Don’t invest money in growing your business until you have the basics in place.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Oliver Baker.
Oliver Baker is the CEO of Hydralyte having joined the business in 2018 taking responsibility for global sales. Prior to Hydralyte, Oliver was General Manager of Swisse USA launching the Swisse brand with a dedicated e-commerce strategy. After the Biostime transaction, Oliver lead the integration team in Guangzhou China, migrating c.100m dollars in sales and building a local Chinese team and processes. Previously he has held global and national roles in sales and marketing with a focus on sports sponsorships.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My career began in advertising in Australia. I lead the global Qantas airlines account so I was working with people in the UK, Singapore, Hong Kong and L.A, it was intense! I then moved to a company called Swisse Wellness which went onto become the #1 Vitamin brand in Australia and then the #1 imported brand in China. The brand was acquired by the H&H Group (listed in HK) and after I’d spent some time in Chicago, I moved to China to help with the integration. That same company purchased a small baby food brand in San Diego and that’s how I ended up back in the USA. I became the CEO of Hydralyte in late 2018.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
In Australia, Hydralyte is extremely well-recognized for medical grade rehydration. It’s used by athletes and families everyday for travel, exercise, cold and flu and hangovers. When I joined the company in the USA, the product was predominantly aimed at cold and flu use. My first thought was “This is not how consumers use our product”. I knew there were bigger, better and more effective applications for product use. This was the A-ha moment that led to a complete transformation of the company beginning at the product level, through to packaging, claims, ingredient innovation, sales channels, team members and marketing strategy.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
There were 3 members of the management team at Swisse who have been incredibly supportive of our turn around and my personal journey. That same business went through some pretty hard times only 3 years before they sold for almost 2b dollars but through some really disciplined actions to turn the business around, with some hard work and some good timing it turned into a great Australian success story. They know who they are!
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Most of our product range is made in Switzerland with quality standards far higher than standards set in the USA for food supplements. Coming from highly regulated countries like Australia and Canada I was really surprised when I found out in the USA you can develop a product and launch it without any approval from the government. In Canada, we submit our formulation, our packaging claims and our manufacturing standards to the government first before we’re allowed to sell product.. It’s “ask for forgiveness, not permission” in the USA which allows an open door for low quality, counterfeit and misleading product claims.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We have been long-standing partners with a group called Operation USA. They are a wonderful disaster relief agency who provide emergency relief to areas overcome with natural disaster both in the USA and abroad. What’s cool is we always leave a few pallets of Hydralyte in their warehouse so if anything happens, they can get it out immediately. One of the first things that can be compromised in a natural disaster is access to clean drinking water so Hydralyte is incredibly useful in these situations.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
- Put your hand up for big projects that will have the biggest impact on the business. When we got bought by a Chinese business and many people were unable to move to China, I moved there for a year. It meant that all my time in China was spent with the most senior people in our organization which got me a first look of what it takes to be a CEO of 2 billion dollars company.
- Focus on your audience. People find it hard to adjust their message to their audience to have the greatest impact. I learned this the hard way when I first moved to Chicago almost a decade ago and people found it hard to understand my Australian accent! It really annoyed me at first but I learned that I had to adjust. Everyone needs to realize it’s never about you that matters but the person in front of you, whether that’s a customer or consumer.
- Learn what makes a business financially healthy. Coming from a sales and marketing background, I found that I couldn’t confidently speak the language of the CFOs I’d come into contact with. So for 2 years I really made it a focus to become financially fitter, not like marathon fit, but 5k fit! I read accounting books, I took courses, I spent lots of time running numbers with our financial people and it had a huge impact on my career. To the point above about knowing your audience, most people think the other person is ‘an idiot’ when they don’t speak the same business language so getting the basics in place brings a whole new level of respect.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Yep — a lot of people thought pre-COVID was a good time to sell an apartment! When it comes to work, you really need a great team of people. What we have achieved at Hydralyte with a small team in such a short amount of time is remarkable. You cannot underestimate the impact of good people and the burden of those not onboard the journey.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I started at Hydralyte the business was struggling, not just financially or sales but culturally. I’d just quit my better paying and more secure job at another company! My newly married wife was pregnant and so we were feeling some serious pressure to make it a success.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
When things are going bad, focus on making the easiest changes with the greatest long term impact. These small wins will keep you inspired that a better future awaits.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
It’s really hard to shoot the lights out quickly. Most of the things that are going well in your business were based on decisions made 12–18months earlier so you need to be able to move really quickly and realize that the benefits come way down the track. The wins won’t actually come easy and when they come, they’ll feel like relief more than victory.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks for your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
You really want to illustrate proof of concept on the lowest overhead possible before anyone puts any money in — whether that is yourself or an investor. If you’re selling an actual product, you’d want to have made it, sold 20k dollars worth of it, heard feedback from your customers, see if they bought it again and then improve it. If all of those look good, then you can raise way more money at a better price and make the business financially healthier from the get-go. Most great products required a ton of improvement before they became game changers.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Don’t invest money in growing your business until you have the basics in place.
- Realize that the entire success of your business is not about the work you do but how your customers and stakeholders interact with your company.
- Think really carefully about the people in your business and what kind of person will take it to the next level.
- Really understand the fundamentals, from product, sales, marketing and financials.
- Set clear goals for the company and reflect on how you’re meeting them on a regular basis.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Making decisive moves regarding people. Some people just don’t fit the job they are doing, bring other people down or conflict with the vision of the company. It’s easy to let this drag on but just make the changes ASAP and move on. Toxic people or relationships mean the business has to wade through quicksand everyday to make progress.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
Here comes the cliches! Exercise is far and away the best stress reliever, ‘mind-focuser’ and ‘mood-improver’ I’ve ever found. For some reason, surfing and running have the greatest positive impact on my mental health followed by yoga. I find doing this in the morning gives me much greater mental strength and clarity to attack the day, it’s also the only time I know won’t get hijacked by work or kids.
When the severe COVID lockdowns were on in 2020, Hydralyte had Wellness Wellness every week where we’d get a virtual yoga/pilates/meditation/power walk going. This was a great breakup to the monotony of the lockdown working week.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I can assure you, my influence is not that powerful! I would get Fortune 500 leaders to spend an hour a month with the top students from the worst schools in the USA. There are some superstars out there that have limited network or resources to reach the next level. This would help uncover the next generation of talent and leadership.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Scott Galloway is hands down my favourite ‘person of profile’, I not-so-secretly think we’ll be best mates if we ever meet. He has a great blend of insight, self-deprecation and extreme confidence mixed with humour that really gets me.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Follow us at @Hydralyte on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok or Twitter.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
I’m inspired too!