'A start-up is a promise': Nils Leonard's lessons from launching Halo
A view from Nils Leonard

'A start-up is a promise': Nils Leonard's lessons from launching Halo

Launching a brand means putting yourself on the line, so you need to focus on your goal and ignore the doubts, the haters and the possibility you might even get ignored.

"You try to do the best with what you've got and ignore everything else. That's why horses get blinders in horse racing: you look at the horse next to you, and you lose a step. When you’re running after something, you should not look left or right – what does this person think, what does that person think? No. Go." 
– Jimmy Iovine, The Defiant Ones

The moment before you launch a campaign is the best bit. It’s awful and beautiful all at once. There is a moment where everyone just looks at each other and thinks: will anyone care? You feel like the world goes quiet. You worry. You fantasise. Will my idea hit culture like a dirty penny being dropped sadly in a plastic bucket and, far worse than anyone hating it, will anyone even care? What if nothing? It is a beautiful fear to make something and put it out there. 

The best way to describe launching a brand is that it feels exactly the same as launching a campaign, comes with the same nerves, the same worries, except it’s all just somehow heavier. When you place a brand into the world you create deeper. You create a team, create a culture, a product, a website, a pack, pay structures, a potential environmental problem, a reason for a magazine to love or hate you, something someone might have in their actual home and a dream made of words and air that people have put their money behind.

The main difference, though, is that you create it on your own. There is no client head of steam or procurement need to spend the Q4 budget driving this; it is simply you and your fucking mental belief that it will all somehow be ok. Agencies are great at going: "Hey, I’ve had this idea, now who can I get to make it for me?" Not this time sunshine: pick up the phone, write the email, fly to Trieste and sniff some coffee beans – you’re driving the bus. You have spent time and energy and the world is waiting. Just before we launched Halo I was freaking out and spoke to a friend. Looking at my pale face she said: "Ah, don’t worry love, even if it’s shit the world loves a vacuum." I laughed and climbed down from the roof. Thanks Vicks.

She’s not wrong. Early on, everyone loves a good idea. It’s in our DNA to like new. But it’s funny how quickly a good idea becomes boring the moment you have to run something by your aggressive South African finance director. It isn’t when it gets hard, but more when it gets boring that you need to find that extra mile.

Boring is kryptonite to creative people. It is a word we use to describe why we didn’t become well-paid bankers or life savers. A soft word for the feeling of dying inside. Boring is a word to describe working on something that doesn’t matter. But with a brand the boring stuff does matter. It is the difference between a fantasy and a business.

So choose well. With Halo, and Uncommon, one of the most powerful realisations was that everything we choose to do is something else we don’t do. Every choice is precious. It is the original and most powerful decision you will make in any process and the difference between boredom and success. The difference between creating something that really matters and just doing the dance.

But once you’ve chosen, put the blinkers on. Because when you are driving on your own steam there will be a thousand other reasons to not do your thing. 

Before people start a business they often start by looking at the world differently. Dan Hegarty (the genius behind Habito) said: "Entrepreneurs look for broken things to fix." They ask questions of the most fundamental of things, of the world as it is. And that’s really why people start something new. It’s important to recognise this because why you leap is the same reason you will keep flying. Everything stems from this. Once you’ve jumped the way you see the world is everything, it is all you have. It is the answer to every argument. The retort to the hardest questions. The solution to the crushing pain of having to set up new email accounts or speak to grumpy Italian coffee industrialists. 

A start-up isn’t easy. And it isn’t business as usual. A start-up is an idea. A living thing. Growing. Changing. A start-up is a promise. To each founder, investor and board member. A promise to every customer. But mostly to yourself.

The reason to keep going is the reason you started it all in the first place. It’s ok if it’s simple. Or ugly. As long as it’s personal. I’m not talking about brand purpose. I’m talking about personal purpose. It’s not clever, but then a pie chart or brand onion never kept anyone going when the money ran out. We are forever wanging on about the purpose of the brands we grow, but what is ours? We build what we love.

Halo is two years old now. We sold out when we launched, which was awesome for a couple of days. Then we couldn’t make enough product because we hadn’t nailed our manufacturing process. We have redesigned the capsule once and the business twice.

Now, things aren’t perfect but I’m so proud of what we’ve done. We have sold in 22 countries, we stock some of the coolest companies I know, we’ve had failed legal letters from the category leaders and tried in our way to put a dent in it all. We’ve made a completely compostable coffee pod filled with insane coffee. We have some loyal and incredible people who buy our coffee and to those people I will forever be grateful because they have come with us on all of this.

And yes, sometimes it’s boring. But then I remember what I have written next to my desk on a scrappy bit of paper.

Sometimes I feel like giving up but then I remember I still have a lot of motherfuckers to prove wrong. 

A start-up is a promise.

Nils Leonard is co-founder of Uncommon Creative Studio