When Alex Ilica got his career-making phone call, he was indisposed. “It was Halloween of 2004,” the founder of Viso Energy Drinks recalls. “I was wasted by the pool at the Standard hotel in LA. Thank God I didn’t answer the phone.”
Ilica, a Portland native, had started his company as a part-time labor of love, building his own bottling line with two-by-fours and standing in convenience stores’ counter lines to buttonhole owners. The voice mail proved to be from Maletis, Portland’s biggest beverage distribution company. Eight years later, that connection—and Ilica’s own natural hustle—has transformed Viso into a small but ambitious local player in an energy-drink industry that some estimate takes in $20 billion a year globally.
Ilica’s drinks can now be found in more than 6,000 stores from Alaska to San Francisco. With 15 employees and a “small but classy” downtown office, Viso generates about $2 million in revenue each year. (Some of the manufacturing takes place in Washington, but Ilica still brews up new flavors in his own kitchen.) Meanwhile, the 36-year-old CEO nurtures his dream of becoming the high-end, quality-focused alternative to major international brands like Red Bull and Monster.
“I saw a real lack of creativity in the beverages I was drinking ...I am Product-obsessed.”
Ilica has blond hair, incandescently white teeth, and a polished, casual-but-crisp look. His interest in the beverage industry led him to notice that the fast-growing energy-drinks category lacked a premium brand. With some start-up capital from his parents, he set out to create one.
Viso’s drinks are loaded with caffeine; its best-selling flavor, Vigor, packs three times as much as a can of Red Bull. Once, an octogenarian called Ilica, whose phone number is printed on every bottle, fearing that a Viso product was sending him into cardiac arrest. (To Ilica’s relief, the customer was fine: “I don’t want to kill anybody.”) But Ilica boasts that his caffeine is better.
“Big energy-drink companies use just the crappiest synthetic caffeine from China,” Ilica says, noting that Viso uses coffee-based caffeine from Spain and Italy. “There is only one company—my company—that uses the Rolls-Royce of caffeine.”
To distinguish his brand from Red Bull, which often pops out of consumers’ mouths followed by “and vodka,” Ilica keeps Viso out of the bar scene. He focuses on marathons and other sporting events. “We want people who are very healthy,” Ilica says. “The boys look good, the girls look good, and they have a little disposable income.”