Building an industry heavyweight: Startup fighting for global expansion

By Nikki Hancocks contact

- Last updated on GMT

Chris McDonnell (right) at a Mixed Martial Arts competition
Chris McDonnell (right) at a Mixed Martial Arts competition

Related tags: Innovation, Sports nutrition, Entrepreneurship, Startup company

An entrepreneur with a passion for Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) has proven the power of a fighting attitude after taking his startup from a bedroom NPD factory to global expansion within three years.

After leaving college with a 'B' grade in Film Studies and initially pursuing this subject into university, Chris McDonnell didn't seem destined to become the founder and CEO of his own bespoke supplement startup 'Black Label Creations'.

But it was at university that he developed a love for MMA and began competing on a semi-professional basis which led him to realise his passion was in health and nutrition.

After being given the unexpected green light to switch to a Nutritional Science Degree, McDonnell threw his all into his new found passion and eventually discovered a route into the competitive world of nutrition with a job - albeit one that he didn’t particularly suit - at a fledgling startup in 2013.

“There was an advert for an assistant to the CEO of the newly launched company Protein World. I knew I wasn’t the person he wanted to apply for that role but I was just interested in the company and in the products they were selling.”

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In the beginning: Product development in his bedroom

His passion for the products won him the position and made he made the role very much his own. As one of the first members of staff on the company’s pay roll he got to learn how a company successfully builds itself from scratch and he ensured to wear every hat going during his five years of employment.

“It went from nothing to a £20m business in the first three years. I worked in every role, from mixing products in the factory, to product development and supplier engagement, organising events and marketing, and then I really got stuck into customer service and new product development.

“I loved creating products for clients that met their nutritional requirements, as well as providing excellent profit margins.”

After a couple of years working as Head of Product in the product development kitchen, he started to do consultancy work on the side.

“I built a mini development factory in my bedroom and started to work on getting their ideas from concept to launch. I understood raw material costs, where to source ingredients from and how to get the best nutritional profiles for the best prices.

“The first time I was paid for that work I realised the potential of what I had just done and realised I had the makings of a business.

“I could become the middle-man so they don’t have to deal with manufacturers, who can often be very difficult to get a hold of and can really slow down the NPD process. I could also provide them with marketing and branding advice and get them from concept to launch in a matter of months, as opposed to years.

“I didn’t want to be like your typical white label company which just wraps another label on the same product. I wanted to create truly unique products for my clients.

“I’ve never worked so hard in my life. I would wake up at 4.30am to go for a run, then do some yoga and some affirmations, then answer my personal business emails on the train on the way to work then have a full on day at work, work late, then get back to my own work in the evenings.”

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Black Label Creations new office

Even under these strenuous circumstances, he managed to make £60,000 in his first year. This allowed him to leave his full-time employment and expand the team to what is now a ten-strong workforce.

He turned over £550,000 last year and re-invested in a new development kitchen office. This year, Chris says the company is forecast to make £2m in revenue which he, again, will reinvest into building the team and work spaces.

The company has now developed protein shakes, bars, balls, supplement capsules, gummies and drinks, CBD infusions, nutricosmetics, nootropics, baking mixes, and much more.

Innovation trends

Chris says he can see that the nutrition-rich baking market, boosted by the lockdown, has huge untapped potential.

“We are speaking to a couple of sports nutrition brands about the huge potential in this area.”

He says another upward trending ingredient, is collagen, and he can see this becoming a major addition in sports nutrition products, especially protein bars, as customers looks for bars with differentiation in this saturated market.

“Collagen is a great addition to protein bars because, not only does it provide that joint health support but it is a great way of increasing the protein content without negatively impacting the flavour or texture.

“Of course, it’s also a very popular ingredient in the anti-ageing sector which is increasingly important in this ageing population.”

He also points to gummies as a major trend and that requires smart development.

“Capsules are great because they can hold so much active ingredient. As soon as you go to gummies you are very restricted in the amount you can include before you affect the texture and flavour.”

The team began in the UK but has also taken on a couple of clients elsewhere in Europe and one in Dubai and ultimately Chris hopes to set up a manufacturing and branding network in the US so he can help clients expand their ranges across the globe.

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