Many people won’t have the pleasure of meeting someone like Helena Hills in their lifetime.
To them, we say, you’re really missing out.
Radiating positivity, Duracell Bunny energy and a rocket-fuelled, can-do mentality, the way Helena sees the world – and all its opportunities – is so needed right now. Not just in the entrepreneurial community, but everywhere, really.
That’s why a perfect match was brewing when Helena founded TrueStart Coffee with her husband Simon in 2015. Because now, she has the chance to share that feel-good energy in liquid form with their loyal customers and supporters, every single day.
So, was she born with it – this infectious enthusiasm?
No. Quite the opposite. Because as you’ll find out, Helena’s TrueStart journey has taken twists, turns and come full circle in the most incredible way.
THE MISSION: MAKING PEOPLE FEEL AWESOME
“At the very core, I want to prove that you can have a massive impact on people on a global scale by using business as a force for good. You can build a hugely impactful organisation, that is not driven primarily by shareholder return. Instead, it’s driven by a genuine reason for existing. For TrueStart, that is to make people feel awesome so they can be the best they can be.”
Helena is an unwavering advocate of the power of positive energy; surrounding yourself with positive emotions and influences, to “broaden your horizons and improve your ability to think creatively and do whatever you do.”
Now, you’re probably thinking, that’s all well and good.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE BAD DAYS?
Those days when that spark just isn’t quite there, and positivity seems so hard to reach. We all have them, and despite first impressions, Helena is no different.
When she was a child, Helena was diagnosed with ADHD. At the time, she thought that meant being a naughty, fidgety kid – largely thanks to society incorrectly branding ADHD as a behavioural disorder.
Since then, she’s found out it’s a neurobiological condition – a different wiring of the brain – and one effect of ADHD is a deficiency in the feel-good neurotransmitter, dopamine.
“Fundamentally, I wake up with a dopamine deficiency,” Helena told us, “So, no. I don’t wake up with a crazy amount of energy. I have to purposely generate that and it’s all about environment. It’s all about that positive energy.”
By understanding and appreciating how her brain works, Helena has learned to keep her dopamine levels in check by doing more exercise, spending more time in nature, having cold showers and placing tight limits on her social media time, where she says the negative energy is “so tangible”.
“IT’S A TOTAL SUPERPOWER, AS WELL AS A MASSIVE CHALLENGE”
“ADHD brains are wired in a way that we’re constantly trying to stimulate dopamine production and flow through things that feel good,” Helena explained, “Focus in people with ADHD is like a light switch. If you’re interested in that topic, it’s on. It’s called hyper-focus and I can learn everything about that topic in a few hours. But if I’m disinterested, I’m off. I just don’t give a s***. That intensity is so real for me.”
Three months ago, it was this ‘hyper-focus’ that prompted Helena’s research into how her own brain was wired. But before then, in their 11 years together, her husband Simon could count on one hand the amount of times she had even said ‘ADHD’.
That’s because Helena put it in a box and pretended it didn’t exist, determined to avoid using what she thought was a behavioural problem as an excuse for not succeeding.
“MY WHOLE LIFE HAS COME FULL CIRCLE”
“Discovering so much about ADHD freed me from this mental prison. I realise now, TrueStart is my way of bringing up my dopamine levels, because caffeine actually increases the dopamine receptor availability in a part of your brain called the ventral striatum, which is associated with the limbic system – so our emotions and memory – and is a really important part of the circuitry for decision making and reward-related behaviour.
“ADHD is usually treated with stimulant medication. I’m unmedicated, but coffee is doing a similar thing for me by helping me treat my unusually low dopamine receptor availability and function much better on a daily basis with everything from executive function skills to overall mood, motor control and emotional regulation. I truly believe I was put on this earth to change how people feel in their daily lives for the better. And I’ve found out coffee has such huge potential to do just that.
“I’m like wow. My whole life has come full circle here. I’ve literally built my treatment and the treatment for everyone else in the world who needs to feel better, and I’m quite mind-blown by that actually.”
Although Helena didn’t know it at the time, looking back, you can trace her superpower to the very roots of TrueStart and the incredible brand it’s become.
IT ALL STARTED WITH SPORT
The idea for TrueStart was born when Helena and Simon were competing in triathlons. They were spending a lot of time on the road together. And they were drinking a lot of coffee.
Why? Because it made her feel good. But not always.
Sometimes, multiple cups would do nothing. And other times, one cup would make her feel sick and send her heart palpitations through the roof.
Helena knew something wasn’t right, so, she started researching caffeine and found out the levels in different coffees can vary massively.
“Sometimes, you can be having 30mg, which is nothing really,” she told us, “but if you go to Starbucks and have a big coffee, you can be having 700-800mg in those things.”
THAT REALISATION FLICKED THE SWITCH
Helena went deeper, researching all the different variables. From the obvious ones, like the types of beans used, all the way through to the amount of rainfall on a specific crop.
Then, she spoke to suppliers in Columbia, where she had lived previously, to develop a sourcing process to launch the first coffee that had a consistent level of caffeine in every cup. No crashes. No jitters. That same awesome feeling. Every time.
To this day, clean, healthy, ethically sourced products are an irreplaceable part of the brand’s image and their customers’ loyalty. But in the beginning, TrueStart’s success was as much about Helena and Simon’s personality, as it was their drinks.
PERSONAL BEST COFFEE
Their first ever product was called ‘Performance Coffee’, and their first time trialling it came at a small, local 10km race.
Helena and Simon turned up, boombox in hand, pumping out music and handing out free shots of coffee to the runners.
“We were like, ‘here’s your TrueStart, have an awesome race!’ Honestly, it was about 20 people. But they were coming back afterwards saying ‘I got a PB!’ They were our first mega fans, our first TrueStarters engaging with us and it was so fun. I could see that our presence had helped everyone else really enjoy the event and I was buzzing.”
From there, they started doing bigger and bigger events, with one goal: bringing the positive vibes and making people feel great. They quickly made a name for themselves in the endurance sports world, and just three years in, that culminated in a high-profile slot at a big show in Birmingham’s NEC.
If you bought a coffee from the NEC café it was TrueStart, and everyone was walking round with TrueStart branded cups, which must have felt great, right?
WRONG. HELENA AND SIMON FELT SUFFOCATED
“We spoke to our customers and they said they loved TrueStart before a run or sport. It sat in their sports bag, but they still had Nescafé in their cupboard. We thought, this is wrong. TrueStart is not on the path to being the globally impactful, feel-good brand we want it to be. It’s on a path to becoming coffee for sport, which honestly, really bores the living s*** out of me.
“And if TrueStart isn’t on a path to becoming what we want it to be, then we don’t want it to exist at all.”
IT WAS TIME TO START AGAIN
That summer, Helena and Simon quit alcohol and went to one of their favourite music festivals in Germany. Bringing the festival mindset to daily life fits perfectly with TrueStart’s mission, but at the time, for non-drinkers, the only choices were Red Bull or water. So, the pair were making their instant coffee and putting it in water bottles every day instead.
That was the inspiration they needed to start selling cold brew, or coffee in a can, which branched TrueStart out from the sports-centric image Helena wanted to escape. And by using purely natural extract to flavour their drinks, they set themselves apart as the guilt-free, refreshing alternative, in a market drowning in sugar, sweeteners and other artificial ingredients.
Then, there was the visual branding. Their early products looked quite serious on shelves – a far cry from the boombox-wielding, good-vibes-bringing personalities of Helena and Simon that TrueStart fans adored.
Through a now good friend, they worked with a branding agency, and fell in love with the concept of legs diving into water on brightly coloured packaging – the very design you’ll see on their logo today.
For Helena, this was what TrueStart was all about. Making a splash. Living life to the full. And diving into whatever the world means to you.
IT WENT DOWN A STORM
TrueStart added a DBA Design Effectiveness Award to their ever-growing list of prestigious titles, including ‘Scale-Up Entrepreneur of the Year’ at the Great British Entrepreneur Awards, and NatWest’s everywoman Brand of the Future.
More importantly, their customers loved it, too, and last year and the year before they enjoyed a whopping 200% growth.
Now, they were on the right path, and TrueStart seemed set to fulfil even Helena’s wildest dreams.
The rollercoaster that has rocked so many businesses. But how was it felt in the coffee world?
“Before COVID, 47% of the UK’s coffee was consumed in the office,” Helena told us, “When lockdown started, 95% of our revenue disappeared overnight. Our coffee shop closed, and a lot of our customers were in hospitality and offices. Our team had to go on furlough, and my number one priority was making sure none of them lost their job. At the same time, we lost our childcare and we had a 3-month-old and a 1-year-old to look after.
“Before, e-commerce was next to nothing in terms of our revenue, but we worked really hard to flip that round. Looking back, I don’t know how we did it, those first three months of proper lockdown. We were full time hustling on the business whilst full time parenting, packing up hundreds of orders from the office.”
TrueStart had to adapt to a once-in-a-lifetime shift in their customers’ behaviours and locations. Fast.
So, how did they do?
THE NUMBERS SPEAK FOR THEMSELVES
Revised growth forecasts for this year are even higher than the last two, approaching a staggering 300%.
All their people have been unfurloughed – a fact Helena is particularly proud of. And at the time of writing, they just hit #18 on the Amazon instant coffee best sellers list, which is an astonishing feat in itself, particularly with corporate coffee giants like Nescafé selling so many different iterations of their products.
It seems, when your own reason for existing is married with that of your business, there’s no hurdle too high to stop you from making that happen. But with founders who are this positive, this passionate, and this downright awesome, we never expected anything else.
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