A couple of years ago I spotted that an old tennis mate of mine, James McMaster had secured a new role as CEO of Huel. At that stage I'd not heard of this business and don't think many other people had either, but something about Huel caught my imagination and I've been watching their progress ever since. Sales were £1million in the first year, £5 million in the year James joined and two years later they’ve topped £40 million. To put that growth in perspective, Huel have been recently valued at £200 million. Not bad for a business which was set up pretty much as a "hobby" by the Founder Julian Hearn!
Intrigued as to how a business based on powdered food had scaled so quickly, I contacted James and he was kind enough to invite me up to Huel HQ in Hertfordshire.
Driving into the car park, I was expecting a gleaming temple of Hueldom but was met by a very understated industrial unit. Was I in the wrong place? Just before reversing out I spotted the familiar Huel logo on the side of the unit and made my way inside.
And what a contrast from outside to in – gleaming white polished floors, a huge bank of screens flashing up Huel videos and staff wearing jeans, trainers and the trademark black and white Huel t-shirts and hoodies. Very cool, but my first reaction was respect that they were spending their money on a smart fit out in a humble unit rather than trying to impress with prime office space. And do you know what, it felt more like an ambitious new age tech company rather than a food company.
James arrived and we decanted to the board room to chat and sip my first taste of chilled Huel. Firstly, I was keen to find out exactly why this business was doing so incredibly well. How had they made the brand so iconic so quickly? And grown exponentially with very little funding? In my naivete I’d also thought powdered food was mainly for babies and body builders. I hadn’t realised that millions of ‘normal’ people now eat (or drink?) this stuff instead of meals. And by the way, my first taste of this much vaunted product was way better than I had expected... (I guess I’d kind of hoped I didn’t like it 😀)
Anyway, my own entrepreneurial philosophy echoed their organic growth principles (so I already had a lot of respect for them), but the only difference was that Huel were growing like a rocket - much much faster than any business I had ever been involved in either personally or as an advisor. Jealous? Absoutely! So, I delved in to find out what is their secret sauce (or powder!)?
Well, there’s no doubt that they’re doing loads of great things, but in my humble opinion these are the 4 key ingredients that are making the difference:
A high impact Proposition – although their brand is very cool, their marketing/selling proposition underpins the brand by providing depth and meaning to why they’re doing what they’re doing. James told me that the founder Julian had already founded and grown a tech scale up to successful exit and was looking for something to keep him ‘busy’. So, it appears he wasn’t doing it for money, but was more focused on creating a business that produced some positive benefits for society by addressing some of the big issues in the world. And when he landed on the powdered food idea, at first sight it appeared to tick a lot of boxes – by trying to impact on global problems such as health, obesity, growing population, global warming and food waste. Huel describe themselves as a ‘challenger brand who are challenging the traditional way food is consumed and for me, this positive challenger mindset combined with a genuine sense of meaningful purpose is a huge part of why people are buying their products and why they’re scaling so fast.
Genuine Passion – passion can be an overused word in business, but from what I saw at HQ and linking in with a strong proposition, it positively flows through this business. One of my entrepreneurial beliefs is that of ‘Founder Selling’ where founders and board level directors need to take personal responsibility to use their passion and drive by selling their vision to customers and staff on an ongoing basis. Often you see this kind of behaviour at start up, but it often fades over time as a business scales up when perhaps a bit of complacency kicks in and they feel like they don’t really need to be evangelical any more. Well, for a business that has sold 50 million meals in a few short years there seems to be no sense of complacency and the passion levels still seem to be ultra high. Personally, I think one of their secrets here is that they were ‘bootstrapped’ for the first 3 years (highly unusual for start-ups nowadays) so right from the top they’ve had to harness their passion and drive to build a growing, sustainable business without having the luxury of being propped up by VC cash. In my opinion this is one of the key drivers that has kept them focused, honest and very humble (I love when I meet people with these traits!). Interestingly they have just done their first funding round in year 4, as apparently they wanted a partner who could add valuable insights as well as giving them a bit more financial headroom to ‘innovate’.
Great People – every company I meet tells me how good their people are (even if the company is not doing that well)! So, I’m often sceptical when this gets mentioned as a key driver of success. But take it from me - Huel take their people very seriously. James told me ‘culture is critical’ and to that end they have put a lot of thought and effort into continually trying to make it an even better place to work. One major initiative is their ‘culture book’ on which collectively they’ve spent countless hours writing down in clear language their company vision, beliefs and expectations of how a Huel team member should behave and contribute. Uniquely, at the recruitment stage, they have ‘culture veto’ interviews where 2 people from different teams have a chat with someone who is likely to join and they have the ability to say ‘no’ even if the person has a fantastic CV and skill set and the hiring manager wants to recruit that person. A raft of people-focused initiatives lend further credence to their claim that investing in their people culture is their top priority.
Laser focused Precision – Huel’s core model for the first 4 years has been to ignore traditional retail and to focus on selling online to consumers. James told me that has been a very conscious decision to enable them to develop and maintain a really close relationship with their customers. For any entrepreneurial business, selling direct can be fraught with risks and difficulties but Huel have found their strategy advantageous. They also believe in ‘continual improvement’ and feel that their close relationship with consumers enables them to pick up on each and every critical detail to continue to improve their offering and ‘provide an awesome customer experience’. They want customers to feel they are part of a ‘movement’ rather than just carrying out a ‘functional transaction’ (which let’s be honest a lot of our online purchasing feels like nowadays). I also picked up from our chat that the CEO sets the tone in the innovation and improvement area by actively suggesting “why don’t we try this…?” or “does anyone have ideas to improve….?”. Huel have just announced their ready to drink bottles will be available to buy as an ‘impulse’ product in a hand-picked selection of stores, yet another example of precise tweaking and improvement of their model. From my perspective, I’ve always seen precision in business as key for long term success, but a mindset which very few businesses place much emphasis on. Great to see these guys making such a huge effort to pursue a precision philosophy.
So, after a fascinating couple of hours I left the Huel HQ impressed, enthused and energised! A soulful business in a world where business can be soulless. A couple of weeks later, as well as filling my fridge with their tasty ready-made bottles, I have found myself mentioning Huel to lots of people. And that’s the crux of why these guys are doing so well – they’re connecting with people in a way (and at a level) that makes us recommend the brand to others without even thinking about it.
By the way, for any sceptics who think I must have been given a lifetime supply of Huel to write such a positive piece, here are a couple of final thoughts – hand on heart after several decades in business it takes an awful lot for a company to impress me (a tiny percentage do). And…there is actually one thing about Huel I don’t like!! Huel bars – I just don’t like the taste!
But having witnessed this enterprise’s unquenching desire to innovate and improve, I’m open minded enough to realise that opinion may change in the near future.