Julian Hearn is the founder of Huel, a nutritionally complete powdered food. Everything your body needs and nothing more.
Find out how he used a PR agency to kickstart a £2 million business.
In this episode, we discuss:
- The signs to look out for to determine if you are in a growing industry.
- How to use a PR agency to kickstart a marketing plan.
- What you need to prepare before working with a PR agency.
Listen to Shopify Masters below…
- Store: Huel
- Social Profiles: Facebook | Instagram | Twitter
- Recommended: Bold Apps Recurring Orders, S Loyalty, Spently, Basecamp
Felix Today, I’m joined by Julian Hearn from Huel.com, that’s H-U-E-L dotcom. Huel sells nutritionally complete powdered food, everything your body needs and nothing more. It was started in 2014 and based out of the UK. Welcome Julian.
Julian: Thank you very much, Felix, very pleased to be here.
Felix: I’m excited to have you on. Tell us a little more about Huel. What is it exactly that you sell?
Julian: It’s a powdered food. It contains all the vitamins, the minerals, the protein, carbs and fats all in a single product.
Felix: Very cool, how did you come up with this? What was the idea behind starting a business like this?
Julian: Well, I’ll have to give you a little bit of a background story. Basically, I ran a website in 2018 which, sorry, 2008 which I sold in 2011. That previous business, that was a voucher code website. What happened was I sold that did very well from the money from the sale. I took a little bit of time out. In 2012, I started a company called Bodyhack Limited. That company was meant to be like a fitness comparison site. We were going to try different fitness programs and different diets to see which ones worked and which ones didn’t.
We were going to run various different people through these different programs to prove some worked and some didn’t. You were then able to buy the program at the end of that the ones that worked, clearly. I was one of the guinea pigs for the first one. During that time, I did a three-month program. During that time, I dropped from twenty-one percent body fat down to eleven percent body fat. I did no more exercise than I did before. It was just basically, what I was eating that made all the difference. I was weighing all of my food and got everything really spot on in terms of nutrition. A lot of my friends wanted to replicate that, wanted to do the same. They asked me how I did it. I told them.
I said I was eating about five meals a day. I was cooking all the meals myself from fresh. I was eating this type of food, mostly like animal protein, a lot of vegetables and a little bit of carbs. They basically, said they couldn’t do it. I sort of understood. It was very tricky if he was working full-time to do this. That business didn’t really get traction. We ran that probably for about six months, didn’t really get the traction I wanted, so I started looking around for other opportunities and just realized that the food was so important what we eat in terms of our body composition.
My friends wanted a product. I started thinking, well, I’m using whey protein. It’s extremely convenient. It’s very easy to weigh out exactly what you need and made perfect sense. It was only just whey protein. There’s just one dimension. I started why can’t we put the carbs in there, the protein, the protein, the carbs and the fats in there and all the micronutrients into a single product? That was the genesis of Huel.
Felix: Cool, the business that you sold, just to go back to the beginning that you mentioned, 2008–2011, you ran a business. Was it in a similar industry as Bodyhack and now Huel?
Julian: No, it was completely different. It was more I suppose in America, you’d call it a coupon code website. It was an affiliate-type website where basically, we would collect codes in from merchants and we would display those discount codes as coupon codes on our website. People would pick those up, go to a store and get a discount off a product. I grew that company from scratch. I think there was about fifteen hundred pounds initial investment.
In the final year, we were turning, sorry, not turning over. The profit was about two, two point five million pounds. I sold that and used that money to, well, for the rest of my life I suppose I can virtually retire now if I wanted to. I took a little bit of time out. Then I got itchy feet as an entrepreneur. I wanted to go back in. That’s when I went back in and did Bodyhack.
Felix: That’s awesome. That’s definitely a super successful business already. Was it a hard decision to sell the business? What made you decide to move on from it?
Julian: It wasn’t really something I was super passionate about. It’s something that clearly was very profitable. It had very small overheads. From a business perspective, it was a really super simple business, really. Just as long as you could get traffic to that site, you could earn very good money. It was basically, an SEO play. There was a ton of competitors doing the same thing because of the advantages of the type of business.
The good news, I could run it from my house for the majority of the time. Then I eventually got a fairly small office with some staff. The downside was it was just not something I was super passionate about. I was more interested in health and fitness was something I’ve always been interested in. I wanted to do something that was probably trying to do good for the world rather than just a voucher code site, which made money, but didn’t really excite me.
Felix: You were looking for something that drove you more internally. Was this your first, this coupon affiliate site that you had, was this your first entrepreneurial project or did you have other successful businesses in the past?
Julian: Well, I think my mom showed me a photograph of me when I was about ten years old selling flowers outside the house. I listened to a podcast the other day that you did with a guy from Luxe Hair. I think he said the same sort of thing, that when he was about ten, he was selling flowers outside his house. I think my mom used to. She used to have leftover plants in a greenhouse. I think she used to give me those.
She said, “Why don’t you go and sell those?” I put them up. I’d make a little stall up and go and sell them out in front of the house. I suppose that was the first entrepreneurial thing. Really, after that, I basically, went through the normal route of going to a university, then get a normal job. Really, I didn’t have my first proper business until I was, I think I was nearly thirty-seven years old. That was the coupon code website.
Felix: I think that’s an important point to talk about. A lot of, I think it’s very popular today in media and the movies and TVs of these entrepreneurs, these startups that you have to be eating ramen or eating instant noodles and in your early twenties to run a successful business. It’s definitely a process. When you were going through these jobs or working the regular or kind of following a regular kind of path that most people go down, did you always have an entrepreneur itch or did you just wake up one day when you were thirty-seven saying, “I want to start a business?”
Julian: I suppose I always had it in the back of my mind that I thought I could do it. I suppose I just didn’t necessarily have the role models around me. Everybody I knew was just normal, working people. I suppose I didn’t see people running their own businesses and doing it themselves. There wasn’t an example there for me. I just thought I’ll just do what everybody else is doing, just do a normal job. I wasn’t a wealthy, don’t come from a wealthy background. I needed to pay the bills. I needed to get my own house and pay for my own car and those types of things. I couldn’t really see an alternative at the time.
What happened was I was thinking about thirty-seven. I started running the business before I left my full-time job. I started doing that in the evening for probably up to a year pre-leaving my job, just to prove that I could do it rather than just jacking my job in and just starting a new business. I wanted to prove to myself I could do it. I started evenings and weekends for probably a good year before I actually left, built the business up to certainly not very big, but enough so the money was coming in the door and thinking if I only had more time. If I had more time, I could do this.
What we did is saved up some money. I said to my wife, “I’m going to take six months. I’m going to leave my job. I’m going to take six months to have a crack at this business. We’ve got enough money in the bank to pay the mortgage for six months and pay all of our bills. At the end of that six months, if I’m not earning the same as my salary, then I’ll go back and get a job again.” That was the deal that I had with her. We agreed that. That’s what we did. Within three months, I was earning more than my salary. That was it. Thereafter, I just stayed in the business and grew it to my multimillion-pound business.
Felix: That’s awesome. What did you feel like you had to put in place before you were able to start your own business? Obviously, the quitting your job thing helped a lot because you were able to now devote a lot of time. Were there other things that were missing? You mentioned, too, that one big thing was that you didn’t see other role models, other people in your life that were following this entrepreneurial path. Then you started seeing that or started feeling that. What else did you feel like you had to put in place before you were able to take the leap into entrepreneurship?
Julian: I suppose I just needed to believe I could do it, I suppose. When you start doing it in the evenings, the beauty of the internet I suppose is that you can join affiliate programs and you can generate money that way. You don’t need to buy massive amounts of stock or anything like that. I didn’t need any stock or offices. You can just literally start. I started just to prove to myself that I could do this. When you start seeing the money coming into the affiliate programs, you can start seeing that, yeah, this is real. I can do this.
When that grew up to, I can’t remember what it would have been when I finished my job, maybe a thousand, two thousand pounds a month or something like that, started seeing real numbers coming in. You started thinking if I could do this full-time, if I could put everything into it, then I could maybe make that five thousand pounds a month or something like that. That’s what I needed was just evidence that I could do it.
Felix: I think one important thing to talk about is this idea of quitting your job and going in because you had this feeling in the back of your head or back of your mind that if you just had more time, you could grow the business faster. I think this is the stage that a lot of maybe listeners or other entrepreneurs are at where they’re trying to decide when is that point because there is a certain, I guess, stage of your business where time is a limiting factor. Sometimes, it’s not the limiting factor. How were you able to, I guess, identify that it was time that was the issue?
Julian: Because I think it was that year, that year that I’d spent I felt confident that I knew I could. I’d made some mistakes. I’d learned some stuff that I didn’t know. For example, say, my SEO skills, they were probably not up to scratch when I first started, but by the end of that year, I saw I could sit, get traffic to certain pages. I just knew that if I had more time, I could send traffic to more pages. I could actually optimize more pages. Therefore, I’d get more money. I knew that page was generating, I don’t know, a thousand pounds a month. Therefore, if I had more pages, I would get more money. It just felt the right time. I just felt confident.
I obviously, looked at some competitors who were earning a lot more money. I knew what some of them were earning very roughly. I could see their traffic and I could see they weren’t that much better than what my site was, but they just had more pages or they had more links. I just thought, well, if I could have more time, I would get more money. I just felt, you just get immersed in it. You get a little bit obsessed, I suppose. You just look very closely at other people at just a next ladder rung up the ladder than you. You just think, well, I could catch them if I had a bit more time.
Felix: You pretty much knew exactly how you would spend your days because what you were working on it was so directly tied to revenue, so directly tied to sales that you knew that if you just had more time to put into it, then it would actually equate to sales. I think that’s an important point because if you can’t imagine what you were to do with your time if you were to quit your job, I think it might be a little bit too early because you don’t have something that you could scale up just by applying more time to it. You were able to identify that, which sounds like the reasonable [augury 00:11:58] but to explode the business so quickly when you had more time.
Felix: I definitely want to move on for move into more of the ecommerce side. What lessons did you learn though, from running this business, either SEO wise or marketing wise, that you were able to grow such a successful, such a profitable business in just a couple years?
Julian: I think it was a right time. It wasn’t just me being really good. It was just basically, the right time as well, that everybody was becoming more aware of these types of coupon code websites. I got in early enough. There was lots of competition when I got in, but there wasn’t hundreds and hundreds of competition. A lot of it was timing. I did have a background. My full-time job was as a digital marketing person. I did have a lot of knowledge of that sector. I just felt that a lot of other people that I was competing with either they didn’t have that previous experience or they didn’t have … They got there through a little bit of luck as well, possibly and good timing from them.
I suppose it was just a race as such to grow and keep those positions. Google at the time was fairly easy. This may be a little bit over [rigging 00:13:08] it, but they were reasonably easy to reverse engineer and understand exactly what you needed to do to generate rankings, whereas now, because of Panda and Penguin it’s much more tricky to understand. At the time, it was something that you could understand. I need to get this amount of links. I need to get the quality content on the site. You could actually do that and realize what was required. As long as you were prepared to put the grind in to get it done, you could get the money coming in.
Felix: You mentioned that this is a lot to do with timing. Was it something that you saw coming or maybe the question I want to ask is for someone out there that is thinking about starting a business, getting into a specific industry, are there key tell, are there signs they can look out for to see that I am going to be riding out, I’ve found a wave that is going to be growing over time rather than flat lining or declining?
Julian: Yeah, I think there probably are a couple of signals. There is probably, one of the ones for me was people were starting to boast about how much they were earning in this particular space. When people start boasting about things, then you start realizing there must be some really good money there to be earned. It was just you just see it popping up. You see more and more popping up in different blogs people talking about it or even newspapers.
It’s difficult. Obviously, that you can be too early for things, but I think for this, just it’s very difficult to define exactly. You just get a gut feel that when something is a market saturated or being done before, yes, you can still enter it if you’ve got a different twist on it, but in general, this sort of sector wasn’t swamped at the time. There was a fair few people in there, but it wasn’t super professional.
Everybody was in there. You knew the real super professional people with money behind them was going to come, so I just jumped in and tried it for a fair few months. I did a whole year, but it wasn’t a whole year on the coupon code website. I did probably, I don’t know, six months before I left my full-time job. I just proved to myself that it could work. You just get a gut feel when you really immerse yourself in a certain space.
Felix: The window seems three years. It can seem long to some people, but it’s a very short period of time. That window is not that large for you to sometimes identify opportunities, get in. It looks like you got out before it got oversaturated. I think it’s definitely a skill that you can develop definitely a valuable skill you can develop. Then you also have to move quickly once you identify. You can’t just recognize it and take your time, either.
Julian: No, exactly.
Felix: Cool. Let’s move onto after you sold the business. You had some. You had a good amount of money that you could live off of or give you at least the time to start other businesses. Bodyhack Limited, tell us a little bit more about that. You just mentioned it was basically, like a heavy content site with basically a store attached to it as well.
Julian: Yeah, the idea was if you think about, I don’t know. In this country, we’ve got insurance comparison sites where basically you put in certain details and the cheapest insurance for you comes to the top. The idea was we’re going to do that for fitness programs. If you wanted a, I don’t know, a vegan weight loss program, you’d put those details in and we would have had ten, twenty different vegan diets and fitness exercise programs would have been trialed by people. The ones that had the best results would float to the top. That was the idea.
Then you could just click a link. Buy that particular program. You get the full details of what the person ate, and all the exercise they did. It just was very, very time consuming to produce each one of those programs. As I said, I was one of the guinea pigs for that. That was three months work. Really, you have to watch everything you eat, record everything you do, record all the exercise you do. It’s very time consuming. I just thought to scale this up, it’s either going to cost a load of money and just it wasn’t … The signals weren’t coming into me that people were really going to do this.
The first weeks we went live, I got onto the homepage of Hacker News. We got a ton of traffic, people buying the programs. I think almost in the first day, we’d done hundreds of pounds off of programs. I was just thinking, wow, this is going to go somewhere. That quickly died down again. We had about five male programs in the site. People wanted the female ones. We just knew it’s going to take another three months to put the females through the site. Just it was something you couldn’t do badly, if you know what I mean.
You almost needed hundreds and hundreds to start from day one. I didn’t want to commit to producing hundreds and hundreds of programs in case when I produced them people didn’t want to buy them. It was a little bit of a chicken and egg. I decided to not commit to producing hundreds of programs. It was going to cost me a lot of money. I shelved the idea. I slowly ramped it down and started looking around for other opportunities.
Felix: I heard this issue, too, on a previous podcast, which was about selling essentially digital products or products that are not necessarily physical and that you actually had to produce essentially, in-house. One of the biggest issues with that is that every time you want to create a new product line, you can’t just necessarily outsource it or else or it would be very expensive like you were saying. You had to constantly, be turning out your own content, turning out these different programs. Was that the biggest issue is just that the production of the product line, essentially, the programs was so heavy or was it the …
Felix: Was it? Because I think you said something previous, too, about how the customers of the clients, I guess, of your site, of your programs, it was also overly complicated for them?
Julian: I suppose somebody told my friends how to do it. For them, yes, sometimes it is too complicated. People want a quick solution to their fitness problems or their weight problems. This is why sometimes, the ones that do the best are the ones that tell you it is a quick fix. We’ve got a magazine here in the office at the moment. We get sent some free magazines. This is a one-week fat loss program. You’re not going to lose any fat in one week, but when you tell people that, it’s going to be say, twelve weeks of harder work, then they don’t want to listen so much.
I think that is a slight downside that when you tell the truth, people don’t want to be … It’s not as attractive to them. When people give a quick fix even though the people telling you a quick fix probably know themselves that it’s not going to work. People just like those quick fixes, but that’s not our attitude. We want to tell people the truth. For some people, it was too complicated.
Felix: It makes sense. From Bodyhack Limited, then you decided then. Is that when you realized that it was such a hard process to create these programs that’s when you decided to look elsewhere or how did you come across the idea of creating Huel?
Julian: The whey proteins were just so convenient. I just felt that it’s not the exercise that necessarily makes people lose fat. It’s ensuring they are consuming the right calorie, i.e. a deficit of calories. The only way to do that, if you think you’ve got a plate of food in front of you and if you weighed all of that food, it’s very difficult to know exactly how many calories you have if you’re guessing. If you’re guessing on calories, you’re certainly guessing on macro and micronutrients. You don’t really know what you’re eating. When I was using the protein shakes, it just made perfect sense.
I was just looking at it thinking, well, this I know exactly how much protein I’m getting. Why don’t you put my carbs in there and the fat in there and the micronutrients? It just made perfect sense. The one key thing for me as well is when I started talking to my friends about it, they said, “What are you doing next?” Usually, when I tell them about what I’m doing, they don’t take that much notice, but when I started explaining Huel to them, you could see their interest being raised. They were looking at me like, “I want to know more about this.”
I started thinking I’m not actually forcing this, forcing to tell them. They’re actually interested in it, asking me questions. I was a customer of the end product as well. I wanted that product as well. For me, it was something that I wanted. My friends were interested in it. They wanted it. I thought, well, they’re usually highly critical. They’re not going to be people who are just going to say to me, “Ah, that’s a wonderful idea,” when they don’t believe it. They’ll tell me if they think it’s rubbish. The good news was that I got those early signals that this was definitely something that would work.
Felix: This is a lesson that I’ve learned previously, too. That’s more I think in the software space, but I think this is really applicable anywhere, which is that when you’re selling things to people or selling products to people, you want to sell them things. It’s a lot easier to sell them things that end up reducing the work that they have to do than requiring them to do more work. This sounds like the kind of issue, looking back, hindsight is 20/20.
Looking on back on Bodyhack compared to Huel, Bodyhack required people to do more work by purchasing this thing that they’re buying while Huel when they purchased it, it reduced the amount of work that they had to do because now they don’t have to count all of these macros and calories and of that, like you were saying. I think that’s an important point to make is that you don’t … It’s a lot easier to sell something if it makes the person’s life easier, not necessarily harder. I think that’s an important point. When you started Huel, were there parts of Bodyhack that you were able to, I guess, use as a launching pad for Huel or was it a brand starting from scratch?
Julian: It was starting from scratch. The Bodyhack website still exists. It hurts me to think I’ve got to shut it down one day. I’ve kept it alive. It’s still there. You can’t actually buy their programs. I don’t even know why it’s still alive, but no, it’s still there. There was no launch pad really from it at all. This was a brand new business, as such, a brand new brand. I just knew that branding was going to be really, really important because food products, you can’t trademark or patent the recipes. I just knew in the long term, that brands can be really important. An example I would give is something like a Red Bull. There is lots of copycats of Red Bull. We just felt that, sure, we needed to have really strong branding.
Felix: It makes sense that branding is important. I didn’t think about that. Like you were saying, you can’t hide the ingredients. People can figure it out anyway. That’s why branding is so important. When you decided to start Huel, what were the first steps? Did you have to go through a period of creating the products? How do you even begin to create your own essentially food product?
Julian: The first thing was for me, because I’m not a nutritionist. I had worked with a nutritionist in the past, but I needed to find the best nutritionist I could find to work with to make sure the formula is going to be as good as it could be from a nutrition point of view. That was really important. I’m not in this to make money. Clearly, it’s a business, but this is not my … I don’t need to do that.
One thing I wanted to do is make sure I’m not making a crappy product. I wanted to make something that I was really proud of, so I wanted to find the best nutritionist I could. That was the first step was to find a nutritionist. Together, we put together the program put together the formula.
Felix: Was it a trial and error thing or did you guys pretty much know these are the ingredients you wanted and then just put it together that way?
Julian: James Collier, he’s got twenty-five years experience in nutrition. He works with NAA fighters. He works with strongmen. He works with bodybuilders. He really knows the industry really well. He just knows nutrition just so clearly that he really quite quickly, we put the formula together. Then he just knew what were good products. Our main carb source is oats.
It’s a natural product. It’s full of phytonutrients. It’s got protein, fats and carbs in it. It’s just a really, really good product. He just knew those sort of things straightaway. He knew that would be the core for the carb source. In terms of the balance of micro- macronutrients, he just knew everything straightaway. Pretty quickly, the formula we got today is pretty close to the original one we created pretty quickly.
Felix: Once you have this formula, do you have to go to a specific producer? When you’re creating a food product, how is it different than, I’m not sure how much experience you have with other kind of physical products, but based on your experience, how is it different than just getting clothing made, for example?
Julian: I don’t know about clothing. My background has always been pretty much website stuff. For a website, you can turn a website around pretty quickly. When I first started, we put the formula together pretty quickly, got the branding done pretty quickly. We got the website done pretty quickly. I just assumed the product would get done within say, I think, originally I thought about three months. It took us nearly a year to get to market. It was just so, so slow. Really, really physical products are just a different beast to websites. They’re just so much harder. There is so many more things to think about and just the industry. It’s just so much slower.
You don’t have control anymore. With a website, you can either code it yourself or get someone to code it or you can use a platform like WordPress or Shopify. It’s just a physical product is really so hard. It’s so frustrating. People would let us down. We had people even like really big, well known, multinational companies said, “Yeah, we could do this. We could do this.” We worked with them, multiple emails backwards and forwards, meetings. Then four months in, they said, “No, sorry, we’re pulling out,” and don’t even give a valid reason. It was just really, really frustrating.
Felix: If you had to start from scratch or start over again, and go down this process again, what kind of things would you make sure to do at least that were in your control to make it go a little smoother?
Julian: I don’t know whether there is. We’re making another product at the moment. We’re experiencing the same things over again. It’s so difficult. We’re making a different form factor, at the moment. We have to deal with different manufacturers. Our current manufacturer couldn’t produce it. We’ve been dealing with quite reputable people who deal with new product development. They’ve let us down. They worked with us for maybe on three months. The product they produced was just not up to scratch. That’s all just way off.
Manufacturers we’ve searched and searched and searched for multiple ones. We’re dealing with some at the moment that are making the right noises, but we’re still not there. We nearly had this product out last October. It’s going to be lucky if we’re out this October. Again, it’s another year to get to market. It’s just lucky that I had some money behind me. If you’re starting off, from scratch today, doing a physical product, you’ve got to be forewarned that it’s a lot harder to do. If it was my choice and if I didn’t have money behind me, then I wouldn’t go into physical products. I’d go into website stuff, make some money from those first and then go and try and do the physical product later.
Felix: Interesting, I definitely want to talk about that point, but before we move off of this topic. What goes wrong, I guess, in this process? What kind of thing should other entrepreneurs that are thinking about physical products or maybe even specifically food products, what things can they expect not necessarily, expect, but to look out for that might go wrong during this year-long process for you?
Julian: I think the first thing is the one thing after we just came up against brick wall after brick wall after brick wall we said to people. We said, “Why is this so hard to get something to market?” After asking multiple manufacturers, one of them did actually say. He said, “Look, the reason is we get approached all the time by startups or people with just an idea for a product and most of them are just flaky. They’re not going to come through with anything. Either they’ve got no money behind them or it’s just an idea they’ve got and they’re not going to market it right.
“They’re not going to, so, we’re going to spend a load of time developing their product where we could be making something for somebody that’s already successful. So, why would we spend our time to produce a product for you and then we make it. You order, I don’t know, a small batch of, say, five thousand when you usually are used to dealing with batches of fifty thousand, a hundred thousand plus. So, we’re going to make a small batch for you, so economies of scale when [we pour 00:28:18].
“We spend a load of time to develop it. Then you get that batch of five thousand. You go away. You can’t sell it because you’ve got no market or you just haven’t done your marketing right and we don’t get reorder. So, it’s just a lot of wasted time and energy for us.” That’s why. One of them said, “We get hundreds of requests every week from startups or from small companies, so in general, it’s just we just don’t touch them.” That was the only …
In terms of advice I can give, I don’t really know how to counter that. The only way you can do is you have to just keep banging away. Eventually, you’ll find somebody. Maybe just pick smaller companies, smaller startups themselves that are actually manufacturers or even consider making it yourself, which we’ve done with our latest product. We’ve actually started looking at a machine. We should do it ourselves. Again, that’s a big capital investment to do that. I’m not sure I can give very good advice, especially in the food industry. It’s just very, very tricky to get something to market that doesn’t exist today.
Felix: All their attention, all these attentions from the manufacturers are focused on their existing large clients than working with smaller brand new companies. It’s highly risky for them.
Felix: That’s why they tend to I guess divert resources from you or from new companies over to the existing relationships. That makes sense. Are there ways then that you’ve found to get manufacturers to I guess believe in you or believe in your abilities or believe in your company more?
Julian: Well, the last meeting we had, which went very well, we had to actually, I said, “Do you want to see our sales figures?” They said, “No, we don’t need to see them. We trust you.” I said, “No, I think I’m going to actually show you.” We got our sales figures out for the last twelve months. We started going through them and showing them to say, “Look, we’re not a Mickey Mouse company. We are legit. We will generate volume and we just need your help to get this product to market.
“And once we do, I’m pretty sure this new product will be more successful than our current one. So, we will generate these sorts of volumes and this sort of growth.” That’s what we can do now, but we’ve got that behind us. If you’re starting from scratch, you don’t even have that to use. It is even trickier. Luckily, what we did is we, if you search the internet and find manufacturers, you’re going to find probably the bigger ones first.
Sometimes, you have to start lower down the list for companies, which are smaller that you might not have heard of. They might be on the third, fourth, fifth page of Google. Try and find the smaller ones. Of course, they’re going to be keen to work with new people because they don’t have big clients at the moment. They don’t or they’re actually looking for clients themselves. That’s the only sort of advice I can probably give is you need to start with the smallest company you can find, not the first companies you find.
Felix: That makes a lot of sense because if you are the smallest client for a manufacturer the only way to grow sometimes when you’re brand new is go find a smaller manufacturer because then you become a much more, I guess, attractive client for them because they’re looking for more. They’re looking for clients. They’re more desperate, I guess, for clients than the much larger manufacturers. Do you recommend or do you personally go after or work with most of the manufacturers that wants to avoid this issue of people dropping out along the way?
Julian: Well, luckily, the manufacturer we’re working with at the moment has been very good to us. We’ve been with the same manufacturer for the last year. They’re very good. They do deal with other small businesses. We’re now their biggest client. They’ve got a dedicated manufacturing plant for us now as well. I’m not really sure what else they deal with in terms of smaller clients. I think that they were very surprised at our growth.
Therefore, they might be a little bit more open to dealing with new startups now because they can see that it can work. This is where manufacturers probably just shoot themselves in the foot a little bit. By turning everybody down, they’re probably missing opportunity sometimes.
Felix: After you were finally able to, I asked you before that while you were in the process of creating Huel for the first time over that entire year. Were you just putting Huel on the back burner or were you focused on the marketing? What were you focused on during that year while you were waiting for the product to be finished on the more sales and marketing side?
Julian: I don’t even know how that year passed really. We felt busy, but we didn’t achieve a great deal. It was a lot of time and effort trying to find people, trying to persuade people. We were working with people, but just they were letting us down. We were still working. It’s just they didn’t actually produce at the end of sometimes four months or we worked with other people for two months and going backwards and forwards, their offices up and down the country meeting them. We were busy in that time. We weren’t super, super busy, but we were busy.
I suppose the rest of the time I was just literally just pulling my hair out, getting really frustrated and trying not to get too frustrated because I think it just is a very slow process. You just have to just at the start of it I was very used to dealing with websites that I could turn around very quickly. I think that’s another piece of advice I’d give to somebody to just accept that it’s going to take a long time to produce something. Don’t get too frustrated and end up shouting at people or something like that because it just is a slow process.
They’ve got other clients to deal with. They’re not necessarily set up to do new product development. This is one thing that I did talk to some of the guys and say, “Why don’t you have a separate unit, like a smaller unit where you can just experiment and do smaller runs of products not having to go into the main production line where the demands are much higher in terms of initial numbers, so you can experiment and get some smaller businesses off the ground?” There just aren’t that many people who specialize in new product development.
Felix: Were you during this year then of waiting for something to be produced, were you driving traffic or building buzz around Huel?
Julian: No, no, we weren’t at all because again, it was just from Bodyhack I put quite a lot of money into that. That didn’t go anywhere. I suppose I was always a little bit hesitant to put too much money behind this one, especially when it’s not just my money. It’s my wife’s money and my child’s money to put it behind another product that might go nowhere. I was always a little bit hesitant. We didn’t spend too much this time until we actually got to market. Then once we started seeing initial sales coming through, then it was much easier to have that discussion to say, “Look, I’m going to put some more money behind this.”
Felix: Now that you finally got the manufacturer and you are ready to put some money in to invest into the business, how were you driving the traffic or the sales early on?
Julian: The early sales came through Facebook groups. Sometimes, that’s accidental as well. I went on a couple of Face groups. There is one Facebook group that was about startups. It’s quite big, about seventeen thousand. I can remember I just went on there asking. These are genuine questions. I wasn’t promoting Huel at all. I was literally just asking some genuine questions about how to do certain things. I mentioned we just launched. That was some of the earliest sales came through that.
Felix: This is it sounds to be, I guess, a more popular I guess strategy now. The Facebook groups all of a sudden have come back into the marketing I guess mix for a lot of businesses. Is that still something that you focus on? Maybe I’m not sure at this scale if you bother doing the Facebook groups. Is that a recommended approach for other entrepreneurs that are just starting out to get involved in these communities?
Julian: I think it’s definitely worth getting involved. I did that for my benefit in terms of the startup advice I was getting or the contacts I was getting rather than pushing the company, but certainly, I noticed that we were definitely getting sales from that group. Those initial sales could be useful. I don’t think it’s something that’s going to, as you said, drive significant sales. In your first early sales, they’re really important just to give you comfort that this is right place to go. I definitely recommend it for the really early days.
Felix: From there on, once you start getting the first sales in the door, it sounded like you felt more confident in investing more into this business. What was the next step? What kind of, I guess, marketing process or system did you want, did you envision setting up for Huel?
Julian: The PR was the next big that we did. We did. We got a PR agency and spent a bit of money on that. It wasn’t too expensive. That went really, really well. We’ve been on TV a couple of times. We’ve been in most of the national newspapers in the UK, quite a few magazines as well, quite a few blogs. That initial PR worked for us in two ways. One, it worked in terms of traffic and sales. It also worked in terms of credibility.
I think selling a food product is something. People are going to put that product inside their body. They’ve never heard of your company before, but if they can see a logo to say that this has been on the BBC, this has been on CNN, this been in the Daily Mail, I think it gives people a little bit more confidence that this is a legit product. It’s not something made in somebody’s garage.
Felix: Is the first step that you recommend others try, too, once they’re ready to start scaling up their marketing is to invest in PR?
Julian: Yeah, definitely, I think PR is something that the downside of PR that it’s not directly measurable and it’s not guaranteed you’re going to get anything. If your product is just not newsworthy, then probably not worth spending money on PR. You probably won’t get any PR, but if your product is interesting, newsworthy, and you find a good PR agency, then yes. I think it probably would be a wise move.
Felix: Do you think that you could have had some similar success with PR without hiring a PR agency or is this you think definitely highly I guess, advantageous for somebody to look for a PR agency?
Julian: I think to just kick-start it, I think it’s definitely important. We got quite a lot of PR or interest directly. We got called from some TV. We got called from some radio and some press just directly just because they’d seen us either through on Facebook or they’d seen us in other articles. I think if you don’t kick-start it, it’s quite hard to get it going. I think maybe even if your budgets are very small maybe. We only did it for the first three months.
After launch, we did it for the first three months and then we paused the campaign to see if we could survive without spending the money on the PR. That’s something which I probably would recommend. If you’re really short of money, maybe just spend a month or two. Tell the PR agency, “Look, I want to do a two months test. I want to launch this product with PR.” Ask them if they think they can get PR. If they’re confident they can get it, and you get the price and the price is right for you, then it’s definitely worth getting it because those logos of you being in the press will stay forever.
You can keep those forever. You will always have been in that publication. Similar to when they launch a film, you get those little quotes underneath the film saying the Daily Mail says this or the Guardian says this about a particular film and gives it a star rating. Those things do add credibility and do add confidence to the buyer. I think it probably would be wise if you’ve got an interesting product.
Felix: I like that that you’re mentioning hiring a PR agency to kick off this snowball effect of additional PR because once you have the features in these popular publications, then other publications are going to want to talk to you as well because they had discovered through there or you have all these amazing logos on your site. That gives you again, credibility with your customers like you were saying.
Then when you do want to go out and pitch to other publications, you have all this pedigree, essentially, that you can point to on your resume and say, “Look, all of these other publications have already featured us.” It makes it a lot easier to pitch. When someone does have an entrepreneurial business out there, wants to consider this, and you don’t have to reveal how much you paid, but what kind of budget levels do you need to at least be open to before this even makes sense?
Julian: I would probably say you can probably get it’s like anything like web development. You can probably get it very cheap. You can get it very expensive. I would say that somewhere between three and five thousand pounds per month will get you a pretty decent agency with a pretty decent campaign. I suppose in general, they charge around five hundred pounds a day for a reasonable agency. You’re basically buying the amount of days they’re going to put in per month. I suppose you could maybe get away with a day or two with some agencies, but most will probably want a minimum of say, five days. That’s two thousand five hundred, something like that.
Felix: It makes sense. How should you prepare? What if you are about to hire a PR agency, are there things that you need to make sure that you’re ready to do so you can take the most advantage of these days that you’re purchasing?
Julian: I would say you definitely, need to have some photographs ready. I had to get some headshots for myself. Obviously, you want to get some good shots of your product because what they’re going to do, if they’re going to write about you, they’re going to want a picture of yourself, the founder. They’re going to want a picture of your product. They need to be good product shots, not something you photograph yourself. I’d spend a little bit of money on those. I’m not talking mega money. You can probably spend as little as twenty-five pounds per shot from a good local photographer.
You need those. You need to have obviously, they’re going to produce a press release for you, but you need to work with them on the first press release and also write a good summary of what the product is and the benefits that it offers. Somebody would hopefully write sometimes the benefits and what the product is in your words because sometimes they just take what’s straight from the press release.
You need to get those things really worked out first before you start issuing it, get the stories straight and such. That’s it really, I think. I suppose the only other thing is sometimes such as doing these podcasts, sometimes, I’ve done a couple of these now is buy yourself a half decent microphone. I hope this sound good today. Those types of things can make you sound a bit more professional, hopefully and that should be enough.
Felix: I think that’s a great preparation plan because you don’t want to end up spending five hundred pounds a day and all of a sudden spend, waste the whole day not having everything prepared and not make the most use out of the campaign that you have set up. One thing you mentioned earlier was about before you even consider using PR as a marketing channel your product and your company, your business, you need to have some kind of story. It needs to be newsworthy. Can you talk a little bit more about that? How do you know if your product is actually newsworthy or not?
Julian: I suppose you’ve just got to think from the journalist’s point of view. There is millions of products out there. They get approached everyday by somebody selling a new product like a, I don’t know, a new beer or a new drink or something like that. You’ve got to think what is the angle from them? What are they going to write that’s newsworthy? Huel was newsworthy because the angle they took was to say you can replace all of your food. You don’t need to eat food again, even though Huel is food. It’s just in a different format. It’s not traditional food in the sense of it’s a powder. You can’t see what’s there.
Some of the news stories were about the Matrix. In there, they have a product, which is everything you need in a single meal. They could have a little bit of fun with it. They could actually play with it whereas if you just said, “I’ve launched a new beer and it tastes better than other people’s beers,” that’s not newsworthy. If you said, “I’ve launched a new beer that’s,” I don’t know. There’s been new ones recently that have got brandy in them or vodka in it, something different.
Those sorts of things, sometimes, but if you said, “I’ve just launched a new beer and all of our stuff are,” I don’t know, different in some way, then that might be newsworthy. You’ve got to think it through from the journalist’s point of view. Can they play with the idea? Is it something they can associate with something else? Is it a growing trend of something? If you just launch a new product, you want to get the press, but the press don’t want to write about you.
Felix: Even if they were to accept a story about you and/or even if the PR agency was able to sell it to a publication if it’s not newsworthy or interesting, then you’re not going to get the, I guess, publicity or you’re not going to get the, I guess, virality from it anyway because no one is going to be interested in hearing about another beer product. It needs to have some kind of story behind it. That makes a lot of sense. Let’s talk about actually running the business itself. When you started it, it was just you and then you had a cofounder. When did you guys start scaling the team up?
Julian: Pretty quickly I think because the orders started coming in quite quick. I was picking and packing the orders myself. I had a very small little warehouse. I was doing that myself. Quite quickly, I just couldn’t handle the orders myself. The delivery van would come in at 2:00. I was rushing around all morning trying to pick the orders, put them in the boxes, make sure the order was correct and send emails to customers. Just quite quickly, it became too much. I took on an assistant.
Together we used to do the orders in the morning. We used to do work in the afternoon. Then quite quickly, it was ending up taking the whole day. We weren’t able to do any work apart from picking and packing. Then what we did we outsourced the fulfillment to a fulfillment house, which then freed up our day totally. That then me and the assistant could work full-time on growing the business. Then we just slowly scaled from there.
Felix: How do you make the decision to, what’s your thought process or decision-making process around outsourcing a task versus keeping it in-house or maybe even just keeping it within you?
Julian: It was the simple calculation, really. What we worked out was the delivery charge we were being charged plus the cost of the box, so what we did is worked out it’s going to cost us this amount to deliver. I think it was, off the top of my head, say it was six pounds plus there is the time that it took to do each box. We had timed how long it’d take us to do each box, the cost of each box, the packing that goes into each box. We totaled that. The fulfillment house was slightly more expensive. Then we just believed that our time was worth more than what that slight increase was. Therefore, it’s just a simple calculation.
Felix: It makes sense. Now, what do you, I guess, spend your time doing? What is your day-to-day like when you wake up, walk into the office? How do you spend your days?
Julian: Well, the thing is there’s five of us in the office now. When I first started, I ran the business by myself. The month, sorry, it’s amazing how much time just get swallowed up just doing different things. For example, when we first launched, I had looked this morning. The orders per month, we’re now doing three thousand seven hundred percent more in last month than we did equivalent of June 2015. It’s grown extremely quickly. It’s just so much more to do. Everything scales up.
There’s more customer service. There is more Facebook. There’s more replies and more social media. There’s more photography to acquire. There’s new product development. It’s just a myriad of different tasks. Then you’ve got more team to manage. You’ve got to instruct them what to do. I don’t know. Sometimes, I don’t know what I do do. I just know I’m incredibly busy. I just struggle to keep up with my emails at the moment.
Felix: It makes sense. How successful is the business today? You said the three thousand seven hundred percent growth from last year to I guess the previous year in comparing those two months. How successful is the business today?
Julian: In the first twelve months, we did have over two million pounds in revenue. We have sold over one point five million meals. This is five-hundred calorie meals. We’ve got over two hundred thousand visitors to the website per month. We’ve got tens of thousands of paying customers. That gives you a rough idea of the scale.
Felix: That’s amazing. What would you credit this fast growth to? Because these are obviously, amazing numbers, but even more amazing within just a short timeframe, especially the two million pounds you said within the first twelve months. Was it just all PR? What would you credit it too, as well, just growing that quickly?
Julian: I think it’s a product that people wanted. I don’t think people even knew that this product could exist. We’ve done quite a good job making it, again, into the press and making people aware that this product exists, but I think people just wanted this. I think there’s so many people. What we often say is clearly, whole food is, if you get a nutritionally complete meal.
If you know what you’re doing, if you can construct a meal out of whole foods that’s nutritionally complete, got all the fatty acids you need, all the essential amino acids and all the essential vitamins and minerals, then that’s the best thing you can do. If you’ve got time to do that, that’s brilliant. Please carry on and do that, but the majority of people don’t have the time to do that.
They don’t have the knowledge of how to construct food, a meal that’s nutritionally complete. They end up, obviously, in the UK, the most popular lunch would probably be a sandwich. The most popular snack would probably be crisps or chocolate. The most popular breakfast would probably be toast. Most of those or all of those would be more processed than Huel, and less nutritious and certainly not nutritionally complete. I think people are aware. In this country, we’ve got sixty-four percent of people are overweight.
We’ve got a real epidemic almost with diabetes and got numerous other problems. People are aware that sometimes the way animals are treated in farms is inhumane. Huel is a vegan product. There is lots of things that people are aware of. They know there’s a problem with our food chain. They didn’t really know what the solution was. They know they should probably eat and healthy, but every time you pick up a newspaper or magazine there is almost a different story than there was the week before. People do get confused about what they should be eating or not eating.
With Huel, the beauty is it’s already done for you. We focused on this heavily. We know what we’re talking about. We’ve created a product, which is healthy. It’s nutritionally complete. It’s balanced. It’s using sustainable resources. It’s minimal packaging. It’s high in fiber. It is high in protein. It’s very, very low in sugar. We’ve basically created a product that does, it ticks a lot of boxes for people. Therefore, that’s why the sales have been so good because it just satisfies a demand that people have got.
Felix: I think you’ve sold me. I think it’s funny because I live in New York City. You see this trend happening where maybe a couple years ago there is a big focus, or not a big focus, a big service of just delivering food. People don’t want to go through a shopping experience, don’t want to have to deal with purchasing food. Then it’s become more and more, I guess, done for you whereas now, they deliver the food to you with specific recipes that you can make. Now, it’s gotten to the point where it’s all meal prepping for you delivered as well, so more and more easy to eat healthy.
This is a step even more convenient where you don’t have to put anything together. You don’t have to think about it and then just consume it. I think that that makes a lot of sense that the trend that you’ve been able to notice and hitch onto is that people want to be healthy. Just the time that they have to do it has just become more and more limiting. I think you’ve definitely hit on a market here. Obviously, it’s due to your success. Tell us a little bit about I guess riding the business up. You have a team already. Obviously, you’re super busy. Do you depend on any tools or apps to help you run the business?
Julian: Yeah, I just had a quick look at our apps this morning. We use Bold apps, recurring orders. We do subscriptions on Huel as well. We use S Loyalty, which is a refer-a-friend scheme, but unfortunately, they’ve actually stopped the refer-a-friend part of that app now. We use Spently for email and we use a couple survey apps. I can’t remember what their names are off the top of my head. They’re the main apps that we do use. We do outsource quite a lot. Like I said, we’ve outsourced the fulfillment.
We’ve sort of outsourced the manufacturing. We outsource graphic design. We outsource our Facebook ads. There is one other thing as well. It might come to me in a second. We do believe in outsourcing. The beauty of that is that you don’t need to take full-time staff or you use resources when you need them. Yes, they can be more expensive, but it’s much easier to scale up and scale down very quickly. Sometimes, the best resources they want to be freelancers themselves because they’re very good or they run an agency. They just are very good. We prefer to do that if we can.
Felix: I think outsourcing is definitely a great way, great I guess, step towards, a step before hiring a team, just being able to send out specific tasks, specific responsibilities and not have to have a full-time person working on it. I guess, the potential issue is that I’m assuming most of them are going to be remote. Do you have any, I guess, tips on how to manage a team of outsourced freelancers when they are not necessarily in the same office as you?
Julian: Yeah, definitely, the two big things that we use is we use Basecamp, which is basically a task list system that everybody can log into. That’s got alerts that it sends out when you add a task. Then it’s got a common thread because if you use email this is one thing I learned a very long time ago. Emails get lost. The chain gets broken. Things get forgotten. With Basecamp, you put a task there. It’s not gone until I tick it gone. It stays there. If I’ve ever got to see what somebody is due to do, I don’t need to search for email or remember they should have done this task.
It’s there until they say, “Can I tick this off?” I’ll look at it and I’ll go, “Yeah, I’ll tick it off.” I’ll tick that box. Then it’s gone. Basecamp definitely and Google Docs, obviously, is another one we can work with each other remotely and of course, Skype. Skype should be very good. James Collier, the cofounder, he’s actually based about a two-hour drive from here. He used to come down once a week. It was a two-hour drive. Then it’s a two-hour drive home. Actually, that day would be less productive. Now, I’ll say, “Well, you just stay at home.” Now, we speak more often. We’ve got Skype set up. We do video Skype. We probably sometimes, Skype three, four, five, six times a day.
Felix: Wow, awesome. Thanks so much again for your time, Julian. Huel.com is the website. H-U-E-L dotcom. Anywhere else you recommend our listeners go and check out if they want to follow along with what you’re up to or what Huel is up to?
Julian: Yeah, we’re on social media, so Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. They all, Get Huel is the handle.
Felix: Awesome, we’ll link all that in the show notes as well so people can check it out very easily. Again, thanks for your time, Julian.
Julian: Sure, thank you. Also, I want to say thank you to you because when I first started this company, one of the things that I did. I was searching around on what platform to use. It was either WordPress, Magento or Shopify. I found your podcast. After listening to quite a few episodes, I realized there was a community around Shopify. When you realize there is a community around something, you realize that it’s going to grow and get better and better because more and more people are putting time and effort into it. Basically, your podcast is part of the reason why I’ve got Shopify. I think Shopify is part of the reason we’re successful today. I need to thank you.
Felix: Also that’s great to hear. I definitely appreciate that.
Julian: I can remember literally walking my dog, listening to you, listening to some of these, and that each time I listened to it, like you said, there’s a gem. That’s the key word, I think. Each time you listen to a podcast, there is one or two gems that you can use in your business that makes a difference to your business. I’ve listened to I don’t know, I know there’s hundreds of your podcasts. I listened to absolutely loads of them. Each time, there is one or two gems that I use in the business.
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters, the ecommerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit Shopify.com/Masters to claim your extended, thirty-day free trial.