Welcome to the e-commerce marketing podcast, everyone. I am your host, Arlen Robinson. And today we have a very special guest, John Sherwin, who is the co-founder of Hydrant, a company taking on Gatorade, by offering a powdered hydration mix with 3x times the electrolytes as a regular sports drink. Hydrant is sold across the nation, in the majority of Walmarts, has high-ratings in Amazon and has recently also raised $7.4m dollars in funding.

After studying biology at Oxford University, John moved to the U.S. and started working in Silicon Valley — but he didn’t feel great during that time. Despite drinking tons of water every day, he struggled to feel healthy and find a strong work-life balance. That’s when he remembered the powdered electrolyte packets medical students downed at university. They tasted horrible, but it spurred an idea.  Using his background in biology, John created a formula for a powdered drink mix to rival the typical sports drink. 

When he met his cofounder Jai, the duo wasted no time at all in getting this idea off the ground and into stores. It was only 3 weeks after having met that they signed a co-founder agreement.

Welcome to the podcast, John. Thanks for that. Happy to be here. Yes, great to have you. And I’m really excited to really kind of dig in today. We’re taking a different spin a lot of times on this particular podcast. A lot of times I have people that are just in the marketing field in general or working with agencies. A lot of times I don’t talk to people on the other side of it, which are e-commerce brands that have had a fair amount of success with e-commerce and e-commerce marketing.

And so today we’re definitely excited to talk to you about how you grew the business, growing the business and really how you found success strategies for starting a brand from scratch. Because I think if anyone is a person to talk to about that, you’re definitely one to talk to about that because you’re coming up against some of the huge behemoths in the industry. Like I mentioned in the intro, Gatorade been around for a long time. And any time you think about a sports drink, a Gatorade is always at the top of everyone’s mind.

So definitely interested to see what you’re going to impart on us. But before we get into all of that, once you tell us a little bit more about your background and specifically how you got into what you’re doing today. Sure.

Yeah, well, you covered a little bit of it in the intro of, but I’ll try and keep it brief. So I study biology at the University of Oxford in the UK. And while that I kind of went down my own little hydration rabbit hole and saw that if I see these medical students were drinking this very gross tasting product to stay very hydrated, and I got curious, but it made me feel quite nauseous, just the taste of the product.

So I kind of tested everything else that was available on the shelf in the supermarket and didn’t find something that fulfilled the criteria I had, which was being super effective, not being packed with sugar and not being filled with lots of artificial sweeteners, which really kind of speaks towards the taste piece. So I didn’t really do anything at that point with this hydration idea. I moved to Silicon Valley and worked at a startup that made tools for scientists, software tools and kind of wanted to learn the ropes of entrepreneurship here in the US.

And I did a couple of years that when the learning started to plateau, I sort of this one problem that had been consuming me around hydration really started to rear its head again. And so I moved to New York and started putting my degree to use basically. So I was able to go through all of the literature on effective hydration. That is sort of what use cases hydration plays a role in what the symptoms of dehydration are, what formulations will have the best effect on rehydrating someone.

And that was really the sort of the starting point for hiring. It wasn’t glamorous. It was me going through a lot of academic papers to try and find that perfect formula. So that’s kind of like the early Genesis story as to how that got you.

I appreciate that. And you sharing that. And it’s always good to hear that an idea for a startup in any business is really kind of birth of something that has come from your own experience, because I think when that has. Happens and it comes out of a need that you either currently have or that you’ve had over the years. There’s always a lot more passion behind it, I think, because it’s something that you dealt with, you struggle with, and you’re trying to bring something to the market to resolve that issue that not only you had, but countless other people have as well.

These days, hydration is a is a big thing for sure. And of course, as I mentioned in your intro, you’ve definitely had success with the brand and are the product is featured in Wal-Mart’s throughout the country and steadily growing. Now, to get to the point that you are right now for you just kind of jumping in there, creating this startup brand coming up against some behemoth, what really was, I guess you could say, the effective framework that you used to create this business from start to where you are right now?

It’s a big question, but tackle it in a few chunks. I think the key innovation that we were able to use was the rise of e-commerce, of course, and we designed our product to take advantage of e-commerce. So specifically, if you look at some of our competitive set, as you mentioned earlier, some pretty large incumbents and they all have ready to drink products or 8D, as we say, in the industry, and shipping water around the country is crazy expensive.

It is not a good type of product to sell via e commerce. And I think to date, as maybe a handful of companies that have actually figured it out, that by being in powder form, we were able to take advantage of this direct consumer opportunity, shipping direct customer and facing our company on a very simple Shopify infrastructure. I think even at that very early stage, though, it’s worth pointing out that we were coming off to some of those big players who are the sort of the ancestors of direct consumer like the claspers and will be pockets of the world.

And they had run that playbooks with huge success. But we were kind of in a new wave where that same pure DTC playbook we did not think would work fast. And so from day one, we always knew we wanted to be on the shelf of major retailers and run a fully omni channel business. So that was really that kind of framework we were driving towards. So to break it down for consumer first, you get a really good feedback loop with initial customers, you get customer data, you are able to sort of ask them questions literally like how do you like the product?

What would you change? How can I make this better? What new products should I make to solve problems for you? And we leverage that to go to retailers and say, hey, we have all these customers and this product is selling really well on our website. Here is some of that data. And we know that if you put us on a shelf in this location, we’re going to sell with great velocity. And so that’s really kind of how we approached the launch of the business from day one.

Yeah, thanks for sharing that. And that model is definitely something that I’ve seen a lot of in kind of my world in dealing with startups and just everything that I see personally. I’m I’m a huge fan of the show Shark Tank, where investors from all over pitch ideas to get these investments from sharks. And that’s kind of a recurring model. That framework you describe is something that I’ve seen a lot of businesses go through, where they go through the direct to consumer model first to get their feet wet, to test the market, so to speak.

See what feedback that they’re getting, because that route is really kind of the easiest to go by these days. It doesn’t take a whole lot to get a product out there, get it online and get it selling so you can get out there really quickly. You get a lot of initial feedback. And then from there, if the market is really receptive to what you’re selling, then you can take it to the next level. If you want to approach retail, you can do that and then all of the other channels as well.

So, yeah, definitely a solid framework that I see many businesses really go through the other piece.

I’d add that if I’m interrupting you, it’s just that there’s no gatekeepers on direct consumer. So if you want to get a retail shelf, you have to go to a buyer and convince them and they have sort of skin in the game and that that performance at that company is measured based on the velocity off that shelf. And so they effectively gatekeeper access to that customers. If you go and build your own website and just start advertising or posting on social media, people can find it.

There’s no gatekeeper. It really just comes down to how creative you can get. And of course, capital certainly helps as well.

Yeah, definitely. And speaking of gatekeepers, of course, in your particular sports drink niche and from what I hear as far as dealing with retail, super competitive. And there’s so many other big players out there. And I know just to get shelf space, if you are actually selling the ready to drink drinks where they’re already bottled, it’s really next. From what I’ve heard, it’s a mix of. Possible to get decent shelf space if you’re a new player in the game, but with you guys, there’s definitely a benefit that you’re in the powdered form.

So you’re basically kind of in a different area. Of course, that’s right out of the store. So it makes it a little bit easier to get into. That’s definitely something that we can think about. If you’re trying to get entry, think of another way you can get into it rather than coming right up against some big players. Which really kind of leads me to my next question. As you started the business, you mentioned you kicked off a Shopify site, sold direct to consumer.

It took off, and then you kind of went from there. But of course, you guys were already mindful that you were in a super competitive space and the investing money was a little bit risky because you didn’t know where it was going to go. So what are some strategies to avoid certain risks? And in your experience, what were these risks and what did you do to try to avoid them and mitigate them as you were going through your journey?

Yeah, I mean, I think I could go through some of the sort of obvious risks here, but I prefer to look at it in terms of sort of opportunistic risks. And I’ll explain what I mean by that. So when you’re a really early stage, your job is to play, to win, not to play, not to lose. What I mean by that is if you don’t take some risks, you will not survive. There’s just no way the whole point of being a small, nimble business is that you have some insight on the market that a big incumbent either doesn’t have or is unable to take advantage of because they’re too slow or they don’t have like the willingness to take that same risk.

And so really, you have to have a risk appetite to take some big bets early on. So in a weird way, the biggest risk is not taking any risk, but to go with the more obvious ones. I think early on, really, it’s spending meaningful amounts of money without first figuring out product market fit is really a dangerous place to be. And I think a common pitfall is to become addicted to digital marketing, where you all sort of paying money into Facebook ads, you know how much you’re spending on those ads and you know what your average order value is.

And so you can kind of calculate whether you’re on a track to success. But really, it can be very addicting and you can get yourself in some pretty bad holes in terms of product if you don’t make sure to talk to those customers and consumers to kind of learn, hey, how could we make this better before you really start to scale that spend? If you scale too soon, you may be working with the wrong value proposition, the wrong audience, or even the wrong product, which is the absolute worst case.

Yeah, so that is so true. And it’s you mentioned kind of an addiction to the the digital marketing. And there actually is such a thing and I’ve talked to other entrepreneurs before and other marketers, they kind of tell me the same thing where a lot of times as a business you’re focused so much on driving sales, driving the traffic and continually growing the business. And that’s kind of always the forefront of the mind. But at the same time, if you don’t step back and take a look and kind of analyze the different trends as far as your customers opinion about products, what’s selling over what particular SKU is selling over another one.

And if you kind of ignore all of that and just kind of blindly throw money into digital advertising just to try to drive sales and yeah, you can be going into directions that you didn’t necessarily plan to go. So, yeah, I think it’s just very important to do that. And these days, with the multitude of all of these different marketing channels, it’s not hard to become addicted to just throwing money into these different platforms because it really is so easy to do to create these digital media accounts for sure.

So I’m glad that you mentioned that. Now, I know with what you’re doing, you mentioned you guys are really kind of looking at the way you are right now is really just the omni channel approach where you’re covering the direct consumer. You’ve got the retail, you also are selling on different channels, social media and different things to drive traffic and to put your messaging out there. I think one of the challenges that I see these days is really managing all of these channels, the managing the whole multichannel approach.

What tools do you guys use or do you recommend someone use to really manage such an infrastructure?

Yeah. So I think like to start off with when we were good direct consumer and even now when we out, that’s more of an omni channel business. I’m a huge Shopify fan. I mentioned it earlier, but it is just like if you’re scaling a business and you plan to try and grow aggressively, it is a very robust platform and they now have like a pretty solid app ecosystem as well, which we take advantage of. So most of our digital apps plug straight into our.

Which just makes life so much easier. So I would say, like, OK, tools, Shopify is one we have a subscription tool that we use on our website, which allows us to offer subscriptions to customers. There are various ones out that we currently use. This one called Recharge, which I believe is the most popular for now. And then on email, we swear by this company called Clavier. They are it basically allows you to build automated email flows.

In the way I like to think about that is rather than having to design each email one by one and do the work multiple times, if you create email automations, you do the work once, say a welcome flow or a post purchase flow, and customers are going to see high quality email content. But you’re not having to recreate that each time. And then an SMS service. Now SMS continues to grow and to be like a big part of our business.

So really making sure those outward communication channels solid as well as your kind of order receiving channels are solid. Beyond that, as we move into these omni channel kind of areas, really being data driven is is a key value at Heidrun and building systems that allow us to constantly be measuring how is the speed of our sales, how our customer is moving from our website to Amazon and back again, or to Walmart and back again, like what does that look like?

And frankly, no one has yet built the tool that perfectly captures offline attribution data. So if we, let’s say, send an email out encouraging people to go check us out at Walmart, it’s very difficult for us to track back how many of those people who receive email actually went to Walmart. And similarly, if we do an activation with an influence, for example, we really have a tough time measuring direct attribution of what the impact was offline.

So there are various tools out there that help. And frankly, like we will get our hands on as many of them as possible just to build up that data and learn as quick as we can what is working and what isn’t working so we can continue to invest in the high return on investment items.

Yeah, thank you for answering that. You actually answered really what I was going to ask as well with regards to measuring the success. And I think that’s really a key thing. You mentioned analyzing what you’re getting across various platforms and the different channels and then deciding where to really channel your your marketing dollars because you have to look at what’s working versus what’s not in order to determine where you want to really go with your messaging. And this is also help you determine there’s, of course, some things that you’re going to see that just aren’t working or there’s some platforms that really you’re not getting much of a return.

And then you can only see that by looking at the data, looking at the analytics and really understanding all of this, what it means and where you should really go. And I want to kind of close our borders. And just another question that you kind of mentioned it briefly about kind of one of the things that you do mentioned influencers and utilizing some influencers to represent your brand new. A lot of times these days, you know, influencer marketing is just really huge these days.

And I get this question a lot because I talk to brands all the time that are trying to create these types of relationships. And did you guys have a particular strategy to try to form relationships with these influencers, or was it based on relationships that you already had and kind of how did that process work?

So I think the easiest way to look at it is to split kind of the broad term of influencer up into a few different categories. There are like eight celebrities who the relationship building is done through agents like you to meet them. And we haven’t done a ton of that and don’t know that process super well yet. But at the lower level, there are various different platforms you can use to reach out to micro influencers. So people with ten thousand followers or less on any given social platform and they are looking to engage with brands, they’re looking to sort of grow that audience and engage their followers.

And so there are various different services that will connect you with those groups. And it can be a, hey, we’re going to send you some products and post your authentic thoughts about that. On the flip side, we do get people coming inbound to us asking how they can be more involved with the brand. Those are the sort of the demands for us that are those are the people we really want to be engaging with because they are expressing an authentic affinity for the brand and the products.

Already there is nothing stronger than an authentic review on social media, and it kind of fits with our brand. It’s very easy to get an influence on who just you send in some product, they step out, take a selfie of them drinking the products, and it doesn’t feel like it fits in with that brand or like they really care about it. And while those can have some impact, it’s so much more meaningful to have someone who really walks you through why they like it and what they use it for and why they start every day with a hydrant that is unquestionably the top quality of influencer relationship you can get.

So. I mean, my biggest advice that would just be being super clear on what deliverables are, whatever you do, what could influence what it is that you’re looking for, and if it’s not a match, it’s not a match. I wouldn’t go for those inauthentic influencer agreements.

Yeah, that’s so true. The bottom line is, yeah, you have to be clear as to what what you’re expecting in what they’re going to be getting for sure. That’s really awesome with these influencers these days. You mentioned that a lot of times the inbound people that you get are requests to kind of form a relationship when you get them inbound. That’s a lot more authentic because as everybody has seen, when they’re just scrolling through Facebook or Instagram, you see a lot of these influences where, you know, there’s really not a genuine connection there, just kind of a pitch person for the brand.

And they’re not necessarily that interested in it. But, yeah, if it’s somebody that has kind of already an organic relationship with your brand, somebody that was a customer loves your brand, and then you want to take it to the next level and expose it to their audience, that definitely works best. So, yeah, I definitely agree with that for sure. Well, you know, it’s definitely been awesome talking to you, John. I really appreciate you coming on to the commercial market podcast.

I’ve learned a lot. And like I said, it’s kind of a different spin on things on a lot of times they don’t have brands on. But it’s always good to hear some real world stories of successful brands that are out there doing great things in the e-commerce world. And and I’ve had a fair amount of success with e-commerce marketing. So it’s been a pleasure. But what I like to always do to close things out is just to switch gears so our audience can get to know you a little bit better.

If you don’t mind sharing one fun fact with our audience that they may or may not be interested to know about you.

Well, I mean, I’ve gone a somewhat heidrun related as well, and it does speak a lot to my personality. So in starting out with hydrogen, I was so focused on building the most functional possible hydration powder that ever existed that I really didn’t pay much attention to offering also a diversity of flavors. So hydrogen was launched with a single flavor. And at that point I honestly, truly believe, like why would anyone need anything else? That flavor was lime and I loved it.

And I thought, well, it’s the best hydration out there. Surely people are buying this just for the function, not for the taste. So why bother offering multiple flavors and how wrong I was a few years down the line. We have six flavors of that one SKU alone and multiple flavors and other products as well. So my approach to building products has changed a lot. But but I remain very focused on function and sometimes have to just like lift my head up from the science of it to really engage with the flavor piece to.

Yeah, that’s interesting, yeah, one flavor to six Medfly here, which is saying the focus really there initially was just on the function of it and you were like, all right, people are concerned about the function. They’re not going to be too concerned about the actual flavor. But, yeah, you have to, of course, adapt with what the market is telling you. And of course, you guys saw that people more and more flavors.

And so that’s what you have to do. You got to provide that. So that, again, reiterates the fact that you got to look at the listen to your customers, look at your data and make decisions based on that for sure. Well, again, John, I thank you for answering that and thank you for coming on today. And lastly, if any of our listeners want to get a hold of you and and pick your brain anymore about lessons learned from growing your business, what is the best way for them to get in touch with you?

I think finding me on LinkedIn is probably the best way you can search for hydrogen or you can search for me, John Shalon. And that’s definitely the best. Great.

Well, thank you for that. I definitely encourage people to look you up on LinkedIn and reach out to you there. And of course, thank you again, John, for joining us today on the e-commerce marketing podcast.

Thanks for having me on. Thank you for listening to the E Commerce marketing podcast,

Podcast Guest Info

John Sherwin
Co-Founder of Hydrant