When Sharon Thurin launched her health food brand Slim Secrets, the industry she was entering was uncharted territory. Largely dominated by “hardcore” bodybuilding supplement products and weight loss solutions, the entrepreneur realised there was a gap to be filled — in both the market, and between lunch and dinner.
Drawing on her experience as a health and wellness coach, Thurin started Slim Secrets as a hobby for her clients and friends. But after finding itself on the counters of Boost Juice stores and supermarket shelves, Slim Secrets quickly progressed into “something real” — a business that now turns over $2 million annually.
Thurin spoke to SmartCompany about how consumer perceptions of the health food space has changed, and how the brand navigated the dangerous waters of the Chinese market.
I launched the business in late 2005 after working as a health and wellness coach for a short time. During that time, I saw a gap in the market where busy people on the go wanted something nutritionally balanced to fill the gap between breakfast lunch and dinner.
At the time, there was very little in the market in that place, and what was there was more geared towards the body builder and hardcore weightwatchers area, with very little in between.
Before starting Slim Secrets I had jumped around a bit. I did a few degrees: law, arts, a diploma of education. But as I come from a family of doctors, I was always interested in the health food space.
However, I had no experience running a business.
I didn’t know you had to get a licence for a barcode, I thought you could just print them from your computer. Honestly, if it wasn’t for Google I could never have gotten started.
The food space is also highly regulated, so there was a lot to learn along the way. It was originally going to be a hobby for clients and friends; I never went in with a business mindset.
It ended up just happening organically because the product was so unique at the time. We drummed up demand pretty quickly, and we even got on the counters of Boost Juice stores in a couple of months.
After that, supermarkets got in contact pretty quickly and all of a sudden this hobby turned into something real.
Luckily this meant that cashflow was strong early on, so we kept funding growth through the business. The whole process happened really organically, so as it grew we just went with it.
When we launched, you’d be lucky to see one small bay in a supermarket be health food, and you’d never see health foods in a convenience store. Today it’s a well-recognised space and people now actually understand what the packaging says.
It used to be if it said ‘healthy’, people thought it was healthy. Now they actually read and understand the nutritional information.
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The fact no one else was in the market space made our brand so unique when it launched, and it’s part of the brand name. It’s the “secret”.
It’s funny — I didn’t see myself as a pioneer, but now I do. Wherever I go I get emails from people saying they’ve watched our brand grow and I’ve seen how other brands have followed suit.
Now I recognise I am absolutely a pioneer, and that’s something I’m proud of.
Most of the employees in the business are subcontracted, but I have two full-time employees besides myself. One of those is my son, so it’s slowly turning into a family business.
There have been lots of changes in terms of customers understanding certain ingredients. Whether it’s gluten free or cleaner options, they want to understand what the ingredients are.
At the same time, people are getting busier, so they want convenience in a product and to be able to carry it with them wherever they go.
The space we operate in also used to be niche, but now it’s mainstream. People are now more aware of the health food space and the benefits; they never used to understand protein but now they expect it in a lot of snack products.
We recently launched into China which has been an incredible learning curve. My son Jamie and I have been managing it, and while we’re both impatient in nature, we’ve had to do this very slowly and systematically and sensibly.
We’re very lucky to be working with the right people when it comes to the expansion, including a team who helped Sanitarium launch there. They’re doing the groundwork and it’s given us a lot of confidence.
China is just starting to understand the benefits of healthy food and fitness, and from a perspective of growth, the market has huge potential. We want to be one of the biggest players in our category over there.
We’ve landed some significant influencer partnerships for our launch, including [singer] Avril Lavigne. We had some great guys overseas who had contacts and organised it for us.
It was an investment but it’s been one that’s paid off without any question. She is the third biggest Western influencer in China, and whilst it started as a commercial arrangement, she’s actually requested us to send her some boxes because she enjoys the product so much.
When heading overseas, it’s very important to do your research and not be reactive and jump at opportunities. Larger companies have discovered this can be quite detrimental in terms of the future of the brand.
Don’t put short-term gains above long-term benefits in terms of your partnerships and pricing.
Marketing is also essential, be it brand ambassador marketing or through channels like WeChat or Weibo. If you’re going over there, you have to invest in marketing.
We see huge potential globally because of the relationships we have, but we don’t want to rush it. We do see ourselves as a global brand.