Product idea #15: Hans Sloane
The start-up founder talks winning awards, trialling the product and why natural ingredients and clever packaging have helped the business stand out in the competitive chocolate market
Founder: Brian Watt
Date launched: September 2013
The product: Luxury chocolate drinks products
Named after the 17th century explorer who originally brought the idea of drinking chocolate to the UK, Brian Watt’s start-up was created with a mission to “bring the taste of chocolate back to drinking chocolate.”
Frustrated with the existing powdery and sugared drinks in the market and following time spent as an investor which gave Watt a taste for the start-up world and a passion to create his own brand, the ex-corporate employee was convinced he could create a better tasting, more natural product.
After checking out all the potential competitors – drinking every chocolate drink on the market – and deliberating over manufacturing routes, Watt launched Hans Sloane in late 2013.
Since inception the business has made an impressive start, already boasting Waitrose and Tesco as stockists and winning a Great Taste award this year.
According to Watt his firm stands out in the populated chocolate drinks market as it is made up of real chocolate beads and comes in appealing flavours that include salted caramel, coffee bean and truffles – using real as opposed to manufactured ingredients.
The company has also been gaining interest across the globe, with suppliers in Russia, Germany, and the Middle and Far East looking to get hold of the tasty product. While Watt has decided to concentrate on building the brand’s UK presence for now, it’s clear that global growth is on the cards and the brand is testing international interest with a US trial.
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Here, the founder talks challenging his competitors, monitoring your company’s growth and why the quality of your product should always win over convenience.
Can you briefly describe your background Brian?
After 30 years in the corporate world I retired and worked in the NGO world with Rainforest Alliance helping to build its profile in the UK.
Then I started angel investing and looked at a lot of companies through events and as a venture partner at Octopus Investments. This gave me a taste for the start-up world and lit the fire for creating a brand and building a business.
Where did the idea for Hans Sloane come from?
We tasted all the drinking chocolate in the UK and there were a lot of powdery sugary products out there with no taste of chocolate. So our mission became to bring the taste of chocolate back to drinking chocolate.
So we set about creating beautiful products made from real ingredients.
Describe how your chocolate product is disrupting the marketplace?
Instead of coming in a powder form like most of the drinking chocolate products on the market, Hans Sloane is made up of pure chocolate beads that melt with water or milk to give you a real chocolate drink.
What market research did you conduct to learn more about the chocolate sector?
First we went about analysing the market, tasting every drinking chocolate in the UK to understand what our competitors were doing.
In addition to this we looked at the market through reports in the British Library and talked to a lot of other start-ups about how they did it and their view of the market.
How did you finance Hans Sloane?
Myself and the other shareholder have invested the money ourselves – agreeing upon a 50/50 split of shares.
Describe your business journey to date, from having the idea for your drinking chocolate products to bringing them to the market.
A lot of trial and a lot of error. We looked at different products and packages, and a couple failed until we got the right mix around having a great tasting and looking product.
We could see that everyone else hid their product so we decided to show our product by having a window in the pack. We launched in September 2013 and were very lucky to be featured in the press, securing suppliers and winning an award.
Do you manufacture the products entirely yourselves?
It was one of the most difficult decisions, choosing whether to make it ourselves or to outsource.
Outsourcing is easier but we decided on the former as it gives us more control over our chocolate and it gives us the ability to maintain its high quality taste – essential to a product’s success.
How do you distribute Hans Sloane products – is it exclusively online or is it currently stocked elsewhere?
We have been lucky to have been listed in Waitrose and Tesco stores through the UK from March of this year.
We are also trying to build our base business with a range of origin drinking chocolate from Madagascar and Ecuador that will be exclusive to independents.
Do you have plans to take Hans Sloane overseas?
We turned down several requests from Germany, Russia, Middle East and the Far East as we wanted to concentrate on building a great business here first.
However we did partner with an American chain that wanted to take our products to 300 stores across the US. It was a great opportunity to test the product abroad without a lot of the hassle as we delivered to them in the UK and they did the rest.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs considering launching their own food product business?
Go where your consumer is. Watch how they buy your competitors and see how they measure up and build a simple market structure around cheap versus expensive and good versus bad taste.
Also be careful to manage your growth as a lot of companies fail because they take on the wrong kind of growth.
What are Hans Sloane’s future plans?
To use the base we have to build a strong relationship with our consumers making great products and bringing new ideas to market.
Once we feel we have a business model that works then perhaps we will build on the US test with a launch in one big city so we can bring our drinking chocolate to more people.