Festival of Female Entrepreneurs: Helena Hills, TrueStart Coffee

Festival of Female Entrepreneurs: Helena Hills, TrueStart Coffee

Posted: Thu 8th Sep 2016

Despite launching just over a year ago, Helena and Simon Hills have managed to get their coffee brand, which gives athletes a measured caffeine hit, stocked in Holland & Barrett and launched in the US.

Ahead of speaking at Festival of Female Entrepreneurs in Bristol on 21 October, TrueStart Coffee co-founder Helena Hills shares her extraordinary start-up story.

How did you come up the idea for TrueStart Coffee and turn that idea into a business?

It was a couple of years ago, when Simon and I were training for a half IronMan triathlon. We were always having a coffee before each training session, and I'm quite sensitive to caffeine so I was noticing a big difference in how I felt, heart palpitations out on the bike one day and nothing the next!

When we looked into it, we found out that the caffeine levels in coffee varying massively. We honestly could not believe it and thought that's fine in a café but absolutely useless for training when you need to know how much caffeine you're drinking.

We were convinced that we couldn't be the only people in the world that would love a quality coffee with a reliable level of caffeine in it. So we tested the demand with a simple website and 'pre order now' button, then set about finding the right team to help us develop the first coffee in the world designed for sport, with an optimum, reliable level of natural caffeine. We launched in May last year and the rest is history!

What start-up challenges did you face and how did you overcome them?

So many! Every day really is a new learning experience. If I had to pick one, I'd say the biggest challenge has been the team; learning how to recruit the right people and build the right culture, which matters so much. We have audaciously big ambitions for TrueStart, the team is critical and I'm not ashamed to admit that this has been so, so difficult.

How did you fund your business?

With angel investment, following a smaller-scale crowdfunding campaign that caught our investor's attention, meaning we abandoned the campaign to bring on that higher level investment.

How did you persuade Holland & Barrett to stock your products and what advice would you offer to others wanting to secure a listing with a big retailer?

Firstly, we got their attention. You have to do anything, including being cheeky like we were with a tweet. That tweet led to their team getting in touch via our website and we arranged to go and meet them.

After that, it's a case of being yourself and letting your passion really show through. Be honest if you have no real idea of how that type of retail environment works. At the end of the day they're people, they'll warm to you and help you out.

That said, there's no substitute for preparation. Know your strategy, market, numbers and what incremental value you're going to bring to which category. Prove how you're generating demand for your product. Show the traction you've had to date. Talk to other brands that may have great advice for you. Be sure of yourself and go for it!

How did you manage to convince the former MD of Douwe Egberts to join your board? And what advice would you offer other entrepreneurs looking to secure such high-profile support?

Firstly, work out what expertise it is you're looking for; where are your weaknesses? We had absolutely no experience in the world of coffee, so it was definitely a weakness. Then, find the people you're looking to access and get a warm introduction via one or a chain of people that rate you and you trust.

I think the most important thing with all these high-profile conversations is to exude excitement and passion, you'll attract people that want to get involved. In a similar way to my advice about retailers though, it's important to be thorough in your knowledge of your own plan, strategy and numbers.

I also think it's important to be aware off and open about your strengths and weaknesses, and show that you're really keen to learn. No one knows it all.

How did you manage to launch in to the US so quickly after launch and what challenges did you face doing so?

We test absolutely everything we do before going all-in. We ran a short-term soft launch in one particular region in the US which was very well received but it quickly became obvious that the most intelligent way to launch into the States would be deliberately, with a longer-term plan and and specific resource aligned.

We also do a lot of above-the-line marketing and demand generation that has no borders, so we now ship globally but focus our spend here in the UK. It's important to follow your gut and not overstretch your limited resource as a bootstrapped startup. It's easy to get excited and overwhelmed with the size of the greater opportunity, but focus is key.

What are your three tips for running a great business?

  • Learn what your gut sounds like and listen to it.

  • Work out your individual and company values, then make sure that they run through and give direction to every company decision, from recruitment to partnerships to performance management to product development.

  • Focus, focus, focus. Cut out the noise.


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