How Healthy Drinks Firm The Naked
Collective Built a Business In a Pandemic
Hi! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi! We are Catherina Butler and Niall Phelan and in November 2019 we co-founded The Naked Collective (TNC). TNC is powered by plants, people, and purpose. We are committed to creating healthy, functional drinks to improve the health and wellbeing of the world’s consumers, our communities, and our planet.
From our ingredients to our process, we’re committed to showing you what goes into every product we make. We celebrate bravery and pushing boundaries with the aim to be the most transparent beverage company in the world.
We are both passionate about people and the planet. We set about putting our heads together on how we could create drinks we would be happy for their kids to drink. Drinks that are not only good for us but that are good for the planet too. We want to educate people about unhealthy sugar-based drinks and lead by example in the soft drinks industry. Under The Naked Collective umbrella, we have developed two brands – Mude and SoBeer.
Mude is a refreshing range of 5 x sparkling functional natural beverages built around your day (PROTECT, WORK, PLAY, CHILL, SLEEP), our unique ingredient set offers a mental & physical effect in 5-20 minutes. SoBeer is a beer with benefits! It is a non-alcoholic light lager with built-in immune support. Both Mude and SoBeer are unique and innovative in how they deliver health benefits through our SuperLiquid and Immunoboost technology.
What is your personal story and how did you come up with the idea?
Catherina Butler : I have years of experience working in start-ups, large public and privately owned multinational and Irish organisations. I am a qualified accountant, and a Fellow of the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (FCCA) with 20 Years in FMCG, retail and pharmaceutical distribution industries. My previous roles were Senior Finance Director and CFO roles and prior to setting up the Naked Collective, I was the CFO of the largest food distributor in Ireland, Primeline Group (revenue €300m). Before that, I was a Finance Director in United Drug PLC (revenue €1.4bn) and was part of the team that sold the united drug business to McKesson’s for €400m in 2015.
Previous to that, I was part of the team that launched IKEA in Ireland in 2009 taking the business from start-up to a turnover of €100m in the first 12 months of trading. As Head of Finance of IKEA (revenue €130m), I thrived in the down-to-earth, straightforward culture where the vision was based on shared values, which guided business decisions and helped build an inclusive, open and honest culture.
As a wife and mother, I am passionate about providing healthy alternatives and identified it as a major gap in the soft drinks space. I’m vegan with a passion for animals and protecting our wildlife, and a member of a Women in Business networking group and a member of the WXN (Women’s Executive Network).
In terms of the market gap, we found that 6 in 10 people globally are concerned about the impact on the environment of beverages they consume whilst 62% of consumers say health and wellness is their primary influence when buying a beverage, the 2nd most important factor after taste. Furthermore, we are seeing a significant decline in consumption per capita of beer and sugary drinks in the developed world and consumers are demanding healthier alternatives, not just for their own body, but also for the world they live in.
Niall Phelan: I have +24 years of experience in consumer goods and beverages. Earlier in my career, I worked on building Red Bull. Since then, I have held senior roles in Molson Coors and Nestle Purina. I have worked on several start-ups and multiple business transformation projects including consultation for Brew Dog. I was inspired through my knowledge of the brewing process and how it can be used to retain all the goodness and vitamins in the liquid.
As a husband and father, I am also passionate about creating something meaningful through The Naked Collective. The Naked Collective was born out of passion and necessity. A passion to deliver healthy and enjoyable beverages paired with a necessity to answer changing consumer habits in an ever-increasing uncertain world.
Our research has found that 54% of millennials are choosing to leave alcohol behind in the interest of leading a more clean, sustainable life. Our new products not only tap into this mindset but deliver on undeniable taste, experience, and innovation in what will be a hypersensitive health market post-pandemic.
What challenges did you face when creating your product/service?
Niall Phelan: Launching a wellness drinks business in a world that was soon to be rocked by endless lockdowns and economic uncertainty was a bold move, and one not without its challenges. Ultimately, it was the strength of the idea behind the products that carried the company through tough conversations with both investors and retailers to land themselves in a strong position today. A focus on clean, natural ingredients (we don’t use anything you can’t pronounce) to create drinks that work to support an active lifestyle throughout the day (Mude) as well as tapping into consumer desire to consume less alcohol (So.Beer) coincided with a switch to home working and an increased focus on health and wellness.
The momentum over the past few months has been phenomenal. However, this success was not easily had! In late February 2020, we were returning from an investment trip to North America with a $10m funding round all but finalised. Fast forward three weeks and, as the COVID situation deteriorated, a travel ban came into effect in the US. With that our financing evaporated and we needed to start over.
TNC has seen considerable growth in recent months. The growth has been borne out in an explosion of retail distribution; over 1,000 stockists in Ireland as well as securing distribution with Canada’s second largest retail chain Sobeys, bringing the total number of stores there to over 600.
In Italy, the team have secured new Hypermarket chains and they have just begun the rollout into almost 400 stores in the metro New York region. Added to that, The Naked Collective has been chosen by Amazon to be part of their Launchpad Programme which shines a spotlight on brands that offer something a little different.
Who is your target market?
Team TNC brings together people passionate about: our planet, making a difference, health, wellness, animals and creativity… in no particular order. It is our collective ambition to build a completely transparent reputation as a leader in environmental and social sustainability. In other words – don’t mess with our planet!
Our target range is broad – male & female 25-40 year olds that share our passions but who also want to make healthier choices and enjoy a life well-lived.
The above comes through in the array of partnerships with have in place with online influencers:
- Dr Lisa Cunningham (@dr_lisa_cunningham) is an Emergency Medicine, Prehospital Flight Doctor. She started her Instagram page in 2018 for sharing easy-to-understand evidence based medical information to everyone.
- Sarah Mulindwa (@sarahmulindwa) is an NHS Frontline Nurse, TV Personality and former 1883 Fashion Editor. She is also a fashion stylist & former radio presenter.
- Mark Beaumont (@MrMarkBeaumount) is a record-breaking endurance athlete, broadcaster & ambassador. Mark uses his platform to work with a number of charities and educational organisations.
- Millie Gooch (@milliegooch & @sobergirlsociety) is a writer and the founder of the Sober Girl Society and is one of the voices leading the sobriety movement in the UK. Her campaigning work has been featured everywhere from ELLE and Stylist to the BBC and Evening Standard.
- Louise Hazel Louise (@louisehazel & @theslaygym) is a British Olympian, fitness fanatic & owner of ‘Slay’ Gyms in LA. She has a combined following of 105k across channels. Her mission is to ignite sustainable training for women worldwide.
- Elle L (@elle_l) is a 360 creative music artist, director and environmentalist. They share the same commitment to live in action and collaborate with the hope of moving the needle on climate change together.
How do you market your business and which approaches have been the most successful?
We are driving our message primarily across digital channels. Since the pandemic we’ve pivoted to an e-commerce strategy and now have our DTC platform in place. In addition we have been selected by Amazon to be part of their Launchpad Programme. Amazon selects Launchpad partners based on their ability to tap into a market gap and on their scalability potential, it gives us a great platform for growth.
That said, we are also building our offline in-store presence and have launch in Ireland, UK, Italy, Canada and USA in recent weeks & months. We are investing in OOH campaigns to introduce markets to the benefits of the Mude range. For example, we are currently on the Manchester Mega Square. It is the largest digital screen in Europe and proudly displays our Mude campaign with the message ‘Natural Taste, Natural Benefits’.
Our sustainability initiatives are at our core, we take every opportunity to speak to those and to engage our target audience in our programming. For example;
As part of its CSR mission, we have partnered with Ark2030 to fund ecosystem restoration by paying 1c to Ark for every TNC product sold. Beginning on May 1st 2021, the 1c payment will be deployed by Ark2030 into eco-system restoration programs including peatland restoration in Abbeylix and Urban Renewal in Galway city. We have made a 5-year commitment to this partnership in service of global restoration projects.
- Hoja Nueva
Hope for Earth Day is a creative project with a purpose. We have committed to a 2-year partnership with Hoja Nueva a dynamic non-profit dedicated to protecting wildlife in the remote Las Piedras region of Madre de Dios, Peru. And in celebration of Earth Day in April, for every purchase of Mude beverages online, TNC is donating 20% of proceeds to Hoja Nueva.
- Every Can Counts
We are partnering with Every Can Counts (ECC), ECC inspire, encourage and empower people to recycle their empty drink cans. The collaboration is a commitment to actively raise awareness of the importance of recycling and increase recycling rates. TNC are providing funding to the Every Can Counts programme, with both brands working together to spread the message that drink cans are endlessly recyclable.
Finally we are building out relationships and partnerships with people of influence on our target audience. As above, we have a number of brand ambassadors in place who work with us to share our message. We also have a couple of A-list partnerships in the works, we can’t say who at this point but watch this space!
Since you launched, what has worked in not only attracting but retaining customers?
Educating our consumers and customers on our product benefits remains a priority.We want to disrupt the soft drinks industry and be leaders of the functional beverage category. Helping our customers to understand this has served us well and continues to do so. Our plant-based functional beverage is an entirely new category and therefore requires us to educate, educate, educate.
At TNC we nurture a culture of continuous improvement & sustainability – for our environment, our products, our people, and our customers. We are currently improving our CRM programming for retailers and distributors that aims to add value by educating & meeting customer needs. Retailers are hungry for education on regenerative business and sustainable practices, this is something we assist retailers with, meaning we establish really valuable partnerships.
What kind of culture exists in your company, and how did you establish it?
Company culture is a living, breathing thing that we are continuously building and improving. We cultivate company culture by living by our brands values – our values act as a compass for the team, to equip them to make decisions in the best interest that best serve our mission.
We provoke and lead the industry. We push boundaries.
We choose to live our values and aim to cause no harm. We only work with partners and people that believe in our values. We view our big decisions as if we were looking back in 50 years time.
We are here to change the world one choice at a time. We are humble in our victories and learn from our losses.
We will revolutionize consumer goods by providing healthy, no compromise alternatives to alcohol, sugary drinks, foods and artificial sweeteners.
Be Brave & Fearless
We do not fear failure. We do not fear risk. We celebrate the unique, the individual and the collective.
We choose to be present and recognize that waiting for someone else to act is not an option. We hold ourselves and our team accountable.
In addition to our values, we’ve made it our priority to always have the right people, in the right roles, at the right time. This has enabled the team to flourish and we’ve seen the benefits of that.
We were a small team just a few months ago (7 people) but we are proud to have been able to benefit from remote-working culture and select from a global talent pool. In just a few months we’ve grown our team to 50+ people located across – Ireland, UK, Italy, France, Canada and the US. We maintain team spirit through transparent communication, regular check-ins, and regular Friday afternoon baby photo guessing games!
What software, services or tools do you use within your business?
We use Microsoft Teams for internal communications and only use Outlook for external communications. The improvements to the software over the past year is very much welcomed by us as we build out our remote team.
The team use Asana for workflow and project management. It is very useful for collective sight of project timelines and milestones. The tool integrates well with Teams and encourages cross-functional collaboration.
What are the most important lessons have you learned on your business journey?
We have learned a lot about ourselves given the challenges that 2020 brought. We often compare it to being in a Mad Max movie, trying to navigate across a desert whilst being chased by people with guns, knowing your destination but not knowing what’s over the next sand dune! And although COVID was the big factor, we had Brexit to contend with too. Coming from Ireland, the UK is such a pivotal market and we saw big retailers pushing their range reviews further and further back to deal with the twin crises.
That said, while the pandemic curbed our 2020 global launch plans, it did not halt them. We really pushed to maintain momentum by focusing on three key things.
Firstly, the R&D team used the early part of the lockdown period to collaborate and to work on enhancing TNC’s newly developed Immunoboost ™. Secondly, the company remotely raised €6M in 2020 and launched in several markets starting with +1000 stores in Ireland. Thirdly, getting the right people in place became a priority for us, to enable us to build the right company culture.
In terms of getting the right people, we’ve learned that it means being brutally honest during the hiring process about the good and the bad of being in the Naked Collective. The reality is, we are growing ridiculously fast during a pandemic! We’ve made it our priority to always have the right people, in the right roles, at the right time, for example, we’ve made structural changes that may challenge the team in the short-term but that benefit the broader mission in the long term. Learning how to balance the long and short-term vision continuously challenges us, as founders and as a team.
What is your favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Niall Phelan :I get to plan and decide my own day and week. I rarely have to deal with big company politics and get to work with great people. I love having an idea and being able to bring it to life without all the compromises that have to be made in a corporate. Every day is different and every week is a rollercoaster
What is your LEAST favourite aspect of being an entrepreneur?
Niall Phelan: Sometimes the balance between work and life completely disappears. I can become quite obsessed with work and being an entrepreneur feeds this so I need to check myself every now and again.
What books, podcasts or other resources have inspired and influenced your business journey?
Niall Phelan: I’m not a podcast person, and I know that’s pretty uncool these days, but I just prefer books. My big inspirations have been Next to Me from David Jones, Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson, George Washington & Hamilton by Ron Chernow.
I am also a big fan of a number of Harvard Business Review articles on crucible moments and leadership through humility.I’d highly recommend HBR to any fellow entrepreneurs/leaders out there.
All that said, each day I learn the most from the amazing people around me. I am genuinely privileged to have the opportunity to interact with remarkable human beings on a daily basis.
Where do you see your business 2-3 years from now?
Running TNC, now spanning some 15 countries, and splitting my time between North America and Europe. I want to have climbed Kilimanjaro and hiked/biked through Northern Patagonia.
Most of all, I want to be sitting somewhere nice with my 2 daughters and my unbelievable wife having dinner and reminiscing about the last 2-3 years and the incredible rollercoaster we have been on.