Interview with Ella McKendrick, founder of Nutribuddy

Find out how Ella McKendrick was inspired by the lack of healthy ‘grab and go’ meals to launch Nutribuddy – vegan nutrition on the go.

Why did you set up Nutribuddy?

I set up Nutribuddy as I was dissatisfied with the range of products on the market designed to give people ‘grab and go’ meals.

Having limited time for breakfast is an issue I am familiar with. Whilst in school and at university, I always found myself having limited time in the mornings to get food and most of the time, I didn’t really feel like eating at all.

The thought of too much food in the morning would make me queasy. As unhealthy as it sounds, I’d often settle with a small pain au chocolat or even a chocolate chip cookie to keep me going all morning. It sucked but I didn’t know what else to have that was both quick and tasty.

Things reached an all time low in Uni when I purchased a giant container of mini-croissants that would live in my Uni-room. Every morning I’d have one but after a while they started to go stale. But with only a few minutes till lectures started, I had to put up with it. Not only was it unpleasant, I doubt they were giving me much nutrition either.

Of course, there were products out there that claimed to solve the problem – meal replacement shakes. However, when I looked at the ingredients list I was horrified by the extensive list of chemicals which I didn’t understand. They were riddled with artificial sweeteners, thickeners, bulking agents, anti-caking agents and so on.

I don’t know about you, but I am not keen on consuming a concoction of chemicals that I have no idea what are for. On the odd occasion where I did try one, I hated the taste. They tasted as chemically as they sounded. I decided I’d rather stick to stale croissants than have one of thoseevery morning.

But then a thought came to me. Why shouldI put up with this? Plus, I highly doubted that I was the only person struggling to find something quick, edible and healthy in the morning.

I’ve always been creative and so an idea started to form in my mind. Why not create a genuinely healthy brand that focuses on helping people who don’t have much time to eat? A few years later Nutribuddy was born.

What inspired you?

I was inspired by how terrible every other ‘grab and go meal’ option was. To me, there was an obvious gap in the market and I was keen to fill it.

What other brands do you like? 

This fluctuates quite a bit as there have been brands I have liked but the more I look into them, the more concerned I become with their ethics.

However, a brand that I’m really excited about is Tesla. I love how they do things differently and are producing products that they believe in and that are beneficial for the environment. I actually bought shares in Tesla.

What does a typical day for you look like?

My typical day has changed drastically over the years. When I was setting up Nutribuddy and in the early years, I would work long, long hours. I waved goodbye to weekends as well. Not surprisingly, I burnt out. Working like this just isn’t sustainable and I was becoming massively unproductive.

So I changed things. Now I wake up at 6am, have a 3 hour power session and then knock off for the day. As strange as it sounds, I actually get a lot more done and am able to focus more and make better decisions. The phrase ‘work smart not hard’ is now what I live by.

Who would be your dream customer?

My dream customer would be someone who appreciated what we’re all about. They would love the fact that we only use natural, wholefood ingredients and kept the ingredient list minimal and understandable. They’d care about the fact that we used recyclable packaging and vegan formulas.

What was your background before Nutribuddy?

Nutribuddy went live in January 2016 when I was 21 years old. Before that, I’d spent close to two years getting everything ready for the launch. These things take a lot of planning!

That’s been my story since I quit Uni at the start of 2014, after being there for just one term.

I went to University to study creative writing. At this point I had no idea what I wanted to do but the idea of ‘go to university and get a job’ was drilled into my mind all the way through school so that’s what I was doing. I had no interest in pretty much any subject at school so just went with what I was passionate about for my course and that was creative writing. I love creating and writing so it sounded perfect really.

However, I started questioning things when on the first day of my course, our tutor told the seminar “it is very unlikely that any of you will ever get published.”

My first thought was, well, what is the point then? University is not something you just do for fun – it’s three dedicated years of your life plus a huge student loan. I also detest the whole learning environment. It comes as no surprise then that 3 months later I quit.

Before my three-month stint at University, I went to school. I hatedit. I felt like I didn’t fit in with anything. I wasn’t popular, I wasn’t academic and I wasn’t understood by any of my teachers.

Schools seem to go by this ‘one size fits all’ attitude but the reality is we are all completely unique and just because some of us suck at learning in classes and taking exams, doesn’t mean we are stupid. It’s bad enough feeling like you’re a failure at all subjects but then to feel like a social failure too is too much.

To have a good time in school you have to be ‘normal’ and that was never me. I was far too creative and free-thinking for school.

I am lucky now to have found something that I am suited to. I’m disappointed that the education system pushes everyone down the path that ‘you have to go to university and get a job’ because that doesn’t work for everyone.

You can be equally as successful, if not more, by doing your own thing and following your own initiative. Most of our lives is spent working, it’s so important you find (or make) a job you love.

What’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to overcome?

The biggest challenge with the type of business I have is people’s prejudice against shake products.

There have been some terrible companies selling totally unhealthy shakes that have given shakes as a whole a terrible name even though they are so different to what we sell.

People get this idea in their heads that all shakes are terrible and so they see a picture of our shakes and immediately start writing horrible messages, lumping us into the same category as something that couldn’t be further away from what we are.

What we sell is real food that has been ground down for convenience. No one would complain and claim that porridge wasn’t healthy but that’s essentially what we are selling but in a shake form and with even more nutrients from seeds and grains.

I really wish people would do some research and not immediately judge without any facts.

Obviously, not everyone is like this but the vocal minority can be very loud.

And your biggest success to date? 

Building up the team we have today has been the biggest success. It has been so hard but has yielded the best rewards. There was a time when I would pack the orders, do the customer service, spend time on the accounts and do the marketing.It was exhausting and I’m not even suited to many of those tasks.

Finding individuals that relish those individual tasks has been amazing. Not only has it freed up some of my time, they do so much better jobs at them than I do and it really propels the business forward. Plus, they’re great people to work with!

Once you had the idea, how did you go about implementing it? 

The first task was coming up with a brand name. I wrote down a list of potential names that were anything to do with nutrition. Even if I thought they sucked, I wrote them down as you never know what people will like.

I showed the list to my family at a meal-out and as my brother read the ‘Nutrition Buddy’ name I had written down, he suddenly said “How about Nutribuddy?”. It was perfect. So yes, my brother takes credit for the awesome name.

After that, I went about purchasing our domain name as well as registering ‘Nutribuddy’ as a trademark.

Next, we needed branding which was very, very tricky. I always wanted something bright and easily recognisable even on small screens as internet marketing was going to be key for us. I had meetings with numerous design agencies before taking a leap of faith and making a selection.

I gave them the brief for the brand and was excited to see what they’d come up with. The first thing I noticed was that they hated the idea of having a universal brand colour. “How will you differentiate between different products when they’re all the same colour?” Well, they will have product names… 

The main part of the process as that two designers would come up with two different designs completely on their own and I would then select my favourite and have an opportunity to offer feedback to get it perfect.

I wasn’t 100% with either designs but there were elements of both which I loved. I was also slightly confused that despite saying we wanted one brand colour, they had mocked up the designs in different colours, like a colourful range.

At this point, I decided to do things a little bit differently. I mocked up a design, taking the elements I loved the most from each of the two ideas. Design 1 had the beautiful Nutribuddy logo and fonts. Design 2 had the 50/50 packet split with the crisp white at the bottom and then the gradient at the top. Finally, I came up with my own colour scheme, feeling inspired that the gradient looked like a sunset.

When I showed the design agency what I wanted to proceed with, one of the designers actually stormed out of the meeting. Well, that didn’t go down well. At least I had a design I was happy with.

Brand name and designs sorted, it was time to actually get the products made. I had no experience with this so actually went with a company which decided to formulate and make the products for me. They also knew a pouch supplier who could make our pouches a reality. We launched our initial range of products: a protein-based product and some tablets.

Finally, I selected a fulfillment centre who would then receive the made goods and ship them out for our customers.

Running a business is something you very much learn on-the-job. Having a third party company formulate and make our products proved to be very restrictive. To actually send them our own unique formulation would have been out of the question as the minimum order quantities were crazy high which meant we had to go with off-the-shelf options. But, I desperately wanted to formulate my own products so I could make them as clean and natural as I dreamed.

I realised at this point that I’d deviated from my initial plan of creating different products which I truly believed in by compromising with the formulation. I’d been so determined to launch something, that I’d lost my way and not launched the perfect products I wanted.

It wasn’t until February 2017, a year after our initial launch, that I launched the Nutribuddy Breakfast shake, made from my own kitchen table. Thiswas what Nutribuddy was all about. Now our flagship product, Nutribuddy Breakfast is a blend of gluten-free oats, nutritious seeds and crunchy coconut flakes.

I only wanted to use the best ingredients so actually sourced organic versions. To top it all off, it’s made with the stevia natural sweetener (we also sell an unsweetened version too in order to have something for everyone). The final touch was the recyclable glass jar that the shake was packaged in.

Simultaneously, I was experiencing huge issues with our third-party fulfilment centre. To put things lightly, everything which they could manage to mess up they did. Not only was it expensive but customers were really upset. Their orders were arriving incredibly late and this wasn’t good enough.

Finally, I took the fulfillment in house – literally. I shipped them out from my spare bedroom.

Should I do things again, I would have manufactured and shipped the products in-house from the start.

Tell us about your products, what are they like, and where can people buy them?

Nutribuddy sell a range of natural shakes and cereals made using natural wholefood ingredients. Our entire range is vegan and we try to do everything with the environment in mind, for example our Breakfast shakes come with recyclable glass jars and our Shake Complete shakes come in recyclable cardboard tubs.

Our products were designed with the goal to give you quick, convenience food in as healthy a way as possible.

We are passionate about making shakes that are genuinely healthy, contain only the best ingredients and have minimal impact on the environment.

We only sell our products on our website

Although we have been approached by several well-known retailers, we have always walked away from the offer so that we can continue to create relationships with our customers. Our customer service is very important to us and you cannot control that when other retailers are selling to them.

What’s your vision for Nutribuddy?

We want to continue expanding our range with more innovative, cruelty-free products. There are so many household products which are environmental disasters and we want to make environmentally-friendly, cruelty-free alternatives.

We also want to get to a stage where all our packaging is either recyclable or compostable.

Tell us three things people may not know about Nutribuddy?

1) A runaway pallet prompted our move to a warehouse

When we were shipping products from our house, we had to get the products shipped there. Our house had a steep driveway and getting heavy pallets up it was a challenge. We came up with the idea to install a winch at the top of the drive and attach it to our pump-truck which it would then drag up the drive.

One day a particularly large pallet arrived and when it was halfway up the drive, the rope around the pump-truck snapped and the heavy pallet went racing down the driveway towards the road.

My partner chased it and managed to drop the pump-truck so the bottom of the pallet hit the floor and it stopped rolling. Thankfully, no one was harmed and it hadn’t quite made it to the road! At this point we decided that we wanted a warehouse.

2) I moved out of my bedroom for Nutribuddy

There was a point when pretty much every single room in my house was filled with Nutribuddy products. My living room was piled with pre-packed boxes, the spare bedroom was a fulfilment room, the master bedroom was a storage room piled-high with product and the study was my office.

I had to move my bedroom to the tiniest room in the house and essentially live out of there. It was a strange time. It’s especially weird having staff working round your house.

3) My cat loves the scoops!

There was a time when branded ‘Nutribuddy’ protein scoops were randomly appearing around the house. I’d find three or four of them lying around per day in unusual locations in the house. It was quite puzzling. One day I went into the main storage room (the master bedroom) and caught my cat, Cookie, standing beside a box which was ripped open.

Spilling out the side of the box was a mountain of scoops. Turns out cheeky Cookie had been sneaking into the storage room frequently to steal scoops! We couldn’t sell these scoops as they were now contaminated so we donated them all to Cookie who still plays with them to this day.

Where are the shakes made and how and where do you source ingredients? 

We manufacture the products ourselves at our custom-built production facility in Manchester. We actually have two warehouses on the same site – one for manufacturing and one for the fulfilment side.

Ingredients are carefully sourced. We only work with suppliers who produce high-quality ingredients free from contaminants. For example, our oat supplier is a British farm that only produces gluten-free oats and frequently tests them to ensure they are gluten-free.

We also use many organic ingredients but are unable to specify this on our website and product labels as you can only mention organic if the entire product has been certified as organic.

The organic ingredients are more expensive than non-organic versions but we truly believe in sourcing the best ingredients that are free from pesticides.

You can find out more about Nutribuddy on their website.