Huel’s Taking On The Protein Category, Here’s What Founder Julian Hearn Had To Say

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Huel wasn’t meant to be this successful. Founder Julian Hearn had already built a company from scratch and sold it for millions. This time around his key motivator was to keep himself busy and his son proud.

Yet in a little over five years, the 49-year-old has transformed a simple idea — to make nutritionally complete, convenient and affordable food – into a global enterprise turning over £72 million, growing at 43% year-on-year and selling over 150 million meals worldwide. 

Now, the UK’s seventh fastest-growing company, as named in The Sunday Times’ most recent Fast Track 100, is setting its sights on disrupting the sports nutrition market with the world’s first nutritionally complete vegan protein powder. 

Huel Complete Protein, which launched this week exclusively on huel.com, is made from a blend of vegan-safe hemp, faba and pea protein. It contains more essential amino acids per gram than animal-based whey protein, along with all 26 essential vitamins and minerals, and weighs in at just 105 calories per 87p serving. 

With this launch, Huel says its ambition is to challenge the misconception that plant-based protein is inferior to whey, and support the further growth of the UK plant-based protein market, which is expected to reach US $929.5 million by 2025. 

To find out how, we spoke to Huel’s Co-Founder from his boardroom at the brand’s HQ in Tring to discover what sets Complete Protein — and Huel as a company — apart from the competition. 

Huel's Taking On The Protein Category

Image: Huel

On starting again at 40…..

Huel was meant to be a lifestyle business. The intention was to do three days a week and have a greater work-life balance. My previous business, [affiliate marketing company Mash Up Media], was very good at making money, but it wasn’t something I was proud of. So, when I sold it at 40, and realised I was too young to retire, I decided I was going to build something that was going to make a difference. My son, Coen, was also just one at the time, so I wanted to create something that if he went to school he’d want to tell his friends this is what his dad does. 

On lessons from his first business…..

I probably would have bailed on Huel had I not had the money from the first business because I wouldn’t have been able to survive. My only advice for those looking to start a business is if you’re starting from scratch and you need to make money. Find a business that becomes your stepping stone. The first business you start should be one you know you can turn a profit from quickly, learn from your mistakes, and use that to fund your true passion down the line. 

On the evolution of Huel…..

Huel spun out of a company called Body Hack. I created a website where we’d put people through different fitness programmes and eating plans to see which worked. I was a guinea pig. I went down from 21% body fat to 11% by weighing all of my food, eating three meals and three snacks a day, and exercising normally. I was calorie perfect, effectively. 

It got some initial traction but the main feedback was it was too complex. People wanted convenience. I realised protein shakes were very convenient, but most only contain protein, nothing else. There are no essential fats, no omega-3s, zero fibre and very few vitamins and minerals. I thought why can’t we use the format of a protein shake but make it nutritionally complete. That became the genesis of Huel. 

On what sets Complete Protein apart…..

Complete Protein fills that gap that we didn’t satisfy before, which is a high-protein snack. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient. It’s ideal for a snack and will make you feel fuller for longer than carbs. So we made this product which is low calorie, at just 105 calories, and provides 20g of protein, which is quite a lot. Then we added vitamins. This is protein plus 26 vitamins (or 27 in America), plus the essential fibre and fats you need, and it’s plant-based. It ticks so many boxes. 

On why society has food back to front…..

The primary purpose of food is to provide your essential nutrients. It’s not taste and texture. It’s very strange how as a society we’ve created all of this food where manufacturers have optimised food for taste and texture and nutrition is a long way second. With Huel, we’re nutrition first. We’re 51% nutrition and 49% taste, whereas most other snacks are 80% taste, 20% nutrition. We create the best nutrition product we can make, then we make it taste as good as we can. 

Huel's Taking On The Protein Category

Image: Huel

On our responsibility to be more sustainable…..

Fundamentally, most of us are part-time vegans. Nobody is a carnivore. I’m not vegan but if I have Huel twice a day, five days a week, 21 of my weekly meals will be plant-based. Suddenly I’ve become 50% vegan. More than a quarter of global greenhouse gases come from food but switching to one plant-based meal a day will reduce carbon emissions by 33%. If you have two it’s 50%. That’s a massive footprint and it’s very easy to fix if you just switch to less meat.

With Huel we’re making it easy. Now you can have Black Edition for breakfast, Hot & Savoury for lunch, a traditional family meal for dinner and have Complete Protein as a mid-morning snack, afternoon snack and possibly pre-bedtime snack. Those snacks would only add up to 315 calories. And, for the first time to my understanding, gram for gram, our product has more essential amino acids than animal-based whey protein. 

On the growth potential of plant-based protein….. 

Protein is a very big category and the growth area will probably be plant-based. At Huel, we now have a product that means there is no reason to rely on whey anymore. As it was with plant-based milk and plant-based meat, we’ve solved those problems with protein. Now there’s no compromise. You know you’re going to have something that tastes as good, if not better. 

In terms of bioavailability, it has more essential amino acids than whey. And you know it will be better for the environment and better for the animals. 

On scepticism about personalised nutrition….. 

Huel is optimised for all people and I would be incredibly sceptical of any nutrition product that claims they offer personalisation because it’s virtually impossible at scale. I could do a personalised version but it wouldn’t be affordable anymore and one of our key missions is to create affordable food. 

Nutritional profiles around the world are almost identical to each other and will account for virtually everybody in the population. They have been around for 20+ years and literally thousands of doctors and nutritionists and dietitians have input into them. In terms of micronutrients, you don’t need any personalisation. In terms of macronutrients, with Huel, you can adjust the amount of powder you use to match your calorie demands. 

On embracing his own naivety…..

If I had known some of the stuff I know now at the beginning of my journey with Huel I probably wouldn’t have started. But I’m glad I didn’t. I believe in the butterfly effect. It’s easy to say with hindsight that I wish I knew this or that, but that could have set us on a different path. Where we’ve ended up, I think we’ve made a lot of good decisions. I’m proud of the product, I’m proud of the brand, I’m proud of the culture, I’m proud of the team, the numbers we’ve achieved and how we look after our customers. So I wouldn’t change anything. 

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