Hydration is a critical factor in human health, and water is the best source. However, many people just don’t like drinking plain water. Over the past 15 years, flavored waters have become a hot item in the beverage industry, with coconut flavoring being one of the most popular. Move over coconut! Prickly pear cactus is moving in.
Kun Yang, Mohammed (Mo) Hassoun, Jaanai Babb, Sarwang Shah and Aakash Dheri met while studying at pharmacy college in Massachusetts. All of them are first-generation Americans in their twenties and thirties and became fast friends. Among other things, the friends shared a dislike of coconut water. Their dislike was so powerful, they claim that coconut water tastes like it’s already been in someone’s mouth!
Mo’s family comes from Lebanon, and he recalled many happy summers spent there with his grandmother. She would make him and his siblings cactus juice, a refreshing drink in the very hot Lebanon summers.
Mo decided to make cactus juice for his friends. They were skeptical at first. In an interview with Monica Watrous of Food Business News on July 20, 2021, Kun Yang admitted his first thought was “Since when do cactuses have fruit?” But after trying the drink, they all loved it!
After deciding to market the drink, the five friends had to learn about building a company from scratch. None of them had any prior experience as entrepreneurs, and they all continued working in the health care field while building the business.
In September 2021, Pricklee was chosen as one of 45 startups from a field of 370 applicants to present their product at FoodBytes! Pitch 2021.
Yang, now CEO of Pricklee, explains that the prickly pear fruit is an antioxidant powerhouse. The cactus grows in more than 30 countries, and is used extensively in Mexican cuisine. Compared to coconut, the flavor of cactus juice is sweeter. Even so, it has 50% less sugar and calories than coconut juice and is full of Vitamin C, flavonoids, betalains and polyphenols, and provides excellent hydration. In addition to the prickly pear flavor, the drinks come in strawberry/hibiscus and ginger mango. They are sold in a 12 pack of 12-ounce cans, and Pricklee offers a “cactus club” for regular delivery, saving 15%. They can be ordered through the website or on Amazon. Pricklee is also available in numerous stores mostly in the Northeast, such as Stop & Shop, Donelans and Greens Natural Foods.
Pricklee in the Shark Tank
Entrepreneurs Kun Yank and Mo Hassoun pitched $200,000 for a 5% equity stake in their cactus water beverage company, valuing the company at $4 million. The negotiations saw some Sharks drop out, including Lori Greiner, Mark Cuban, and Emma Grede, due to various concerns ranging from nutrition, packaging, to advertising strategy. Barbara Corcoran initially withdrew due to the risky nature of beverage distribution deals. Kevin O’Leary remained interested, proposing $200,000 for 20% equity, but he was unwilling to consider a counteroffer for a line of credit. Finally, Barbara Corcoran re-entered, accepting the deal on Kevin’s terms. The final deal was $200,000 as a line of credit for 20% equity, maintaining the $4 million valuation.
During their pitch, the entrepreneurs highlighted several selling points of their product, emphasizing its lower sugar content (seven grams per serving), lack of carbonation, and the presence of antioxidants, electrolytes, and potassium. They also mentioned the variety of flavors available. These attributes were framed as improvements over coconut water, which the product aims to replace. The idea for Pricklee was inspired by childhood experiences with cactus water, and the team worked to enhance the flavor and health benefits. They reported a landing cost of 65 cents per drink and retail prices ranging from $2 to $3.49.
|Kun Yank and Mo Hassoun
|Cactus water beverage
|$200,000 for 5% equity
|$200,000 as a line of credit for 20% equity
Pricklee After Shark Tank
After their appearance on Shark Tank, Pricklee experienced significant growth and development. The company’s sales saw a rapid increase, going from selling 300 cases every three months to 15,000 cases in just a month. They prepared for the anticipated ‘Shark Tank effect’ on sales and made changes to their marketing strategy based on advice received on the show. This included shifting focus from comparing their product to coconut water to emphasizing the unique attributes of cactus water, like its antioxidant content and resilience.
Pricklee expanded its availability to 23 states and is now sold in stores like Plum Market, Stop & Shop, Sprouts Farmers Market, and ShopRite. The product is also available online on Amazon and Pricklee’s website, which offers a subscription service with discounts and free shipping. The company redesigned its cans post-Shark Tank, featuring a cactus prominently to align with its branding shift. While no new flavors have been released, their variety pack is popular among consumers.
The company utilizes word-of-mouth, social media, and its iconic cacti costumes for marketing. They also launched an ambassador program to increase awareness of their cactus water drink. Despite the competitive nature of the beverage market, Pricklee continues to strive towards becoming a preferred natural hydration drink.
As of March 2023, Pricklee beverages are available in 500 stores in the U.S. Northeast, with plans for further expansion. The company emphasizes the sustainable sourcing of their cactus, which requires minimal water, contributing positively to agricultural practices. Despite the initial deal made on Shark Tank, there was no indication as of March 2023 that the agreement with Barbara Corcoran had been finalized.
Pricklee has doubled its business year-over-year since the Shark Tank episode, with the nationwide launch at Sprouts being a significant milestone. The partnership with Sprouts, a chain headquartered in the Arizona desert, is seen as strategic due to the region’s familiarity with prickly pear products. Pricklee’s marketing strategy focuses on creating a brand that embodies fun and positivity, even within the health-oriented product space, which has resonated well with the audience.