For National Coffee Week, we spoke to ex - Worcester Warrior full-back Chris Pennell, about his new company HyBlends, which produces pre-exercise coffee for professional athletes
Tell us where did the idea of HyBlends come from?
A few years ago, the ex- club nutritionist at Worcester Warriors, Jordan Higgins, saw how many of the players were using coffee before sessions, we’d have a coffee in the morning to wake ourselves up a bit, and to help with the training, and essentially what he thought to do was to add some other active ingredients to the coffee for the athletes so just using additional supplements you’d find in a more traditional pre-work out drink, add it to the coffee and give it to the lads before we went into train.
We spoke around the concept of that and thought there could be an opportunity here to create a product that ticks the box in terms of giving you that morning coffee feeling, then with the other ingredients in there, you’ll be maximizing the training you are putting in so, if you were going to have a coffee before training anyway, the concept was why not have one that’s really going to give you that extra boost, that’ll maximize the effort you’re putting into training.
What made you go down this route, and not other drink or food options?
To be honest, I was really open minded into what route I went down. Nutrition is something that has interested me, and because I’m Type 1 Diabetic, it’s something I’ve paid a lot of attention to. I do a lot of research into my diet, into looking after myself as best as possible, and to be honest, I’ve never liked taking supplements. I’ve always tried to get everything I need from the food I eat, and if I am going to take a supplement, it’s because I really feel like it’s going to add a huge amount of benefit, so I can honestly say that Pre-Co™ is the only supplement I take and has been for several years now.
It needed to be something I believed in, and something that made sense and backed up with science for me to buy into it. So, between myself and Jordan, we’ve really come up with a product that ticks all those boxes.
You are Type 1 Diabetic, which means you’ve had to manage your nutrition throughout your life, is that an approach you want to bring into this business, that careful management of nutrition to benefit the performance of players?
Without a doubt. I think it is such an important aspect that maybe only in recent years, it’s been given the status that it needs because ultimately, you are what you eat, we’re made from the food that we eat, we’re made from the things we put in our body. That is what our body uses to build muscles to repair and so on. It’s been highlighted to me how important nutrition is, because I track things like my blood glucose throughout the day. I can get an insight into what different foods do to your blood glucose for example, and you really notice the difference between a long period of time.
So without a doubt it’s such an important aspect which isn’t given the due care and attention that it deserves at times, so to have something like Pre-Co™ that ticks the boxes from a scientific side of things, and with Jordan’s expertise in nutrition and my self-taught approach with a lot of things, we’re really pleased with how it’s fitted together and think it will benefit an awful lot of people.
How have you found launching a business and playing rugby at the same time?
I’ll be honest, I’ve found it really difficult! It’s hugely difficult, because to try and get that balance is tough, certainly while I was playing and towards the later stage of my playing career at Worcester, I was trying to concentrate on my performance on the field, that things off the field sometimes I probably couldn’t put the amount of effort and attention in.
It’s been a huge learning curve over the last couple of years, and we’re thrilled to be at the stage where we’re selling products and getting incredible feedback from so many people now, about how it’s just become part of their routine when they go into train. It’s those kinds of things that really highlight the time and effort and the sacrifices that you do make how it comes back to pay you in the end.
That life balance is something incredibly important to me, being dedicated and learning that skill of time management which, I’ll be honest, I wasn’t really good at. Trying to make sure that you keep the business growing and ticking the boxes in that regard, alongside the playing career, alongside study, alongside trying to be a really good dad, and be around for the kids, it’s not easy at all. But when you start to receive the feedback that we are and the people we’ve got, we’ve got elite crossfit athletes that are using the product and absolutely love it and it’s giving them a huge amount of benefit, and then we’ve got people who are just wanting to lose some weight using it, who really enjoy it as well. It’s lovely when you get those personal stories, all the time and effort put in is worth it.
How have your old team-mates at Worcester been towards the product?
They were effectively the guinea pigs for us! They’ve been really supportive, we’re getting samples sent in to all the Premiership clubs over the next couple of weeks, so hopefully players will look out for it in their team rooms. It’s the usual stuff with the rugby community, it’s when they do a post on social media for us, it’s those little nudges that any start up business needs so we’ve been so grateful for the Worcester lads that have got behind us, and there’s a good number of them who are using the product on a regular basis and the feedback from them has been brilliant. We’re hoping players from other teams can start to trial it and see how they come along, and if they’d be so kind as to give us a little nudge along on social media and help us along the way that’d be fantastic.
How important is it for players to have a focus on outside of rugby, and thinking about that transition into life after rugby?
I think every player realises how important it is, but it is different between realising that and doing something, and it can be so daunting. I’ve been there where you’re like ‘what the hell am I going to do, where should I be focusing my attention?’.
We have the RPA who run a lot of workshops and help a considerable amount with that transition into life after rugby from the Development Managers, and they’ve been great to me. Plus at Worcester, there is someone within the club to help with that too.
However, it’s one of those things where the more experience you can get from things away from the field as, a) it gives you the confidence that you have some transferable skills that can be useful in the real world, and b) it does tend to put things into perspective for you a bit in terms of the realisation as to how lucky we are to be running around a bit, chucking a ball around with our mates, being paid to be in good shape and look after ourselves, because at one point in everyone’s career it becomes a job at some stage. It’s nice to have that timely reminder that we are incredibly fortunate to do what we do and getting experience away from the pitch, whether that’s education or whether that’s work experience or dabbling in starting a business, it’s all invaluable really.
Now you’re moving to Dallas Jackalls in the MLR soon, how excited are you for that chapter of your career – are your family moving out with you?
I’m going to go for the first half of the season by myself, and then my wife and kids will join me for the second half which will be a really good experience for all of us. Our kids are at an age where from an education side of things, they’ll learn a lot about experiencing a different culture. We’re very excited about the whole experience.
I’m obviously very excited because I didn’t feel I was completely ready to hang up the boots yet, and if an opportunity came along that really excited me, I’d spoken with my family and my wife and we’d said let’s go for it, and if it doesn’t then that’s okay. The Dallas opportunity came along and it ticked so many of the boxes that I thought ‘why not, let’s give it a craic’.
Do you plan on taking some produce out there and getting it out to a much wider audience?
I am planning on taking some, it would make complete sense to do so. It’s something we’ve spoken about already, so I’ll take some out and see if I can rope in a few of the rugby players to give it a craic and see how it goes down. It’s one of those things, we don’t want to bite off more than we can chew, but as I’m heading out to somewhere where health and nutrition are so big, then it does lend itself quite nicely.
What are the business’ aims for the next few years, is it to get more athletes to try the product out and go from there?
Yeah, we believe the product will help people that’s the big thing. It’s not a case of having a load of fancy words on the back of a packet that actual it does next to nothing. Everything we’ve put in is scientifically proven to have benefit in the right quantities. We believe in the integrity of the product, and hopefully other people will see that and see the benefit of it too, and then it’ll be the case of seeing where it goes.
We’d love to grow and expand like every business would, so if the opportunity came along to do so, we’ll grasp it. We’ve got other products that we’d love to bring out in the next year or so, lots of ideas in the pipeline, but first and foremost, hoping that the launch of Pre-Co™ goes really well, and that’ll give us the opportunity to expand into different things.
If you had any advice to any rugby player who wanted to start up a business, like this or something else, what would it be?
I think it’s surprising how much resource is out there in terms of help to start up businesses. We’re lucky that around in Worcester, we’ve got a really active council who run workshops, and have lots of local business support groups which can be daunting to begin with, but at the end of the day, it’s the people that are around you as well.
I’d say go and speak to as many people as you can, everyone’s been through it already. They’ve all made the mistakes that you’re undoubtably going to make at some point, and can offer some solutions to it, so you’re not smashing into a brick wall constantly. It’s just a case of asking for help and you’d be surprised at how many people are out there very willing to help you along the way.
For more information on HyBlends, click below...