John Sherwin is a co-founder at Hydrant, an ecommerce brand committed to helping people maximize their hydration. After studying biology at Oxford University, John moved to the US to get some experience in the world of high growth technology companies, and while he learned a lot, he wanted a more advanced curriculum. That’s when he moved to New York City to found Hydrant. This is his story.
A love of science
John grew up in Bath, UK, a small town in the West of England known for its stunning architecture and historical bath houses that date back to the Roman occupation of Britain. It was there that John fell in love with the sciences.
“We were encouraged to read a lot as kids,” John told me. “And I was always the most sciency of my family, whereas my siblings were more artsy and creative. I enjoyed biology specifically, but all of the sciences to some degree, and understanding how the world worked.”
So naturally, as John entered university, he picked a major in the sciences: biology.
“In the UK academic system, you have to pick one subject for your degree,” John told me. “And often you have to start making decisions about what you're going to study pretty early in your academic career in order to make sure you can get into the degree you want, to study the subject that you want.”
Aside from all the biology studies, there’s one critical thing that John learned which helped him get to where he is today. “You learn all different kinds of skills that you need to be a good scientist,” John said. “Often, one of those is being critical, sometimes even cynical of other people's work and trying to get down to the grassroots of this paper. If it’s claiming X, Y, Z, I think, ‘how can I validate that claim and how can I make sure that when I'm doing research that my claim is valid and someone else can come and replicate it themselves.”
An obsession with hydration
In addition to his studies, John was an athlete. And with college athletics comes at least a moderate amount of partying, not to mention all the physical exhaustion from playing sports.
As a result, John was struggling to get to his early morning classes, but he had a plan.
“The combination of all of those things was leading me to be dehydrated, or so I thought. That was like my hypothesis,” said John. “I figured I could probably show up to more of my 9:00 AM lectures if I was better hydrated because last night's activity was very dehydrating and I played a rugby match before that. And I probably wasn’t drinking enough water anyway. So, I thought that the right thing to do was to drink lots of water. I would chug three pints of water before bed. I'm thinking, ‘I'm so smart - I'm going to wake up feeling better than everyone else.’”
But John was wrong. He didn’t wake up feeling better. What’s more, he would wake up to intensely painful leg cramps in the middle of the night.
“I realized that what I was doing was causing an electrolyte imbalance,” John told me. “So throughout the day as you're getting dehydrated, you are losing water, but you're also losing electrolytes through your sweat and when you pee. And so, if you then just add the water back, you're effectively diluting yourself if you're not getting those electrolytes in an efficient way from another source.”
John started gathering as much data on hydration and electrolytes as he could. He accessed academic journals and started testing products on the market. Essentially, he discovered 3 things:
- Coconut water is not a great source of hydration because it is low in sodium (the main electrolyte in your bloodstream
- Sports drinks are mostly sugar, and therefore are mostly hype
- Rehydration salts (often used by the World Health Organization) are cheap and safe, plus as effective as rehydrating through an IV drip
John began using these rehydration salts on a regular basis to give him an edge. This continued after John graduated from Oxford and moved to San Francisco, where his schedule was even more grueling than his school days.
And although these rehydration salts were effective, they tasted awful.
“I was the type of consumer that was really looking for function,” John admits. “I didn't mind too much about the flavor until one day when I realized, ‘okay, actually I want to leave this job. I want to do something on my own that speaks to my own skill set and desires, which is to educate more people on the science of their own bodies.”
Hydrant’s Product Development
John had pretty exacting design constraints for developing the Hydrant formula, plus he had access to a stellar network from Oxford for advice.
“I knew it had to be below 25 calories or less,” John told me. “And it had to have 260 milligrams of sodium, 200 milligrams of potassium. I had picked all these numbers from playing around with existing products on the market and from reading research. We were basically setting our ingredient levels based on the science that I had read. The other piece, even before getting to formulation was building up a proprietary database of hydration research. So I leveraged myself and some doctors at Oxford University.”
Johns first attempt at a flavor was lemon-lime, which was chosen because it’s the most synonymous flavor with the sports drink industry. However, the concoction tasted oddly soapy so he simplified the formula, and dropped the all the flavoring except for real lime juice powder.
“In this process I learned that I personally have an aversion to added flavoring,” John told me. “So we pulled out this lemon flavor that was in V1, and ended up with a lime product that was very simple. It was sugar, electrolytes, a tiny bit of citric acid, and lime juice powder, which is just dehydrated lime juice. And that made for a super simple product that checked all of the boxes that were in the design constraint and that was what we went to production with.”
Go to Market Strategy
We’ve interviewed several food and beverage (F&B) manufacturers in the recent months, and one recurring theme is the choice to go retail, wholesale, or direct-to-consumer (D2C). So far, I Haven’t heard a conclusively correct strategy. But I’m starting to realize that it has everything to do with shipping and spoilage.
For example, previous interview subjects, Puree Juice Bar and Killer Creamery, have a really difficult and expensive process when it comes to shipping their products. Amy from Puree had to compromise on packaging and resort to frozen juice to make it work. Tate from Killer Creamy admits that their D2C Shopify channel is mostly a marketing channel and a tool to collect data for approaching large grocery chains.
But there was one other F&B seller we spoke to: Parachute Coffee. They are purely D2C because, of course, their product can more easily be stored and shipped without losing its freshness.
And the same goes for Hydrant.
“There was a time where some people were encouraging me to approach the market with a ready-to-drink product,” John said. “And the problem with that is it's much more difficult to do that through ecommerce as you're effectively shipping water around the country. Shipping powder is cheaper and more environmentally friendly. And it was also the form factor that I was used to using when I was playing around with recipes. So we stuck with it. Will we do retail? I think yes, absolutely. There’s a right time for it though, so we’re waiting to make sure we nail it.”
To be continued...
We tend to cover a lot of ground in these interviews, and sometimes there’s so much great material that it’s impossible to contain it in a single piece. This was the case with my interview with John. Therefore, we’re making it a two-parter.
And with most of John’s and Hydrant’s stories covered, we still have to cover all the tasty bits of advice which John has for other Shopify merchants. So that will be the subject of the other half of this interview.
In the meantime, you can check out more of what Hydrant is up to, as well as look out for their upcoming new flavor, Blood Orange, which is releasing in July, at drinkhydrant.com. A huge thanks to John for taking the time to chat.
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