Angela Appiah Shippey met with Helena Hills of TrueStart Coffee who explains how the business went from being marketed as a sports drink to an award-winning coffee brand.
I first met Helena Hills of TrueStart Coffee in June 2019. Helena was serving her coffee in the form of Espresso Martinis at the closing party for Bristol Social Media Week. The Martinis were delicious, and Helena was fascinating, so we spent most of the evening chatting.
Roll forward nearly 18 months and I had the pleasure of catching up with Helena again. Luckily, our meeting was set for the day before Lockdown 2.0 and so we got to meet face to face, which if you know Helena you will understand why this is so key - basically Helena just exudes positive vibes and high energy. We met at Runway, where before Lockdown, TrueStart ran the in-house café. I went to talk about coffee, I am in the Food and Drink sector after all, but we ended up talking about so much more.
So, who are TrueStart Coffee?
They are a Bristol based start-up, a family business – Helena co-founded the company with her husband Simon – that is feel good and bursting with positivity.
They are an ethical coffee brand with a very simple approach in so far that they don’t measure their success by simply looking at their bottom line. They look at their impact on people and the planet and that permeates through every single part of their business and even beyond to their supply chain – they will only work with people who put other people first.
The coffee industry is huge – it is the most popular drink in the world with two billion cups drunk every single day. Helena believes that the fact that so many people have a love of coffee in common means it can actually be a serious vehicle for positive impact!
TrueStart is the only challenger coffee master-brand in the UK, with vibrant coffee for every occasion. They are one of the fastest growing young soft drinks brands too. TrueStart like to challenge how things are done, and their vision is to become the number one coffee choice for their generation. They do not just want to win you over with their uniquely incredible taste, but also with their massive positive energy (which as mentioned above Helena just exudes), ethics and provenance too. TrueStart leads with this positive, optimistic feeling. It is what they are all about.
What actually is TrueStart?
To put it simply, TrueStart is super clean, super tasty coffee that makes you feel awesome.
The careful sourcing process ensures that there is a controlled level of caffeine in every cup. That way you know you will feel amazing every single time, with no crash or jitters! The quality of the coffee also means you don’t need any milk or sugar for it to taste amazing if you don’t want to, which is another reason why it makes you feel great!
The idea for TrueStart was born back in 2015 when Helena and Simon were competing in triathlons and spending a lot of time on the road. They were drinking a lot of coffee but it didn’t always make them feel great. Sometimes multiple coffees would do nothing and then other times just one cup would give Helena heart palpitations. Knowing that something wasn’t right Helena started researching caffeine and found to her horror that the levels in different coffees can vary massively.
“Sometimes, you can be having 30mg, which is very little,” she told me, “but if you go to Starbucks and have a big coffee, you can be having 700-800mg in one go!.”
After discovering that the caffeine in coffee is both varied and unpredictable, they set out to develop the first coffee in the world that would provide a stable caffeine content and boost but without the crash.
Helena spoke to suppliers in Colombia, where she had lived previously, and their product was born. Armed with this brand new, super clean coffee (which is freeze-dried to lock in the antioxidant benefits and flavour) they set out to make people feel great.
Initially TrueStart was marketed as a sports drink. Their first ever product was called ‘Performance Coffee’, and the first time they tried it out on the public was at a small, local 10km race.
"We were there with tons of energy and music blaring, saying ‘here’s your TrueStart, have an awesome race!’ Honestly, it was about 20 people. But they were coming back afterwards saying ‘I got a PB!’ It was the first time we saw first-hand the genuine difference you can make to someone’s day with a cup of TrueStart and a barrage of positive energy!"
They went on to do bigger and bigger events with the sole aim of making people feel great. They made a name for themselves in the endurance sports world and within 3 years they even ended up with a high-profile slot at a really big sports show at Birmingham’s NEC. However, it was at this point that they suddenly realised that the world of sports drinks just wasn’t for them.
“We spoke to our customers and they said they were loving their TrueStart before a run or sport. It sat in their sports bag, but they still had Nescafé in their cupboard. We thought, this is wrong. TrueStart is not on the path to being the globally impactful, feel-good brand we want it to be”.
So they decided to invest everything they had created into changing the visual identity of TrueStart - binning the serious sporty look and unveiling a vibrant, colourful, energising new identity that truly matches Helena and Simon’s attitude to life. They were inspired to start selling cold brew, or coffee in a can, after they stopped drinking alcohol, and the new look and new products allowed TrueStart to leave behind the sports-centric image Helena wanted to escape. By using purely natural extract to flavour their drinks, they set themselves apart as the guilt-free, refreshing alternative, in a market drowning in sugar, sweeteners and other artificial ingredients.
It was definitely a good move. TrueStart has gone on to win a number of prestigious awards including ‘Scale-Up Entrepreneur of the Year’ at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards, and NatWest’s everywoman Brand of the Future. Their customers also loved the changes as last year and the year before they had 200% growth. TrueStart’s legendary Barista Grade Instant Coffee is now Amazon’s no.1 Choice for instant coffee, outselling all the megacorp brands.
There have been plenty of twists and turns in the TrueStart journey but it is the way it has come full circle in Helena’s mind that is most extraordinary.
You see, when she was a child, Helena was diagnosed with ADHD. Thanks to society incorrectly branding ADHD as a behavioural disorder, she thought that meant being a naughty, fidgety kid. Growing up Helena put this diagnosis in a box and ignored it for fear of using it as an excuse not to succeed.
A lightbulb moment during Lockdown 1.0 prompted Helena to research how her brain was wired and she discovered that ADHD is actually a neuro-biological condition – a different wiring of the brain – and one effect of ADHD is a deficiency in the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine.
Discovering so much about ADHD was liberating for Helena and she realises now, TrueStart, which is pure and consistent, is her way of bringing up her own dopamine levels, because caffeine actually increases the dopamine receptor availability in the brain.
ADHD is usually treated with stimulant medication. Helena remains unmedicated, but coffee is doing a similar thing for her and thereby allowing her to function much better on a daily basis with everything from executive function skills to overall mood, motor control and emotional regulation.
“I’m like wow. My whole life has come full circle here. I’ve literally built my treatment and the treatment for everyone else in the world who needs to feel better, and I’m quite mind-blown by that actually. It’s not just the science behind caffeine and dopamine. It’s the science behind positive psychology too. I believe that the best higher purposes in life make sense of your past, and I’ve gone from feeling quite lost as a person to absolutely sure what I was put on this planet to do. We all need to feel good to function at our best, and we need positive emotion and energy to do exactly that. Positive emotion broadens our horizons and improves our ability to think creatively. Without it, we become more narrow-minded and stuck in a fight / flight / freeze mindset. TrueStart exists to be relentlessly optimistic in a world that needs it, and spread massive positive energy to make people feel like they can take on the world.”
Helena describes having severe ADHD as a massive challenge, but it is also like having a Superpower. Perhaps that explains why TrueStart has been able in just 5 years to become the incredible brand it now is; making people feel good about themselves all over the world.
More about TrueStart and their product range can be found here.