Mark Cuban might've nearly spit out his product on national TV, but Josh Belinsky, DMSB'18, never had any doubts about his business.
In November 2023, the co-founder of Slate (alongside fellow Husky Manny Lubin, CAMD'15) was named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list for Food & Drink for their innovative line of protein-packed, lactose-free milkshakes and iced coffees that are also good for the environment.
But before Slate reached Forbes-level success (to date, over 15 million cans have sold at more than 12,000 locations, including Walmart, Whole Foods, and Wegmans), there was that infamous—nay, iconic—”Shark Tank” appearance.
In this exclusive interview with Forbes, Josh Belinsky discusses his company Slate and its founding, along with his experiences on the TV show Shark Tank. He also explains ‘authentic sustainability' and looks ahead to Slate's future.
“I always tell people, ‘Nobody thought the Sharks made a mistake more than our parents,'” Belinsky says. “Every year my mom jokes, ‘You sure you don't want to just go back on there and let them know how good you're doing now?'”
Picture this: It's pre-pandemic and the very early days of Slate. Belinsky and Lubin had what they felt was a good product on their hands. They'd successfully raised funds on Kickstarter, which was how they caught the attention of “Shark Tank” producers, who thought the bright-eyed entrepreneurs were 100 percent TV-ready. However, Slate hadn't gone to market yet. Then, on a Los Angeles sound stage, Cuban balked at the taste, and Mr. Wonderful wasn't a fan either. Not ideal feedback for the burgeoning entrepreneurs who left without a deal, but Belinsky and Lubin took the feedback and soldiered on.
After filming, the pair tweaked the formula. “We have what Manny calls a relentless pursuit of the best-tasting product we can create,” says Belinsky. “Before that day, that was probably the 75th iteration. We've probably tweaked it a couple 100 times, and we continue to improve it all the time to make it as close to a delicious chocolate milk as we possibly can.”
Chocolate milk? How? And, more importantly, why?
Sometimes starting your own business is equal parts having a good idea and straight-up magic. And here's where the magic comes in.
Though they were both Huskies and would later realize they'd grown up 15 minutes apart from each other, Belinsky and Lubin didn't meet until after Northeastern.
“We think we had some mutual friends, but technically, how we met was through (work),” says Belinsky. “We would just catch up once a month and see how we could help each other,” recalls Belinsky. Over one of those talks, they realized they'd both gone to Northeastern. Both were into health and fitness. Not the craziest of coincidences. But they both shared a lifelong passion for chocolate milk, which they thought they couldn't indulge in since they were both lactose intolerant and trying to be healthier.
But what's really wild, notes Belinsky, is that once Slate was coming together, the duo realized that their mothers knew each other and worked their first jobs together at Boston's Brigham and Women's Hospital in 1989. (And they share the same birthday!) If ever a company was fated to be, it might be Slate. Even so, launching a chocolate milk company is far from kids' stuff.
Belinsky was originally skeptical about a line of lactose-free chocolate milks. “I was like, ‘That's a cool idea. I think it's hilarious. There's no way it'll work,'” he recalls.
After a lot of thought and market research, the pair decided to focus on Slate full-time and haven't looked back. A high-protein, high-electrolyte drink that appeals to athletes, it's no surprise that Slate recently inked a deal to become an official UFC partner, and Belinsky sees even more opportunities to break into the athletics market.
Q&A with Josh: ‘Your relationship with your co-founders is everything.'
We recently sat down with Belinsky to pick his brain for advice that may help inspire Northeastern's current crop of groundbreaking entrepreneurs. (The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.)
What were your biggest takeaways from the “Shark Tank” experience?
Even though the product was probably not an A++ according to [the Sharks'] standards, we still thought it was a great product, and it allowed us to put something in front of people to get feedback on what they didn't like to improve it. My advice would be: Don't get stuck, just get something out there. Manny and I also learned that there are going to be things that are, we say, “great for the brand but tough on the ego.” We had to go get roasted, but that episode let us get the brand in front of millions of people. With the fact that it reruns all the time, it's still a great thing for the business.
What other lessons have you learned along the way?
The absolute most important thing that I try to pass on to everybody is your relationship with your co-founders is everything. It's a marriage. You're in it. Our whole lives are put into this business. I end up talking to Manny probably 20 hours a day; I probably talk to him more than I talk to my fiancé. One of the things that we've heard from other founders is about who makes the final call on things, so we decided early on what our strengths are. I run the retail sales and finance team; he runs all things marketing, brand, and product. At the end of the day, if we disagree on something in whichever category it's under, that person makes the final call, and the other person has to accept that. Nobody's ever gone to bed angry.
On having patience as an entrepreneur.
Manny and I were kicking around the idea in October of 2017—so, six years ago. Our first pilot run was in December 2018, and then we launched the business in the fall of 2019. So, we've been in the market for four years, but Manny and I have been working on Slate for six. Patience is a hard thing—Manny and I like to just go, go, go, go go. But while you're waiting, you need to be thinking, “How do you push the business forward at least one inch every day?” For us, we drew a 16-block chart on a whiteboard in Manny's apartment, one for each category—HR, legal, investment, etc. We wrote down four or five things in each section of what we could do to push the business forward and tried to cross off at least one every single day. And so that way, you're making progress.
At what point on this journey did you quit your day jobs?
We did nights and weekends until May of 2018, when I graduated. And then I went on a graduation trip with my girlfriend at the time—now fiancé—to Greece for 10 days. I had an epiphany there that Slate was what I was meant to be doing. When I got back, I quit my job. The first week of June 2018 is when Manny and I went full-time. We didn't launch a product until September 2019, so we went a year and a half with no product. We were living off a mix of our savings, me caddying, and Manny coaching youth baseball.
On setting a sustainable mission.
Manny and I both believe great businesses don't just improve people's lives, but should also strive to improve the world itself in one way or another. Sometimes, that can be by donating money, other times by using sustainable materials or ingredients, or even spending time as employees doing what you can to improve our planet. Early on, Manny and I decided we wanted our primary packaging to be in an aluminum can because it's one of the most sustainable types of packaging. One of the things we're most proud of about Slate is that all of our products are 100% plastic neutral, meaning for every pound of plastic used in our packaging, a pound of plastic is removed from the planet.
What can entrepreneurial Huskies do while at Northeastern that will help them later on?
Having strong relationships with professors and staff at Northeastern is key. People are sometimes shy, but if there are people that you admire or they're in a position that you want to be in, just reach out, DM them on Instagram, reach out on LinkedIn. Some of my closest advisors and friends were cold outreaches. Still, to this day, I talk to at least five new people every week. So, don't be afraid to put yourself out and build your own personal board of advisors.