Brinc Featured Founder Interview Series — We interviewed Gabriel Bean and Bryn Ferris, from GROUNDED, to have a chat about the ins and outs of building a successful plant-based protein shake company. From the difficulties of product development, avoiding manufacturing mistakes, to choosing the best investor for your startup, read our full interview below.
GROUNDED’s mission is to make every day functional products natural by using only real ingredients straight from the ground. Launched in 2016 with the UK’s first range of low sugar cold-pressed quenchers, GROUNDED adds a new line of 100% natural, plant-based protein m*lkshakes to their range of products.
Congratulations on officially launching GROUNDED!! Alternative protein products have been a huge trend in the FoodTech community lately. When did you realize that there is a gap in the protein shake market?
Gabriel: I launched a range of low-sugar cold-pressed juices back in 2015, positioned for the premium retailers initially, but they quite quickly caught on and launched into the UK supermarkets, around the same time Bryn, a longtime school friend, joined the company. Working both sides of retail was a hugely positive learning experience for us, and we achieved an unprecedented amount of traction in a pretty short space of time. What really stood out was the need for the product to have an obvious ‘function,’ and we decided being low in sugar wasn’t enough of a value add by itself. What we really wanted to do was to add some sort of function to the product to give someone a reason to purchase it. Which led us to exploring several spaces, including the protein space. Here we found some of the worst offenders when it came to un-natural, unhealthy ingredients, so we applied the GROUNDED lens to it and launched this range of all-natural, plant-based protein shakes, made with only real ingredients.
A huge part of scaling successfully is obviously getting the product right, what was the importance of testing your product and receiving feedback?
Gabriel: When you’re developing a product, you end up getting caught in on your own ideas internally. You have to be open to other opinions beyond your immediate team. Inevitably, you’re selling the product for a mass market not just yourself! It was really important that we reached out to as many people outside our circle to try our product & get an indication of whether we were moving in the right direction. What was really interesting was a lot of people who didn’t like protein drinks traditionally, tried our drink and said it tasted great as a regular drink. That was when we became confident with the direction of this product because it tasted good to people who didn’t like protein drinks, just as much as to people who did. This helped drive a lot of decisions for us at the time, such as the ingredients we would use, how we would package it etc.
How did you ensure that the feedback you received wasn’t biased? When you decided “this is not good enough”, how were you sure about that?
Bryn: We did a lot of blind testing with other products. We bought from our competitors and did a lot of comparisons. We wanted an honest opinion on what someone thought was better and that was the best way to get it. We were in a position to be quite nimble on how we can change our product so we could go back to a flavor house and get them to work on it for 6 months like what we were doing in our kitchen, so we could make changes relatively quick.
Gabriel: You also have to think about who’s giving you feedback, what their intentions are, if they have anything to lose by being rude about the product, or if they’re being paid for their time. Which is why, with consumer testing, we haven’t really gone down that road because you often just get quantity and not quality of the feedback. 25 good pieces of targeted feedback can make a solid change instead of 100 average pieces of paid-for feedback. We also worked through a lot of reviews on other competitor products. We came up with a ‘need gap’ for what customers in this space are looking for based on over 250 reviews of other products. We found trends between each review/ star ratings, and we figured out 7 things that customers were looking for in plant-based protein shakes. Reviews are the best consumer research out there.
What were your biggest challenges when developing your product?
Gabriel: Getting it shelf stable. Turning it from an idea to a retail ready package came with a lot of scientific and commercial problems as well as having unique packaging. It took 6 months to source the cartons that we are using and even longer to form the partnerships. These were two crucial parts in ensuring our product is shelf stable without using rubbish, as well as sustainable, and having it look different on the shelf. We’re hugely grateful for our partnership with SIG, the company who creates the sustainable paper-based carton. A lot of startups don’t have much time to find a good manufacturing partner, but because of the stage we were in at the time, it worked out well. We saw the value & importance in having a sustainable package. Even with it taking 6 months to source, it was absolutely worth it in the long run.
Considering the amount of time it took to source your packaging, what did you focus on to find the best carton manufacturer for you?
Gabriel: We liked the shape of the cartons; It looks different to anything out there, and it’s got an amazing sustainability profile. So we focused on which factories were able to fill this type of packaging. When it gets to manufacturing, the filling of a product is very specific to what machines the factories have in place. You can’t get a tetra-pack and bring it to a plastic bottle factory for example. The packaging dictated the whole process because we were comfortable with the recipe and wanted to invest the time on nailing the packaging process as well.
What advice would you give to food and beverage startups when setting up their manufacturing?
Gabriel: When you come up with the idea, be really critical on how commercially viable it is because you’ll find when you’re scaling up, concept ‘A’ will never be commercially made as you imagine it. You’ll have to make compromises, so, being really flexible as well as having strong ethics/ rules in place is important.
Do your research on the standard industry limitations in Food & Beverage. Factories need specific facilities that can handle certain ingredients, but it can save you months of work if you work with the limitations in place. Make smart decisions by having conversations early. Calling manufacturers at the beginning of your search will really help you figure out what limitations you will have right away.
How are you selling and scaling through lockdowns, travel bans, and forced retail closures?
Bryn: We’ve put a lot of work and time into launching our D2C store, so we are capturing the ‘work-out from home’ change very nicely indeed.
We’re really impressed with your product branding! What do you think makes a successful brand and how did you approach the branding for GROUNDED?
Gabriel: Standing out on the shelf is the most important part of physical branding. If you can differentiate between your competitors through design, or even in our case, physically different shapes, you’re already putting yourself ahead of the noise of a typical FMCG fridge shelf.
We’re curious as to why you call your product “protein m*lkshake” with an asterisk, what is the branding strategy behind that?
Gabriel: Legally, you can’t use the word ‘milk’ without using dairy. We wanted them to come across as much like a milkshake as possible, so switched the ‘i’ for an ‘*.’ Lots of dairy alternative brands do this, so it’s much more a nod to that and playing within the labelling rules.
It’s been amazing to see your development over the past 1.5 years. You were still at the idea stage for your plant-based protein shakes when we met you during our Brinc FoodTech program and now you’ve officially launched your product line! What was your biggest takeaway from the program?
Bryn: We had our hand held throughout the Brinc Program and a lot of good advice on what was the norm. It’s really difficult to make an informed decision when you don’t have any contacts and have never done any proper fundraising rounds. From Brinc in particular, it was the network that we were exposed to and the constant contact time on all aspects of our business. Whether it is a conversation with Manav (Brinc’s CEO) about investing, or maybe it’s a call about finance to work out our cap table, and to talk through the clause to be put through on the term sheet. From a fundraising point of view, we’ve got quite a lot of value from the program.
Do you have any specific advice for founders who are starting to fundraise?
Bryn: Be emotionally disconnected from the sales process. If you take each “no” personally, it will put you in a position where you are not receptive to feedback and you end up getting defensive. Fundraising takes an emotional toll on you. Get organised and be critical about who you’re talking to and don’t waste time, by ensuring you learn from each rejection. Sometimes it is difficult to get an answer, but one main piece of advice is to ask investors why they are not investing, and really listen to the honest feedback.
Gabriel: And when it comes to pitching… be critical of yourself or each other when it comes to areas you’re not particularly good at, and parts that could improve.
How are you able to identify and connect with the right investors?
Bryn: We have spoken to a lot of investors. We were aware that in the food and beverage industry, there is a very specific type of investor since plant-based businesses are booming. Being in that space, we know who we were going after but it was identifying the obvious, such as: How much do they invest? What stage and what kind of company do they invest in? What companies have they invested in before? If they have invested in a plant-based, protein-based company, unfortunately, they aren’t likely to invest in another one because it doesn’t make sense to them from a competition point of view. We were very lucky with the kind of people we got on board. There were times when we were really pushed for timing and could’ve taken on anyone but we realized that it was important to not just get funding, but from the right people too. We’re lucky that we found investors that are very passionate about the plant-based space and not using animal products.
Now that you’ve launched your first product, what are the next steps for GROUNDED?
Gabriel: Definitely planning on developing this range out, there’s a lot of possibilities here. New flavours, new formats etc. After this, we want to continue exploring the world of plant-based and plant-power, so we’ll definitely see an expansion into the vitamins and probiotics space.
You can connect with Gabriel at email@example.com and Bryn at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more founder stories, check out Brinc’s blog.