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Lisa Carter/MEDILL

Greater Than founders Mark Sider, left, and Jon Sider demonstrate their "Greater Than" arm sign. The brothers started the local business in 2010 in hopes of creating a new sports drink with a coconut water base.

Brothers create sports drink, strategy 'Greater Than' their expectations

by Lisa Carter
Feb 13, 2013

Greater Than drinks

Lisa Carter/MEDILL

Three of the available Greater Than drink flavors include grape, original and tropical.

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Three years, two brothers and one passion comprise the formula that is Greater Than, a coconut water-based sports drink business created to fill a niche in the beverage industry.

Its tropical tasting formula has catapulted the startup to local fame with distribution in Chicago grocery stores. Its founders have made appearances at local sporting events and have struck up an unexpected friendship with former Chicago Bulls player Brian Scalabrine.

“We’re young guys who are constantly athletic and conscious of their health, out there with no previous beverage experience, chasing a vision and dream with passion,” said Mark Sider, 32, the oldest of the two brothers. “It’s all of those components that make us sort of a perfect story to penetrate almost an impenetrable market.”

It was in 2010 when Mark was introduced to coconut water while practicing Bikram — or “hot” — yoga as part of his professional golf training regimen. Mark and his younger brother Jon Sider, 27, thought the drink would make a good natural, low-sugar and high-electrolyte beverage that was unlike anything currently on the market. With savings from their previous jobs and a loan from family members, the two launched Greater Than.

The brothers took their idea to Bob Murray, former director of the Gatorade Sports Science Institute in Barrington, and with him created a formula that would qualify Greater Than as a sports drink. From there, the duo consulted with representatives from Imbibe , a Wilmette-based beverage company, about how to buy and source ingredients. Their first offering was the original flavor, and the brothers now produce four additional flavors: berry blue, grape, orange-mango and tropical.

The Siders started selling Greater Than at local independent retailers such as Sunset Foods and Mariano’s. Eventually, they began distributing the drinks to sports training facilities and larger grocers such as Jewel/Osco. Each 20-ounce bottle costs anywhere from $1.99 to $2.50, and 12-pack cases on go for $26 to $30.

The brothers generated $1 million in revenue last year, and Mark said they are “still on pace with that number” for 2013. Revenue should increase as distribution to new retailers expands.

“The goal is to get into as many stores as we can locally as we build some awareness for the brand,” Mark said. “We’ve got a really good story to tell corporate stores now that we’ve done well in the independents…You build that story in Chicago and take it to a new territory. That’s sort of the game plan, and the marketing sort of follows suit.”

The brothers’ marketing strategy began with their logo, which Jon said is based on the recognizable “greater than” symbol-- >. Mark and Jon, who have business degrees from Indiana University and Tulane University, respectively, said whatever they learned in school couldn’t prepare them for operating a small business. They started using grassroots marketing to spread the word about the brand and continue to do so three years into their venture. They even added a third employee and friend, Craig Samsky, to help with their marketing efforts.

“It was old-fashioned pounding the pavement, knocking on doors, telling people our story, getting involved with the community high schools, runs and sporting events and developing associations as an athletic brand,” Mark said. “That’s what we’re still doing today as a Chicago, healthy sports drink [business].”

Last year Mark and Jon dropped off a note and drink samples on Scalabrine’s doorstep with little expectation of a reply. Scalabrine, known as a fan-favorite benchwarmer, reached out to the brothers and an unexpected friendship was formed. The former NBA player has become a face for Greater Than by starring in YouTube videos advertising the drink on the company’s website even though he isn’t paid.

“Scalabrine for us was like an outside-the-box [opportunity],” Mark said. “[He’s] probably not someone a lot of companies would necessarily associate themselves with but he’s a perfect fit for a startup, for us. We’re hustlers, and he’s a hustler and he’s an NBA fan favorite…We’ll definitely try and utilize him where we can in the future, and we’ll definitely look to other athletes who genuinely like our product.”

Several other professional football and basketball players are fans of Greater Than, according to Elias Karras, owner of EFT Sports Performance in Highland Park. Karras, who has been a trainer to Mark since 1998 and Jon since 2000, said he used to provide Gatorade to his clients at EFT but now distributes only Greater Than drinks and water.

“When the guys started making the drink, they were bringing it into our facility,” Karras said. “We had athletes pick and choose what they like and what they didn’t like. With the first batch they started selling, I started having some of my more elite athletes try it, and they fell in love it.”

Karras said professional athletes who are Greater Than supporters include the Chicago Bulls’ Luol Deng and Chicago Bears’ Matt Forte. He believes the brothers will gain a larger following as they promote the brand.

Although Mark and Jon have been in business for several years now, they still face a number of challenges, including expanding distribution nationally and fierce competition from bigger, more established brands.

“We kind of naively jumped into [the business],” Mark said. “It was a chance to take a shot at something. Once you jump in, you start digging in a hole, and there’s no way to turn back except keep climbing up. That’s what this was. We did a lot of research, and we knew it was going to be hard. If we knew what we know now, we probably wouldn’t do it, which is the great thing.”

Jon agrees.

“When Mark says that, I don’t think he really means it because we’re now three years and just a couple months into the whole process, and a lot happens over that period of time,” Jon said. “But that’s the way it is. You don’t know any better until you start doing it yourself…Our belief is still the same. We just know how hard it is, and you don’t know until you try.”