In 2006 two Essex University students with a passion for protein each borrowed £3K from their parents to fund their fledgling business. It turned out to be a shrewd investment.
Fourteen years later that £6K loan has transformed into an £80 million sports nutrition empire, a household name and brand that adorns the shorts of the heavyweight champion of the world.
Now, Bulk – formerly known as Bulk Powders – is on track to break £100 million in 2021. All without ever taking on further investment.
Here Co-Founders, CEO Adam Rossiter and Chief Growth Officer Elliot Dawes chart the meteoric rise of their company and the evolution of a global sports nutrition market expected to soar to $82 billion by 2023.
On rebranding from Bulk Powders to Bulk…..
AR: We hadn’t been hugely happy with our name for a number of years. It started off being a name designed for SEO. But the bigger we got and the more we tried to evolve into a mainstream brand, the powders element didn’t work. Once we committed to Bulk we started looking at changing the look and feel, the packaging, the tone of voice, the way we behave and the way we’re perceived as a brand.
ED: We wanted to produce something customers would be proud to display on their kitchen countertops, that would become a more integral part of their lifestyle. We looked at how we could achieve more of a premium look and feel. And we did that through the use of colour and the wordmark itself, that’s based on the circle, which represents progression and journey. It’s far softer and more inclusive than our previous branding.
On mainstream appeal…..
AR: We want to open up to a much wider range of ambassadors, not specifically fitness influencers, but broadly lifestyle ambassadors. If you look at Nike and Adidas, they’ve been bringing on music stars and people who aren’t your classic athlete for a number of years and broadening the appeal of the brand. In this hugely Instagrammable world, we want to make sure we have a brand that people love, want to be a part of and recommend to their friends.
On the power of brand ambassadors…..
ED: It’s hard to quantify how much ambassadors have helped our brand grow. Anthony Joshua was our first big-name signing. We’ve been working with him for over three years. That was
borne out of the fact that he genuinely used our products at the time. That authenticity message was key. He also has an incredible reach, particularly around when he’s fighting. The exposure and credibility he gives us as a brand is undeniable. He’s been part of some really cool campaigns over the years and we’re already thinking about January 2022.
On second-guessing the pandemic…..
AR: One of the biggest challenges this past year has been the constant uncertainty. You don’t know if there will be a lockdown, or how strict it will be. Does that mean gyms are closing? Is it all the country? How will it impact different countries? We trade all over Europe so you could argue we’re well-diversified, but we’re also constantly having to second guess how different lockdowns will impact our customers and try to balance risk across the business.
ED: As the pandemic has progressed the uptick we first saw in people buying vitamins and foods like peanut butter and nuts from us hasn’t been as great and sports nutrition usage has remained fairly flat because gyms aren’t open. It’s getting a little bit tougher but we traded well and expect to break £100 million revenue in 2021. We haven’t had to furlough anyone or make anyone redundant. We also took on over 100 people in 2020 so comparative to other businesses we certainly can’t complain.
On turning £6K into £80m…..
AR: We didn’t go into business expecting to break £100 million in revenue. We were just incredibly interested in the lifestyle and the products around it. We were users of those products ourselves. Then we totally believed in what we were doing and just learned and learned and learned. Sometimes we learned the hard way. Other times we made better calls.
You have to be passionate about what you’re doing. It’s got to be something that really matters to you and you’ve got to put the work in. If you want to be successful as an entrepreneur you can’t expect a 9-5. It’s seven days a week. It’s into the evening. Whatever you put in you get out. The buck stops with you. There’s nothing and no one else so you have to be committed.
On nailing their niche…..
ED: Back in 2006 we were operating in a small niche. We started out targeting those frequenting the gym 5-6 times a week, the real hardcore. We were essentially selling raw materials. We’d receive a palette of whey protein in 40kg sacks, decant that into 5kg containers and stick a label on it. That was the product, nothing more glamorous than that. Those customers just wanted the most protein for their pound and that was the niche we filled.
That gained us a reputation for really good value and quality. From then on it was a case of trying to retain those customers while transitioning the brand to one which could play outside of that niche –– and start to target the much bigger market of the general population who were interested in health and wellness. That was the real challenge over the last 14 years: how to transition from that hardcore niche to becoming a lifestyle nutrition brand.
On propelling the business forward…..
AR: A number of years ago a competitor sold for what at the time was an extremely large amount of money. That gave us foresight into the potential for the business. We weren’t not taking it seriously but we weren’t grown up as a business. From then on we decided we would really go for it. We hired a senior management team and by sharing significant responsibility, rather than it just being myself and Elliot as sole decision-makers, it allowed us to propel forward significantly.
On bootstrapping their business…..
ED: Not having to raise investment for a 16-year-old company is pretty unusual. But it just wasn’t something we thought about when we started. Today’s culture of raising capital has its benefits. It allows you to move faster. But we’ve always felt if we can make our cashflow work for ourselves, why would we sell equity? There aren’t many businesses, especially within active nutrition, targeting £100+ million in revenue that are still completely founder-owned. We’re the largest in the UK or Europe. That’s one of our biggest achievements.
AR: One of the biggest pros is we get to make all of the decisions. That means the people making the decisions for the brand are also the brand’s customers. We are the customers of the brand. Being founder-owned and part of the lifestyle, hopefully, we can make the best decisions for our customers because we understand them the best.
On the evolution of the protein category…..
AR: It’s becoming more and more mainstream and it’s only going to continue as people become more educated on the benefits of an active lifestyle and diet to improve physical fitness and mental wellbeing. That’s something that has changed in recent years. People are becoming far more switched on to the mental health benefit of exercise, eating healthily and how it makes you feel.
ED: I was reading recently that something like 50-60% of snacks now reference a protein claim on them. When we started that number would have been nowhere near that high. It shows the consumer awareness of protein and its benefits. It also shows trends towards newer categories such as vegan protein. We’re seeing our vegan protein sales grow incredibly year on year. Milk, and whey, primarily, is absolutely the market leader but year after year vegan protein is chipping into that percentage.
On the next big thing in sports nutrition…..
AR: Over the years you typically find the US leads on trends. The UK is a couple of years behind and mainland Europe a couple of years behind that. When Starbucks started adding a whey protein scoop to one of their shakes that would have been unheard of in the UK. Now in the UK, it’s far more popular. It was the same with breakfast cereals. We saw that trend start in the US, move to the UK and then expand across Europe.
Right now we’re seeing energy drinks and nootropics for the gaming category is a huge trend in the US. Five years ago there were energy drinks but they weren’t marketed at gamers like they are now. A lot of these products are used by students who want to focus when they’re revising for exams. That’s very common in the US and I’m sure that’s going to come over to the UK in a big way.