Welcome to the latest episode of the fourth season of our Piper podcast, How I Grew My Brand. In this episode, Mary Nightingale spoke to the duo that runs the complete food brand Huel– Julian Hearn, who founded the brand in 2015, and James McMaster, who joined as CEO in 2017. Together they have grown Huel 40-50% year-on-year, reaching an impressive £100m turnover.
They said achieving such growth in such a short time is due to the brand having a really clear purpose – healthy, convenient, affordable food with minimal impact on animals and the environment. As Julian put it: ‘If you’re starting a company, I’d advise you to really think about why you’re doing it. If you’re just starting it to make money, I would argue that’s not a good place to start. You’re going to struggle in lots of different ways if that is your main focus. You won’t have the passion to push through the hard times.’
Both Julian and James go on to discuss the importance of layering other aspects of the brand around the purpose to drive emotional resonance. Said Julian: ‘There’s something there and I think it’s partly because we’re mission-based, partly because of our sassiness, partly because of our aesthetic that people just really engage with the brand.’
They also attribute their fast growth to their fan base of ‘Hueligans’ and focusing on the first 1,000 customers. Julian talks through the early days of being obsessive about his customers having the best experience, which helped build the community of advocates they have today: ‘We’re nice to them and then they’re nice back to us.’
This is the first time we’ve had a CEO and founder on the podcast together. For Julian, bringing in someone to run the business early on was obvious. He had learnt the pitfalls from a previous business. ‘You have to be a jack of all trades,’ he said. ‘My background is in marketing, but marketing is only one department. You have HR, you have operations, you have finance, you have legal, and most of those areas, a) I don’t think I’m particularly good at, and b) they don’t excite me.’ So bringing in external guidance was simple – ‘Get some wise brains outside of your skillset on that board to give you counsel.’
James has always been drawn to the spirit of a start up. ‘I’ve got something in me that likes the growth, the entrepreneurial nature, all those things, I’ve just never had the best idea,’ he said, adding that founders have that extra engagement in the business that can’t be replicated. ‘Sometimes even though they’ve got less experience on a certain thing… there’s that feel factor, the gut feel… Businesses without founders don’t have that same gut feel that gives you that constant guidance.’
They also both know the importance of hiring the right team and maintaining the culture. ‘We ask our team every six months, how do they feel about the business. There are always things we’ve got to work on, but people like working at Huel because we have a great product and a great culture as well.’
Although the business has never looked back, there have been many challenges along the way. As a story from Julian’s childhood reveals, he hasn’t always made the best decisions but they taught him valuable lessons. For the full story and much more, you’ll have to listen to the podcast.