulting Group and Harvard Business School – but my biggest passions are outside of business. I love the more creative parts of the world – namely art, literature, food, design. I think entrepreneurship is where business and creativity come together.
What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?
Sleep, exercise and focus on the one big thing you need to get done each day.
What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?
Being a female entrepreneur, I think you have the opportunity to carve a new path – to do things differently, and hopefully better. There’s a new wave of female leadership that I hope will stay and create long-term change in the way we think about business, society and the world at large.