019 – Setting a Big Vision and Solving Big Problems with Hugh Thomas from Ugly Drinks

Ugly are a soft drinks brand creating a Positive Rebellion. Their soft drinks are free from sugar and contain nothing artificial.

They’re taking the drinks industry by storm and dedicated to uncovering Ugly Truths in the world. From tackling health and obesity to ending gender inequality, Ugly are on a mission to do good both here in the UK and further afield.

Tune in to learn how co-founders Hugh and Joe turned an idea into a big reality and how you can too.

In this episode you’ll learn

  • How to emulate great brands without copying them
  • The modern movement of Positive Rebellion and changing consumer behaviour
  • How to hire a team that aligns with your values and culture
  • How to be more than a food and drink company and make a positive impact
  • How to do what you believe in, regardless of whether it’s good for business or not
  • How to grow your brand and scale internationally

Notes & Links

Ugly Drinks UK

Ugly Drinks USA

1p from every sale of Ugly goes to Girl Up who are uniting girls to change the world. Gender equality is one of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Resource of the Week: The Magic of Thinking Big by David J. Schwartz

Episode Transcript

Guy: [00:00:01] You’re listening to Good Foodies and this is episode 19. Today, we’re talking to Hugh Thomas one of the co-founders of Ugly Drinks. We talked about positive rebellion, setting a big vision and solving some of the world’s biggest problems. So stay tuned.

Guy: [00:00:28] Hello and welcome to the show. My name is Guy Routledge from Sapling Digital and The Food Rush and I’m joined in the studio as always by my co-host, Kylie Ackers. Kylie, welcome to the show.

Kylie: [00:00:39] Good morning.

Guy: [00:00:42] Morning, afternoon…

Kylie: [00:00:42] Evening, depending where you are in the world and what time of the day this is.

Guy: [00:00:47] Good stuff. So today, we’re talking to Hugh Thomas from Ugly Drinks. Kylie, what do you know about Ugly?

Kylie: [00:00:52] So I know that they have really bright packaging. It’s really distinctive on the shelf.

Guy: [00:00:58] It looks great. Really, it looks great.

Kylie: [00:01:00] It’s really young and modern and those guys obviously know their target market really well. The other thing, if I’m correct, that they don’t have any added sugar to their drinks. Is that right?

Guy: [00:01:10] I think it’s completely sugar free, calorie free. No nothing in it. No nasties. Nothing artificial. It’s a really great alternative to the classic soft drink which is often full of sugar and all sorts of nasty stuff.

Kylie: [00:01:25] So I imagine then, the reason that they came out with the product is to get the really crappy sugary drinks out of the hands of kids and young adults and give them something that hopefully taste just as good but is better for them.

Guy: [00:01:39] Yeah definitely that’s a big part of it but I think their mission and their vision and their values goes much deeper than that. They’re trying to do some really interesting things, they’re trying to take over the world almost and they’re really trying to make a positive difference. We’ve got a great interview with with one of the co-founders Hugh lined up and we started off the discussion talking about exactly what the product is and why they’re making waves in the drinks industry.

Hugh: [00:02:10] So Ugly is a soft drinks company. We make fruit flavoured sparkling water. They’re 100 percent natural. There’s no sugar no sweetener no calories in the drinks at all. What we’ve created is a healthy alternative to traditional fizzy drinks whether sugary or sweet. If you look at the back of a can of Ugly, it says 0 all the way down the back. We have no calories, no fat, no carbohydrates, and nothing bad in the product at all and it is all natural. We have a range of flavours in the U.K. We have Tropical Triple Berry, Lemon Lime and Orange and more to come.

Hugh: [00:02:43] And in the US, we have a Lemon Lime, Peach and Cherry. The can is a 330ml can in UK so the traditional soda can. It’s bright blue. We have the big word UGLY on the can and the business has all been started by myself and my close friend Joe. We both recognised in Mid 2015, a problem in the UK, which was over-consumption of sugar and sweetener in general, particularly, in carbonated soft drinks. We wanted to make a brand that was fun, tasted great and had none of the bad stuff. And gave people a real, valid, fun alternative to traditional soft drinks.

Guy: [00:03:24] And that definitely seems to have come through in the branding. It’s all about this no nonsense, get real messaging which I think is really speaking to people at this point in history. It seems people are really starting to care about that kind of approach and appreciate the honesty.

Hugh: [00:03:44] That’s it. We hashtag. And our positioning around the brand is- “The Ugly Truth”. We want to talk about that. There’s a George Orwell quote that we read at the start of last year which is, “In a time of universal deceit, telling the truth is a revolutionary act”. Whether you look at, as you’ve just referenced, marketing, food, drink, labelling and advertising, it’s also what’s happening in politics with fake news, alternative facts whether you’re in the UK or the US. Different political things have been happening and whatever you believe, I think everybody wants to read the truth whether it’s the food you’re putting in your body or the newspaper you are reading in the evening. Ugly, the name is all about transparency and being real and not creating a brand and marketing that is misleading away from what we’re actually creating, so Ugly is just sparkling water with real fruit flavour and that’s it, nothing else.

Guy: [00:04:37] It’s a really bold move to go for something where the name itself almost sounds like it’s the antithesis of what you guys have. You’re clean and there’s nothing nasty in there at all and yet you’ve gone for a name which might make people stop and think, and think “Well what’s in this then if it’s ugly”.

Hugh: [00:04:55] That’s it, and I think the brand, and Joe and I, had this kind of feeling three years ago when we first had the idea, was that when you look at food and drink brands, and marketing food and drink products for the last hundred years, particularly with the big food and drink brands is they’ve been saying the same thing. There’ll be pictures of that. I mean all you have to do is look back at old adverts for soda brands and realise that the same adverts are just being rolled out, just with modern photography verses an illustration. With smiling happy people with glasses of a dark brown sugary sweet and syrupy liquid and I think when we felt, when we wanted to create a brand, we wanted to make something that really really stood out, and really related to people. You’ve referenced the movement that’s happening at the moment, and the way we talk about it at Ugly is that right now what we’re seeing with millennial consumers, with our employee groups age group is this move towards positive rebellion. It’s not the punk movement where people are being destructive and tearing down what’s around them. Instead you have the kind of Startup movement, you have a female empowerment movement, me too, things like this where people are constructively creating and subverting to change the world. And that’s kind of what our brand stands for, it stands out, it’s bold, it has a name that makes you look. We’re trying to create something that is positive and makes positive change rather than something that tears down the status quo.

Guy: [00:06:29] Yeah it’s fantastic some of the stuff you guys are doing and perhaps we’ll move on to some of that positive stuff and doing good in a minute. But I just wanted to come back to that thing that you just mentioned, that idea of the positive rebellion. That’s a great expression. Is that something that you feel that you have started or is it something that you’ve tapped into?

Hugh: [00:06:50] I genuinely feel that Ugly is a new wave of food and drink brand. And I think when we really looked at the space, I think in the UK in particular, it’s very easy to create something within the realms of what’s gone before. For example, the best brands, and this is no way a slight on Innocent, I think it is one of the greatest brands of all time, if not one of my favourites.

Guy: [00:07:20] And they were particularly revolutionary as well.

Hugh: [00:07:22] Particularly revolutionary – but that brand’s been around a long time. It has carved out its own place. It talks in its own tone of voice and I think it’s very dangerous because for food and drink brands you really want to stand out and you really want your own opinion. To try and emulate Innocent, would not only be not true to ourselves but also very difficult and we felt that too many food and drink brands try and speak in that tone of voice. We felt, how we speak as consumers and our team as the consumer and we have all been solving our own problem, we wanted to speak in a real way, speak in a modern way, tell the truth and really try and do our own thing. So when you talk about positive rebellion, whether that’s tapping into a trend or whether we are just at the time, Joe and I have this concept and this name and this attitude, whether we were feeling the same as the other people who are now creating similar things, I think there was a moment in time where I think there’s a bit of frustration and “why are things being done the same way for food and drink for a hundred years”. It’s time for change and that drove us to go “Let’s tear the rulebook up and start from scratch with our own tone of voice”.

Guy: [00:08:32] It’s really interesting that you reference Innocent because when I was on your website the other day just doing some research ready to chat to you today, the copy and the messaging is very striking and very distinctive and it reminded me of Innocent not because of the tone and the style, but of how it was so distinctive. I think a lot of brands, they often kind of look to the greats, to see what they should be doing and I think what perhaps some people do wrong is they copy the great or they copy those people that they admire and everything starts sounding same-y. Whereas, what I love about what you guys have done is, you’ve taken that idea of let’s come up with a distinctive brand, a distinctive tone of voice and it is genuinely different whilst having all of those hallmarks of a great brand and a great tone of voice and something that really resonates with your target customer. It’s brilliant.

Hugh: [00:09:24] I think you make a really good point. We’ve been lucky enough now to meet some of the early team members of Innocent. As a business they couldn’t have been more supportive and friendly with the whole community in general. I think all food and drink brands will say that, but when you meet these early employees or you listen to the founders, or you listen to the creative tone of voice of the people there, they are THE brand. They’re not creating this. They’re not mythically making this up. This is how they speak. This is their sense of humour and when you realise that, you realise that you have to be authentic. You have to be authentic to yourselves and our values and our culture, the same way we write on pack, that’s how our team talks internally. That’s how we write emails. That’s how we sign off marketing activity. It is real because that’s us. There’s no faking it, there’s no making it up. And that’s what Innocent’s done amazingly and that’s why it’s such a great brand, because it runs through the DNA of the organisation. When you say, you look to the great, you learn from the greats, that’s what we do. We’re learning the principles rather than copying the rulebook.

Guy: [00:10:32] Definitely. And do you do a lot of that in-house and is that how you’re able to get the very honest, close to your values, and your way of thinking and talking, or have you just managed to work with an amazing agency?

Hugh: [00:10:48] So now we’re lucky enough, three years into the business, to have a great agency partner. I guess putting more flesh and more structure to the skeleton that we created. Every single social media post that you see from the brand that’s gone out has been written by either myself or our marketing team in-house. Every email, every campaign, the name Ugly was created by Joe and myself early on in the business.

Hugh: [00:11:13] When we’re hiring people, we’re hiring people when they come in for interviews that not only tick all the boxes you’d expect from an interview, but talk in this tone, align with this vision and this positive rebellion, and we wouldn’t want to hire someone that isn’t able to talk to consumers in that tone. So even if you join our team in the finance department or the operations team, we have Jamie who joined our operations team this week and we are comfortable enough hiring anyone in any department and letting them go out. He did his first demo of the product in Whole Foods this week, talking to the consumers, because everybody needs to talk like the brand and be like the brand. It’s not just a case of one or two people represent us. It’s something that threads through the whole thing. We try and be authentic and that hopefully lands with some of our social media too.

Guy: [00:12:03] And I think that’s a really great way to approach hiring. Instead of hiring purely for skills, which you might need to do if you have a huge operation and there are many layers of middle management. But the vast majority of food brands aren’t structured in that way and you really need those people who get it and who care at all levels as you say it. Much more important to hire for character than it is to hire for skill.

Hugh: [00:12:26] I think food and drink, and creating any sort of startup, is an interesting space for hiring. I remember listening to someone talk about EQ and IQ. I think a lot of jobs you might expect a higher IQ which we obviously still want to do. But the EQ and the people side of the food and drink business is so important. I think any of our team can be talking one minute to a consumer, the next minute to an accountant, the next minute to a creative, the next minute someone in a shop or retailer. You need to be able to be authentic, to be real, to understand people, it’s a people business ultimately, and that’s what we have to hire for.

Guy: [00:13:10] And so IQ, I think is the intelligence quotient and EQ is the emotional quotient. I think I’ve got that right.

Hugh: [00:13:16] Sorry, I should have expanded that.

Guy: [00:13:19] And I think that leads on nicely to how you mentioned you’re a people business and how food is a people business. And something that I’ve noticed that you guys are doing recently is you’ve partnered with an organisation called Girl Up. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how it’s working for you guys?

Hugh: [00:13:34] I think obviously, when Joe and I started the business we were very focused on this mission around sugar and sweet in beverages and taking on that world of marketing we just referenced. Ever since day one, we’ve always wanted to be a business within that positive rebellion sense. The kind that does more than just a drinks company. We’re a brand that takes a stand and really stands up for what it believes in. As our team’s grown, and we have brought more people into the team, we’ve really developed our own personality and really gathered our own thoughts on the causes that we really want to support and really want to believe in.

Hugh: [00:14:15] One of the things for us, and one of the pivotal things in the business is the balance of our team, the female leadership we have internally is really driven us to where we are, and I think we felt as a group, a young workforce, that this is something that we really wanted to stand for as a company but also wanted to give back to. So we were looking for an ugly truth in the world so to speak, that we wanted to contribute towards and help highlight awareness of. About 12 months ago, before it wasn’t really in mainstream press, like it is now, not that it wasn’t an issue then, but we identified as a team that gender inequality was something we wanted to address. We decided to look for the right partner, where we could give back, not only financially from our sales but also, give in terms of the energy of the team and try and get involved in a cause that’s bigger than just working in a drinks company. Girl Up is the United Nations Foundation charity based in the US but also in the UK too. But the cause splits into two parts, one where money from every can sold from Ugly for us, so one pence in the UK, one cent in the US, towards supporting girls in other countries around the world. So particularly, in the developing world where girls have less access to things like education, sexual health, family planning, the list goes on and on. We just felt that this idea of empowerment and particularly empowering around gender felt like a real ugly truth and just something that shouldn’t really be happening in today’s day and age.

Hugh: [00:16:06] The charity is also something that is on a community level, so in the US there are thousands of college students, in the UK this is just developing as well. Mainly girls involved in Girl Up, empowered to really drive this cause on their campuses, at home, in their local towns and cities. And we just felt that the idea of not only a charitable cause where our can sales, and the money from buying a can of Ugly, not only goes to the right cause but also just being part of a movement that is able to help this message spread in wider culture, felt really important and something that we wanted to not only give back to, but something we think consumers will be excited about it as well. Something we just felt was a cause worth talking about, worth highlighting and ultimately, in terms of transparency in the world, something that’s not been transparent for a long time and deserves to be. Regardless of whether it was good for business or not we’d have done it. So it’s just something we wanted to do and that’s one of the benefits of being a small business that’s authentic. If we want to do the sort of thing, we can do it. For us, this is just the start down the line. We do pick other ugly truths. Hopefully we can develop a partnership with Girl Up and get more back over time. But an exciting future ahead and the team there have been very supportive.

Guy: [00:17:24] Absolutely, very exciting. And there was something that you said there which I think is really interesting. You said that, because you’re a small startup, you can have a go with this and even if it was not good for business, you would have done it anyway. To some people that might sound like a massive risk. Because your whole brand is about, this honest, transparent, just doing stuff because you can and because you think you should, probably would end up being good for business anyway because it’s so aligned with the brand.

Hugh: [00:17:52] That’s it! I think ultimately, those brands that think more about the world and really think deeply about their impact on it, I think it’s the future of commerce in general. We think about sustainability, we think about other causes we can contribute to, we think about our internal culture and how we’re promoting leaders and building leaders of the future regardless of their background. It’s just the right thing to do, ultimately. And I think too often in traditional business, the right thing to do can be blurred by numbers and targets. But I think hopefully, in the coming years, consumers will want to buy from brands that are doing the right thing. So even if it’s difficult or takes time to achieve and we’re by no means where we want to be, we’re improving every day towards a better business, a better way of doing business. But it’s just the right thing to do for whole of commerce in general, so that’s what we’re working towards.

Guy: [00:18:49] It’s brilliant and I completely agree. You mentioned about making an impact, is this campaign with Girl Up something that started recently? Have you got any details about the impact it’s already having?

Hugh: [00:19:01] So we’re only just over a month into it’s announcement in the UK. So the early numbers, I’m waiting for at the moment, so hopefully I’ll share those as soon as we get them. But just anecdotally, internally I just think everybody feels great about it. That’s a really great thing to have where your team is coming in every day not only excited to sell a drink that competes against sugary sweet in soda, and helps contribute that way but also a brand that’s more than just a drinks company and not afraid to stand up for what it believes in. This is the first thing we wanted to stand up for and I think there’s plenty more.

Hugh: [00:19:40] It’s just galvanised us. I think a lot of consumers who are beginning to find out about it really like that a company like us has stood up for a cause like this. We decided that we wanted to give a cash amount back to charity. We didn’t say something misleading, like we’re giving away 1 percent of profits, because most startups don’t make profit.

Guy: [00:20:01] Yes, very true.

Hugh: [00:20:02] We just wanted to be real. This felt like the right start, whether we’ve got it right or not, we’ll find out. We can build from here but we wanted it to be tangible at the beginning so that was a really conscious part of what we tried to do.

Guy: [00:20:14] Excellent stuff. Changing direction slightly. You’ve obviously talked a lot about the brand and what you stand for, your values, but you also talk about it as a business so, it’s not just something that you do for fun. Although, I do get the impression that you guys have a lot of fun doing it. But this is serious business and you come from a background of serious business. Can you tell us a bit about your background working with the likes of VitaCoco and perhaps how that has influenced some of the things and some of the ways that you do things now.

Hugh: [00:20:45] So Joe and I met working for the coconut water company VitaCoco. An amazing company, we had an amazing experience working there. It’s still independent, largest coconut water company in the world. And Joe and I were lucky enough to be two of the first employees in it’s European business when coconut water was just emerging in the UK. I think whilst we were there, we developed a love for beverage. There was just something special for Joe and I certainly about the way people interact with drinks. When you pick up a can or a bottle of something, it says a lot about your personality. They’re fun. They’re functional. People eat and drink everyday so everybody has an opinion on food and drink whether they like or not, and that makes it quite interesting. Ultimately, you can get in the hands of lots of consumers with this product. My first job out of university was working for Heinz baked beans. Heinz, a very big company.

Guy: [00:21:46] Yes, very different to startup life, I guess.

Hugh: [00:21:49] Very different from startup life but at the time, I believe were selling 2 to 3 million cans of Heinz beans every week maybe more, maybe every day.

Guy: [00:21:58] Wow that’s a lot of beans.

Hugh: [00:21:59] I think when you’re on that team at Heinz, you have a real responsibility. This is something people love. You feel the love of the consumer. People get really passionate about their brands. The staples. Most cupboards in the UK probably have can of Heinz beans somewhere. I think I learned a lot working there about, I mean Heinz is a brand that’s a 100 years old plus. Just how important it is to really cultivate that. When I left to join VitaCoco, which is the opposite end in the spectrum, really understood what it meant to build something special over a long period of time. And set about myself in the marketing team, Joe in the sales team, kind of building the brand one store a time, one consumer at a time. When we were there, the brand grew from less than a million pounds worth of sales to 40 million pounds worth of sales plus in three years which is very fast. We were in pretty much every supermarket in the country by the time we left and I think during that period, obviously a lot of fast growth, a big learning curve for us both as leaders and I caught the bug for beverage and caught the bug for building something.

Hugh: [00:23:09] And there’s just something special about creating an idea that Joe and I had in our flat without any money. We had it in my flat and came up with this idea to start a drinks business. We decided to call it Ugly and then we just built it from there. And when we talk about growing the business, we’ve never been shy about saying that we want to build something big. Actually something we were told by one of the early employees, a guy called Dan at Innocent Smoothies, recently when we met them, was that they were never shy about their ambitions and scale. I think sometimes in the UK we may shy away from that. But the reason we were excited by this is we saw this huge problem in the UK in terms of soda consumption. The cost of sugary sweetened soft drinks, on obesity, happiness, and healthcare is huge and we felt that we wanted to build something that generally helps solve that.

Hugh: [00:24:06] If we’d have created a £5 smoothie or a £10 detox drink, then we wouldn’t have achieved that because only a few people in the UK would be able to afford it. So Joe and I always sat about creating something that was for everyone and that could be bought by anyone, anywhere, which ultimately means we have ambitions to scale. And to do that, we need to grow the business, we need to grow something that relates with a lot of people, that people can interact with and ultimately long-term swap that can of soda for something without any sugar or sweetener in it.

Guy: [00:24:40] I think we’ll come on, in just a second, to your biggest scaling activity that’s happened recently. But I wanted to dig into a couple of points on what you’ve just been talking about. Specifically from going from the background in big food or big brands into a startup environment. How is that experience that you had previously helped you guys to grow and scale this thing of your own?

Hugh: [00:25:08] I think it’s funny because when I was at a big company, I craved the nimbleness and I craved the speed and I craved the ability to change things on a daily basis, and the minute you start a small company I think you crave the structure, the organisation, and the stability…

Guy: [00:25:26] It’s nice when there’s someone to tell you what to do rather than everything landing on your own shoulders.

Hugh: [00:25:31] Yeah, and we get used to that and you learn, but it’s funny, it can be a blessing for us because we’ve made mistakes. All that we’ve learnt from, and we’ve learned a lot about the industry, and hopefully that’s reflected in the way we do things, but it can also be restrictive because expectations are different.

Hugh: [00:25:47] What’s gone before has totally changed. And I can talk maybe a little bit about that as well – in that what I learnt even three years ago has totally changed. Technology is changing everything. And sometimes I need to look at things I guess like a child. I look at things like I’ve discovered them for the first time and that sometimes can be hard when you’ve been there and done it … because this is how we used to do it. Whereas, actually what you need to do is look at the problem in front of you and solve it with the tools available to you in that day, in that moment you’re in.

Hugh: [00:26:19] E-commerce is a great example of that. We’re now very bullish on e-commerce. The growth of Amazon, the growth of our own direct to consumer shop, on uglydrinks.com. We’ve really kind of gathered speed and learned quickly on it in recent months. But I think there’s a lot of businesses out there run by people who’ve been there and done it who maybe aren’t looking at it. Because that’s not how it’s always happened. Our whole businesses is built on the premise of disrupting what’s gone before. We have to do that whether it’s where consumers are shopping or what they’re buying in terms of beverage and liquid, and eating and food.

Guy: [00:26:54] So you started going straight into retail, but then you’ve added e-commerce later? Or was it the other way round but it wasn’t the main focus?

Hugh: [00:27:01] We launched with e-commerce. I’ve always been really interested in it and I always want to sell direct. From day one, our website has had a web shop so anybody across the UK can buy it and it’s not just one shop in London that sells our product. But I think in recent months we’ve really begun to learn from all these direct consumer businesses, which I’m sure anyone in the UK has seen advertised, whether it’s a mattress or razorblades or anything else you can get for your letter box. I think there’s just so much to learn from that and it’s not to say we don’t believe in retail. We believe in people being able to buy drinks when they want it and where they want it. If that means on their mobile phone, on the bus home, then we should be there, if that means in their local shop then we should be there too. Long term that’s our vision. But certainly the growth of technology, the speed it’s growing at and the affordability for small business means it’s just such a great way of getting your brand everywhere as quickly as possible.

Guy: [00:28:02] Which I think is the most important thing especially when you’re a brand with such a strong mission. It wouldn’t make sense for you to be just selling online to a few people here and there, wouldn’t make sense for you to be just in independent stores. Perhaps it would make sense for you just to be in retail but I think the retail landscape is changing and so it seems like you’re embracing technology, embracing the change and wanting to do things differently and enabling people to get you guys wherever they might be ,in whatever state, in whatever time.

Hugh: [00:28:33] That’s it and there are people subscribed to our products in our web shop, they get their delivery of Ugly – some people every 14 days, some people every month – direct to their door. They drink it instead of drinking diet soda and soda. Hopefully, we’re making a positive contribution, and by being available on subscription removing a lot of the hassle of going down to the shop, loading your trolley with heavy drinks, carrying them in. We’re taking the hassle out of it and you don’t need to remember anymore. And ultimately, that’s the way things are moving.

Guy: [00:29:09] Yeah, if you’re going to drink a lot of it, then have it delivered straight to the door because it is heavy stuff.

Hugh: [00:29:14] Exactly.

Guy: [00:29:14] So it sounds like everything is definitely going in the right direction. I mean amazing brand, amazing stories and tone of voice and incredible campaigns to really make a difference in the world. And recently you guys had some great news which was expanding into the US. Can you tell us a little bit about the process there, was that something that you planned from the very beginning or was it an opportunity that just came along?

Hugh: [00:29:39] That’s a great question. I think for Joe and I, for me personally, working at Heinz, which is an American business and working VitaCoco which is an American business launched here. I think both of us have always had that kind of chip on the shoulder that we wanted to represent the UK and take something back the other way which I guess is an irrational ambition but something we’ve always dreamt of because it just feels like the UK can punch above its weight. We’ve done it in music. We’ve done in other areas. Why can we do with beverage. So that’s kind of how we looked at it from day one and we always wanted to do it. I think the opportunity’s maybe come around faster than we initially imagined. We’ve been working on the launch, we launched on May the 14th, but we’ve been working on that for a good 18 months and it’s not a decision we’ve taken lightly. It’s not an approach we’ve taken in a rushed manner, we’ve considered everything so Ugly now has a U.S. subsidiary of the business. We have manufacturing in North America. We have a North American team. We have a North American office and we are available again online via uglydrinks.com, pretty much every state in America but Alaska and Hawaii. Unfortunately for them. One day maybe.

Guy: [00:30:51] Well it is a bit remote.

Hugh: [00:30:54] And we’re available in stores in New York now which for us, for Joe and I, starting this in my flat and having that idea three and a half years ago, is a pretty crazy achievement. We know today there will be people in America, we’ve had orders in Texas, California, Oregon and Carolina. There will be people in most states drinking cans of Ugly which is a pretty cool thing to have achieved.

Guy: [00:31:22] Very cool as the creator of this thing, which didn’t exist just a few mere years ago. There was something that spring to mind when I found out that you guys were going into the States with a name like Ugly and in a country where everything seems to be beautiful – you watch American TV and everyone is stunning – how is the name Ugly and that raw honest truth been received over there?

Hugh: [00:31:49] You’ve hit the nail on the head there, how American culture has been. We really feel in our guts, and I think in the guts of a lot of consumers particularly, of modern consumers, that they’re beginning to see through this and that you only have to read the celebrity magazines to realise that what’s on the outside is not necessarily what’s actually happening. There’s ugliness in that beauty so to speak. I think we really just wanted to to create something authentic, speak to people call that call the bluff on the smiley kind of plastic finish. And already in the first three to four weeks we’ve been launched there the response to the brand’s been phenomenal. People really loving what we stand for, loving the packaging, loving the liquid. For us again, creating that brand, developing it here in the UK, obviously thinking about US consumers and talking to U.S. consumers, a lot of gut feel involved, for us to see that resonate, it’s really exciting.

Guy: [00:32:54] Yeah very cool. And I remember, right at the beginning of our chat today. You kind of listed off the different flavours that you have available and I picked up that they’re different here in the UK to the ones in the US. What was the reasoning behind that?

Hugh: [00:33:08] Yes good question. It would be very easy for us to create the US product here, or have the same flavours, and then ship those across to the US and launch what we have here over there. As much as we want to create a global brand, I think the phrase is “glocal” – think globally but act locally. And we really wanted to make something that consumers loved and could replace that soda habit. There’s no point us creating a tropical flavour, for example, which is popular in the UK and less popular in the U.S, interestingly, and trying to sell that over there when we could create for example, what we did with the cherry product is create a product that tastes like some of those well-known cherry flavoured soft drinks, just without the bad stuff. We’ll continue to do that. We’re going to learn on both sides of the Atlantic. There may be some U.S. flavours that we take inspiration from bring to the UK and vice versa. But for us, it is really about thinking about the consumers, the people who want to drink it. I’m building that from there. So our flavours have been developed in North America, we have slightly different versions of those flavours. The expectations of these fruits are slightly different. And it’s been a fun process to begin to learn that one country’s lemon and lime is not totally different but slightly different to another’s.

Guy: [00:34:32] That is really interesting. I’ve travelled to the states a few times and I noticed over there, they have a lot of grape flavoured things, whereas we don’t really do that over here. But then I think on the other side of the pond, they don’t really do blackberry or black currant or something, I can’t remember the details. It’s interesting how different countries have completely different styles of flavours.

Hugh: [00:34:52] That’s it. And it’s just simply you have to respect and work around and I think for us there are so many. When you look at the cans, in a photo they essentially look the same but to the trained eye you realise the bar codes are different, the labelling is different on the back. The US cans is slightly taller than the UK can, just as standard. There’s lots of these nuances that you have to learn when your creating a global company. But we’re trying to keep as many consistencies as possible in the way the brands are led.

Guy: [00:35:26] Which makes sense because it’s clearly doing very well over here and I guess you want to be able to replicate that success in the States. And so what is next, is it world domination? Or is it something a bit more methodical than that?

Hugh: [00:35:40] I feel like world domination might stretch us too far right now. We have 350-400 billion people in the US to get beverages to. We’ve obviously excited about the way the brand is growing but for us, the U.S. is a huge market. The problem we initially set out to solve in terms of sugary sweetened soft drinks is as big there if not bigger than it is here. We feel that creating a product that can genuinely disrupt the soda space and replace those calories or sweeteners with something else, this is something we needed to do. The brand is going really well in the U.K. so we felt, so why don’t we try and do what we always set out to do and launch a British company in America. That feels pretty good to have landed on U.S. soil. Now the real hard work starts and we have to go and set about doing what we did here and really build the brand across North America.

Guy: [00:36:38] And what are some of those challenges that you guys are facing at the moment?

Hugh: [00:36:42] There’s daily challenges with running any sort of company. For us, just in the U.S., just understanding the size of the country has been a real learning curve. I mean I’ve always known the scale of the U.S. but when you realise that flying from New York to Los Angeles is like London to the Congo. I think it’s just sheer scale of retail, the sheer scale of again, consumer tastes, consumer opinion. Again, it’s been seen politically recently just the differences in the country are just huge. We’re now trying to run a supply chain with a team, some of whom are in the UK. Running a business that’s in a different time zone, 10000 miles away has its complexities. We’re working through that and we’ll begin to build our team and build our capability. But as a small start up some of these challenges are pretty considerable versus the UK where you can pretty much drive the length of the country in 24 hours.

Hugh: [00:37:46] That’s been a learning curve but we’ve been really methodical. We’ve really considered every decision we make and we work really hard. Our team is probably the most hardworking place that I’ve ever been. The effort that everyone puts in is incredible so I think that helps us make good decisions and move in the right direction quickly.

Guy: [00:38:07] It’s fantastic and I’m sure we could sit here and talk for hours, if not days, about all the amazing things that you guys are doing, but I know you’re a busy man so we’re gonna have to let you go.

Guy: [00:38:18] But one last thing that I like to ask everybody who comes on the show is: now with the experience you guys have gathered over the years in the different areas of food that you’ve worked in, for anybody who is perhaps towards the beginning of their food startup journey or their food entrepreneurs journey, what’s one piece of advice that you would give for them?

Hugh: [00:38:39] I guess I’ll wrap a couple into one. The first bit of advice is about joining the dots and learning to join the dots and realising that the vision you have is going to take time to achieve. So you need to understand what the next steps are and you need to ask the right questions to get there and you should reach out for help. Find out who’s been there before. Begin meeting the right people who can introduce you to the next partner you need to talk to. And this is ultimately the way you break down any difficult challenge. So when we looked at launching in the U.S., we started speaking to founders who’ve done it before, we learnt about the supply chain, we learnt about all of these things. And I think from the outside it might look like we’ve found this easy but I had no idea how we were gonna start a US business even 18 months ago. But by joining the dots, by asking the rights questions, by getting out there, you begin to get the answers. I think a lot of people might be tempted to give up when it gets hard. We always say that if you meet someone who’s in that space and they can’t help you, we always ask the question: well do you know anyone who can? And you’ll be surprised how many people have introduced us to the right person on the back of that question.

Hugh: [00:39:49] I think the second part of this is, is trying to do it without spending any money where you can. I mean you can get a long way on very low resource. There are so many free tools out there whether it’s cheap web design, setting up a website for free, social media’s always easy to access with the phone you can just take photos. I think people get a lot further than they think without any resource. Joe and I ran the business for the first 6-7 months of its idea just from our salaries. We were still in full time jobs for 18 months of developing the concept and we got a long way. We had a fully developed brand, we had a website, we had a brand name, we have a liquid, everything, just from working ourselves before we did anything like angel investment or raise money or anything like that. So I just encourage people to really try and be lean and try and connect the dots without spending money. Such an easy way to lose lots of money and burn it quickly.

Guy: [00:40:51] That was Hugh Thomas from Ugly Drinks, and you can find out more about them at uglydrinks.co.uk. And if you’re listening in from the other side of the pond, you can find out about Ugly Drinks USA at uglydrinks.com. Our resource of the week today will help you to dream big, just like Hugh was talking about. And that’s up next after our lessons learned.

Lessons Learned

Kylie: [00:41:16] One of the things that really interested me, from what Hugh said in that interview, was his approach to problem solving, which is basically, that every time that they come up with a problem they are solving it all over again. Because when you solve a problem today it’s not necessarily in the same context as it was yesterday or three years ago. So you need to look to your environment, look to what’s available, look to new ideas. And he said, look to new technology because it changes so fast. And I thought, that was really interesting given that he’s come from Heinz who are quite a traditional company and I’m sure he learnt a lot there about the ways that they do things and the way they solve problems. But he’s not happy with that. He’s basically saying, every time a problem comes up we solve it all over again just to make sure that we’re getting the best solution.

Guy: [00:42:05] I imagine there’s very different problems at a big company like Heinz or a big company like VitaCoco compared to a young and scrappy startup like Ugly. I mean maybe calling them scrappy is doing them a disservice because obviously, they’re doing some great stuff. But they definitely have that kind of small and nimble type approach to problem solving.

Kylie: [00:42:26] Well they started in his flat, as he said, overlapping with their full time jobs. So that’s a completely different way that I’m sure Heinz was started or even VitaCoco.

Guy: [00:42:37] I imagine so. It’s just such a great story to hear from the small humble beginnings to scaling up and solving some really significant problems.

Kylie: [00:42:47] World domination. Yeah?

Guy: [00:42:48] I mean not just solving problems like, how do we make this drink, how do we do the branding, how do we get it to market? But solving bigger problems like, how do we fix gender inequality? There are loads of problems to solve when you’re running any business but to also take on things like that, to make it an integral part of the brand is really quite amazing.

Kylie: [00:43:10] And then clearly to really hone their problem solving skills they thought, you know what, why not go to the States where we’ll get a whole new bunch of problems to solve? It’s really impressive!

Guy: [00:43:22] The whole thing is all about scale and doing something bigger than themselves. And there was something in there that Hugh mentioned that really stood out to me, which is the idea of people here in the UK often shy away from talking about scale and growth and money and stuff like that because it makes us feel uncomfortable.

Kylie: [00:43:40] Talk about money down the pub and everyone very quickly shuts up.

Guy: [00:43:43] Yes and no. Everyone’s got an opinion about it.

Kylie: [00:43:47] Yes, but they don’t want to talk about their own money situation. No one shares that, at all.

Guy: [00:43:51] No, it’s very challenging. I guess it is just something about our culture, our way of being or something like that, but you need to be able to set a big vision and be confident about it and say, this is what we’re going to do and that it’s not just about you but it’s about something that is further out there as well. You know something that is making a difference in the world.

Kylie: [00:44:14] Ugly have got two massive big missions there which is, they want to cut out sugary drinks, they want to help people make better choices, and help the obesity issues that are both in the UK and the US. And they can only do that by thinking big. You’re not going to make a big impact on obesity if you’re only thinking about selling to a very small supermarket around the corner. So you’ve got to think big and you’ve got to think global. And then secondly the same thing with the gender equality, if they really want to have a massive impact, their vision has to be so big to follow through on that.

Guy: [00:44:50] I guess one of the ways they’re doing that is through leveraging all of these different sales channels. I think the traditional model is go into retail but we certainly have spoken to a lot of people, and it’s very much part of the beliefs that we have which is taking things online and leveraging technology is just another channel to tap into. And it’s interesting that Hugh is now saying that they’re doubling down on e-commerce because there is a huge opportunity there.

Kylie: [00:45:18] I think the way Hugh’s looking at it, he’s like, he just wants to be everywhere his customer is. He wants to make it as easy as possible. He’s not thinking about, Oh, I just need to be everywhere to make sure I’m making money. He’s like, I want to be wherever my customer is and if that’s at the shop around the corner or if that’s at the supermarket or if that’s on their phone, then I want to be there. I want to make sure that they can get access to the thing that they want. And that’s a really refreshing way to hear someone talk about their business, which is customer first and business or brand, not second, but they’re definitely putting the customer up there as their priority.

Guy: [00:45:54] It goes back to that thing about the big vision and it’s not a big vision that is self-serving, it’s a big vision which is customer serving and so finding out exactly what they want, what their struggles are, what their pains are, what their problems are and providing a solution.

Kylie: [00:46:10] And another indicator of that is that discussion about the flavours. He could have tried to just push the UK flavours into the US market but instead he’s gone, ok what do people here like to drink and what do we have to do to give that to them.

Guy: [00:46:23] Absolutely, really important stuff. So anything else on your on your list there, Kylie?

Kylie: [00:46:28] So I just had one more thing, which is the way that Hugh talked about the good that they’re doing, they’re giving a lot of money away to Girl Up and their whole mission is based on producing a product that is good for people, ie. better than the sugary drinks. And the thing he said a couple of times was “it’s just the right thing to do” and it’s so true what he was saying that modern consumerism and modern business is changing and very soon that will just be the way business is.

Guy: [00:46:59] I really love the idea of the positive rebellion and the changing consumer trends and behaviours and that people are looking for more from their food and drink. They really want to find things that match up with their values but also meet them where they are. So yes, some great stuff, we’re huge supporters of everything that Ugly are doing and we wish them well on their plans for world domination. Cool, so I think we’ll wrap this up and move on to our Resource of the Week.

Resource of the Week

Guy: [00:47:30] Okay, so our resource of the week this week is not one that I came up with, and so it is not a piece of technology. Kylie, tell us about this week’s resource.

Kylie: [00:47:41] I’m a massive fan of reading. I have a bookcase full of books. And this particular book, I even have two copies because I read something, I forget that I’ve read it, and then I go and buy it again. So this goes to show you how good the book is, the fact that I bought it twice.

Guy: [00:47:58] That is very telling about how much you like this book and if you listen through to the end of this segment, we’ve got a little offer for you if you’d like to get your hands on a copy of this book. Do keep listening. Kylie, tell me what the book is and tell me why you bought two copies.

Kylie: [00:48:19] So the book is called “The Magic of Thinking Big.” It’s by David Schwartz and it’s one of these books that help you through some of the mindset stuff. So it’s not just about thinking big but it’s also helping you to understand your fears and talks about goal setting and success and vision. And it’s actually quite old.

Guy: [00:48:43] This really does fit with what we’ve just been talking about with Hugh and Joe and Ugly Drinks, which is they had a big vision, they weren’t scared to talk about it. And they went out there to take on the world.

Kylie: [00:48:55] And I’m sure that they didn’t know how to do that from day one. It’s something that you learn about setting big visions and setting goals. And I think, Hugh talked about something where you set something really big and then you have to work backwards as to how the hell am I going to achieve that. And that is what goal setting and vision is like, you set the goal way in advance and then so that you don’t become overwhelmed, you kind of backtrack and work out the steps to get there. And that’s what this book is all about. It’s like, you can have the biggest vision in the world and it’s just about breaking that down into steps so that you can achieve it.

Guy: [00:49:29] It’s all about problem solving as we’ve just been talking about. So when was the when was it published?

Kylie: [00:49:34] So, 1995. It’s actually younger than I thought, I thought it was slightly older than that but yes, there’s some really great stuff in there. I would highly recommend it. And if you don’t like reading paper books, then you can always download it on Audible and just pop it into your ears and listen to it that way.

Guy: [00:49:50] Yes, I have to say I’m an audio books fan but I guess that makes sense considering we also have a podcast. So I definitely like to just kind of consume things as I’m travelling around or as I’m going about my day to day bits and pieces. So do you have any highlights of the book or should people just go out there and get their own copy?

Kylie: [00:50:08] It’s a little bit of a tough read and if you’re not used to reading mindset stuff and kind of actually owning up to the fact that you have fears, you might put it down a few times. I go back to it all the time just to remind myself often, that the way that we restrict ourselves is our own blocker. We’re blocking ourselves. And so it might not be feel natural to read this book but you can just dive into any chapter as well. It’s not one of those books you really need to read front to end. You can just kind of go, where am I now, what’s my problem now and just kind of dive into that section of the book.

Guy: [00:50:40] That’s quite a nice way of picking things up because, I don’t know about everybody listening, but I’m sure you have a lot on your plate. There’s always things that need your attention and I’m sure many people are like, I’ve got no time to read a book. I’ve got all these problems to solve and all this business to run. But this stuff is really important and it takes a while to go through it, to get used to it, and to really start internalising. But really important to unlock some of those opportunities. And there’s a big thing on the cover that says that there are 4 million copies in print and I don’t know when we picked up this copy but that speaks a little bit to the popularity of this book.

Guy: [00:51:25] And if you’re listening, and you’re thinking that sounds like something that I need in my life, because Kylie has got two copies of this book, taking up valuable space on our bookshelf, we’re going to give away a copy. Just drop us an email and the first person to do so, we’ll get your address and we’ll send it over.

Kylie: [00:51:43] And I apologize for the slightly turned down pages but that just goes to show that I’ve read it many times.

Guy: [00:51:49] We’ll scribble some notes in the margins as well so you get some extra bits and pieces of value as well. So if you’d like a copy of The Magic of Thinking Big by David Schwartz, drop us an email to [email protected] or just head over to goodfoodies.co.uk and you can find out all the bits and pieces that you need over there at the show notes.

Guy: [00:52:12] So that pretty much wraps it up for another episode. Thank you so much for joining us today and tuning in. Don’t forget to drop us an email if you want to get a free copy of The Magic of Thinking Big. Next week we’re going to be talking to Paul Hargreaves, he’s the CEO and founder of Cotswold Fayre. We’re going be talking about the changes and transitions that have happened in the food industry since they started up in the late 90’s and talking about their journey to B-Corp certification. So that will be next week, I hope you can join us then. We’ll see you next time. Cheers.