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The Entrepreneur Bringing You a Different Kind of Buzz

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

Mariah Wood, recent graduate and co-founder of Tilden Cocktails, wants you to find deeper, more magical social connection.

It’s my first time meeting Mariah Wood (MBA ‘22), and after I climb the old stairs up to her apartment, she greets me with the easiest question I’ve ever heard: “Do you like chocolate?”

I nod, she dashes into the kitchen, and I ask her husband Brad about the art on their walls. He points to the one in the middle, a soulful blue and gold piece reminiscent of Picasso’s Blue Period. “Mariah did this one over the holidays last year.” Then, getting animated, he leafs through a few framed pieces on the floor which wait to be arranged on their gallery wall. He finds what he’s looking for and hands it to me. “Check out this one. This is from Mariah’s grandma.” It’s a black-and-white infographic guide to fabric and their use cases. “At first I thought it just looked cool, but it’s actually been really helpful.”

Ten minutes later, Mariah emerges from the kitchen, holding a wooden platter with glasses filled to the brim with frothy, deep chocolate. She looks at me with huge, expectant eyes as I take my first sip. It’s paradise: deep, sweet, and creamy. “It’s incredible,” I say, and her whole face lights up, delighting in my delight. “Isn’t it?” she gushes, and then dives into the story of how she got this chocolate from a small artisan shop in Utah and teaches me what the different notes in the bean are. Before business school, she was a management consultant, and sometimes she would buy hummus and bags of pitas for her meals and use her dinner money on the fanciest, most interesting chocolate bars she could dig up in her work cities.

All of this adds up to what makes Mariah the entrepreneur she is. In her own words, “I want to create magical moments.” Mariah is the co-founder and Chief Operating Officer of Tilden Cocktails, which sells a suite of non-alcoholic cocktails. Creating something special, “the moment at a party that everyone will remember a month from now,” drives her leadership.

Why non-alcoholic beverages? For Mariah, it’s simple. “I believe people should have options.” Drinking alcohol is a key part of many professional and social events. Tilden aims to provide options for consumers to engage in these activities without consuming alcohol. “We at Tilden are helping drive forward a cultural change towards being yourself. We support that authenticity instead of feeling like you need a mind-altering substance to achieve personal connection.”

Mariah Wood is a great spokesperson for the brand. In her own words, “I can dance on a table sober. I don’t need the alcohol.” Many consumers feel the same way, and the non-alcoholic beverage market is growing. Recently, there have been major acquisitions of startups in this space by alcohol behemoths, including Diageo, which owns Smirnoff, Guinness, and Captain Morgan. Researching this growing market and defining its core customer segments were the first things Mariah and her co-founder, Vanessa Royle (MBA ‘22), did.

Mariah and Vanessa met at an HBS pitch night their first semester. Vanessa pitched a single-serve, non-alcoholic imitation of a classic cocktail in a can. Mariah jumped on board, and together with two others formed a team for the HBS Startup Bootcamp during winter break. This dedicated time to develop their idea was crucial to its success. According to Mariah, “Ideas alone aren’t worth anything. Barring some really specific IP, if you can tell someone your idea and they can execute on it before you, then you probably weren’t the right person for the idea.” She declares the best first step for an entrepreneur is to set aside time to learn about the idea’s space and test hypotheses. Startup Bootcamp, for Mariah and her team, was the best way to get their concept beyond ground zero.

Startup Bootcamp wasn’t the only HBS resource Mariah and her team used. When asked about the most useful campus resources in her entrepreneurial journey, she started by ticking off a list of classes. Startup Operations, Creating Brand Value, and How to Price Anything were first off her tongue. She also did an independent project with faculty member Martin A. Sinozich, who teaches several HBS classes and is a mentor to founders. Mariah also cites a classmate who gave Tilden a crash course in design principles and iLab as a help for legal resources. Additionally, she and Vanessa spent the summer between their RC and EC years as Rock Summer Fellows, working on their startup full-time.

Her advice to current HBS students interested in starting a company right out of business school is to dedicate time to it. “Make a list of your ideas that are half-baked, and give yourself a few hours each week to look at the market.” The most challenging part about creating a startup as a student is how low-risk it is. According to Mariah, it’s almost too easy to say “I’m working on a startup” as a student. It’s difficult to decide how to allocate time, both the hours in a week and the precious exploratory summer between RC and EC years. For RC students, Mariah has some clear advice: “don’t waste that summer doing something you could have learned about without spending three months on it.”

During their EC years, Mariah and Vanessa prepared pitch materials for investors and hit the pavement right after graduation. Last month, Tilden closed its first fundraising round. They raised nearly $600k from angel investors, family, and friends. Mariah demystified the process of fundraising, an effort that relies on, in her words, “contacts of contacts of contacts.” She explains, “We would start with an advisor from school who knew us well, and they would connect us with so-and-so, who would connect us with someone who was interested in the space. You have to have six or seven calls before you find someone who is the right fit.” For the administrative work, they used SAFEs for angels and a rollup vehicle in AngelList for friends and family, which Mariah says “makes it a lot easier from a legal and paperwork perspective.”

Now, Mariah is focused on finalizing product development. “It’s not a linear process. We have had prototypes, sold prototypes, but getting the product to something you want to bottle and produce en masse is tricky.” Harbus readers may know these prototypes under an earlier company name, Jasper Cocktails, which produced three ready-to-serve non-alcoholic cocktails. Taking something that worked on a small scale and transforming it for a larger scale is both an art and a science. On the scientific end, the pH and sugar content of the drink must fall within certain ranges. The art side is where Mariah as creator of magical moments comes in. She teaches me about an “interrupter,” or the spice that hits the back of your throat, and what makes you want to sit and swirl your drink instead of guzzling it. We run through the beginning, middle, and end of drinks, and I’m transported into a world where I don’t have to settle for sodas or, the horror, a Shirley Temple every time I’m at a work party.

“People who don’t understand the space say, ‘Oh, You’re going to bottle some juice.’ No! We’re going to change the culture of drinking,” Mariah exclaims in a video for Tilden, her eyes wide and sparkling. Her enthusiasm and vision fills a room. A few weeks ago, we were both at a lake house with a horde of HBS families, and people were laughing and connecting, not a drop of alcohol in sight.

“Where’s Mariah?” someone asked, and someone else suggested checking the basement. From down the stairs, we could hear the pulse of upbeat techno music and see tiny flashing lights in reds, yellows, and greens. Happy shrieks revealed the scene: Mariah, leading a dance party for a cadre of three-year-olds, creating for them a magical moment.

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