Mill Creek firm is zipping right along

MILL CREEK – A zippy name, unique packaging and healthy bent have helped to propel a locally invented energy drink to stores shelves nationwide and sales that are leaping by the millions.

Zipfizz is a powdered energy drink mix that comes in a small plastic tube, ready to be mixed with water. With no more than 10 calories, a couple of carbohydrates and no sugar, it’s won over fans who want a boost from something other than coffee or soda.

Among the things Zipfizz does have are lots of vitamins B12, B6 and C, along with potassium and magnesium, and some naturally occurring caffeine.

“Once people try the product, they generally love it and give it to other people,” said Riley Livingston, the 38-year-old owner and chief operating officer of Zipfizz Corp. “It’s a catchy product.”

Catchy enough that it’s grown from about $2 million in gross sales during 2004, when it was first sold, to an estimated $25 million by the time 2006 ends. It’s carried by Costco, 7-Eleven and QFC stores, among others.

Making and marketing a sports and energy drink isn’t a unique idea, obviously. But many of them, especially the ones in cans that have popped up everywhere in the past few years, are little more than “caffeinated sugar water,” Livingston said.

Zipfizz was different from the start. Originally it was born “somewhat by accident” out of a product made by Livingston’s other company, BioGenesis Nutraceuticals.

BioGenesis, based in Mill Creek, has been selling products only to doctors, dieticians and other health care practitioners since 2000. An electrolyte replacement drink mix developed by the company was Zipfizz’s inspiration, Livingston said.

“A couple of gentlemen here were using it a lot and said ‘We should repackage this and make a retail product out of it,’” he said.

That was in 2003. Zipfizz, which comes in citrus and berry flavors, went on the market at the start of 2004, snagging a spot in Costco stores just a few months later.

“We did a presentation at Costco and they kind of fell in love with it,” Livingston said.

That helped to kick-start Zipfizz sales, but the company also has used creative “guerilla” marketing to introduce its product to a wider audience. The company has a presence at many summer and fitness-oriented events, from the Bite of Seattle to marathons and beach games. It sponsors softball teams. There’s the Mz. Zipfizz hydroplane, and the company has brightly painted vehicles, including a Hummer, that show up at events.

It also has recruited product sample presenters across the country to let people try Zipfizz at countless Costcos and other venues.

As a result, Zipfizz has developed a loyal, in some cases, enthusiastic following. It’s appeared on many online lists of “cool” products and generated word-of-mouth buzz. The packaging alone can elicit a “What is that?”

John Johnson, an assistant theology professor and Baptist minister in Portland, Ore., decided to try Zipfizz after seeing it at Costco one day. He’s now a fan of the citrus-flavored product, each tube of which mixes with 16 to 20 ounces of water.

“I enjoy it. I love it because, with who I am, it keeps me firing on all cylinders,” said Johnson, who’s not a big drinker of coffee or soda. “It gives me the boost I need.”

Appealing to a relatively wide customer base has contributed to Zipfizz’s success. While many canned energy drinks market themselves with extreme sports or other male-oriented themes, Zipfizz has found fans among a wider group, Livingston said.

“We want everyone to use our products,” he said, adding that the customer base also seems to be nearly almost evenly split between men and women.

The healthy aspect of the drink mix compared to other energy drinks is a particular selling point.

It contains 41,667 percent of a person’s recommended daily value of vitamin B12 and 833 percent of the recommended vitamin C. Both are safe and water-soluble, meaning that any extra that’s not absorbed by the body just passes through, Livingston said. The caffeine comes primarily from guarana seed and green tea in the mix.

“It’s a great alternative to coffee,” said Livingston, who grew up in Montana and earned a health sciences degree at Seattle Pacific University. “This gives you energy, and it puts minerals back in you instead of taking them out.”

While Zipfizz officials want to add retail outlets, right now the company is focused on moving from a small space in Bothell’s Canyon Park area into the same Mill Creek building that BioGenesis occupies.

That will give Zipfizz more space for its growing distribution and office operations. The mix itself is made at an East Coast facility that has special machines to carefully fill the product into small plastic tubes.

Reporter Eric Fetters: 425-339-3453 or fetters@heraldnet.com.

Zipfizz Corp.

Headquarters: Mill Creek

Owners: Riley Livingston and Brian Winn

Number of employees: Nine, plus more than 150 independent contractors nationwide

Founded: 2003

Web site: www.zipfizz.com

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