Startup success stories often make starting a business sound glamourous, but Jess Thomas, the founder of health food brand, The Health Lab, assures us it’s anything but hard work. At 28, she sold her Toyota Corolla for $5,000 to kickstart her protein ball company. Three years later, the company is now a multi-million business, but that doesn’t mean she’s rolling in it (pun intended). Overheads, reinvesting back into the business, and a charity side-project all mean that Jess is even more determined to make The Health Lab a success. Here she tells us how a 3pm sugar craving completely changed her life.
I was working in a corporate job as a marketing manager, working long days, in quite a stressful job.
I used to have pretty bad sugar cravings in the afternoon. Instead of going for chocolate one day, I had a homemade protein ball and shared some with my team. I realised with everyone’s reaction that; ‘I’m on to something here’. This was three years ago, and back then in the café environment there weren’t many healthy options available. It was mainly banana bread or fruit.
I decided I start making protein balls myself and delivering them to my local café in St Kilda, on the side while I was still working full-time.
Then really quickly, word started spreading, and I began supplying to a handful of cafés. Then fitness studios started asking for them. Then within a few months, I had a team of, I called them ‘ballers’ (ball-rollers), family and friends all madly helping me, out of hours, and on weekends. I’d start setting up the team during the day. I’d go into the kitchen before work, prep everything for the day. I’d have people in there rolling then I’d come back at the end of the day and finish up around midnight. Until the point I was like, “I can’t keep going, doing both.” I made the decision to quit my corporate career and jump full-time into Health Lab.
When I started, I focused on creating an actual brand and a personality.
When I launched Health Lab, all the other health food brands on the scene were posting images of green smoothies and yoga on Instagram, and we were very different. I had images of champagne and quirky, bold quotes on our account. I wanted to focus less on the health aspect and more on lifestyle and to connect with women. I really targeted who I wanted to talk to and make products for; we were quite constructive and bold compared to what everyone else was doing in the space at the time. We talked a lot about sugar craving and things I think that women could relate too.
We weren’t scared to have balance. We were happy to feature wine or coffee. A lot of the time, back then, people were very straight with what health meant. It didn’t encompass any of those other elements that, I think that you need to have to enjoy life as well. We wanted to be relatable and fun and not be scared to have that fun with the customers and the women in our community. We didn’t want to be about diets and fads.
I completely self-funded the business.
I actually sold my Toyota Corolla to get it off the ground. We got $5,000 for it which wasn’t a bad start! We started small, so it was low risk, and we continued to reinvest back into the business, and still do that now. But selling my car was how it all started. We now have seven full-time staff, and two mums that job share a role, so they’re each in three days a week.
The biggest challenge I’ve had is maintaining a natural product with manufacturers.
Manufacturers want to add sugars and syrups and preservatives because it’s so much easier from a manufacturing perspective and I think that’s why no one else had launched a protein ball or health snack with 100% natural ingredients and no added sugar or syrup. It was great being first to market, but it meant that we had a long process of product development and lots of hiccups. Things went wrong along the way, but we managed to get there, which was really exciting. Then as you grow, cash flow is a huge challenge. Ensuring that you have the right balance in profit and loss is definitely the most challenging in terms of growth.
Starting a business is really challenging, even though you have lots of exciting moments, it is so much work.
I think people underestimate that, it can look easy from the outside. So I think continuing to have a really positive mindset and working on your self-belief and confidence is important. I’m learning to manage my inner voice and self-doubt, and master it.
Women often have a huge fear of failure and sometimes don’t even get going with their ideas.
I think you just need to start even if it’s a small idea and not be afraid to give it a go. It’s really easy to get tapped into the sexy parts of a business, but what’s ultimately going to create a successful and sustainable business is really understanding that commercial side and ensuring what you are doing is going to be profitable and work commercially. Set ambitious goals because I think it’s amazing what you can achieve if you really set your mind to it and we shouldn’t be afraid to do that.
It’s sad that there are terrifying numbers out there concerning female lead businesses being way less profitable.
Women are great at building relationships and creativity, and I think for some, their strengths may lie in areas other than the financial side. I’m not saying that’s always the case, but if people don’t focus on it, it’s scary what can happen if you’re not tuned in to the numbers. I don’t outsource the daily take in, because I think you need to know what’s going on in your own business.
As much as you try to do everything, you can’t.
So I do try to play to my strengths, which I must say, is probably more the brand and marketing, product development. I love that. So that’s, that kind of the heart and soul of our business, so I continue to focus on that and then, it isn’t my strength, but I force myself to be across the numbers but they’re the main areas I spend my time.
We outsource our sales team, warehousing, and logistics and try to keep our internal team more marketing and customer service focused. We keep our strengths in-house, and we outsource where we’re not so strong so we can focus on doing those things really well.
We just launched our kid’s snack range, which is really exciting.
We obviously had an engaged audience of women and mums, and then I had a baby girl ten months ago, and I started spending time in different aisles of the supermarket. I couldn’t believe what the ‘healthy’ food was catering to kids, it was actually quite scary. All the hidden sugars, fruit juice concentrates, and honey and all those claims, and I thought, “Why hasn’t anyone done this for kids?” So it’s just a really natural decision, but we’re really proud of it. It’s being embraced really well in our community, which is awesome.
After I had my daughter I started thinking about what kind of business I was building, and it sounds cliché, but how I was giving back to the next generation.
I’ve always been quite passionate about female entrepreneurship and started looking into what could we do to help build that community and help accelerate female entrepreneurship. Then the more research I did I realised that there was real gap in the education side of things, and where young women weren’t getting access to role models. It’s getting better in careers education in schools now, but it’s still lacking.
We decided that we wanted to do something to help impact that generation and make a difference, so we founded our not-for-profit, Fuelling Female Success program. The idea is to help support educators to help bring entrepreneurship into the classroom. It takes on those Year 7 -10 in school, where there isn’t much career focus. Our aim is to reach women in early stages in not only in their educational journey, but in personal development and try and help build levels of confidence and change perceptions about fear of failure. With the world of social media, the concept of overnight success, and challenging some of those notions. We’re really trying to help bring accessibility and role models and storytelling to today’s generation of women.
Say hi to Jess and The Health Lab team at our 9 to Thrive expo in Melbourne. Haven’t got your ticket yet? Easily fixed! Head over here for info and tickets.
CONNECT WITH JESS THOMAS HERE.