There are Hueligans everywhere – on your road, in the gym, down the pub, in your local restaurant. Hueligans aren’t people who hate spelling(!), but people with one thing in common: they all eat Huel. And their proliferation has propelled the company’s revenue to £100m in just six years.
So, we spoke to CEO – James McMaster to find out more…
For context, there are four entries in this year’s FEBE Growth 100 to hit £100m+ in six years, but Huel is the only centurion in the consumer goods category. What’s more, it’s on a steeper growth trajectory than some of the huge names. Take BrewDog, Fevertree and Innocent or example – they could ‘only’ record revenues of £10m-40m in their sixth year.
So what’s behind the rise of Huel, which bills itself as “the future of food”? Plenty, but not everyone has discovered Hueliganism yet, so here’s an overview…
It was co-founded in 2015 by marketing entrepreneur Julian Hearn and registered nutritionist James Collier. Both founders still work at Huel in partnership with James McMaster, CEO since 2017.
The company makes and markets nutritionally complete foods, including powders that you hydrate and then drink and, more recently, bars and hot and savoury ready meals such as pasta dishes. Every Huel product is a carefully constructed fully plant-based meal containing everything your body needs, from protein and vitamins to essential fats and carbs. This isn’t just marketing spiel – you could live on Huel if you wanted to.
But that’s not the company’s aim. Instead, it wants to be your go to for your more time-pressured meals: to work in harmony with traditional eating experiences, not replace them. Huel has other goals too – affordability and sustainability. Its mission statement is: “We make nutritionally complete, convenient, affordable food, with minimal impact on animals and the environment.”
So slowly but surely – actually, that’s not right – rapidly and surely – Huel is smashing our food assumptions. “I can’t eat that; it’s not ‘proper’ food,” is being replaced with “actually, that’s cool and it really works”. As founder Julian says: “Humans have been turning foods into flour – a powder – for over 30,000 years, so it’s not a new phenomenon. Also, Huel products are typically consumed in a liquid format and, while this may seem strange for a meal, soup is also a liquid!”
So, maybe you’re now starting to see why Hueligans are multiplying. Huel is quick, balanced, nourishing and healthy when eaten as part of a varied diet. It is cheap, plant-based and sustainable. That ticks many boxes.
But to better understand the brand’s success, we need to dig deeper. A good place to start is by imagining if Huel were marketed differently. For a minute, envisage it without its clear, cutting-edge branding and eye-catching packaging, minus the merch, website and clever customer comms. What do you see? You’re left with an innovative food product but one you could imagine languishing as a packet of powder below the nuts section in a tired health food shop. Huel’s intense vitality, growing appeal and brand coolness all flow from the magic conjured by its team.
Here are eight factors that explain how co-founders Julian and James have managed to build one of the world’s fastest-growing, most exciting food and drink brands.
1. Hire a CEO quickly but stay in the business
It’s rare for a founder to bring in a CEO after just two years, but Julian did that when he hired James McMaster in 2017. It’s been a major factor in Huel’s growth.
To rewind slightly, Julian launched Huel in 2015 after selling his marketing company, Mash Up Media, for a life-changing sum. He was 41 and wanted to set up a lifestyle business that would be enjoyable but not too intense (ironic, in retrospect!). So, he created Body Hack, a fitness website. From there, after seeing that lack of time was the main thing holding people back from hitting their nutritional goals, he tried to invent a powdered drink containing everything your body needs – not just a protein shake but an ultra-convenient, complete meal. Huel was born and the launch exceeded expectations. Julian’s relaxed lifestyle business began to look like an all-consuming, and extreme entrepreneurial trip.
James McMaster arrived two years later as CEO, with Julian moving to brand marketing director. James was formerly co-managing director at Ella’s Kitchen and operations director at dessert brand GU. His arrival – bringing a passion for online food sales and expertise – put a naked flame to Huel’s already smouldering blue touch paper.
James says: “I’m passionate about online. Traditionally, you make products, send them to the supermarket and that’s it – you don’t know much more. With online, you get incredible data and develop a close customer relationship. So, before joining Huel I wanted to find a way of running an online business. The stars aligned when I got a call in early 2017 that led to me joining Huel.”
By hiring an experienced CEO, Julian made a wise move. He remained in the company – “Julian’s immense pride in Huel rubs off on everyone,” says James – but he stepped aside and empowered a leader perfectly suited to scaling the business. Few founders are willing to let go that early, but the Huel story shows how strong a move it can be.
James says: “Julian is happiest when focusing on marketing. And we all do our best work when we focus on what we are most interested in. When I joined, the company was already doing well, recording revenue of around £8m and moving into Germany and the US. I was able to build on that.”
2. Go global early
Fast global expansion is the second reason that Huel has become a £100m business in six years. By launching overseas quickly – especially in the US – Huel stole a march on competitors and took a significant first step towards becoming an international brand.
James says: “My view is that you should go global early. We went to the US two years in. If you hang back until you’ve ‘cracked’ the UK first, someone else gets there before you. Looking at companies that have gone from Europe to the US, in food or in other sectors, there aren’t many success stories. That’s either because the brands are too localised to their home markets, or because they haven’t thought global early enough. Huel is now in countries such as Sweden, Germany, Japan and the Netherlands, as well as in the US. And the sky’s the limit.”
3. Harvest but harness the energy: move from disorganised chaos to organised chaos
Huel’s 2015 launch led to a period of frenetic activity. The company galloped along on its start-up energy for as long as possible but it has now entered a more organised phase. However, Huel still sees the importance of retaining as much of the vitality and risk-taking of the first three years as possible, without allowing start-up fever to run wild.
James explains: “I refer to the start-up phase as ‘disorganised chaos’, where you’re trying new stuff and moving forward rapidly. However, seven years in, we’ve entered the ‘organised chaos’ phase, where we’ve got plans, teams and systems in place, but we’re still a bit chaotic and entrepreneurial.
“We’re now up to 250 employees, so more systems, efficiency, repetition and organisation must come in. My challenge is to stop all that from stifling our creativity and innovation. A Huel motto is ‘hustle hard, work fast’, so how do we keep doing that? We have to take some risks and make a few mistakes, otherwise we’re not trying hard enough. But we will need to take fewer risks.”
4. Act, don’t wait
Huel has never hung around or got bogged down in excessive research. It has always moved first and evolved.
James says: “If we’d held back or moved with too much caution, we wouldn’t have gone into the US in our second year or taken other risks that have led to fast growth.
“For example, we use a phrase well known in the tech world – MVP – minimum viable product. It means getting a product out to market as fast as possible and then evolving it. Why? Because if you spend years perfecting something, when it finally hits the shelves, customers say: ‘Actually, we want it like this.’ So you then have to change it and give them what they want.
“We’re on version 3.0 of our powder, which is better than v1. But v1 was good enough to get traction. If we’d waited years to launch v1 and hadn’t received the customer feedback, Huel’s products would not be as excellent as they are today and the company would not have grown so fast.
“That said, we’re in a different place now. We’re better known, so if we were to come out with a minimum viable product today, people would say, hang on, you’re a proper brand now. Once you’re seen as mass-market, customers want everything to be perfect – packaging, delivery, tone of voice and speed of response.”
5. Take on the right investment at the right time
In 2018, Huel took on a £20m investment from venture capital group Highland Europe. The cash allowed the company to power forward at just the right time.
James says: “Two years in – in 2017 – we had around 20 staff and were running on fumes. The following year, Highland Europe invested £20m, which meant rather than managing cash day to day and having tiny stock holdings, we could stop worrying about finance for a while and focus entirely on growth. That allowed us to do lots of things including grow the team and widen our product range by launching a ready-to-drink version, and a range of bars and instant meals.
“Highland Europe have been excellent – a wonderful mixture of support and challenge with great knowledge of online brands.”
6. Time it right
The Huel story is one of perfect timing – some might call it luck; others might describe it as riding the zeitgeist. Either way, this wonderful synchronicity has played a huge part in the company’s growth.
As James says: “It so happens that Huel has launched at a time when we’re trying to reduce food wastage and obesity levels, improve health, increase our plant-based eating and reduce our carbon footprint. Also, people today spend only half as much time preparing their food as the previous generation. All these mega factors are present in society right now, and Huel helps to fix every one of them.”
7. Focus on online sales and follow the data
But luck doesn’t just happen. Companies make their own luck – or create something that looks very much like it. Indeed, big data analysed well and reacted to intelligently may appear to be serendipity, but it is actually success gained through hard facts. And the best way to get big data is via online sales; something Huel and CEO James have always focused on.
James says: “We’re an online brand first and foremost, which has allowed us to grow faster and gather more data. For example, our data science team can see every customer, what they bought and when they bought it. They can find out which products have the best retention, the longest dwell time on site and much, much more. Having data means that you can improve the company faster and iterate quicker.
“Online focus also means you can go international more easily.”
8. Making customers happy beats everything
The final reason why Huel has grown to such a size so quickly is less scientific but at least equally important. Here, we return to the concept of the Hueligan: yes, we know they’re growing in number but there’s something we haven’t mentioned – they’re proudHueligans. They are often heard preaching the gospel according to Huel wearing Huel T-shirts. Why?
James says: “Early on, one thing we got right is telling ourselves that making customers happy beats everything. I know it sounds like a bland phrase other brands might use, but we really mean it. We’ve even got it on the wall as you enter all our offices. What we mean by it is being really open with customers and analysing every step in the customer journey to do better. We have a web forum where you can talk to the team and we’ll reply. What’s really magical is seeing long-term customers respond to new customers before we’ve had a chance to say anything. They are completely engaged and proud to be associated with the brand. I don’t know how you bottle that, but I think it’s linked to having virtually zero barriers between customers and staff. That seems to breed something special.
“Everything we do is preceded by the question: will it make customers happy? We ask ourselves that question all the time when looking at the website, packaging, delivery speed, postage boxes, customer service and everything else. If we do a good job, they tell their friends and buy again. It’s an intense and relentless circle, but it’s a big reason why we’ve been successful.”
So, there you have the eight reasons why Hueliganism is on the rise and the company has hit £100m in six years. Which factor has played the biggest part? Well, we’ve mentioned customer engagement – it’s undoubtedly driven growth but seems a little too vague to place at number one.
More precise is the timing of the brand’s launch. Humanity’s need to manage obesity, food waste and sustainability, plus our obsession with convenience, makes Huel the perfect food product for the modern age.
However, the single biggest factor (for us) in Huel’s rise is founder Julian’s decision to hire a specialist CEO after just two years, while staying in the company. Everything else – including outstanding growth – has flowed from that. James McMaster’s food sector expertise and his passion for online sales have turbocharged the company, acting as the perfect foil to the founder’s spark.
The result is a food and drink superhero – the lovechild of a CEO and a founder. Corporate know-how and entrepreneurial DNA have merged to create a marvel. Its name is Hueligan. Special power: fast growth. Mission: global conquest.