Mover’s Spotlight on Agua Bonita Founders Kayla Castañeda and Erin PonTell

Mover's Spotlight

So, we’ve never done double interviews before but I’m excited to do that with you guys at Agua Bonita. Where did the idea for the company start? How did it all begin? 

Kayla Castañeda: The idea of Agua Bonita started from growing up with aguas frescas at home. Coming from a Hispanic household, it was always part of our celebrations and family gathering. But the concoction was always typically sugar-heavy. It was not the healthiest option.

When Erin and I met, we were working for another company that, unfortunately, went under during the pandemic. Between Erin and I, we spent many years building up relationships with farmers and retailers. We had these data points on hand that we just did not want to go to waste, pandemic or not.

When Erin and I went to the drawing board, we used our background in consumer insight and paired that with something that could be a celebration of our culture and reflective of us as founders. We settled on making aguas frescas. One of the taglines we like to say is “When life gives you lemons, make aguas frescas.” Had we not been faced with the pandemic, we might not have even started the company. That was how Agua Bonita came to be. It was the blend of the right time and a life-long familiarity with aguas frescas.

What was it like debuting during a pandemic?

Kayla Castañeda: Building a business during a pandemic was really interesting. The normal ways of doing things was off the table. It was a really weird time to open up a business when so many were closing down. So, we had to be as creative as we possibly could, think outside the box, and ask for things that we normally wouldn’t have asked for. The pandemic has helped us in that way. We became less fearful of things. 

On the other side, the pandemic really shone a spotlight on things like food insecurity and the food system in the U.S. People now have a renewed sense of wanting healthy options and eco-friendly options. All of these concerns came to light even more during the pandemic, and that has helped a product like ours shine through. 

I was going to ask if 2020 was more of a year of opportunities or a year of challenges – but it sounds like it was more of opportunities. 

Kayla Castañeda: I think it was a bit of both. I think we kind of faced the challenges at hand and forced them into opportunities. We were just more fearless. There was this idea that if it failed, then we’d be in the same boat as a lot of other people. We had nothing to lose, really, other than to pursue the opportunities at hand. 

A ton of big businesses are born in the midst of a recession or came from a necessity. Agua Bonita is in the same spirit. Born during an unfortunate situation, we’re flipping that over to turn it into an opportunity. 

This question is directed to both of you. Can you speak on the ways that working for your previous companies – together and separately – prepared you for starting Agua Bonita? 

Erin PonTell: I was actually the CMO at our last company, and before that, I was the COO of another start-up. So, I had a lot of experience working at the top level of other companies. I have a first-hand experience of what to do and which mistakes to avoid when you’re starting a company. I’ve worked in the trenches helping other founders when it comes to raising money, what you should ask for, and other challenges the behind the scenes . Now, as a founder myself, I’m trying to apply those lessons so we can do things correctly the first time. 

Our two mottos-slash-goals are “Do it Right” and “Be Authentic”. Coming from another beverage company last year and knowing exactly what consumers want in a drink has been really helpful in buidling out Agua Bonita.

We know people want something that is authentic but also low-sugar, low-calorie, still delicious and in a recyclable package. And that’s exactly what we set out to create. And it has been going really well because we came in knowing what people wanted. People wanted our product so much, we sold out pretty quickly. 

Kayla Castañeda: I just want to add that what uniquely positions Erin and I is our depth of consumer insight. When Erin mentioned being CMO and going out in the field and conducting thousands of sampling for the beverages we had before, that allowed us to coalesce all that customer feedback. On my part, the time I spent doing the same thing for thousands of accounts for Coca-Cola, figuring out what sells and how to market-fit – those skills that don’t just come overnight.

Erin and I are uniquely positioned as founders because we came to this project with years of experience with our customers. That, in and of itself, is something that very much sets us apart from other founders. We may have started Agua Bonita in 2020, but this has been years in the making. 

Since you mentioned sampling, what strategies did you guys do to get your product out there last year when there were no tradeshows and in-store taste-testing?   

Kayla Castañeda: That’s actually a unique problem for us. It’s something we’re working on all the time. We’re in the midst of rolling out a club for people to want to try out our product and experience what Agua Bonita is all about. We have to get creative, right? Once those traditional options are off the table, we have to start looking at how people are bringing brands into their homes and what people want in this really weird time. We haven’t been able to do a lot of in-store demos, but, even with the vaccinations coming out this summer, we’re trying to be creative to reach people.

This month we’re talking about creativity and what creativity means to different entrepreneurs. Can you share stories about the role of creativity in Agua Bonita? 

Kayla Castañeda: I’ll pass this one on to Erin. She’s the wiz behind our design. 

Erin PonTell: I was the CMO of our previous company. I spent a lot of time in-stores, back when that was a thing for years. I’ve seen what’s out there. So when we decided to launch this said we wanted the agua fresca canned, specifically. It was the most environmentally-friendly packaging we could have. We wanted something different than what everybody else was doing, but also something that was culturally authentic. Kayla and I spent a lot of time scouring photos and brainstorming what Mexican inspiration we wanted to take. We settled on tiles because we both have a love for traditional Mexican tiles. We spent a lot of time on Illustrator and we have a few more coming out this year that Kayla and I actually like even more. 

In all honesty, back when we started this last summer, we had this great idea and we had no money. So, we’ve been really scrappy with everything. One really creative way to do things was to send one can of each flavor to people. And packaging that was a weird challenge because boxes weren’t quite right. 

So, we ended up coming up with these tubes that were really cool. We came up with this drink kit, a press kit, that comes with a straw, two cans, and a coaster all sealed up in a tube. It was really unique and it was born out of having no money. But it actually ended up being something way cooler than sending out a box of cans. 

Kayla Castañeda: I think another creative solution for us is the incorporation of QR code on our cans. We really wanted to have a way to have a brand extension component to our product. And for us, having a QR code links our cans to outside content. Whether we use it to ask survey questions or suggest recipes or other content that we’re creating, it pairs up our physical product with our digital presence. So, that was a creative solution that we came up with. There’s this whole other element to our brand that people are unlocking. Like Erin mentioned, when you start off not having a lot of money, it’s the little things like that that go a long way to enhance the drinking and overall brand experience. 

So, is it just the two of you working on Agua Bonita? 

Kayla Castañeda: Yeah, it’s just the two of us. The craziest thing is Erin and I have only ever met once in real life. So, we talk to each other everyday. 

No way!

Kayla Castañeda: Yeah! So, we talk to each other everyday. But we have only ever met once in our lives. We both live in California but we’re about 3 to 4 hours apart. We’ve gotten together for formulation testing. It doesn’t feel like we don’t know each other. But yeah, we’ve only ever met each other once. 

Erin PonTell: I think I talk to Kayla more than anybody else in my life. 

Having only seen each other once in your lives, and then,coming up with all these ideas and rolling out a new brand during a pandemic, what makes you guys work so well together? 

Kayla Castañeda: I think it’s two things.

One, Erin and I both have the dedication to put out a product that we can be proud of. Sometimes, we get a little nit-picky about things. But that is only because we’re so dedicated to putting something out there that is top of the line, something we can very much hang our hats on and be proud of.  We work well together because we both want to put out the best.

Another thing is we have complementary personalities and skill sets. I would never be able to put our design together on Illustrator. And it just shows you the caliber of our partnership because we complement each other’s strengths. We communicate all the time, especially since we work remotely. Having constant communication goes a long way. 

Erin PonTell: I think we both have very similar outlook on things. We both really want to do something that’s high in quality and top of the line.

We both have such distinct skills and we can separate the tasks out to divide and conquer pretty well. Kayla knows people who can get the physical cans and has all these connections because of Coca-Cola, and I work behind the scenes, making the website and stuff like that. We’ve been both really lucky that we’re able to run the spectrum of things between the both of us.

What advice would you give other people who are just starting out in the industry? 

Kayla Castañeda: Be prepared to sacrifice – but that comes with every business. But especially CPG, specifically beverages. Also, take stock of the world and realize that even if you have a down season or some hiccup with what you’re pursuing, a lot of other people are in the same boat. Don’t be discouraged. Realize that there will be a high level of sacrifice that you need to put in trying to make it work. 

Erin PonTell:  Make sure that you absolutely love what you’re doing. Don’t just do something because you think it’s going to make you money, because A, you’re not going to make money for a long-time. The money you do make is going to go back to making your product.

And B, it makes a lot of difference if you’re working, as Kayla and I are, in the middle of the night, around baby schedules and weekends. I’m constantly doing stuff for our company because I absolutely love it and it’s fun for me. If it’s something that I’m slogging through, we would not be where we are. I know it’s so cliche and everybody says that but it really is true. 

Kayla Castañeda: There’s a quote from a Clubhouse conversation with Elon Musk where he said, “If you need words of encouragement, don’t be an entrepreneur.” You have to love what you do. You will make sacrifices and you will not always have a cheer squad behind you. But as long as you love it, then you’re set. 

Speaking of working on it – this can be a personal or duo question, what do you think is the strength of Agua Bonita right now and is there something that you want to improve on? 

Erin PonTell: Demand and supply! I don’t know if you know, but there’s an aluminum supply shortage around the world right now. 

Kayla Castañeda: Our biggest strength is having a culturally authentic product. We’re the first product that’s a healthy option in this category. And the strength of that comes from leaning in on our vision. 

Erin PonTell: Just to add to that, I think creating a product for ourselves as a market. As we’re making decisions, we constantly ask ourselves, “what would I drink? What do I like?” Because we have experience and we have a target market, we’ve been able to make those decisions pretty quickly and successfully. 

Looking forward, where can we expect to see Agua Bonita in a year’s time? 

Kayla Castañeda: We will see Agua Bonita available in retailers nationally. We have a very approachable and accessible brand, and I want to see us become more approachable and accessible by making us available at your local  grocers

Erin PonTell: Being able to walk into any store, ideally with no pandemic, and see our products on the shelf on a trip somewhere, is the dream!

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