Alan and Juliet Barratt started sports nutrition firm Grenade back in 2009 after spotting a gap in the market for a quality weight-loss product. Since then, the business has moved towards producing snacking products for health-conscious consumers. Nick Martindale finds out the story behind what is fast becoming one of the UK's most iconic brands

Sports nutrition and healthy snacking business Grenade has seen explosive growth since it was first set up in 2009, in the depths of the recession. Started on a shoestring budget, the venture, founded by husband-and-wife team Alan and Juliet Barratt, would go on to attract funding from investment firm Grovepoint Capital in 2014 and again from Lion Capital in 2017; the latter valuing the business at £72 million.

The roots of the company go rather deeper, however. Alan recalls his father running an MOT business and often being left with cakes and biscuits that were about to go out of date when the Mr Kipling vans would come in to be serviced. "He used to bring them home for us to eat and I would take them to school at the age of 11 and sell them," he recalls. "I always had that entrepreneurial streak."

The interest in sports nutrition started at the age of 14, when Alan began weight training. "I had no interest in traditional sports like cricket or rugby but all the big TV stars at that time in the 1980s were quite muscular, so I started training and reacted quite well to it," he says.

After leaving school, his first job was in a local gym, where he soon realised there wasn't really an established sports nutrition business in the UK, and that what products there were came from the US. It was enough to convince him there was a market to import products and distribute them throughout the UK, and he set up Fusion in 1999.

In 2003, he met his wife-to-be Juliet. "We met on a drunken night in Birmingham but we realised we both had very similar work ethics and values," she says. "We got engaged after five weeks and were married after nine months." Juliet's career up to that point had been varied, including working as a teacher and at the Learning and Skills Council, and later as head of education at the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents. After two years, though, she too joined Fusion, working alongside Alan. "I've always worked hard and realised I didn't want to work hard for someone else," she recalls.

The couple sold that business in 2008, after they fell out of love with it, says Alan. "It was a good business but we were just selling other people's products," he says. "We thought the products weren't getting any better and the branding was getting worse, and they were all very much focused on hardcore weight training or bodybuilding, and we could see a much bigger market than that."

Doing it their way

The premise of Grenade was different, in that Alan and Juliet wanted to manufacture and sell their own product, initially based around the ‘Red Bull' concept of doing one item really well. Using contacts they'd made in the industry, they set about developing a weight loss product, trialling different formulas and strengths of ingredients and testing them out. "We struck on a weight loss product in 2006 and that's still the product we use today," says Alan.

In some ways, developing what would become Thermo Detonator was the easy part. A bigger challenge was to come up with a brand and packaging that would make it truly memorable, and attract a loyal customer base. "We spent two years finding out how to brand it, because we didn't want to put it in a generic white bottle and put it on the shelf," says Alan. "We had to put a really good product in really good packaging."

They hit upon the name ‘Grenade' and its accompanying distinctive design. "We wanted to make it as memorable as possible so we protected the name and the shape, and if you knew one then you knew the other," says Alan. "From working in gyms prior to the distribution business I knew that a lot of consumers couldn't remember the names of products. The name Grenade was simple and it meant the same thing everywhere around the world. We could take that bottle anywhere and people would know what it was, even if they didn't speak the language."

The early days of building up the business were hard work. "We didn't have a day off in the first four years and there were just two of us for the first two years, and then we employed an office manager," says Juliet. "Even when we had our first round of investment in 2014 the investors said they were investing in Alan, Jules and four cats, because we still only had three or four staff by then."

The duo split the various roles between them, with Alan looking after sales and product development and Juliet taking care of marketing and "everything else". "When you're down to your last £27 and working from home, you have to do it yourself, but it's a great way to understand the processes and learn what good looks like," says Alan. "Those first few staff are the hardest to find, because none of those areas are big enough to warrant having a single person do them. It's easier hiring staff when you have specific roles for them to do."

Running a business together can bring some unique challenges, admits Juliet. "It's the best and the worst thing," she says. "The worst is that there's no division between work and home, so if you've had a bad day at the office you tend to have a bad day at home, because it just continues. But the best thing is the fact that we're very similar and have the same values and aspirations for the business. We're probably the most boring people in the world because all we do is talk about business."

Shifting focus

The business has been profitable from the start, says Juliet, and managed to attract interest from the US at an early stage, having attended the BodyPower Expo in 2010. "We didn't have the budgets of the other brands so we drove a tank into the NEC and that was our booth," she says. "That was a real catalyst for us with regard to global growth because a buyer from the US noticed our booth and then we had an email saying ‘let's talk'. We started trading in the US the following year, so August 2011."

By this point Grenade had already launched both a pre-workout and a recovery product. But expanding into the US not only gave the business another market but also allowed them to spot a trend that was already having an impact in America, identifying a move towards a mass-market trend for healthier snacking. "Everything in the US tended to be in more convenient snacking format and we knew that was the way it would go in the UK," says Juliet. "Initially everything we sold in the UK was in specialist stores and gyms whereas in the US it was going into mass-market retail."

The only issue was the company's investors at the time weren't convinced, which meant Alan had to work on the project under the radar. "They didn't really get it because protein bars weren't a big market, but sports nutrition was very specialised and sold in specialist locations, and it was also very expensive. I wanted to remove those two barriers to entry."

His vision was to sell protein bars - rather than a weight loss or recovery product - at petrol stations or supermarket point-of-sales, as a healthy alternative to a more traditional chocolate bar. "I remember having a conversation with Tesco very early on and they absolutely got it and were really supportive," he says.

"They said they thought it would take a couple of years to get consumers from paying 60p to £2.50. In reality, it actually took about six weeks; there was this huge wave of consumers who were looking for healthy items and there was nothing on the shelf. Carrots are healthy but you don't go from a chocolate bar to a carrot. It's too big a jump." Today, its Carb Killa protein bars are one of the best-selling chocolate bars in the country, despite coming in at three or four times the price of conventional bars.

Alan and Juliet still own a third of the business, having sold some shares in both funding rounds, and both are active on the board and in the day-to-day running of the business. Growth is still strong too; the business expects to turn over around £45 million this year and has featured in The Sunday Times Fast Track 100 list for five years in a row; one of only three companies to have done so (the others being Innocent Drinks and BrewDog).

The company has grown rapidly since Lion's investment in 2017, increasing headcount from under 20 to the mid-50s, says Juliet. Most of these are based at its UK headquarters in Solihull but it also has an office in Dubai as well as the US.

The foray into healthy snacking has also seen it move away from its traditional customer base. "We're moving towards what we call the life athletes, so consumers who generally want to be a bit healthier," says Juliet. "They might go to the gym or for a run but they're not hardcore fitness fanatics; they just want to make slightly healthier choices. That side of the market is growing rapidly." This has seen the business compete more with established manufacturers such as Mars or Cadbury's, adds Alan, adding that the fact Grenade remains relatively small and nimble can give it an advantage over these competitors.

Lessons learned

Having built Grenade up from nothing but an idea, Alan and Juliet have picked up plenty of tips for entrepreneurs along the way. "There are three key pieces of advice," says Juliet. "The first one is stay true to your brand, so as your business grows remind yourself about what made your brand special in the first place, because it becomes harder as you get bigger to keep that DNA.

"The second is to solve a problem that actually exists. You see a lot of businesses starting up which have products but there's no real need for them, and then that's a really hard sell. Then delegation; with a great team around you, which we have got at Grenade, the highs are even higher and the lows aren't as low."

Alan, meanwhile, urges those thinking of starting a business to have the courage of their convictions. "Taking a product into the US within a year of trading, before we'd even conquered the UK market, was either ballsy or stupid but seems to have paid off," he says. "So be fearless, but not reckless. We really controlled our overheads and were very cost-conscious so thinking about what you spend and getting value for money is key."

In the longer-term, the plan for Grenade, says Alan, is to become a globally recognised household name along the lines of Coke or Pepsi. "There aren't many countries now where you can't find our products if you know where to look," he says. "So the aim is really to replicate the success of the UK, globally. We've always aimed extremely high which has served us well because we've expected a lot and achieved a lot."

In fact, finding the time to appreciate just what the duo has achieved in the last decade is difficult, but both are rightly proud of the business they have built up. "I feel very proud when I notice that some of our staff have new cars or when we have young starters say they've just bought their first flat," says Juliet. "It's their hard work that has got them there but Grenade has enabled that. We are very proud and privileged to be in this position."

Alan, too, is starting to realise the scale of their success, even if it doesn't come naturally. "We constantly get asked what it's like to have made it, but I never feel like we have got there because we don't know where there is," he says. "You find that's the case with most entrepreneurs; they achieve what they set out to do but then there's another thing, and another and another.

"We never actually take the time to stop and reflect on what we have achieved. I've now realised it's fine to say we've made it, but that there are lots more things I'd like to too. Otherwise we'd never stop and give ourselves that pat on the back. We don't have children, so this is our baby. We're trying to enjoy the ride as best we can."