Welcome to The Quality Makers, an interview series highlighting pioneers in the direct-to-consumer space. Join us as we get an inside look at the world of digital shopping through the eyes of the individuals shaping it…
Former New York Knicks Director of Performance, Mubarak “Bar” Malik, left his career in the NBA to focus on launching his sports drink, Drink Barcode. Unlike sports drink Behemoth Gatorade, Barcode is the first plant-based performance drink brand that contains things like vitamins D, B12, B6, magnesium, and adaptogens like rhodiola and cordyceps. After partnering with former Laker’s star forward, Kyle Kuzma (who helped the Los Angeles Lakers win a championship while drinking Barcode) and raising $5 million in funding, Barcode launched in May of 2021. Barcode retails for $48 for a 12-pack and can currently be purchased online and at select Erewhon locations. Keep reading to discover how Malik came up with the idea, what differentiates him from the others, and what it takes to reach peak performance…
Let’s start with your story. You’re the former New York Knicks Director of Performance. What inspired you to create Barcode?
MM: My background is in sports performance. As a kid I loved sports — I played basketball, football, and soccer in high school, but I knew very early I wasn't going to be a pro. Naturally, I was upset, but it was also this big turning point. I had been rejected because I couldn't compete at that level so I focused all my efforts on why I couldn't compete at that level. It's a lot outside of just height and talent. It's about the choices you have to make as a collegiate athlete to even get to the pros. It’s very structured, includes a lot of discipline and health overall. I think that's what triggered my obsession with this idea of “what does it take?” I needed to figure out what differentiated the average players from the pros. And from there, what separates you from the others in the league. Over the years, I’ve learned that what separates the .1% from the others is usually just nutrition and habits.
What’s your professional background?
MM: When I went to college, I spent all my time at school studying biology, physiology, and learning what makes athletes perform and what it takes to recover. I have a master's in human performance science. I was able to get a job working as a performance coach in baseball, so I worked in Major League Baseball for five years with the Pittsburgh Pirates, and then a sports performance company based in Arizona. From there, I started working in the NBA and that's when I really hit my stride.
My role at the time with the New York Knicks was the Head of Performance. The role consisted of training, conditioning, nutrition, and player development work. Essentially I was hired to keep players healthy, and keeping them healthy was more than just playing the game. It was this 360 approach to what keeps athletes well and involved things like: How many hours do they sleep? How fast did they run? Are they recovered? If they’re not recovering what are the red flags?
People often compare your brand to an elevated Gatorade. Does that ring true to you?
MM: I found that a lot of players weren’t taking the different minerals and vitamins we were giving them because it wasn't sustaining them over the long haul. Most athletes (and people) are deficient in vitamin D, especially doing COVID where we spent all of our time indoors. Athletes are often minorities, and because of their skin, they haven’t been able to absorb sunlight. I learned all this stuff because we would test them with sweat analysis, and blood panels every month to have these different performance markers.
With beverages, I had an opportunity for them to actually consume the vitamins and minerals they needed so around three and a half years ago, I came up with this formulation. I started thinking about what vitamins and minerals would perform in a space in the NBA that wasn't being tapped into. And obviously, the elephant in the room was Gatorade and just its footprint in the league.
What differentiates you from them?
MM: Barcode is actually derived from plants — which allows everything to dissolve easier and improve gut health. I thought about what vitamins and minerals would make a person hydrated outside of potassium, sodium, and magnesium — not having enough of these things could lead to muscle cramping and stress. We included plant adaptogens that allow your body to resist stress, build you up, and increase your performance, endurance, health, and everything else.
We also use AR in our customer experience. Right now you can scan the barcode on the label and it’ll take you to a site that tells you about the product. In the future, I imagine scanning a product and some avatar pops up that tells you what's in a product and it’s your favorite person, like an athlete. It’s our way of engaging with the community that keeps people excited and makes them feel like they're part of the brand as opposed to this transactional company that doesn't care about educating.
Additionally, social media drives everything we do. We have been able to see from social media exactly who's purchasing, where they shop, and more. We're a direct-to-consumer company because we have the ability to get all of these different influencers, bloggers, athletes, and founders to post about us. From there we’re able to collect data, and quickly iterate our content to see what works and what doesn’t based on what the information tells us.
Are you mainly targeting athletes or the everyday person who occasionally hits a barre class like myself?
MM: When I was formulating this, I was thinking about people like us, like my friends who don't play sports. It would have been very easy for me to create a drink that has 200 calories, 10 grams of sugar, and an extreme amount of sodium and potassium, because elite athletes can handle that. For them, that isn’t a lot of calories. We’d be pigeonholing ourselves to sell a product that services only pro athletes.
Believe it or not, our target consumer is 65% women. Women generally like a certain amount of calories, a certain type of sugar. Barcode is 30 calories and two grams of sugar (derived from monk fruit) with a Vitamin D of 10. An athlete may need to consume three during a game, but people like us just need one bottle to get the daily dose of vitamins that we need.
How helpful has your NBA background been? Would you have been able to launch Barcode without the support of the athletes in your circle? I know you’ve been tinkering with your beverage formulation for years.
MM: I started that process three years ago and got athletes involved who are not necessarily investors, but people who feel like they're part of the brand because I tested it on them. They use the product during the season and they use it in real-time. I met my co-founder, Kyle Kuzma, who was playing with the Lakers at the time, and he used it during the playoffs.
Once he was sold, he invested, and brought other athletes from different leagues into play from the MLB and NBA. Once we got all these people involved I started bringing in people who actually had experience. We hired a beverage CEO and then strategically found investors who had experience as operators of CPG brands. We have a ton of people involved and I feel like we've built a company that values honesty, authenticity, inclusivity and promoting health. We're based in LA because we have a retail presence here in LA. We spent a lot of time building our social media presence, creating organic content, and utilizing our own partners. It's been great so far.
What separates your team from the others?
MM: Inclusivity is huge. We have a diverse group of people working for the company, and I think a lot of these other beverage companies don't involve people with different backgrounds, diverse backgrounds, and they do things the exact same way. I was very intentional about having people who are creative on the team, who are consumers of the product, and who have technical experience, whether it's through branding, digital marketing, partnerships, or social media. They're not only consumers of the brand, but they also have the technology component to actually build what we need to really focus heavily on DTC and not really getting ahead of ourselves at retail. I think that's why I think we have an opportunity here that most companies don't because of partnerships, and our ability to look at social commerce differently.
Interested in improving your performance? Check out this plant-based, low sugar, adaptogen-powered performance beverage that contains 50% of your daily vitamin D3 intake. Barcode is developed by experts, vetted by the pros (Chelsea Gray, Wayne Ellington, Kelly Rowland), made for everyone. With delicious flavors like Watermelon, Lemon-Lime, and Pinot Noir, you’re sure to find something that speaks to you.
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