Hillary Lewis had a name for her company years before she had any idea what the company would be. For years, in lieu of saying goodbye, she and her friends would say, "Love you, mean it!" or, more efficiently, "Lumi!" The acronym even became her nickname during her post-college stint as an analyst on Wall Street.
Finding the world of finance lacking--it perhaps didn't help that she started a job at Lehman Brothers the very week it went bankrupt--Lewis moved on to get her MBA at the University of Virginia. One day during her second year, while shopping at Whole Foods, she noticed a bottle of cold-pressed juice priced at $9.99, and asked a clerk if it was selling.
"He said, "It's moving so quickly, I can't keep it on the shelf,' " Lewis recalls. "I thought, OK, this is an opportunity." In almost no time she had found an idea to go with the Lumi name.
Lewis, now 30, launched Lumi Organics in April 2013 while she was still a student, spending beach week getting up to speed on website development and regulatory issues. One of her professors, who had experience in the beverage industry, gave her advice and some seed funding. She visited juice bars around the country to sample flavors, and, with help from a woman she knew who had been juicing for many years, rented a test kitchen to develop new varieties.
Three years later the Charlottesville, Virginia-based company sells 13 uber-healthy fruit and vegetable juice flavors such as Belmont Beet and Piedmont Pineapple at the Fresh Market and other grocery chains, in fitness studios, and through its website. The company, which so far has been funded primarily by equity investments from Lewis's friends, now employs 18 people.
Unlike many other companies in its space, Lumi markets its juice as a product customers can integrate into their daily lives rather than as something for occasional cleanses or other diet plans. The approach appears to be working: Although the company is not yet profitable, it's been steadily increasing its customer base both in retail stores and online, and doubled its revenue to $1 million last year. It appears there's plenty more room for growth as well: According to market research firm Mintel, total U.S. retail juice sales will top $8.6 billion this year and exceed $8.8 billion in 2020.
Lewis caught the entrepreneurial bug early on, besting all her competitors in Girl Scout cookie sales. For inspiration on how to make a business work, she needed look no further than her father, who owned an engineering services business. He once had to sell his car to make payroll, she says, but the company is still around to this day.
She also learned lessons from her grandmother, who successfully ran her husband's construction business after his death. Decades later, Lewis says at times she and her staff still encounter the same kind of condescending treatment businesswomen of her grandmother's generation faced. All but two of Lumi's employees are women (most under the age of 30), though that ratio is not by design.
Sexism isn't the only challenge Lumi must contend with. The company moves approximately 10,000 bottles of juice a week, which is too low a volume to get distributors' full attention, resulting in customers receiving the wrong products.
"It's a problem that's common to small brands," Lewis says. "You're not a priority to them until you become more successful." Unfortunately, without a large distributor, Lumi can sell only what it can deliver itself from its manufacturing facility.
Selling a 100 percent organic product is also an expensive undertaking. Lumi is helping area farmers get organic-certified, which would open up a new market for their crops as well as lower the company's production costs. (Lumi sources its ingredients locally where possible, but gets some from elsewhere in the U.S. and South America.) Lewis says the ingredients for the company's juices currently account for about three-quarters of input costs. That, of course, results in a high price for a brand that's battling seemingly countless other juices for shelf space.
"Everyone's got a health message out there these days," says Darren Seifer, a food and beverage industry analyst at market research firm the NPD Group. "So it's all about what makes you different."
One of Lumi's selling points is its use of high-pressure processing, a method that subjects bottles of its cold-pressed juice to 87,000 PSI of water pressure--several times the level in the deepest part of the ocean. When a bottle emerges from the processing machine, which Lewis acquired from the University of Delaware (she refers to the 35,000-pound beast as "The Angry Hippo"), it's full of nutrients, free of harmful bacteria, and costs $7.99 for 16 ounces.
"As long as they make the benefits clear to the consumer as to why they should be using [high-pressure processing] versus another method, it could be a successful way to set them apart," Seifer says.
Lewis says eventually she'd like to expand into organic food, which also can be high-pressure processed to ensure it's healthy and reduce the need for additives and preservatives. For now she remains focused on broadening the audience for her juices, and has recently begun to attract enviable customers including professional sports teams. The NBA's Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets now stock Lumi juices in their locker rooms, as do Major League Baseball's New York Yankees, Pittsburgh Pirates, and other clubs.
Lewis plans to go after more corporate clients in other industries as well going forward, which will require additional staff. For help on that front, as well as with distribution and other issues that will boost LUMI's revenue, she is now beginning to pursue investors for a Series A funding round. And while a new infusion of cash is hardly a solution for every challenge the company faces, that's not what Lewis is looking for anyway.
"Every single day I'm learning. Every day there are new obstacles that you have to turn into opportunities," she says. "And that's kind of the joy of having a business."