The natural thing for a burnt-out, corporate high-flyer to do when he leaves behind the financial rat race is to start a nutrition company. At least that was the case for At One Foods founder Andrew Terlich.
The Marathon des Sable is considered by some to be the toughest footrace on earth: an ultra-marathon that traverses formidable Moroccan landscape through the inhospitable Sahara desert. The 27th anniversary of the race in 2012 is known as one of the most gruelling to date.
In amongst the thousand-strong contingent who lined up for the Marathon des Sable that year was Andrew Terlich, a seasoned veteran of the ultra marathon circuit; a man ready to battle 50 degree heat, unforgiving sandstorms and the screaming pain of having completed five and half marathons in five days.
The isolation and the pain of these events provide athletes with time to think about whom they are and the direction of their lives. Terlich had his lightbulb moment while recovering in a tent.
“I was astounded to find that there was not a single ingredient in its natural form in the nutrition bar I was eating,” Terlich says of the moment he conceived the idea to create At One Foods. “The main ingredient was fructose, followed by sucrose, glycerine, soy lecithin and around 25 other ingredients. I was shocked! I wouldn’t feed most of these things to my dog, yet there are thousands of athletes around the world eating this stuff everyday thinking it’s the best way to fuel their high-performance bodies.”
With the race over, Terlich set about creating a product that took nutrition back to basics.
“We thought that a product made with the right combination of all-natural ingredients would work on many levels; from the everyday active person, right through to endurance athletes. We wanted to make a difference in the world of food. We’re told that highly engineered sports products are cutting edge and will give us that extra bit of energy or endurance. That may or may not be the case, but the thing that really concerns me is the long-term health impact of the artificial additives and chemical concoctions that are being peddled to us. For long-term health, eating all-natural foods without the additives is the only way.”
Terlich was driven by a sense of purpose. And as someone disillusioned with corporate life, the decision to leave the world of risk management, money, cars, boats and watches was one he didn’t have to think too long about.
“In the finance game it’s so easy to lose sight of what’s important, what’s real,” Terlich says.
Like any start-up cash flow can be an issue and Terlich says he’d be lying if cash flow weren’t a concern. However he is much happier now that he has gone out on his own. He is able to spend more time with his family (his wife Tara works by his side), he can appreciate the little things in life that he had forgotten about and he feels grounded and part of a movement towards a cleaner, healthier, more honest food system.
He is also at an advantage. As an ultra athlete he appreciates the needs of the industry and as a former finance manager he understands the vagaries of business and economics. Suffice to say that he was well prepared to turn this personal risk into reward.
The first step was to create a product.
“We handmade products and tested them on friends and family in order to refine our flavours. We then sold these products at Farmers Markets in Brisbane and on the Sunshine Coast over the course of a year. This gave us important insight into what people were looking for and who our target market was.
“Another important thing we did up-front was seek technical help. We employed a food technologist to help us get our recipes right; this was crucial when developing a product without preservatives and with a long shelf life. We did a significant amount of lab-testing on the product over time, so we could see how the products changed as they sat on the shelf.”
It took two years to complete the R&D, but the result was full confidence in a high quality product at At One Food’s official launch.
The next challenge was to break into a saturated market. Terlich’s advantage was that he lives and breathes the industry and was able to test his product during events. Growth has been steady and as athletes and the general public better understand the authenticity of the product, Terlich is seeing an increase in sales, giving him confidence that he is building a long-term, trusted business.
Trust is paramount, as it should be for any start-up. To build trust in the food industry, you must encourage people to become aware of what they are eating.
“People need to take a bit of time to educate themselves about food,” Terlich says. “We’re at this point in society where many people don’t know or don’t care about the food they eat. As long as it’s cheap, it’s happy days. But cheap normally means heavily processed, artificial, or when it comes to animal foods raised in very poor conditions. All these things mean that the foods are depleted of nutrients as well. As a community we need to slow down and think about what we’re eating and why. We need to start reading labels and seek to understand some of the stories behind our food.”
Clearly Terlich is passionate about his business and there is no greater way to build trust than to live and breathe the identity of your brand. Consumers react to this authenticity in positive ways, as do suppliers.
When Terlich first took his product to stores he did it at a grassroots level.
“We trod the pavement around the Sunshine Coast and managed to have our products stocked in about 40 local stores in the first month. What really helped us expand beyond our local area was a deal with a national distributor who liked our products and was keen to take us on in our second month of operation. We’re now in over 250 stores Australia-wide, with that number increasing every day.”
Success for the business is due to several factors: product development, high quality ingredients and well-designed packaging. The real challenge has been in building brand awareness and cross-country sales. Yet, there are ambitious plans afoot for the business, including expansion into further market segments.
Through all of this the principles will not change and that augers well for the future as Terlich builds a business based on an unwavering principle to positively change the nutrition industry.
If Terlich were to give any advice to start-ups the first thing would be to ask questions and seek the advice of others.
“You also need to understand that it takes a lot of time and hard work to build something worthwhile. You need to be both patient and urgent at the same time. Self-motivation is key, when something goes against you and you’re spending lots of time and money with no immediate prospect of revenue. You need to knuckle down and keep working towards your goal.”