The number of people leading a healthy lifestyle is growing, but the number of workaholics is also on the rise. Is it even possible to manage the daily pressures, off-scale stress levels and excessive workloads without unreasonable doses of caffeine, which habitually invigorates the body but is dangerous for our digestive and cardiovascular systems? Katya and Yegor Khlebnikovs, the founders of a family-owned business making natural drinks that “boost energy and productivity,” believe their Fitomix cocktails are as invigorating as coffee and will soon become a trend in the food market. What difficulties has the startup faced, how does acerola protect against stress, and why is it a problem to find environmentally friendly herbs in Russia?
Career path a kidney buster
Katya, 26, and Yegor, 33, met in Moscow where both chose to go to college. Yegor came from Novosibirsk Akademgorodok, and Katya, from Crimea. Like many startupers, the Khlebnikovs picked an idea for their project outside their fields of study – Katya has a degree from Financial University, and Yegor, from Moscow State University’s Physics Department. Everything worked out beautifully for them on the employment market – Yegor secured a job at Rusnano where he helped draft laws removing administrative barriers for innovative startups, and Katya joined the Big Four as an auditor.
Their workload was heavy, with new challenges appearing every day. To be able to make quick decisions and build a career, Katya and Yegor had to forget about walks in the park, the eight-hour sleep and healthy lunches. Liters of coffee helped to cope with the pressure. A large cup of cappuccino in the morning to wake up, an espresso during a working meeting to be able to brainstorm, and an Americano after lunch…It all ended with tiredness, sleep disorders and occupational burnout.
Katya quit her job as investment analyst at Vnesheconombank and decided that it would be much more interesting for her to invest her time and skills in her own project. What will it be? Katya was confident about one thing: her startup should definitely be devoted to healthy eating. Yegor supported his wife’s idea and suggested they took a comprehensive approach to the project. The couple studied international trends, communicated with US and Hong Kong startup members, took part in the Skolkovo Startup Academy program, and then got down to business.
According to the Russian Federal Service for State Statistics (Rosstat), one in eight Russians lives a healthy lifestyle. In 2019, the biggest number of people with healthy lifestyle habits lived in Ingushetia (48.8%) and Crimea (29.2%), while Moscow (8.8%) and St Petersburg (6.8%) were lagging behind. According to Rosstat, a healthy lifestyle must include ‘adequate physical activity,’ the daily consumption of ‘no less than 400 grams of vegetables and fruit,’ and, of course, the absence of bad habits. The fruit and vegetable consumption seems the most difficult. Coffee pairs well with a croissant, not an apple, while tea goes nicely with a cookie and not a carrot. Yegor and Katya studied the healthy foods market, noted its potential and decided to offer a totally new kind of product.
“We saw that the number of healthy foods stores is growing and almost all supermarkets now have shelves with organic foods. There is a large assortment of healthy foods, but what about drinks? There are energy drinks that are nothing else than harmful sweet carbonated drinks with caffeine; there are fermented milk drinks that improve digestion, but are useless in terms of giving energy; and there are packed fruit juices that are not healthy or stimulant at all. So we came up with an idea to try to produce healthy energy drinks,” Katya said.
The Khlebnikovs faced an interesting but complex task. They had to develop an original formula, purchase ingredients, design and manufacture the packaging. It all, they spent RUR 1.5 mio ($24K) of their personal savings.
Sugar- and color additive-free cocktails
To develop an ideal formula for a healthy energy drink, Katya and Yegor invited Tatyana Kiselyova, professor and Doctor of Pharmacy.
“We wanted to make ‘invigorating cocktails’ as extracts that would be convenient to bring to work or take along. We were seeking to preserve all nutritional properties of berries and healthy herbs without any use of preservatives, color additives and stabilizers. This was not easy, but we made it. Yet, it turned out that major challenges were ahead,” Katya says.
It would seem that one would face no difficulty with obtaining ingredients for cocktails such as carrots, blueberries, hawthorns, and medicinal herbs. But choosing responsible suppliers was not easy. Some sent overdried ingredients, which made the drink less beneficial and changed its color and taste, while others provided herbs imported from China instead of those from Altai.
“Seeking producers of extracts made from medicinal herbs, berries and vegetables was difficult. We spent a while finding those who meet out requirements for product quality. It turned out that many extracts were poorly water soluble leaving precipitate, lacked some of the required nutritional elements, or were made from herbs grown in a location different from the one specified during the beginning of talks. Currently we are purchasing extracts primarily in Altai but bring some of the them from China. Ginkgo and acerola, which are very important cocktail ingredients, do not grow in Russia. Ginkgo biloba improves blood circulation, mental activity and memory. Acerola, which contains 50 times more vitamin C than oranges, boosts the immune system, helps reduce stress, and has a mood-boosting effect,” Katya says.
With reliable suppliers chosen and mixtures made and packed, the only thing left is to attract customers. Can invigorating cocktails compete with coffee and energy drinks?
Fitomix includes five different drinks: the morning cocktail that helps feel vigorous, the daytime drink that helps maintain concentration, the evening drink that allows for sound sleep, the energy cocktail for energy surge, and the ‘cocktail for superheroes’ whose effect lasts for 48 hours. Each pack costs between RUR 280 and 350 ($4.5-5.6) and contains seven energy drink blends made from natural ingredients.
“Our production is contract-based. We are now only in the stage of testing the market, and opening our own production facility is unreasonable so far. We are providing test batches containing 40,000 mixture sets and receive feedback from consumers. We very much hope that our herbal blends will prove popular. During three months, sales have amounted to RUR 300,000 ($4,800),” Katya emphasized.
The product can be bought on the Fitomix website as well as on the beru.ru marketplace. By next year, the Khlebnikovs plan to launch sales on ozon.ru and are now holding talks with major retailers and pharmacies on the product distribution.
Yegor and Katya believe that they have found a relatively free niche in the Russian health food market. They think that their product mostly targets office workers, who will someday quit coffee, opt for change and make healthier choices.
By Nataliya Sysoeva