Founders Interview | Helena Hills @ Truestart Coffee
TrueStart is a feel-good, ethical family business that is bursting with positivity.
We make super tasty, clean coffee that makes you feel great, without compromising on ethics - people or the planet.
Simon (my husband) and I are all about spreading massive positive energy with award-winning, vibrant coffee that puts people first!
From incredible Barista Grade Instant Coffee, to energising Cold Brew Coffee Drinks, to Hand-Roasted, Specialty Grade Beans and Ground Coffee - TrueStart is served up everywhere from your kitchen at home to our busy (outside of lockdown!) Bristol coffee shop, where you're likely to find the two youngest members of the team, baby Arthur and Leo, hanging out and helping to pack up freshly roasted coffee orders!
Why did you become interested in the world of snacks & drinks?
The coffee industry is just too boring.
On one side it is dominated by huge dinosaur brands whose values simply do not resonate with my generation today, then on the other side there are so many hipster brands which are often quite niche and intimidating or complicated.
Coffee is an important part of our daily routine for so many of us - it’s the most popular drink in the world with two billion cups drank every single day. The fact that so many people have a love of coffee in common means it can actually be a serious vehicle for positive impact!
We wanted to create something that makes people feel great, united by our shared positive outlook on life, not by our fashion sense.
Awesome coffee has the potential to make you feel amazing and shouldn’t be exclusive, we’re not all George Clooney!
What inspired you to do what you do?
Three years ago, Simon and I went from being probably the heaviest drinkers in our group of friends, to completely tee total overnight.
TrueStart already existed at that point (focussed in the fitness world after the original idea for feel-good coffee during triathlon training) and the emotional rollercoaster of our own business meant we were just drinking too much.
We’re very all-or-nothing, so we just stopped drinking alcohol altogether and never looked back.
That summer we were at one of our favourite music festivals (Melt, near Berlin) and Red Bull were one of the stage sponsors. It was all we could find to drink that wasn’t water or alcoholic, so we started putting sachets of our instant coffee into bottles of water and drinking that! We loved it! We actually have some funny videos of us trying it with fizzy water and them exploding everywhere.
It sparked the idea for TrueStart Coffee drinks that are clean, healthy and make you feel great.
We did a roadtrip in the US and Canada around the same time and there was cold brew coffee everywhere we looked. We got ourselves completely hooked on it - it is so refreshing in comparison to iced coffee - and it got us thinking about how we could unlock the potential for this awesome drink in the UK, by making it appealing and accessible to the masses.
We thought that if we could create awesome flavour combinations that are familiar enough for people to know they will love them (like Vanilla Coconut) but still edgy enough to be exciting (like Chilli Chocolate), then hopefully more and more people will want to give cold brew coffee a go when they need a Natural Energy Kick!
We created the only flavoured cold brew coffee in the world with no sugar, no calories and no sweeteners.
They’re all-natural, vegan friendly and the coffee is Rainforest Alliance certified from where I used to live in South America.
They make you feel great, and that’s what really matters!
What was your Eureka Moment when you knew you had a product which you could take to Market?
We’ve had a few, which have inspired every product we’ve launched!
From our coffee drinks that were a result of us going teetotal, to most recently our new Barista Grade Instant Coffee which brings the coffee shop experience home.
Although this lockdown period has come with loads of challenges, it has been a massive Eureka moment for our Barista Grade Instant. More than ever people do not want to support the big generic coffee brands that dominate the instant coffee category, they want to buy from ethical British brands that are going out of their way to do the right thing and put people first.
We’re also seeing that people really want to get creative with their TrueStart at home - they’re missing their coffee shop fix! - and every single day people are sending us really cool photos and recipes of what they’re doing with our drinks and our hot coffee too - like making cold brew martinis and TrueStart Dalgona Coffees!
They’re using TrueStart as a way to have fun and feel good at a time when we need that feeling the most, and that’s amazing to see.
What current & future trends does your product meet?
I see trends almost as hygiene factors.
We are obsessed with consumer behaviour and insights, and do a large amount of research and data collection - perhaps more than your average brand our size.
Our insights into consumer behaviour (current and changing) form a core part of our new product development process, which our customers are involved in.
We always welcome ideas too, and relentlessly ask for feedback which ensures we launch products that people want at that time. A good example is our drinks, which tick every box; they use incredible all-natural flavours that are free from sugar, calories and sweeteners. They’re also vegan-friendly and Rainforest Alliance certified.
But whilst trends are crucially important for a successful product or range, they are not core to the reason a brand exists and the two should not be confused.
I believe the bigger picture is more important and I believe we are in line with an overall shift in consumption that favours ethical, sustainable and people-centric businesses and brands.
On paper, humans have never had more. But it feels like we are so divided and sad and even angry.
The world needs businesses that truly care about people, and brands that have deep meaning to engage and mobilise change.
We want to spread positive energy, so that the world has more positive energy in it. It needs it!
What did you do before starting your company & what made you take the leap into Entrepreneurship?
I was in software sales and Simon was a project manager for a signage company!
It’s funny how even now people often ask what our background in food and drink was - we literally had none. At all.
Thinking back to when we started TrueStart, it makes me smile just HOW little we knew. I’m sure I’ll look back again in a few years to today and think - wow, you were naive!
Simon and I always had an itch to do something ourselves.
We had a side hustle back when we were employed by other people - making luxury cat furniture believe it or not!
It was us dipping our toes into creating a brand and we loved learning and building products that made cats happy - we still get Christmas cards from one of our first customers and just after Christmas I had a phone call from our second ever customer looking for another cat tree! I had to let her down gently.
But ultimately, we love our own cats but aren’t too fussed about everyone else’s!
That obsessive passion wasn’t there like it is with TrueStart, which is basically a vehicle for us to have an impact by making people feel awesome.
It sounds cheesy but I truly believe that if you make someone feel great, they will proactively pass that feeling to others and the world will be a better place for everyone.
What has been the hardest part of starting your business?
Finding good people.
Or understanding the type of people we need then finding them. Maybe that’s more accurate actually.
For the past year or so we’ve been building an incredible team who I have so much love for. They’re mission-driven, hard-working, fun and not into bullshit. Perfect.
What has been the BEST mistake you’ve made & why?
Discontinuing our instant coffee two years ago when it was on the market as a clean coffee for sport.
We decided the positioning was too niche, and it was a running joke that not a day went by when someone didn’t write to us asking where they could buy it.
This went on for nearly two years, including two Christmas days!
It was a phenomenal product and made us really realise its true potential, so we relaunched it as TrueStart Barista Grade Instant Coffee nearly three months ago, making all our old customers very happy and lots of new ones too!
If I need cheering up, I just go on Trustpilot and read through the reviews and they have brought me to tears more than once.
What keeps you motivated?
Our customers telling us how happy TrueStart makes them!
When people go from being in a bad or average mood to feeling like they can take on the world after coming to see us at an event, receiving a delivery from us or making themselves a TrueStart, it gives me more and more energy.
When people tell us that they’ve found their tribe in TrueStart, or tell us that our coffee has given them the confidence to do their thing, this is what motivates me.
When I see all this, it is proof that it is definitely possible to build something big that has real impact on how people feel, without compromising on ethics (people or the planet).
I want to continue doing this until everyone in the world feels like they’ve been boosted by TrueStart. I want everyone to feel great so they can do great things!
What do you do in your spare time outside of business life?
My husband Simon is also my co-founder of TrueStart, and outside of the business we love time with our beautiful baby boys Leo (who has just turned two) and Arthur (6 months).
We’re very into music (techno, a bit of Metallica and a bit of punk!), love dancing (to all of the above plus Lion King which is Leo’s current favourite), being outside and being around our favourite people.
We’re lucky to have some very special friends and close family who have all been so supportive of TrueStart since day one and through all the ups and downs.
What do you think are the key skills required to make yourself & your business a success in the world of snacks & drinks?
Perseverance, resilience and obsessive passion in where you’re going.
You get a lot of knock backs. Sometimes I hear people say “I want to start my own business but I’m not sure what - maybe something in food and drink” and I think; you’ll struggle with the emotional rollercoaster of it all unless you are completely obsessed.
You’ll just come to the conclusion that it is not worth it, because it is far from easy!
You have to have the energy to constantly improve both yourself and your business, and without a huge volume of love for the cause, that energy will be hard to find.
What would you say is your biggest strength?
I just asked Simon to answer this for me, and he said “the infectious passion you have for what we’re doing”. I would say that’s accurate!
What would you say is your biggest weakness & how do you look to overcome this?
I get very over-excited about the next thing and getting it done, yesterday!
The reason Simon and I work so well as a team is because our skills are complimentary rather than conflicting - so I drive things forward while Simon considers all the important detail, ensures the feasibility, and actually makes sure it is a success!
I overcome my over-excitability by reminding myself how critical all this is, and that it doesn’t happen overnight.
I am a big fan of that quote “Most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten years.”
It helps me to remember the big picture when I’m attaching too much importance to one small thing. I think Bill Gates said it originally.
If you could sit down with yourself for a pint/glass of wine/coffee this time last year.....what would be the 3 most important tips you would give yourself knowing what you know now?
Wow, what an interesting question to answer now given the current situation with Covid!
- TrueStart is a feeling that people will soon need now more than ever. Have ultimate confidence in your reason for existing - to make people feel great - and double down on it without a second though.
- People will always drink coffee, it’s just what, where, when, how and why will evolve. Be at the forefront of that evolution and do not be afraid to drive the future of coffee.
- Launch TrueStart’s Barista Grade Instant Coffee as soon as possible!
Any plans or predictions you can share with us for the rest of 2020?
Hmm. There is something I really want to share about NPD but Simon says no!
Ha. Good example of my over-excitability!
Keep your ears open on that one - it might be snack related!