A food concept that people will actually pay money for.
As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Lamar Letts.
Lamar Letts is the Founder and CEO of Hylux -– a vitamin-enhanced water and sports drink company. Letts founded the company in 2014 while still pursuing his undergraduate education at Northeastern University after his career as a student athlete was cut short following an injury that made him re-think his food choices. From there, he set out on a journey to create an alternative to sugary sports drinks to help athletes have a healthier, more nutrient-rich diet. Soon afterward, he launched a successful crowdfunding campaign, closed a distribution contract with a large beverage distributor and then went on to raise funds from private investors — all before getting a college degree. By 2017, Brooklyn-born Lett’s had not only earned a degree in finance, but Hylux was already being distributed in select U.S. grocers. Today, the brand is sold nationally at Hylux.com and also on Amazon.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born in Canarsie, a neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York. During this time, I was highly active in Karate and playing piano. In my free time, I played a lot of games. In seventh grade, I moved to Long Island. This is where I got into school sports such as football and track. Hewlett High School was also where I was introduced to business in the form of accounting classes, business law classes and economics classes.
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
After recovering from a heart injury, I found myself watering down sports drinks because they had too much sugar and calories for what I needed. The more I spoke to other athletes, the more I saw that this was a common issue. I saw that there was an opportunity to create a healthier sports drink, and I set out to do just that.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
We sponsored a basketball tournament in San Antonio. To be safe, I decided to fly in 2 days early so that I could get everything ready for the event and maybe even tour the city. As my plane lands into Texas, I start getting texts from team members saying that they look forward to seeing me. It turns out that the event was that day — two hours after my flight landed. Planning to fly in “early,” really saved me. The lesson is that mistakes (even simple ones) will happen. The best thing you can do is put yourself in the best possible situation to succeed.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Not verifying if people are willing to buy it. Just because you think it’s a good idea doesn’t mean others will. Talk to people and validate it. Not being realistic with packaging. Understanding what’s available vs what is ideal. Certain packaging concepts are not practical. Sometimes chasing your ideal packaging may lead you down a path that leads to nowhere — all while the idea for your great product never moves forward.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
- List out the key components that you want in your product.
- Decide on a name & register the business in your state or county.
- Find a way to get the design on paper.
- Create a low-cost and basic one-page website for your product (use a template based website like Square Space). This is for credibility when you are discussing your product.
- Speak with someone in the industry about the process of acquiring the different components in your product:
- I recommend these practical steps, because you need to figure out if you can create the product in the 1st place.
- Doing the first major step allows you to realize that there is never a perfect time to start a business and really challenges preconceived notions about what is involved.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
Talk to people about how others with similar ideas make money. Often times, businesses are not as simple as just selling a product. There are leasing based businesses; businesses that make money based on ad revenue and many other structures. Pursue the idea that you are the most emotionally attached to. The idea that you would be happy to work on whether it fails or succeeds. I recommend this because actualizing your idea is a challenging and non-linear path. If you have no attachment to an idea, you are highly likely to abandon it when the going gets tough. The implementation of the idea is more important than the idea itself. Find something that you genuinely want to act on.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
Speak to a few consultants but do your research beforehand. You should be going into the meeting with educated questions on how to turn your idea into a reality. You can bring up examples of what other people have done and frame it in a question of is this possible. Do not waste money trying to get the basics. Research the basics and learn about what is possible beyond that from consultants or industry professionals.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
It really comes down to need, vision and timeline. Hylux did start out bootstrapping. However, given the industry, we were not able to dedicate the necessary resources into marketing. This made it so that growth was terribly slow. Taking on investors was not a flip of the switch though. They invested because of the track record that we built via bootstrapping. I would not be able to tell someone to count on venture capitalists, because there is a good chance that they will disappoint you. Either with a lack of interest in investing or with terms that essentially take away complete ownership of your company. For us, bootstrapping until we found the right investors worked out the best.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
The United States Patent and Trademark Office has been our main resource for patent and intellectual property filing. You can work with a lawyer to do it, but the process is fairly straightforward once you get the hang of it. There are also tutorial videos. For raw ingredients, it comes down to narrowing in on who is reputable in your industry and what type of product samples they give you. There are trade organizations and trade magazines for every industry. A good place to start is seeing what suppliers are in those trade magazines or in industry trade resource directories. From there, comes the groundwork of calling and dealing with them directly. When it comes to retailers and distributors, it is a direct sales process. They need certain things from you, and you need certain things from them. Like marketing and sales support.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why?
- A food concept that people will actually pay money for.
- A concept on what packaging you will start with and an idea of how it may evolve in the future;
- A food scientist that can help officialize your formula;
- A list of suppliers, manufacturers, and distributors in your industry; and
- The desire to see your idea through.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
Listen to what people in your own life or on online forums complain about or wish existed. That is the core of your offering. Then focus on the core aspects of how people will engage with your product. Taste, sight, feel, hearing and smell. For everyone’s individual product, some of those interactions are more important than others. For example, the texture of a snack bar is important. Another example is if you are selling something crunchy and customers do not hear or feel that crunch when they bite in — they will feel disappointed.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I have been able to travel and speak to school children all over on how to pursue their dreams. Hylux has helped solve nutrition deficiencies for at-risk communities by partnering with community organizations in Wisconsin and also New York. We’ve also given back through Northeastern, which is where the idea for Hylux was developed.
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire 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.
A movement of increased focus on daily nutrition. Many peoples’ food choices are less than ideal. I want to start a movement where nutrition is accessible.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest 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.
The founder of KIND Bar, Danielle Lubetsky. Soylent founder, Rob Rhinehart. Hint founder, Kara Goldin. The founder of 5 Hour Energy, Manoj Bhargava.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.