Starting a business takes a lot of energy. And Scottsdale residents Mike Jannicelli, 24, and Jordan Harwood, 30, are in the business of selling energy — in a 16-ounce can.
Three years ago, the two entrepreneurs launched Socko, a vitamin-packed energy drink in a big green can.
Since then, their Scottsdale-based business, Bliss Beverage, has created a stir in the drink world after being dubbed an upand-coming company to watch by Forbes magazine. They also recently partnered with wrestler Hulk Hogan, who will be featured on a special edition Socko can.
Socko is now a multimillion-dollar company. The drink can be found in 16 states, Japan and Mexico, and is carried in restaurants and nightclubs, grocery and convenience stores. Circle K recently signed up to stock the product.
“When we started this company, everybody — I mean everybody — thought we were crazy,” Harwood said. “Fortunately we did not ever buy into that.”
“I knew if we really focused on something we were going to do it,” Jannicelli added.
Before developing Socko, Jannicelli was working as bartender at Axis/Radius
nightclub in Scottsdale while earning a business degree from Arizona State University. He came from Colorado to play ASU football, but “that whole time I was thinking ‘man, I wanted to be the guy owning the football team,’ “ he said.
At the same time Harwood, an Arizona native, was a bar manager at Axis/Radius also looking to make a change.
They were both trying to break into the beverage business, unaware of the other’s plans.
“We were like 20 feet apart all the time. Unknowingly, we even worked with the same chemist,” Harwood said. “One day a friend walked up and said ‘Hey, you and Mike are working on the same thing and you don’t even know it.’ “
In a market flooded with Red Bull and Rockstar, the two knew they already faced stiff competition. So they teamed up with a common goal: To create an energy beverage that would reflect their energetic, yet casual, attitudes.
They found companies willing to grow with them and provide favorable financing terms.
“We started with really nothing and we just grew it,” Jannicelli said.
The drink needed to be loaded with nutrients and have a unique taste, Harwood said. It also needed to be green.
“Green represents ‘go’ — green’s a happy feeling,” Harwood said.
They brought their specifications to a drink chemist and, 48 formulas later, Socko was born. The final product resembles a sweet and fruity liquid candy.
Energy beverages have exploded into a $1.6 billion industry, said Gary Hemphill, managing director for New York-based Beverage Marketing Corp. Although Red Bull created the category and is still the energy drink sales leader, smaller companies like Socko are finding niches. To succeed among competitors, a brand needs to offer something unique, he said.
Socko’s distinction comes in part from ingredients, including exotic extracts like horny goat weed and yerba mate. It’s also twice the size as Red Bull, but costs the same: $1.99.
“We never wanted to be the ‘wannabe’ drink,” Harwood said. “We wanted to be an originator.”
The company’s Web site defines Socko as a slang word for “youthful, energetic and blissful” — ideas the pair seem to embody. Talking about Socko from a booth at Axis/ Radius, the club Harwood now coowns, the partners said they were more conservatively dressed than usual.
Harwood is tall and skinny with light brown spiky hair, wearing shorts and a black-collared polo shirt with a green Socko logo.
Jannicelli has short brown spiky hair and a baby face over a muscular frame. Sitting in the booth, his black tank top showing off a large tribal tattoo on his right biceps, he said he normally dresses in a bathing suit, flip-flops and tank top every day.
“What you see is what you get,” Harwood said. “In the summertime we just wear pretty much as little as we can get away with without offending people.”
Their office, which employs about 25 people, is designed like a classic coffee shop with an upstairs hookah lounge. The dichotomy of their intense work ethic combined with their relaxed attitudes is the key to their success, said Dustin Sparman, Socko’s marketing director.
“We get things done and we do things nontraditionally,” he said, adding that Socko was a fun place to work. “It’s not the corporate environment that you would find with most beverage industries.”
Enjoying the job is mandatory when working seven days a week, and traveling 200 days a year, the entrepreneurs said. But they had to take a bit of a break because their doctors told them the workload was taking its toll on their bodies.
“So we just went and bought a boat,” Harwood said. The 24-foot wakeboard boat is customized in Socko’s signature colors: Green and purple.
Despite the hours they spend working together, they are still extremely close friends. The two just bought neighboring homes in Scottsdale and plan to take their next vacation together, Harwood said. They plan to expand their product line and introduce two new drinks yearly under the Bliss Beverage label.
“We just work as hard as we can to get there and never take anything for granted,” Jannicelli said. “And what happens, happens.”