Everyday Empires: Joline Rivera's Rbel Bee Sweets
Joline built Rbel Bee Sweets on the idea that honey is better than sugar and is here to tell us how
Welcome back to Everyday Empires, your weekly interview series spotlighting everyday founders. Today, we're sharing the story of Joline Rivera and her venture, Rbel Bee Sweets.
Personal health challenges led Joline Rivera to create Rbel Bee Sweets, a brand that’s redefining snack time. Joline’s path from tackling insulin resistance to launching a honey-based snack line exemplifies her passion for healthy, natural alternatives. Follow her @JolineRivera on X.
This newsletter comes out once a week—and you can support me by subscribing, forwarding to a friend, or even just clicking the “like” button below 🏼
Hi Joline, thanks for being on Everyday Empires! To kick us off, can you tell us about your business? What is it, what problem are you solving, and who are you solving it for?
Rbel Bee Sweets is a healthy honey snack brand.
Why honey? Because HONEY IS BETTER THAN SUGAR.
On average Americans consume 20 teaspoons of sugar (80 grams) per day. Seventy-five percent eat too much sugar and 18% meet the criteria for obesity. Refined sugar is very inflammatory and has zero nutritional value. These statistics are backed by research.
We’re not asking people to give up sugar… technically honey IS sugar. BUT, it’s also a functional food. It’s nutritious but has benefits beyond its nutrition—it’s anti-inflammatory, antiviral, and antibacterial.
Rbel Bee Honey Gummies is an all-natural gummy, sweetened with honey combined with other functional ingredients, like saffron, vanilla, and blue oyster mushrooms. Rbel Bee Honey Gummies is proof that sweet snacks can be healthy and taste incredible—our gummies have benefits beyond satisfying a sweet tooth.
What compelled you to start your business? Was it obvious to you at the time that you should start it, or were you on the fence?
A few years ago, I was training for a triathlon—swimming, biking, and running nearly every day. You’d think I’d be the picture of health, but it was the exact opposite. The harder I trained, the worse I felt. I gained weight, inflammation filled my body and I felt sick most of the time.
My doctors made it worse. Instead of listening to me, they questioned and doubted me. “Are you being honest about what you're eating?” they’d ask.
Then I found a 25-year MD and functional medicine specialist. He not only believed me, he told me he could help. He ran some blood tests and found that I had insulin resistance—I was on the verge of type 2 diabetes like many in my Hispanic family. Instead of prescribing pills, he wrote me a food prescription. It was an incredible list of functional foods I could eat, and a list of foods to stay clear of, like refined sugar. In six weeks, I dropped 20 pounds of body fat, completed my triathlon and a few years later I’m no longer at risk for diabetes.
This is when I learned that food is medicine.
I still WANT MY SWEETS. That’s when I turned to the bees...
Can you briefly walk us through the steps you took to take Red Belly Honey from an idea to a real product in customer hands?
This is exactly when I started Red Belly Honey—when I learned that bees were adding hemp to honey naturally. The benefits of hemp and honey both are huge and I knew I wanted to share if I could. I also knew very quickly that Red Belly Honey was too singular and required too much education. It’s also a big risk for some stores to sell a product with hemp—and I quickly began R&D for the first two years of running Red Belly Honey to launch what I knew was more easily understood.
In late February of 2023, I launched Rbel Bee Sweets. I had gathered the data on my audience, I knew what people were looking for and I knew I had to show them the other uses, benefits, and how convenient it can be to enjoy honey and sweets.
Editor’s note: The first product Joline launched, which she mentions above, is Red Belly Honey. This is a CBD-infused honey (infused by bees!). Joline leveraged customer feedback and insights to go on to launch Rbel Bee Sweets which is focused on providing honey-based sweets (no CBD).
Do you have any key financial metrics, customer feedback, or other indicators of performance you’re comfortable sharing with us?
Red Belly Honey was difficult to get into stores, and even harder to get distribution, however, our online sales were great—but not necessarily a great way to scale the business like we wanted. Our AOV $128, our Reorder Rate 45%, and our COA was $13. We gathered thousands of positive reviews only to be asked by Square (our payment processor) to take them down or be shut down. This is one of MANY obstacles in running a CBD business.
It’s crazy how much we can do now that we’ve launched RBEL BEE SWEETS. We were able to go into the Sweets & Snacks show for the first time this year (they don’t allow CBD). Not only allowed in but nominated for an Innovation Award. In the nine months since we launched RBEL BEE, we’ve gone into 200-plus stores, have been nominated for three innovation and taste awards, have on-boarded with USFoods and have another big announcement coming.
I understand you prioritize regular exercise, eating well, and getting plenty of sleep. How do you manage that while also running three companies?
It’s really easy. I put it myself first. Sleep, nutrition, exercise—in that order. Nothing will ever get done if I’m not well rested or worse, sick.
Before I launched our CPG brands, I ran my own creative agency—I’m very familiar with what it takes to turn off my desk light, close my computer, and walk away with no guilt.
I learned a long time ago to make myself a priority. I come first because if I don’t—I’m no good to anyone or anything. I make sure I’m meeting my trainer 3 times per week, I run on my own a few days, mostly because I love to see Lake Michigan no matter what time of the year, and more than any of that, I make sure I get at least seven to eight hours of sleep.
People often ask me if I always eat healthy…the short answer is no. I eat what I want, when I want but I also make sure I don’t go overboard. I know when I need to clean it up.
Health is eating well, exercising, and sleep but wellness is doing what makes me feel good. Wellness can be a run, a good book (most of the time both), a warm blanket, snuggling with my dogs, a good movie, dinner with friends…or ice cream.
When I’m working, I work hard. I’m loading/unloading boxes, packing shipping orders, and much more. There’s nothing in the company I haven’t done. I hit the ground running every day, but I would not represent the brand well if I didn’t talk about what it means to set boundaries for myself, say NO when I need to, and never accepting anything less than what I deserve.
I heard you have a “take your shot” moment every day. Can you tell us more about that? What role has it played in your journey?
This is huge. I’m never afraid to ask for something I want. I can’t remember how long I’ve known that “two out of three is good—yes, no, and maybe” I live by that. I will talk to anyone, ask for anything, take a chance, or go for something whenever I have a chance.
This has been huge for me and the team—I have investors and opportunities with people that even surprised me. It’s how I got into college after setting out on my own as a teenager. It’s how I made it through college, my master's degree, landed my first job, how I worked for Food Network, moved to Chicago, art directed shoots for some of the most influential Fortune 100 companies and then launched Red Belly and then Rbel Bee Sweets.
It’s how I’ve ever done anything. It’s never occurred to me I can’t, so I keep taking the shots.
Have you experienced any low points as a founder?
Every. Single. Day.
There isn’t a day that goes by that something doesn’t happen. It can be anything…the printer messed up, the honey didn’t arrive, the order was canceled, the store rejected you, your team is having issues, and we forgot something important. It’s frustrating, sometimes maddening, and sometimes it feels like taking a bullet.
BUT—I grew up in a dysfunctional environment, I learned how to count on myself at a very young age, perseverance is second nature to me. I’m so grateful for that—this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I don’t focus on things for very long, I mean, I can’t. I might never get out of bed. I have to keep going. I have to get back up and try again. Just because something doesn’t work by drawing a straight line, I’ll go at it another way. Eventually, I’ll make it happen. It might take me longer, but I always get there.
The most recent was finally feeling okay to pivot. I read somewhere that nearly 50% of startups pivot and that pivot leads them to success 70% of the time. It took me a while to feel proud of this pivot. At first, it felt like failure but I realize now what we’ve accomplished in the last eight months was a HUGE lift and I’m really proud of my team and I. We are doing it.
And what are the best things about being a founder? Have you had any “pinch me” moments?
You wouldn’t believe who I’ve had conversations with—or who’s eating our gummies. I can’t disclose them now, but if you had told me I’d be talking to them I would not have believed you.
Outside of that, we were recently awarded the QUEENS CHOICE AWARD from the National Honey Board that recognized Rbel Bee Honey Gummies as one of the most innovative food and beverage of the year! I mean, damn, that’s pretty great considering I started it in my kitchen.
We concur - that is pretty great! Let’s say someone reading this is considering launching their own packaged food company. What’s the best piece of advice you could give them?
Figure out your intentions before you start, don’t use your own money, and know what you’re signing up for is one of the hardest things you’ll ever do. Make sure you’re ready for it. Startups, whether launching, running, or being dedicated—it’s not for wimps.
Are there any key resources (online communities, websites, services, books, etc) you’d suggest they check out?
I was fortunate enough to find, meet, and talk with a bunch of people in the middle of the pandemic on Clubhouse when there was nowhere else we could go. I feel so lucky to have had this opportunity and window of time. I’ve met and talked to so many incredible people in the CPG1 space.
Find the people who inspire you and make more than just connections. The great ones will be your mentors, people who inspire you, and if you’re lucky, your friend. They will give you time when you need it most.
Before we wrap, is there anything about your journey we haven’t covered that you’d like readers to know?
I remember going through a VERY rough patch and I made the mistake of confiding in someone who doesn’t understand what it takes to be a founder or risk it all in a startup, or what I’m working toward. Instead of getting good advice or support and strength to keep going they told me “you know…it’s okay to quit”.
My disappointment quickly turned into something else, it infuriated me. Anyone who tells you it’s okay to quit is secretly hoping you do. I will never forget this conversation as long as I live—I should thank them for adding fuel to my fire. And someday I may reach out to clue them in. Being motivated is one thing but when you’re dedicated to something, quitting is never an option.
That’s a wrap
A massive shoutout to Joline for sharing a glimpse into her journey! Before you leave, be sure to check out Joline’s venture and follow her:
Thanks for reading! If you enjoyed this issue of Everyday Empires please click the “like” button below. Every like helps this newsletter get in front of more future founders ❤️
Until next week,
Thanks for reading! This newsletter comes out once a week—and you can support me by subscribing, forwarding to a friend, or even just clicking the “like” button below 🏼
CPG stands for “consumer packaged goods” and refers to products that consumers use regularly requiring frequent purchases to replenish, such as food and beverages.