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"Look at this cup," Kanbar says, picking up a coffee cup in his office at Skyy's corporate headquarters. He leans forward on his sofa and points hard at the glass cup. "Can you make a coffee cup handle that's more comfortable, or more efficient, or something? You may not find it. I go through 50 things that I will spend more than an hour on to find one that's worth pursuing; and out of that, one out of a hundred will become a reality. So I just have a great time with my head, playing around with ideas. It's a way to keep from being bored."
With that philosophy in mind, Drinx LLC was incorporated to manufacture and sell 80/20 Cola on June 29, 1999. The sales pitch was a simple one: Thanks to its formulation -- a mix of aspartame and sugar -- 80/20 would taste like a full-sugared cola, but with fewer calories. Thirty to be exact, compared to the 150 in a 12-ounce can of Coca-Cola or Pepsi. And, for added value, it would give you 100 percent of your recommended daily allowance of vitamin C. After all, people drink diet cola by the oceanful but suffer through the diet taste. Why not a compromise -- a midcalorie cola?
Pepsi and Coca-Cola are too big to take on, you say? Then you'd be the same person who told Kanbar that there's no room for another vodka on the market, the person who told him nobody would buy a sweater comb, the person who told him it would be silly to cut a movie theater into four parts and quadruple your moviegoing options. But Skyy is huge, the D-Fuzz-It is sold all over the world, and Manhattan's Quad Cinema, opened in 1972 and arguably the first multiplex on the East Coast, has been in profit from the start. There are untold millions in all the things people tell Maurice Kanbar are silly. Besides, Kanbar didn't want to annihilate Coke and Pepsi, just move into a bit of the market. After all, RC Cola only has 1 percent of the U.S. soft drink market and it's a profitable business.
When Kanbar founded Skyy, he drove his scooter around San Francisco to sell the drink to liquor stores and bar owners. But as a general rule, he isn't very hands-on with the things he creates. Once success is secured, he usually passes the day-to-day operations of his business to someone else, as he did with his brother Elliott, who runs the Quad Cinema. So the presidency of Drinx LLC was bestowed on a bright, young, and enthusiastic Skyy employee and Kanbar protégé: Russell G. Weiner.
Russ Weiner is truly his father's son. His father is best known to Bay Area radio listeners as the right-wing talk show host Michael Savage; under his real name, Dr. Michael Weiner, he's written 20 books about nutrition and herbal medicine. Similarly, the 30-year-old Russ is a Republican who has made two failed runs for the state Assembly out of Marin County and has spent time at the nutrition department at the Chicago Medical School studying herbs, flavors, and health-food nutrition.
Weiner explains that Kanbar, who tends to donate to Republican causes, was impressed with his 1998 Assembly run. "He hired me to learn the business from that," Weiner says. "He saw what I did with the campaign, which essentially created something from nothing."
"Russ and Maurice have similar attributes," says Jason May, a brand manager who works for Kanbar. "They're both focused, and they both do whatever they believe in."
And neither believes much in doing market research -- the focus groups and studies that tell companies when they should (and shouldn't) invest in new ideas. The real world is the test market for Kanbar; knowing when to stop making a product -- or avoid making it at all -- is summarized in what Kanbar calls the Eleventh Commandment: Thou shalt not bullshit thyself. "I don't do market testing or focus groups," says Kanbar. "If those focus groups worked, the products that focus groups like wouldn't fail. But they fail. In fact, they fail more often than they succeed. I believe in using your own intuitive sense. If I would've taken 80/20 Cola to a focus group, I would've heard, "Yes, I like it, I'll buy it,' and I would've said, "OK, let's do it.' But it's hard to get valid market testing. If I worked for a large corporation and did market testing, they would've said, "It failed!' and I could've said, "Well, the market testing showed that it succeeded!' So I'd be covering my ass. But since I'm doing it on my own, I don't need market testing. I think it's a good product. I think that it's a darn good product."
So in the spring of last year, cases of 80/20 Cola made their way to Houston. But both Weiner and Kanbar ignored a simple detail, one that anybody could have discovered with 15 minutes' worth of research: America has never, ever, wanted a midcalorie cola.
This much we know: Canadians are shifty people.
They are carefree, devil-may-care folks, these Canadians. They will jump, willy-nilly, from a diet cola to a regular one. Give them aspartame, give them high-fructose corn syrup -- hell, give them both at the same time -- it matters not a whit. Saccharin, acesulfame potassium, pure sugar, natural or synthetic, Canadians will take their sweeteners any which way. Zero calories? 15? 50? 150? Such distinctions mean nothing to them. Canadians are cola sluts. Canadians will drink anything.