A curious Thirst

One simple question led an educator into entrepreneurism.

By Rodney Wilson | Photography by Scott Beseler | Published May 8, 2018
Patrick McGinnis

Patrick McGinnis ('08, '13) thought he was going to be a teacher. As a social studies major, he earned a bachelor’s in secondary education from Northern Kentucky University first, then returned to the university for a Master of Executive Leadership & Organizational Change (ELOC) a few years later. And he was pursuing his Doctor of Education (Ed.D.) in Educational Leadership at NKU when life stepped in and showed him that the real lesson was his to learn.

And it all started with a question.

“I went to my nephews’ soccer game, and they had big carts of drinks,” says McGinnis. “They’re chugging Capri Sun and things with a lot of sugar, so I was like, how do we find a better alternative? I am not a food scientist by any means, but there’s got to be a better alternative.”

He may not be a food scientist, but McGinnis knows a bit more about the beverage industry than most concerned uncles—upon getting out of undergraduate school, McGinnis encountered an unhealthy educational job market, so he took a career detour into drink delivery.

“I would interview at places where I had enough of a connection to get that interview, and getting even a call back was tough,” he says. “So I started doing some subbing, then I was very fortunate that a friend of mine who worked for Heidelberg Distributing said, ‘While you’re interviewing, if you’re looking for a job, we’re looking for sales professionals.’”

McGinnis was hired for what he calls “the worst job at Heidelberg” and found himself learning about the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry while stacking cans on weekends and holidays. He still held out hope of one day becoming a teacher, and he enjoyed coaching high school basketball, but McGinnis was moving up the ranks of the beverage industry and enjoying the work.

Thirty bottle

Then came the soccer game. McGinnis was dogged by the question of a better sports drink and set out trying to locate a solution. “I started doing research,” he says. “I’d go to Kroger or Whole Foods and look for different alternatives, and what I couldn’t find was something that was healthy and tasted good.” He realized what he was really looking for was a version of popular electrolyte beverage Pedialyte that was actually enjoyable to drink. “There’s a reason why kids are drinking it and parents recommending it,” he says, “but I think it tastes like crap, to be honest. So I was like, how do I take the ingredients of Pedialyte and make it taste good?”

McGinnis knew that if he could actually realize this goal, he would have a product that he, with his beverage skillset, could take to market. So even though he was working full time and pursuing a doctorate degree, McGinnis decided to go for it—but what that meant, he really wasn’t sure.

“It was literally like, ‘how to start a beverage company,’” he says, miming typing on a computer keyboard. “People laugh, but I honestly didn’t know what the first step was.” He decided that formulating the taste should come first (“Anybody can design a package,” he says. “That’s just marketing 101”), so he reached out to a friend of a friend, an Atlanta-based mixologist named Dr. Prem Vermoni, for help. The two taste-tested different recipes for months until they found a flavor profile that met McGinnis’s standards. “The fact that it actually tasted good was like a check plus. That, for me, was the game changer.”

After settling on a formulation, McGinnis reached out to college friend and area entrepreneur, Sean Herron ('09), to help build the brand of his new product, which he dubbed THIRTY for the fact that it only has 30 calories. He contacted Fifth Third Bank Endowed Professor of Entrepreneurship and the director of the Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship, Rodney D’Souza, for advice. He also met with his old boss and friend, Vail Miller Jr., CEO of Heidelberg, who offered him a distribution contract. A deal with United Dairy Farmers came next, which put THIRTY’s two flavors (raspberry/cherry and tangerine/orange) into 188 tri-state stores. And recently, THIRTY made it into Kroger stores, an agreement that will get the beverage line in front of grocery shoppers across the East Coast.

McGinnis Thirty

And while the experience has been an education in multiple areas, the main lesson is that McGinnis is an entrepreneur at heart—and he learned it by jumping headfirst. “The last piece was, am I willing to give up a career that I’ve worked really hard and fought for to just start from scratch again?” he says. “It truly was a leap of faith. The unknown was crazy, and I did it. I put everything I had into it.” Now in business for just more than a year, McGinnis looks back on the experience in awe.

“It’s pretty crazy,” he says. “One thing that I can say I learned over the course of time was, a lot of people that I know who are entrepreneurs kind of fall into it. Rather than just, I want to be my own boss, they found something that there’s a need for. So that’s what I fell into. I saw this demand and the longer I’ve been part of this company, I realize I’ve made the right decision.”

THIRTY recently released three new flavors—lemon/lime, acai/blueberry and strawberry/watermelon—and McGinnis is looking to expand into school cafeterias where, because of the drink’s low sugar content, it’s permissible under the Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act. He’s thinking of ways to increase THIRTY’s already-impressive community involvement and growing the company’s East Coast presence. McGinnis is always thinking of ways to take his product to the next level—and beyond.

“I want to be one of the biggest brands in Cincinnati,” he says. “When people come to Cincinnati, I want them to think about THIRTY drink and say, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s where they’re from.’”