So you have found your life partner, taken the plunge and are settled in your respective careers, about to buy your first house. So what is the next step? Keep working towards settling your homeloan, maybe plan a vacation together with the security of your salary at the end of the month? Or pack it all in and start a brand new business together with nothing but a concept? This is exactly what Simon and Helena Hills of TrueStart Coffee did, and we wanted to know how it came about.

Firstly, can you tell us a little bit about your business?

Helena: TrueStart is the world’s only caffeine controlled performance coffee. Normal coffee has wildly varying caffeine contents – in a cup of coffee you could have less than 10mg of caffeine or you could have more than 250mg which is crazy! This is why sometimes when you have a cup of coffee you feel wired whereas other times you don’t feel anything. So TrueStart is the only coffee in the world where you are guaranteed how much caffeine you are getting in a cup and you have the same amount every single time. 

simon helena true start coffee bikes

How can you guarantee this? Was there anything special in the manufacturing process?

Simon: We aren’t able to let on how we do it, but suffice to say there’s some pretty sophisticated technology involved and absolutely no chemicals. It’s completely natural – just clean Colombian coffee.

Normal coffee brands purely focus on the consistency of taste for every batch. For example if you buy Nescafe, you know it will always taste the same. To do that they get beans from all over the world, blend them up and taste until it’s the same. They are constantly mixing different beans from different farms and crops to get the same taste – but this does mean that every cup could have varying caffeine levels.

Helena: While it is important to us to focus on the consistent taste profile, we also care about caffeine content.

Simon: We developed the coffee for athletes originally – the branding is energetic. Our slogan is “Unleash Yourself” with power, courage and focus, which is what the eagle eyes on the logo represent. 

So how did the idea for this originally come about?

Helena: We came up with the idea just over a year ago as we are triathletes ourselves. We were training for IronMan last year and found out that caffeine varies wildly in normal coffee and we thought that athletes need to know what they are drinking. They need consistency. Just like they need to know how many calories they are consuming, they need to know how much caffeine they are taking, because caffeine is proven to improve sports performance, however if you have too much you will get the jitters or if you don’t have enough it won’t do anything. So they have to have a measured scientific intake. We have produced our coffee so that the amount of caffeine within a cup is exactly the range that has been proven for enhanced sports performance. It’s important that it works for athletes, but it’s also important that it tastes great, as we love coffee! That’s why we only use Colombian Arabica beans, the best quality you can possibly find.

Simon: We were initially going to use a generic delicious coffee, brand it for athletes and sell it into the sports market. Simple. However, with some proper research and a lot of digging, we started to develop this caffeine regulation process to have a proper USP with real value to our customers and that’s what’s taken time.

Helena: Yes, it’s taken over a year to develop the technology, get it right and have a coffee that tastes amazing. We launched in April and it’s gone crazy since! Very exciting times!

TrueStart Performance Coffee

So how did you make the connection in Colombia? Have you been there to see the process?

Helena: I used to live in Colombia and have a close Colombian friend who works for the government in the agricultural sector and she knows the coffee industry really well so we’ve got sort of insider knowledge and have spent a lot of time speaking to them. We plan on going back soon to see our farmers in action.

I can see that you are very passionate about this! What drives this passion?

Helena: We are super passionate about it because we are the target market. We came up with the idea because we wanted it. We wanted a coffee for us! The fact that we want to drink it ourselves, and do (laughs), it’s so important that we have the taste right as well. A lot of the reason that took us so long to launch was getting the quality right and to be proud of what we are doing.

Simon: Being involved in the sports market is fantastic. We are surrounded by inspirational people. We have been doing triathlons for a few years now and are totally addicted!

And you are running another business at the same time?

Helena: We are an entrepreneurial pair! Yes we started a cat furniture business (KoogaTree) in 2011. We always wanted to run our own businesses. It was again born out of a product that we wanted for our cat, Kooga. He is a Bengal so he needed really good furniture because they are quite energetic. When we were shopping for a cat tree we couldn’t find one that we liked. Simon actually made one for him and people started asking where they could get one too. It started from there and turned into an awesome little business. We are now shipping them globally – it was born from nothing but passion!

simon helena cat

And your personal backgrounds?

Simon: I spent five years at university studying Engineering – nothing to do with cats and nothing to do with coffee! I then did five years in the corporate world as an Engineer and Project Manager. The success of KoogaTree proved to us over time that we were so much more suited to doing our own thing rather than the corporate thing. The skills that you learn in engineering are applicable to any business that you set up though.

Helena: I did International Management and Spanish at university which is why I’ve lived in South America. Simon and I met at university just before finals, I then went into technology and software sales and I still work full-time in software sales. We’re a good team with complementary skills.

And your childhood? Any entrepreneurial Inspirations there?

Simon: My family doesn’t have a long history of running businesses, but my Dad left his corporate sales job maybe 10 years ago to start his own thing. He now has a successful business, although he works his socks off for it. The sense of pride he has is inspiring. My parents have sometimes questioned what we are doing but they are very supportive. They saw the success behind KoogaTree, which put them at ease a little. My Mum has always been relatively risk-averse by nature – so when she recently quit her job to become TrueStart’s first full time employee it was fantastic and a real vote of confidence!

Helena: My Mum and Dad are very supportive. They both run their own businesses and my Mum is one of the most creative people I know, always thinking outside the box. She is a lot like me in that she doesn’t want to get involved in the accounts and all the detailed stuff, but she has amazing ideas and gets very passionate about what does. She is a gourmet tea blender so she runs her own tea business and my dad is a successful businessman, I definitely take a lot of inspiration and support from his wisdom. 

So let’s talk about how you guys met?

Simon: We met at a party and within 6 weeks we had a joint bank account, and were sharing a credit card together!

Helena: Less! It was something like four weeks! And it’s not because we are like that as individuals – it just felt so right when we met! We were introduced in the final year of university by our respective best friends who had been a couple for 6 months. They are still together and they were in fact our Best Man and Maid of Honour at our wedding. When we met, Simon came to my house and just never left – we went to the supermarket and did a weekly shop on his card so I think that was his excuse!

I can tell from your energy how much you match. You Simon seem slightly more introvert whereas Helena is so extrovert – you seem to go together…

Simon: Yes we just hit it off when we first got together and it was amazing. We just match! It’s a rocky road when you are married and both in business together. We hear it all the time that you should never work with your spouse, however people know how well we work together and we really do!

Helena: It’s definitely testing to have to rely on each other for so much, but it’s also a really positive thing and we love it. We wouldn’t change it for anything. And we can both enjoy the success together. We have done it together. The support there is imperative. We can’t imagine doing this much work on a business on our own. Teamwork is everything. 

And how did you get started on this business?

Helena: It started as sort of a muse while training for IronMan Italy…

Simon: Yes we started as a bit of a muse – we started the company in seven days and sold an imaginary product within a week. We built a website, did some branding – we wanted to test the market and figured if we sold enough virtual jars we will find the coffee!

Helena: We have ended up with an amazing infrastructure of people behind us who realise that there is a serious gap in the market and we have a really wonderful team now.

Simon: Normally when you go to a party and someone asks what you do, you say “I’m an Engineer” and that’s sort of the end of the conversation. Now when people ask me, it’s everything! I can’t really describe what I do anymore and that is an inspirational thing to have. Everyone is more than one thing – not just being in one box.

How did you raise the funds to get moving with the idea?

Simon: I quit my job in January this year – all in – and was unemployed but committed. We moved back in with my parents and on day one we decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign. We made a video and put it out to the public on Indiegogo. We raised £7,500 in two weeks and then an investor contacted us having seen the interest after Indiegogo featured us in one of their newsletters which goes out to a million people. The investor offered us more than what we were originally looking for. It was amazing. We met with him and prepared a full pitch and didn’t know what to expect. We really hit it off and he was also passionate about our product. This has enabled us to go into major production and we are now talking to some serious retailers. 

Helena: We have had a lot of interest in our product, not only from sports people but also for example from breast feeding women, truck drivers and night shift workers who want controlled caffeine intake. We have the same amount of caffeine as a can of Red Bull, but without the sugar and other things that goes into it.

Simon: We have just finished R&D on our roast and ground version of the coffee and there is a lot of excitement around it already. It should be on the shelves in a few months’ time. We’re also planning to do sachets and liquid coffee pods – lots of ideas. It’s exciting.

Helena: Yes, there is a whole concept of being able to unleash yourself and having that power – we want to give people that and confidence in what they are drinking.

What was the most exciting or inspirational moment in running this?

Helena: The people. We have met the most incredible people on this journey in the past year already. Some heavy hitters in the coffee industry who are now our mentors.

Simon: Yes, they have been very giving in their advice and contacts. They believe in the product.

Helena: They are excited by our passion and our energy. Their wisdom and commitment has been amazing. One of our suppliers has also been pivotal to our success. He loved the concept and has put us in touch with all the right people to produce the coffee. I remember him showing us some refill packs in our first meeting over a year ago, and saying that was usually the extent of an exciting day in the coffee industry – so he loves TrueStart. It was after that meeting we realised yes, this could really work!

Simon: Yes it was very inspirational. We had massive grins on our faces when we left that first meeting! It was when we realised that our idea had mileage. It was positive feedback from someone in the industry. It was the most inspiring moment.

simon helena coffee

And the toughest moment?

Simon: Going all in!

Helena: It was difficult because it was always the easiest decision and yet the most difficult decision that we ever had to make.

Simon: We also did it before we had any funding – we were still just at concept stage. We had no coffee in the UK even! We just had a good team with a good idea and great feedback – but no money! We were buying a house at the same time so we really were all in! It was stressful handing in my notice – definitely a difficult decision but we knew we had to do it – to not do it was not an option!

Helena: Prioritising tasks in a start-up is difficult. There is so much to do and everything feels equally important but you can’t do everything and if you try to do everything you won’t do anything properly! It’s hard to work out sometimes who or what to say no to. It’s a learning curve. There is a lot of trial and error. And you need to develop a thick skin. There will always be critics out there but you have to keep moving forward! We are getting better at cutting out the noise and we have people to help us do that.

Execution is key, detail is key, the team is key.

Where do you want your company to be in say three years time?

Helena: We want it to be massive! Our BHAG – Big Hairy Audacious Goal! – is to be the Red Bull of coffee – so one of the world’s biggest brands in the coffee market. We love the business model of promotion and we love the way Red Bull promotes sport and action as a concept and gets people really excited. We live with the same sort of energy. We are a different product but we respect their brand. They created their own market category when they came to market. Energy drinks did not exist. We now have performance coffee which sits somewhere between coffee and energy drinks, so we are also bringing a new category to the market. We are still not sure where we should be sitting on the shelves!

Finally, if there was one bit of advice that you would you give to someone starting their own business, what would it be?

Simon: Just get started. Get out there and try things. Test. Talk to people, talk to your customers. Don’t be afraid of what people say!

Helena: Just go for it! Yes it will be difficult, but everyone has to start somewhere. You can start simple and see if people are interested, before you go all in. Just start with your concept. Be super passionate! Be dedicated. Develop a thick skin and get advice from people around you.