This month we went out to meet the boys…. and things got Ugly! (Ugly Drinks that is!)
Meet co-founders Joe Benn and Hugh Thomas of Ugly Drinks.
These two are turning the soft drinks market on its head by showing the goliaths of the industry that start ups are the way it’s done these days & that you CAN make a tasty soft drink with zero sugar, zero sweetener, and without anything artificial.
Ugly Drinks are exactly that - just sparkling water infused with natural ingredients - and that’s it. No sugar, no sweetener and nothing artificial. Nothing else at all. Refreshing isn’t it!
That is why it’s time to #glugUGLY people!
A beautiful beginning
It was back in August 2013 that Joe & Hugh spotted a gap in the market for a new type of soft drink. Both were working for startup powerhouse Vita Coco and through their sales and marketing backgrounds began to notice consumers were actively seeking alternatives to drinks with sugar across all drinks categories; be that soft drinks, juices, smoothies, soda or energy drinks.
When you think about it - what are the drinks without sugar or sweetener? Well, the only option really is water.
“We saw that waters tend to be based on provenance “this mountain in France”, or “this spring in the UK”, or are marketed on their functionality such as electrolytes or minerals. At the other end of the spectrum the alternative is high sugar Soft Drinks or Diet Soft Drinks full of sweeteners. Even the flavoured waters that act as a middle ground, are full of sugar & sweeteners. 80% of the fridge is sugary drinks & 20% is bottled water.”
“Basically, there is no evolution in Soft Drinks.”
Things start to get Ugly
And this is how the Ugly Drinks concept came to be. The UK’s first unsweet soft drink.
Ugly isn’t dressed up to look pretty, it’s unsweet and has nothing to hide. It’s just sparkling water infused with natural fruit flavours. As the brand strap line says, because you’re sweet enough already!
Available in a zesty Lemon & Lime and a tropical Grapefruit & Pineapple flavour, they are deliciously refreshing, especially when served ice cold. Ugly has no calories whatsoever, yet still gives you the tasty, fizzy soft drinks hit, entertaining your tastebuds and refreshing you for that 3pm afternoon lull. It continues in the theme of the fun soft drink treat in a can, yet the treat is that you don’t have to compromise on your health, or your diet. Amazing!
The proposition has taken time to refine and craft as Hugh explains. They spent 18 months developing the product concept and taking learnings from tests and trials and over time, their thinking moved from a still flavoured water in a plastic bottle to what Ugly Drinks has become today.
“We started by thinking about how we could create a flavoured water, like those in coffee shops in a jug with a slice of lemon. Product development takes a lot of time, and it took us 18 months to get to a place where we felt that we’d got everything we were happy with”.
Ugly Drinks cans started hitting the shelves in Jan 2016, and the guys haven’t looked back since.
“We decided to launch in January people are reconsider their habits, trying to give up sugar and change their diets.”
“We need to keep educating people about it because as it’s a soft drink in a can people still think it has sugar in it, but when you tell them it hasn’t - then its revolutionary to them. They are like “Wow, this is a can drink I can enjoy”. I can cut sugar & sweetener out of my drinks through this change”.
Ugly, but only on the outside
Joe & Hugh’s vision for the Ugly brand has been as a challenger right from the start. Hugh explains that the duo always wanted to be disruptive, stand out and make a mark on the drinks industry, and in particular the soft drinks category. The idea of a soft drink without sugar or sweetener meant they wanted to shout about what they are rather than what they are not on shelf, and has led the two to really dial up the Ugly brand personality.
“Our aim was to make people feel something”, explains Hugh
“I read the book Purple Cow by Seth Godin which really emphasises the idea of standing out in cluttered markets. There is also a film maker called Casey Niestat who said “its better to make something that 50 people hate and 50 people love, than make something that 100 people just like.” These ideas really influenced the thinking around the Ugly brand name & how the packaging it looks.”
With this idea in mind Joe & Hugh appointed a branding agency to help them create the Ugly brand world.
“With healthy products quite often they can look quite “healthy”, and dare I say it, a bit good for you. We thought that if the government goes ahead and imposes a sugar tax then it could really feel like people are being told what to do, being told to be healthy.”
“Basically it boils down to the question - why can’t it be fun to choose something healthy? Why does it have to be boring?”
“The name - Ugly drinks - is a bit of a statement on the drinks industry. A lot of drinks over promise in the name and under deliver in the liquid and so we decided to not promise anything! It’s just sparkling water but with no sugar, no sweetener and no artificial ingredients - so we are beautiful on the inside but not on the out. Hence the Ugly brand name."
"In terms of the visuals, we just thought its got to be fun, its got to communicate and it’s got to stand out on shelf and shout about what it is. The blue has big impact. I still look at it now and think I’m really proud of it, I love it.”
What’s next on the cards?
Ugly Drinks launched on the 7th January 2016 and so far has secured listings in Selfridges, Wholefoods, Vital Ingredient and around 250+ independent retailers / shops, not a mean feat in 3 months, but the boys and their team are not stopping there and expansion is definitely top of the agenda.
“We’re ambitious - we set up the company with the vision of making healthy drinks accessible to as many people as possible - both in terms of geography & price point (the RSP is 99p).”
“This year is all about establishing ourselves; sustaining & growing the business with the right foundations. We need to nurture the listings we have and drive a strong rate of sale. Getting listed is only half the win; when you launch a small company, the sales out are what will make you a success.”
“We have started in London, but we want to be all over the country as soon as possible, launching new flavours & different formats as the business grows and as we progress."
"Because it’s an unsweet drink it may take people a bit of getting used to - people are used to drinks being very sweet, and we need to spend our time educating people to help them understand what the product is and showing them that there is an alternative to sugar and sweetener."
“We feel like consumers are ready for it though.”
The Ugly Drinks team are ready for it as well. Currently working as a team of 4 out of true startup territory - a shipping container office in Elephant & Castle, the team ethic is something that is central to the Ugly Drinks brand and business.
“Joe & I worked at Vita Coco from very early on in the UK, so we have both done the startup journey, and seen what it is like a really fast growing company. While we were there we were like “wouldn’t it be cool to create the same experience for others” and hopefully thats what we’ve done. We like to have as much fun as possible, nothing is ever that serious in life - we go out a lot, work hard play hard, it feels like a small family really. It’s my favourite bit.”
The team includes Market Activation Managers Orla & Bina who have been with the boys from the start of the journey. Hugh beams with pride as he speaks about them.
“They are amazing & have stuck with us all the way and throughout everything. They do everything - they are literally an extension of Joe & I. They look after sales territories, splitting north & south London, but also support with marketing too. It’s a great team, well balanced, and as fresh grads its an amazing amount for them to experience and get stuck in to.”
“Having a co-founder is also super super important. I have so much respect for people who do this on their own, its incredible. I have someone to bounce those internal questions with, Joe & I can support each other, split the work, and vibe off each others energy. Having a co-founder is vital from my point of view and for what I do. It’s hard work whatever so having someone with you there to share it helps, and its a lot more fun.”
And what about investors or other backers and support? Who else has been part of making this happen with you guys?
“We actually have 14 different investors from our network of friends and family who have supported us from day 1. This has helped pay for the production run and the initial set up. Basically we had done our homework, had a business plan, could show research and insight, and created a story that they bought into. That combined with our industry experience meant that the support for our pitch was there from the start.”
Hugh takes the lead on the marketing side of the business, his background at Vita Coco and Heinz have given him a strong FMCG based approach and is clear on the Ugly Drinks strategy to win. So how does this startup use marketing to grow its brand? What’s the Ugly Drinks approach to marketing?
“When it comes to marketing, a lot of challenger brands tend to look very similar, and then by default become part of the mass; so the best thing to do is throw the rule book out the window, we think it’s the best way to do things."
“Winston Churchill once said “Gentleman we have run out of money, so therefore we must think”. That is really our philosophy when it comes to marketing at the moment, we are not paying an agency to create really flash looking stuff or do big poster or TV campaigns - it is almost more interesting if we do it ourselves.”
“At the moment, there are really two types of marketing we are focused on - customer marketing & creating buzz. The customer side is all about making sure that at the point of purchase we have POS, we are talking to consumers, sampling the products, explaining about it and driving the rate of sale. Creating buzz we see as creative disruption, causing talk-ability, doing grass roots marketing such as sampling and social media like Instagram, and really doing it all in a different way. We do it all ourselves and with our own unique style, looking at other categories in fashion and lifestyle for inspiration rather than competitors. That’s how we will remain a challenger.”
The Entrepreneur Journey
With a young startup on their hands, and the momentum building behind their brand and business. Support from significant suppliers, a relevant product that is about to become a whole lot more relevant due to the impending sugar tax, the entrepreneurial journey is looking like a good one for these two. But do they yet see themselves as “entrepreneurs”?
“Joe & I are very similar”, Hugh smiles, “I can only talk about me, but I know we think very similarly.”
“There was never a conversation where we said shall we start a company, there was never a point where we said lets do this, it was always like “of course”, then one day we just seemed to sit down and write a business plan together. Its not often you meet someone with a complimentary skill set to yours - Joe’s background is sales, mine is marketing - but with also the same ambition and vision, in the same situation in life - its just a good team.”
"I’ve always wanted to start a business for as long as I can remember. My mum is a nurse and my dad is a lawyer, so its not like it runs in the family or anything. However both have always been hugely supportive of me and what I wanted to do.”
“I remember the American apprentice, was a bit of an inspiration - watching this in the UK at the age of 12 I’d never been able to put my finger on what the feeling was; and I watched this show and they made them go out and sell Lemonade on the streets and I was like “thats what I want to do”.”
"Even at 12 I would think “I would have done that differently” or “that doesn’t make sense”, and I guess after then you begin to get more and more into it. So yes, I guess I do see myself as an entrepreneur.”
I was interested to understand if there any entrepreneurs or business leaders that they look to for inspiration for Ugly Drinks, and how they run the business?
Hugh laughs, “I could list this stuff all day…!!!”
“Richard Branson of course, I read his autobiography and it is amazing. David Hieatt of Huit Denim & the founder of The Do Lectures is super inspiring. Artists such as David Choe - he painted a mural for Facebook and took equity instead of payment - meaning his $30,000 dollar work was worth $200 million on the eve of Facebook’s IPO. Not bad huh!”
“The founders of Vita Coco are still huge source of inspiration and give us loads of support. There are a load of tech guys - Gary Vaynerchuk, Tim Ferris, Kevin Rose - I admire and respect the way they go after something and grow fast.”
“Recently I’ve been taking inspiration from a number of different areas as well. I find chefs really interesting, like David Chang, because essentially they combine a load of different aspects in their work - creativity, food, discipline, motivating staff, restaurant environment, customers satisfaction, marketing & evolving their businesses, plus the hours they work are long and it is tough. They are hugely inspiring.”
“From all this I think I’ve learnt to see it entrepreneurism as a game in a sense; it certainly helps take the pressure off.”
“Basically, if you think that the first time you do something it will not be as good as the second time. Whatever it is, even with packaging, social media, events, you are going to improve. But if you don’t put anything out there, the base level never moves, then that helps you to just get on and do it without putting too much pressure on yourself.”
The good, the bad and the Ugly
The journey to where Ugly Drinks are today has been long yet worthwhile and it is great to see the hard work that Hugh & Joe have put into the business, and the passion that they exude really starting to pay off.
I wanted to understand if the journey has always been smooth or whether there have been times that they thought about giving up or turning back to more traditional employment?
Hugh nods passionately as he goes on to explain some of the obstacles the guys have experienced in their start up journey.
“Our original concept was a still flavoured water in a bottle, and we launched with that initially back in 2015 to a small amount of customers. Then just as we launched we had a shelf life issue which led to us being out of stock for 6 months. It was terrible, we had just left our jobs and set things up, and we had this huge challenge that we had to over come. We persevered and went to consult with other businesses to help us along and through this time."
“However, during the out of stock period, we really took stock of the learnings, of the feedback and revoked at the market. Since time had passed, we found our original idea wasn’t as current anymore so we evolved the concept to a sparkling flavoured water in the can you see today, and overall we feel we have a much better product as a result. The obstacle proved to be the thing that helped us get to an even better product and an even better liquid.”
“As an entrepreneur - being enthusiastic & optimistic about everything is really important - there’s a really good book by Ryan Holiday called The Obstacle is the Way - its about being stoic and reframing obstacles as opportunities. Stoicism is accepting that stuff is going to go wrong - it can’t be perfect, it never is - so accept its going to go wrong - and when it does, don’t panic, just get on with it."
“You learn that in society there is always a fall back - in school, growing up with your parents, your boss, being part of a system you rely on. As soon as you leave that and you start your own thing - people are like great, go for it. But as soon as anything goes wrong no one cares. So you have to be like “cool what am I going to do about it” - you can either give up, or you can carry on, and the book The Obstacle is The Way is about when something goes wrong how are you going to spin this into a positive.”
“So our obstacle happened which was the shelf life challenge - we turned it into this product you see today which we are really happy with.”
“I read this other thing about Entrepreneurs being cockroaches - the last thing to survive, you have to survive no matter what happens. You just don’t give up.”
“That’s what it is really - relentless hard work, and when its difficult, just keep going, because its a roller coaster and you will come up the other side, but when you do come up the other side, remember its going to go the other way again. Celebrate the good times, but be prepared for the bad and the hard times. But even those can be enjoyable in the end”
Sharing the love
I asked Hugh to share his advice for other entrepreneurs starting out, or those who have an idea and want to give setting up their own business a shot?
“Just do it - you will always regret not starting earlier - so just start!”
“When you are trying to work out how to do something, sometimes you have no knowledge base - and that is actually quite a nice position to be in. It can be scary, but people are so helpful - if you call someone up and ask them how they did something - people want to pay it forwards - so I would say call people, call your hero and ask them how they did something - if they don’t know and they don’t know how to help, ask them who can, ask for 3 names of people who can, and through the network effect you will build a good network and you will find these people. Essentially you are building a bigger team beyond your team.”
“The product is really important - it doesn’t matter how good at sales & marketing you are - if the product doesn’t deliver or it doesn’t taste good, or if it goes off - essentially everything revolves around that.”
“Finally, there needs to be a burning fire inside you that whatever happens, is not going to go out. If you don’t feel that…well you have to feel that because you don’t make loads of money, its long hours, its relentless. It is a cliche but you have to be prepared to commit 110% good or bad, because you are stuck with it and you are responsible for the people who work for you.”
And if you met your 10 year old self would there be any advice you would give them to help them in the future?
“If I go back, does it change anything - does it change the future??”
“I’d say have as much fun as possible all of the time - not that I didn’t do that, I would just do even more of that - like mess around in school more etc - because its fun & its creative. I think getting in trouble at school is some of the most creative stuff you can do, and it’s a buzz, and although it does matter at the time, in the scheme of things to come, it doesn’t really does it.”
“But most importantly, just trust yourself, and when you feel something, just believe it.”
Wise words and a beautiful sentiment to end things on from the guys at Ugly Drinks.