Ever since Simon Sinek's book "Start With Why" entered the entrepreneurial mainstream in 2009, it's been fashionable for founders to nobly decree the non-fiscal purpose of their startups. For Generation UCAN, the sports nutrition company whose SuperStarch powder is in more than 300 stores, starting with why was easy. The company owes its original idea to Jonah Feldman, a boy born with a metabolic disorder.
The answer to "why" was always: for Jonah. But for UCAN to build a company around SuperStarch, customers would need an answer to: "Why bother?" In a marketplace filled with ready-to-eat and ready-to-drink health and energy offerings, how could UCAN persuade customers that a powder was worthwhile?
Co-founders Shoba Murali and Peter Kaufman--software entrepreneurs earlier in their careers--recognized that launching SuperStarch would be like launching a complex tech product. It would require educating consumers. And that education could not come from UCAN. It had to come from reputable influencers, whose third-party advocacy could lend credibility.
How could UCAN reach those influencers? The product's roots--in lab testing and clinical trials--gave them a head start.
Changing the Nutrition Landscape
Jonah's parents, David and Wendy, had co-founded The Children's Fund for GSD Research, devoted to curing the glycogen storage disease (GSD) Jonah was diagnosed with. Their research led them to a biotech entrepreneur who lived not far from them in Connecticut: Dr. Stephen P. Squinto, co-founder of the publicly traded Alexion Pharmaceuticals.
To help Jonah, Squinto organized a symposium of carbohydrate researchers. They gathered at the Feldmans' house and brainstormed. Eventually, the researchers developed the SuperStarch powder. Because SuperStarch broke down at a slow, steady pace, Jonah's blood sugar levels did not dwindle overnight; they were constantly replenished. SuperStarch was a "carb with no crash." As such, it had the potential to change how athletes ate before strenuous training and competitions.
The ideal early influencers would be credentialed dietitians who grasped the science behind SuperStarch and could apply it to athletic performance. The founders networked through local ties to Dr. Jeff Volek, a dietitian-scientist at the University of Connecticut. His work explored how carbohydrate consumption affects training and metabolic health. UCAN also contacted Bob Seebohar, a dietitian for the Olympic Triathlon Team at the 2008 games.
One advantage of influencers like Volek and Seebohar was that they were not concerned with how a product tasted or how it might sell. Their priority was evaluating whether SuperStarch could give athletes an advantage.
The Second Wave
After Volek and Seebohar became convinced, the founders assembled the next wave of UCAN influencers. Both Swinto and David Feldman were fans of college hockey. They invited coaches to the symposiums at Feldman's house, which had become a regular occurrence. Coaches at Cornell, Mercyhurst and Sacred Heart University agreed to demo the powder and give UCAN feedback.
From the teams, UCAN learned that they had to make the powder easier to use. They began providing blender bottles, so the players could make, shake, and drink the water-powder mixture in the same container.
By working with teams, UCAN also hit on a stealth marketing strategy. Marketing arrangements often prevent teams from publicly declaring loyalties to specific products that are not the "official" product of the team. But that doesn't mean individuals who've worked for teams--coaches, trainers, players--can't state that they use or have used the unofficial products.
It was in this way that SuperStarch gained stealthy promotional ties to the New England Patriots. One of Volek's proteges, Joel Totoro, worked for the Patriots as a dietician for eight years. (He currently works for University of Michigan.) Totoro used UCAN with injured players, fueling their workouts as they stayed in shape through non-football activities. He loved the results, and persuaded the Patriots to become a UCAN customer. Today, you can find Totoro's testimonial (but no mention of his current or former employer) on UCAN's site. Former Patriots linemen Vince Wilfork and Mike Wright are also UCAN advocates.
And if you search the Interwebs for UCAN testimonials from other pro team dietitians, you will find them.
The Road to Meb
Two days before the 2015 Boston Marathon, Meb Keflezighi, the 2014 winner, appeared at a UCAN event in a hotel convention room not far from the finish line. The room was packed. It was a memorable day for UCAN, which had officially launched with Keflezighi, 39, in the same room in 2010. On that day, there were fewer than 50 people in attendance.
UCAN was with Keflezighi years before he became famous as the American who won the first race after the bombing. And Keflezighi was with UCAN before they were UCAN. He recalls trying the SuperStarch "before it even had labels on it." The founders networked to Keflezighi through Seebohar's triathlon-team connections.
Keflezighi's lengthy, in-depth testimonials for UCAN are extremely convincing. He respects UCAN for seeking him out long before his 2014 victory boosted his marketing bandwagon--a bandwagon which now includes Sketchers, Krave, Sony, and Wheaties.
The Next Steps
UCAN's influencer strategy has paid off. In 2011, the SuperStarch was available fewer than 20 specialty running retailers, most of which were in New England. In addition, the three college hockey teams used it.
Today, more than 60 college teams use UCAN--not just hockey, but basketball and football, too. The product is in more than 300 stores--not just running stores, but also stores catering to cyclists and triathletes. UCAN's retail footprint has expanded to Texas, Colorado, Georgia, and the Carolinas.
About 40 percent of sales are direct-to-consumer, through the UCAN site. Retailers and teams comprise the other 60 percent. Murali says the company is "nearly doubling" its sales year-to-year, to the point where annual sales are "under $10 million."
The next step is broadening the reach of the brand. Murali hopes in the not-too-distant future to "bring on board a CMO who can take us there--commercialize us on a national retail level," she says.
The UCAN team started with why. And the mixture of "why" and key influencers helped UCAN make it past the five-year mark.
Like most founders, they've already run a marathon--just to reach the start of a whole new race.