Every new company’s founder takes a ride on the entrepreneurial roller coaster. It’s filled with highs, lows, and dangerous curves. Yanni Hufnagel, a former college basketball coach, discovered the challenges of entrepreneurship in 2017 when he launched Lemon Perfect, a Certified Organic, 5-calorie, zero-sugar enhanced flavored lemon water beverage.
Today, Lemon Perfect is at a $100 million-plus valuation and sits on the shelves of retailers across America, including Publix, Ralphs, and 7-Eleven. The product is also available on Amazon and Lemon Perfect’s direct-to-consumer platform, lemonperfect.com. Lemon Perfect comes in seven flavors: Original Lemon, Dragon Fruit Mango, Peach Raspberry, Kiwi Star Fruit, Blueberry Açai, Strawberry Passion Fruit, and Pineapple Coconut.
But when Hufnagel got the initial idea to formulate a healthy beverage, he couldn’t have known precisely how his entrepreneurial journey would play out. He had been coaching basketball for 10 years, serving as an assistant coach for the Nevada Wolf Pack, California Golden Bears, Vanderbilt Commodores, and Harvard Crimson. While he was successful at coaching, the beverage sector was an unknown frontier.
Yanni Hufnagel: ‘The Light Bulb Just Went Off’
A successful innovator gets an idea, then gets informed. That was Hufnagel’s experience as he built his startup, The Lemon Perfect Company. His brainchild emerged when he noticed the student athletes he coached drinking Vitaminwater and Bai, two popular enhanced waters, in the locker room.
Meanwhile, Hufnagel drank homemade lemon water without sweetener every morning as part of his health regimen. The taste was incredibly sour. What if he could do better?
“The light bulb just went off,” Hufnagel said on The Rising Coaches Podcast. “I asked myself if I could take this powerful superfruit, the organic lemon, and give it [a] flavor profile [that could win on] Main Street America. The idea just sat in my mind, and the season ended.”
Hufnagel was considering taking another coaching job when he pitched the idea for Lemon Perfect during a fortuitous lunch with an entrepreneurial friend. The friend said, “I love it. Anything that you can do that can capture a piece of someone’s daily routine—what they do in the morning when they first get up, what they do at night when they go to sleep, or any point B, C, D, E in between—is worth going for.”
Now marketed as a drink that’s “perfect for whatever”—any time of day—Lemon Perfect was initially developed as a “morning elixir.” “That night, I googled, ‘How to start a beverage company,’ and here we are.”
Yanni Hufnagel Knows Confidence Is Key
“I try to wake up every day and do three somersaults out of bed and attack the day,” Hufnagel said, illustrating his enthusiasm for Lemon Perfect. He felt a similar hunger when he was recruiting university basketball players. He believed he could get any player to commit to a school he represented.
“I didn’t care if it was Harvard or Nevada or anywhere in between,” he said on The Rising Coaches podcast. “We made it feel like people couldn’t walk away. We always wanted to put kids in a position where they literally would have to almost get sick over saying no.”
Hufnagel revealed that he brought that intensity to selling Lemon Perfect to investors and recruiting talent to The Lemon Perfect Company. The goal, he said, is to make people feel they can’t walk away.
“You’ve got to have great enthusiasm for what you’re building,” he said. “Sometimes you get one opportunity to build something that can be ubiquitous in the way that Lemon Perfect can, probably even beyond America. I’ve got to be relentless in that pursuit, and we’ve got to drive our team daily. We must work incredibly hard and have an unrelenting will to win. That drives me.”
Yanni Hufnagel Is Committed To Scouting Out The Best Talent
Hufnagel was thrilled when he reached the stage where he was able to hire employees rather than doing everything himself. He knew hiring the right people would be critical to success for his fledgling beverage brand.
“I came in with no idea what to build or do,” he said. “I think anytime you can go into something where you’re not framed by experience—but you’re buoyed by a network that can help you get there—that’s the secret.”
Today, he has an outstanding team at Atlanta-based The Lemon Perfect Company.
“Our team is big time, big time, with just passion and an unrelenting will to win and an always-on mentality,” Hufnagel said. “Before I sign their offer letter, I tell everyone [who joins our team] that I hope . . . they back their car in . . . when they get home from work so that they can get out faster . . . the [next] morning. That’s the idea, and that’s the mindset: we want people backing their car into their driveway at night because they just can’t wait to get started the next morning.”
Hufnagel believes that hiring dynamic, experienced employees will take Lemon Perfect to the next level of growth. Going from coaching to running a startup has been a natural transition.
“I’m recruiting dynamic talent now every day,” he said. “There are many parallels between coaching and building and running a company, namely around storytelling, recruiting, and sales.”
Yanni Hufnagel Advises Entrepreneurs To Find Dreamers To Invest In You
Hufnagel learned a powerful lesson about the importance of finding the right investors when the first Lemon Perfect bottles came off the line before the initial expected product launch. He felt the packaging did not look as fantastic as it had on a computer screen or paper printout and that this new brand needed a better-looking bottle to attract customers at a crowded store.
Hufnagel had sold 40 investors on a pre-revenue seed round based on the original bottle design. He informed them of the change of plans, and they remained on board. He advises budding entrepreneurs to “find investors who will dream with you,” as the original Lemon Perfect investors did.
“Find investors who understand it’s not always going to be a straight line up to the right,” Hufnagel said. “There are going to be moments of great challenge and adversity.”
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