Huib van Bockel, founder Tenzing – ‘My wife became my first investor’

Huib van Bockel quit his high-profile job as head of marketing for Red Bull to create his own natural energy drink, Tenzing. Four years on and Tenzing is expected to hit £6m in turnover this year. His advice for any start-up is to keep it do-it-yourself for as long as possible

Huib van Bockel was something of a legend in the marketing world having helped transform Red Bull from an energy drink supplier to a media brand.

Van Bockel spent eight years at Red Bull as UK and Europe marketing director before quitting to launch his own health drink, Tenzing.

He literally stumbled across the ingredients in Tenzing while trekking in Nepal; he discovered that the fuel which got the famous Himalayan Sherpas up the mountains were a couple of homemade concoctions – one, a very strong tea with salt and the other, a lemon tea with sugar. Van Bockel brought both brews back to London and had them analysed by a specialist doctor, who gave thumbs-up to their jolting triple hit of natural caffeine, electrolytes and antioxidants.

The brand gets its name from Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, who became the second person known to have reached the summit of Mount Everest, scaling it with Sir Edmund Hilary in 1953. Today, Tenzing continues to work with Norgay’s sons and 5pc of Tenzing’s profits go to environmental projects in Nepal.

The brand sells its £1.79 drink cans at most big retailers including M&S, Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Boots and sandwich chain Eat.

Since launching in 2016, Tenzing has seen its turnover grow from £750,000 to £2 million last year and a forecast of £6m in 2019.

Can you remember the moment when you first came up with the idea of Tenzing?

I left Red Bull and there were a couple of options on the table. It was one of those moments where you want to take some time out and think, ‘Do I go more into consultancy or another big job with a company?’ I made my mind up quite quickly that I wanted to launch my own business.

I’d launched a business before, and I came away from that experience with two key insights. First, you’re better off launching a brand or a business in an industry that you know well. Second, you have to go all in for yourself and not do it as a side hustle. I thought the health trend was clear, and that energy drinks were under pressure because of all their artificial ingredients and high sugar levels.

First, I had to convince my wife because my plan to launch a start-up would mean we would have to move to a smaller house and I wouldn’t take a salary for three or four years.

The funny thing is that my wife wasn’t too keen in the first instance, so I prepared a PowerPoint pitch deck for her at the end of which she said, “This could work.” In a sense, she became my first investor.

Why did you decide to leave Red Bull after eight years?

The higher you move up a big organisation, the politics only get bigger. That’s a mistake a lot of people make. They think, ‘If I got the top job, that’s more freedom for me.’ As a graduate at Unilever, I remember thinking, ‘Yes, I want that top job’ but when I got it, it was just more politics, more meetings.

I’m not big on hierarchy. Everyone values their independence, which is why at Tenzing we have flat, self-managing teams. From the beginning, I wanted to create an organisation with no bosses. We’ve got 14 full-time employees now and there’s literally no hierarchy because everybody has an equal say, which creates its own challenges. It’s something I’m passionate about and we’re feeling our way.

Was there anything you missed working for a large company?

If you have a big job in a cool brand, you can get a meeting with anyone. When you set up on your own, suddenly you can’t get a meeting anywhere.

Did that surprise you?

Emotionally, it hurt more than I thought. It’s that classic, the highs are higher, the lows are lower. And that high feels that high because the lows are so crushing. Once, I went around to see someone who wasn’t replying to my emails and they came downstairs and said, ‘Oh, it’s you’ and escorted me from the building.

Setting up on your own is scary and painful.

Even though you were known as a marketing man, for you, getting the product right took priority?

Totally. Everything starts with the product. Your product is the one and most important thing. All my focus was getting the product right, finding the best ingredients. I did no marketing at all for the first three years.

It’s the only thing I could compete with against the Coca-Cola and the Monsters and the Red Bulls. They’re not relevant anymore. Who today would launch a Coca-Cola or a Red Bull? No-one. Nobody would launch a drink filled to the brim with sugar and artificial ingredients. The fact they’re still being drunk is because old habits die hard!

Would your advice be get a minimum viable product (MVP) to market and make changes as you go along?

A lot of start-ups go to expensive agencies that help them develop a brand name and packaging. I did everything myself. Doing it all yourself gives it more authenticity.

Where did the initial seed money come from?

It wasn’t difficult to find interest, but investors want a large percentage for a small amount of money. I decided to bootstrap it. We worked in a hotel lobby for around two-and-a-half years and I took a loan from my dad using my inheritance as collateral. I also wrote a book, The Social Brand, and did a lot of speaking jobs about entrepreneurship and put that money into the business.

What would you advise an entrepreneur thinking about taking on debt or equity?

Finding a way to minimise costs in your start-up and in your personal life gives you so much more freedom. It allows you to prove the concept. Yes, I made mistakes … but those mistakes cost a couple of hundreds of pounds, not thousands of pounds of other investors’ money. Bootstrap for as long as you can. For me, it was about freedom and doing something I loved.

What is the ultimate exit strategy?

I get offers left and right but I’m having too much fun. I firmly believe that having more money doesn’t make you any happier. And anyway, what would I do then?

How do you like to relax outside of work?

We’ve got a yoga teacher in our team, so she teaches yoga every Wednesday morning. We go running twice a week in the evening. We just did a triathlon with the whole team. Going out for a run is my way to relax and energise. In fact, we’ve made a clean-air run tool. Running in London is sometimes worse for your health than not running. So, we’ve created a Clean Air Run Tool with King’s College to help you map air pollution and find the cleanest runs in London.

Further reading

How I’ve grown my business – Lana Elie, founder Floom

Related Topics

Female founders