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JUUL Founders' First Marketing Boss Told Us the Vape Giant's Strange, Messy Origins

"I'm probably still on some don't-fly list."

by Alex Norcia
06 November 2019, 8:50am

An early ad for the Ploom device that preceded JUUL. Images courtesy Kurt Sonderegger

This article originally appeared on VICE US.

Kurt Sonderegger had been working at Red Bull for the better part of a decade when he got a cryptic note on LinkedIn. He typically didn't entertain messages from recruiters, but happened to be swinging through San Francisco from his home in Los Angeles and agreed to chat with two men who said they were starting a tech company.

There, in the summer of 2007, the same year Apple released the first iPhone, Sonderegger met Adam Bowen and James Monsees. Business partners and friends who met at graduate school in Stanford, the pair were also cigarette smokers who wanted to create a technologically savvy alternative to their habit. Nearly a decade would pass, though, before Bowen and Monsees's signature product, JUUL, began to dominate the e-cigarette market.

Sonderegger, who now runs his own vaping company, Cafe Racer—and still has a financial stake in JUUL—said he was their first hire. Back then, he recalled, it was hard to imagine the duo getting caught up in a wave of accusations about marketing to teenagers, not to mention a deadly vaping epidemic across the country. (Vaping illnesses have largely been tied to illicit THC cartridges rather than nicotine products, but there's still some lack of consensus about the cause, and the CDC has advised people to stop vaping in the near term.)

When he got involved, Sonderegger said, there was no JUUL—theoretical or otherwise. Instead, Bowen and Monsees had the idea for the "Ploom"—a heat-not-burn device that shares more similarities to Philip Morris International's IQOS than it does to the vaporizer that has since become inescapable. The vaping industry was still relatively young then, and the feds were making noise about imposing more aggressive regulation on tobacco products, he recalled.

"Due to this type of environment, we were very cautious about making any health claims—that they were healthier, safer, [would help you] quit smoking, etc.," Sonderegger said. "We had a compliance officer from the very early days to make sure we didn't do or say anything that might land the company in the crosshairs of the regulators."

It was in this atmosphere that Sonderegger said he ultimately accepted a job to be in charge of marketing at Ploom—despite the fact that there was no real prototype yet. He stayed with Bowen and Monsees until 2011, when, he said, they were increasingly focused on the Pax, a vaporizer that is now mostly associated with cannabis. By the time the USB-like JUUL—which has spun off into its own company, JUUL Labs—hit the market in 2015, Sonderegger was long gone.

VICE recently caught up with Sonderegger for some perspective on Bowen and Monsees, the origins of JUUL, the crisis happening in the present day, and the future of vaping. A spokesperson for JUUL Labs declined to comment for this story.

This interview, comprised of multiple conversations over the phone and via email, has been edited for length and clarity.



VICE: What was your first meeting with the JUUL founders like?
Kurt Sonderegger: I was what I would label as a "conflicted smoker" then. I smoked, but I surfed, and I was also eating healthy. It was kind of like this monkey on my back.

Anyway, when I sat down to talk with Adam [Bowen] and James [Monsees], I remember it was sort of weird. Because normally I would never want people to know that I smoked. But I reached down to empty my pockets, and I took out a pack, and was, like, "Oh, shit." And they just laughed.

They didn't even have a prototype. They basically had a rendering, and they summed it up as: The problem of smoking is not going away. Nicotine replacement therapies are largely unsuccessful. And you still had smoking rates of 20 percent.

They explained, too, that the ritual was probably just as important as the nicotine delivery itself. Therefore, they wanted to create something that would preserve the ritual and eliminate the harm. I thought that was a great idea.

Did you know anything about vaporization?
I knew a bit from the weed world—I knew about a [popular cannabis vaporizer called the] volcano, like really stupid stuff. But I was intrigued, at least enough to take a second meeting. And, eventually, I decided to leave a pretty damn good job. I was in Los Angeles then, and I ended up quitting. Adam and James needed a little bit more time, so I took a month or so off and went surfing in Bali. Then I came back and got going.

What was the first day on the job like?
I showed up, and Adam and James were like, "We're going to The Home Depot." We were going to buy doors to build our desks [ laughs]. Clearly, it had nothing to do with actual work. We were sanding the doors, staining them. It was very, very early on.

Again, there were no prototypes. I remember us building the first few prototypes of the device, which was then called a Ploom.

How many people are there at this point? Is it really just you?
It's really just the three of us. That's it. We eventually brought in another guy, Alex Ko, who graduated with them, to help us with the design—like what exactly does it look like. And then we went into packaging. A couple engineers joined on. We were in a shared office—not like a WeWork, but more like someone knew a guy with a startup who had some extra space, so we just shared the office with them.

They told me they would be ready to launch it in six to nine months, but of course that turned into a year, and then 18 months, and then two years. I was the marketing guy, so we had teased out the logo and packaging, but there still wasn't really anything to package or really even test.

After that, we really started playing around with flavors.

So, wait: Was it nicotine-driven? What exactly was the Ploom?
Think of it, really, like a miniature hookah. Inside the pods was actual tobacco, with a little bit of flavoring. And we made a conscious decision not to add [extra] nicotine. E-cigarettes were barely around.

There was some concern potentially that by adding nicotine we might be then under—by creating a drug delivery, instead of just heating tobacco, [we were doing] something different [vis-a-vis potential regulation].

Are you a current or former JUUL employee, or do you know something about the company or vaping industry that we should? Using a non-work device, you can contact Alex Norcia securely via Signal at 201-429-7024 or email at alex.norcia@protonmail.com.

Was there any acknowledgment during the Ploom era that flavors might appeal to teenagers, though? Was that discussed internally?
That was never discussed. Again, we were looking toward the hookah world, which is still a multibillion dollar market, and following that model. There's a reason we have flavored hookah. Because tobacco is boring, and not really the greatest flavor. It was just about enhancing the experience, because the better the experience, the idea was that it would be better to switch from combustible cigarettes.

We did play around a bit with adding nicotine in our office setting, to see what it was like. In time, we finally got a prototype and found some beta testers—

Who were they?
Friends and family, that sort of thing. We sent some off to Burning Man—like, does it work for you out in that harsh climate? Can you keep a little diary of how it went?

We started doing events—what we called "Ploom Tastings"—where we brought 20 to 30 devices. People would come in—you'd hand us your ID, or something—and you could try it out, with as many pods you wanted. They were little aluminum pods with almost a trace amount of tobacco. The thing is, and I used to battle specifically with James over this, the Ploom was such a clunky device.

How so?
It was powered by butane, not a battery. You had to literally take cans of butane and fill this thing up without spraying yourself. If you were going to fly with it, which I did a couple of times, and you were going through the airport with butane [ laughs]...

That doesn't sound ideal.
I'm probably still on some don't-fly list. Then, if you tried to start it, too, and your finger was in the wrong place, you would sort of get like a shock. There were a lot of pain points.

What was the general view, at Ploom, on government regulation? Was there any fear about it?
There wasn't fear. There was just caution. In the sense that we didn't want to do anything to get the FDA [the Food and Drug Administration] coming after Ploom for any reason. So, for example, the six flavors, instead of "Peach," we called it "Orchard." "Gold" was actually like a bourbon tobacco. It was about being smart—about staying ahead and thinking about what might come back to potentially cause us problems.

Adam and James, those guys weren't, like, on the fringe. They're coming from Stanford; they're trying to do things the right way. I don't think they did what Uber did, where it was just, like, "We're going to do this, and fuck everyone"—

You're saying they were more careful?
Yeah, much more cautious.

How else was the Ploom advertised, though? I'm referring, somewhat implicitly, to this "small, dark, and handsome" ad you sent me.
[Laughs] Well, that was really interesting. That was before we announced anything. At the time, e-cig forums were huge; they were like an early version of Reddit, exclusively for the vapers. That was just exploding. A lot of these guys were offering information about how they were hacking and modifying their devices.

I posted something on there—maybe it was that "small, dark, and handsome," I can't recall—but it got a lot of hype. People talking about it, that kind of thing. It was more or less a strategy to get some feedback from that growing community, which, to be honest with you, Adam and James didn't think was going to work. They greatly discounted the potential for what e-cigarettes could be then.

"Small, dark, and handsome," though, was definitely a placeholder on the website for a long time.

Did people actually buy the Ploom?
Sort of.

When we pushed it into the market—I mean, this is in San Francisco, so we're talking, like, 10 to 15 stores, everything from liquor stores to smoke shops—there weren't any vape shops. We were getting a lot of feedback. Adam and James, they were a little too close to it, and they wanted to catalyze butane as a power source. They thought if they could corner the market that this was going to be the way to do it; it was the way the technology was being driven. Eventually, though, they did realize [from the feedback] that they would have to totally redesign [the Ploom], and that it would take 12 to 18 months. And as a marketing guy, you know, I can't sit around for 12 to 18 months doing nothing. So that's basically when I left. This is in 2011.

Before I did, though, there was a serious huddling up, and we brought in some outside consultants, to figure out how they were going to fix the Ploom. But interestingly enough, a lot of the presentations they would show to, like, investors, they would present the device, and someone would, like, lean over and ask, "Does this thing work for weed?" [ laughs] I think after hearing that like 20, 30, 40 times, Adam and James probably said, when they decided to make the pivot, that they would focus on Pax first and then would circle back with a battery-powered Ploom.

Were you using the Ploom then?
Well, I would battle with James quite a bit, because I would be "Plooming" all day—as we called it —and I would still have to go out and have a cigarette. Or I would use the two of them together, to get as much nicotine as possible. So I think they quickly realized that the lesson learned was: They had to make it much simpler and much more satisfying.

How were you guys getting money to do this?
The first investor—it was really just one guy. His name was Riaz Valani, and he had an angel incubator. He was patient. He was at the office a couple of times a week, and, like, three years in, we still had a product that was a complete failure. He gave us maybe a million dollars, and then maybe one or two more. We had enough to attempt to show that the product would be viable. Then, yes, the board got bigger, with more VC guys. Again, that was around the time I left, in 2011.

Then the big one was—I remember when they hired me, actually, I said that I'd accept the position as long they promised me that they'd never take money from Big Tobacco [ laughs]. Already, in 2011, it was when Japan Tobacco (JTI) came in, investing $10 million. The reason that they were so interested in Ploom was because in Japan e-cigarettes are illegal; e-liquids, that is, are not legal. The heat, not-burn is, which is why IQOS launched there. They were very interested, then, and eventually did launch it in Japan.

Let's fast-forward, now, to the present day: What did you think of the JUUL when you first saw or heard about it?
The evolution has basically been e-cigarettes that look like a cigarette to these mods—you had these big devices with the clouds. It was really a niche thing, and it became overly complicated and dorky.

What they did with JUUL was really smart. So instead of clouds and all these buttons and bulk, they did make it as simple as possible and as satisfying as possible. The satisfying part came with the advent of nicotine salts, which really changed the game completely.

Because of the amount of nicotine they were able to put into the pods?
It's actually the type of nicotine. So freebase nicotine, [the type derived from tobacco plants and] which is in almost all the vapes you see, nicotine salts are changing the pH levels—and tobacco companies had been doing this for a long time. The faster [nicotine] goes into your bloodstream, the more satisfying it is, and, unfortunately, the more addictive.

So the speed at which nicotine from a cigarette and nicotine from a JUUL enters the bloodstream is almost the same?
Exactly. I remember my wife—she was returning from Ukraine, on a long flight, and probably dying for a cigarette—when she landed, I put a JUUL in her hand, and she never smoked again. I watched her switch in front of my eyes.

Do you have any reservations about having a financial stake in the company as it faces criticism about allegedly targeting teenagers? It's a claim that JUUL itself, of course, has long denied.

It's a huge problem. It's a black eye for the industry. And it's a problem that—and this is just my opinion—needs to be addressed adequately. The flavor ban that's very likely going to come out from the Trump administration [as early as Tuesday] won't be able to necessarily stop teenagers from getting their hands on products. The way to stop teenagers from getting a hold of products is to have rigorous age verification online and in retail stores. That's what we do with cannabis, right? Why aren't we applying that here? I have no idea.

But how do you deal with the fact—and this is something on a lot of skeptics' and critics' minds—that Altria has a massive stake in JUUL, and now all the JUUL executives are being replaced by ones formerly with Altria?
The thing with Altria was a bit of a head-scratcher at first, to be quite honest. I'm also a shareholder, so when I left my job at Red Bull I got a pretty substantial pay cut, but a decent amount of equity.

Now, Altria owns 35 percent of JUUL.
Everything is for sale if somebody offers you enough [laughs].

I know you're not there, obviously—but do you think that purchase and the subsequent Altria executive replacements changed things culturally at JUUL? Is it just another Big Tobacco company now?
I don't buy that. I think they probably still have the mindset of being more of a tech company. I mean, for one thing, who wants to tell their parents that they just got a job with Big Tobacco?

Did you have that thought, you mean?
Yeah. When I took the job at Ploom, I thought, like, How am I going to tell my mom and dad? "My son, the tobacco executive," doesn't really roll off the tongue so well. Culturally speaking, I remember when James, Adam, and I were joking around when we would go outside with our [Ploom] devices, thinking, Is Big Tobacco looking? Are they watching us already?

The attacks have clearly been coming so fast and furious on JUUL. My opinion became, well, maybe Altria is going to be a good partner to defend from the never-ending onslaught of attacks: First, it was the teenage vaping epidemic, and then the deaths and hospitalizations.

Adam and I still talk pretty regularly—and he told me that the new CEO was a decision made because he was the best man for the job. Not only, I believe, to protect the company, but to protect vaping as a viable alternative to smoking to try to save lives. That doesn't make it any easier for the people working there, sure. It has to be pretty tough for the team.

You know, in San Francisco, people want to throw rocks at the Google bus.

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