Interviewed by Daniel Smith, January 28th for Stuff
Angus Brown is the founder of local “brain food” company Ārepa. He started the company wanting to create a drink that gave people energy and clarity, without the nasty comedown of some caffeinated or sugary energy drinks. He shares what he learned along the way.
What was the background to starting your business?
I lost a friend to mental health in high school, and lost my grandparents to dementia-related illness early in my work career. So brain health was extremely important to me very early on.
My first job was selling energy drinks, and at the start I thought it was an awesome gig. But I quickly thought to myself what the hell am I doing? I didn't want to have a job that made people unhealthy.
Then I got a job working for the government in food technology which was a space that I learned a lot. I got to see the kind of passion and creativity that exists in the food industry in New Zealand. I thought it was the perfect place to make a positive impact directly in people’s lives.
And then yeah, basically came across a world-renowned neuroscientist, commissioned him to develop a formula that was caffeine-free could reduce stress, but also improve focus. That became Ārepa, and we've just been chipping away on that for the last almost eight years.
What were the early challenges of getting the business off the ground?
Probably convincing people to work with you. It was tough going up to very qualified neuroscientists and neurosurgeons to try and convince them to come on board.
After that, another challenge is playing the long game like with any trend. Our concept for a drink that helps brain function is quite out there, it is complex and quite futuristic.
The first few years after we launched we knew we might seem crazy or far-fetched to most people.
So having the resilience to trust your gut and keep pushing through that is crucial. As long as you keep getting those small wins along the way you can trust it is going to work out.
What was an early moment when you could see you were on the right track?
Probably it was receiving emails or messages from Instagram from people telling me how much the product has worked for them. I’ve had people tell me that their son has attention deficit disorder and our drink helps him focus. I’ve had people tell me that the drink has helped with their daily function and just helps them get through the day a little easier.
Those heartfelt testimonies have been really important to us.
What have been the biggest lessons you have learned along the way?
If you can capture IP, capture it.
And understand from the beginning what makes your business different, leverage that and protect it.
Also look to what the consumer needs with as much data as you can and deliver on that need. That is when understanding what makes you different comes into play. Because if you can develop an opportunity from what is unique in you, then that is a blank canvas on which to make your idea come alive.
Anything you would change if you had to do it all over again?
If I did it all again I probably wouldn’t jump around from consultant to consultant for help with building the business.
Ideally you want to have a consultant who has actually built a business before rather than just calling themselves a business coach. And once you find them, you should work with them to really aim for the top.
Also don't think. As soon as you can, create a minimum viable product and get it in the hands of consumers, for free with friends and family or sell it in a local market.
And hire your team sooner than later. As soon as you do, as soon as you give up more of your Legos, the faster the business can grow. You'll be surprised at how productive your business becomes with more hands on deck.