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Neetu Godara and her friends had hefted their camping gear out to the perfect scenic spot. Everything was assembled, set out and ready. Now for the reward: a refreshing drink with a bit of a kick before hiking around and exploring. She cracked open the cooler—and stared down at the contents in dismay.
Not because they were anything different than your usual cooler options: that was the problem. The choices were the tired same-old: beer, wine and sugary alcohol mixes. Beer would shut down her energy. Wine seemed more suited to candlelight, or at least firelight. And sugary drinks were—well, sugary.
Between these traditional drink choices and dunking a tin cup in the lake, there didn’t seem to be any middle ground. That is, until 2013, when Godara and two friends met for coffee and brainstormed one up.
She, Kevin Folk and Dan Beach, the eventual co-founders of SoCIAL LITE, had always liked vodka sodas with natural flavoring. Why not transfer this light freshness to a can? As Godara explains, “We wanted something we and our friends and family would drink. We had this idea of brewing a better-for-you cocktail, a vodka soda with no sugar, no sweetener, no artificial ingredients, only 80 calories in a can.”
As then-director of marketing for PepsiCo, Godara saw that Canadians were parched for change. “I knew the industry, knew where Canadians were going in health and in long-term trends and what they wanted to drink. Our idea was great, and it was timely. I’m just amazed that there was nothing on the market like it, nothing truly clean, truly natural.”
SoCIAL LITE began as three friends cooking up delicious, low-calorie vodka drinks in their kitchens. Then, Godara, Folk and Beach started trying out light mixes and taste-testing them on family and friends.
“We kept building on our idea. That first coffee meeting turned into Tuesday eight o’clock meetings and those meetings turned into a business. And that’s how SoCIAL LITE started: the first unsweetened vodka soda available in North America,” says Godara.
Though they were trailblazers when they first launched in 2014, SoCIAL LITE is no longer the only game in town. The sugar-free vodka soda and iced tea market has skyrocketed in popularity over the past five years, bringing with it many new companies hoping to make a name for themselves.
“When we started in 2014, vodka sodas were 0.1 percent of all cooler sales in Canada, and that 0.1 percent was just us,” Godara explains. Only four years later, at the end of 2018, unsweetened vodka sodas constituted 10 percent of cooler sales across Canada.
“The fact that we pioneered that, we created that, we’re so proud of it. But we see that as a good thing, [because] at the end of the day, there are more options for Canadians on shelves of better for you, unsweetened drinks,” she adds.
Instead of seeing this growth in competition as an obstacle, however, Godara and her team see it as an opportunity.
“We know SoCIAL Lite vodka tastes great and [it’s] the lowest calorie vodka soda in the market, so we welcome the competition, and we think it’s actually been an amazing thing to see the category flourish across the country,” she says.
Now SoCIAL LITE’s chief marketing officer—Beach is chief executive officer and Folk is chief operating officer—Godara is also the only female co-founder of a vodka soda company to date. Despite her and the company’s success, however, she cautions would-be start-uppers to expect challenges. For the Whitby, Ontario-based SoCIAL LITE, the challenge wasn’t lack of demand—just the opposite.
“In 2016, our brand exploded! Things were taking off and growth was faster than we expected. We ran out of inventory. As a small business that had to work hard to build our distribution across the country and get on liquor store shelves, nothing was scarier than the prospect of running out of product,” she explains.
As Godara says, a great idea isn’t enough: you need a great team to manage it. “We had to come up with a plan—fast. And we did. We worked together and figured out a way to get more inventory in a short time. That experience showed us that we’ve got a dynamic, collaborative team. Because it’s vital, when leading a business, that whatever obstacles you meet, you can find your way out of them.”
As Canada’s leading vodka soda brand (on B.C. shelves since 2015), SoCIAL LITE offers eight flavors: Lime Ginger, Lemon Cucumber Mint, Pineapple Mango and Grapefruit Pomelo, plus the new Field Strawberry and Blood Orange (available in a 12-mix-pack). All these, as well as two iced teas, Spiked Lemon and Peach, feature a full ingredient list and nutritional facts table—in other words, says Godara, a nothing-to-hide approach.
What’s another crucial part of the Canadian entrepreneur’s approach? Nothing to fear. “Start up life is full of ups and downs. You enjoy the success with your team and you learn from the challenges. The most important thing is to enjoy it, finding humour, enjoying a few laughs and a couple of SoCIAL LITE’s along the way is part of the journey!”
In our minds, that’s a sentiment that’s worth toasting.