An Executive MBA’s ‘renegade approach’ to entrepreneurship (2024)

Megan Klein ’20 MBA has always considered herself an “unconventional environmentalist” — a committed advocate who looked to “inspire people to love nature in a unique way.” Following that path took her first into environmental law, then vertical farming and now into nonalcoholic beverages with her startup Little Saintsand its line of functional mushroom-infused mocktails.

Rather than serve up the equivalent of sparkling water with lime, Little Saints mixes up co*cktail flavors like negroni, spicy margarita, paloma and mezcal with a blend of aromatic terpenes, lion’s mane and reishi mushroom extracts. The product, all formulated by a food scientist, delivers a kick — but without the alcohol.

Little Saints, originally launched in Detroit and now based in Miami, is poised for nearly 600% growth in sales this year. By the end of the first quarter, Little Saints had already surpassed last year’s $1.5 million in total sales. For 2024, its projected run rate is $7 million.

As Klein wrote in a recent LinkedIn post, it’s the proverbial “hockey stick growth” that startups dream of — and achieved without “a dime of VC funding, a PR firm, a celebrity endorser, a roster of influencers, boatloads of cash or any of the other things that founders have been taught are necessary” for that kind of rapid growth.

Little Saints is also a byproduct, at least in part, of Klein’s decision to enter the Executive MBA Program at Kellogg. That move was sparked by a confluence of factors: for one, turning 40 and wanting to “do something new” and a desire to hone her business skills in such areas as entrepreneurial selling, presentations and storytelling.

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Before entering the MBA program, Klein already had a background in startups. Her first foray was with a Chicago-based indoor vertical farm, where she’d helped with a fundraising round and eventually was brought in to run the operation. That business, now evolved into the brand Field + Farmer, branched out into salad dressings, which gave Megan a taste of the consumer products market and a desire to do something on her own.

What the school’s Executive MBA Program uniquely provided her was an opportunity to draw out and strengthen her own innate talents and abilities, through such classes as Entrepreneurial Selling with Professor Andrew Sykes and Phase 0: Designing, Building and Communicating Compelling New Ventures with Professor David Schonthal.

Equally important, Klein found herself among a cohort of classmates with diverse careers and business experiences — and who were willing consumers. The result was a supportive community, sharing ideas and feedback, and emotionally invested in each other’s success. “My classmates were the subject of many focus groups and surveys,” Klein says. “I credit them for helping me get the first iteration of Little Saints right.”

It’s the first lesson that she shares with MBA students, especially those who want to start their own businesses. “Don’t put it off until after school. Try it while you are in school,” she says. “You are in this giant focus group and support group.”

The Executive MBA program also focused Klein and her study group on what she called “team efficiency.” With busy lives — classes, projects, jobs and, for some, young children — the goal was “to be efficient and not waste time.” That balancing act, itself, was a learning experience that showed Klein she did have the time, energy and resources to launch her business.

From inspiration to experimentation

The inspiration for Little Saints was Klein’s own experience during Covid: drinking alcohol by herself, which she called “antithetical” to her lifestyle. “I’m super healthy, but then I was drinking negronis at night.” Her goal: to “evolve imbibing” with non-alcoholic drinks. “The marketer in me took over, and I bought everything available. But everything had sugar in it, and nothing tasted close enough to an alcoholic co*cktail. So, I started to experiment in my kitchen,” she recalls.

Klein hired a food scientist with an advanced degree in adaptogens — which are plants and mushrooms that are used in herbal medicine for a therapeutic benefit. She also brought in professional bartenders and tweaked the recipes. For example, she made sure her paloma mocktail tastes more like the alcoholic version than a glass of fizzy grapefruit juice.

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Pivots and future plans

In the beginning, Little Saints largely followed the marketing plan that Klein knew from Field + Farmer: she signed a deal with a large distributor in 2022. When that proved largely unsuccessful; however, she pivoted the business in 2023 to sell directly to consumers through the Little Saints website. Although B2C will be the main channel going forward, Little Saints will begin selling products through two major retailers starting in summer 2024.

In terms of marketing, it seems Little Saints is positioned in the right place at the right time. The nonalcoholic drinks market is projected by Statista at $162.1 billion worldwide for 2024. With an annual growth rate of 11.5%, this market could reach $275 billion worldwide by 2029.

When asked about her future plans, she gave a succinct reply: “Little Saints is my ‘child.’ I’m taking this as far as I can. We have never raised VC money. It’s a super-renegade approach. People tell themselves, ‘I have to raise VC to be successful.’ I did not.”

That said, she is all in — investing her life savings and getting some angel funding from friends and family. “It’s a huge risk,” she admitted. “But I am going to show that this can be done.”

It’s another lesson learned that Klein serves up to current and prospective MBA students — the same hard-earned wisdom she would also give to her younger self. “Trust your intuition. I knew I was a really strong businessperson, and I had an intuition that I could do this,” she says. “So don’t get stuck in a rut. Throw yourself into new venues.”

Read next:A journey through silence to innovation: The power of alignment

An Executive MBA’s ‘renegade approach’ to entrepreneurship (2024)
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