Milk alternatives are becoming increasingly popular. The Swedish company Oatly is probably the best known, but UNMILK, a Hamburg-based startup, is also making its mark in the booming market. The year 2022 has already brought founder Jennifer Schäfer several success stories, although her startup career began in a completely different field.
During her studies, Jennifer focused on marketing and PR, which is why she also worked in this field at the first stations of her working life, among others at the agency Achtung! and at Google. The idea for her first startup came about rather by chance and out of a desire to experiment. Together with Dr. Laura Karim and Marius Murtz, she founded Daily Dress in 2016.
First startup station: a virtual closet
The Daily Dress app was designed to function like a virtual closet, making suggestions for suitable outfits depending on the weather or the occasion. In doing so, it drew on the user's existing stock of clothes and gave supplementary purchase recommendations, combined with links to the relevant online shops. The business model thus combined the principle of a marketplace with a technology that works with image recognition.
Image recognition is also Picalike's area of expertise. Founded in 2010, the company has developed software that makes product recommendations based on visual similarity. Picalike's customers are mainly in the fashion industry, so working with Daily Dress was an obvious choice for several reasons. Contacts existed right from the start and in August 2018 Picalike even took over the company completely.
A foundation also from own need
The Daily Dress brand continued to exist for the time being and Jennifer also stayed on board for a while. However, the fashion industry was never her whole passion; in her private life, she preferred to focus on healthy nutrition. For her, this also included a vegan alternative to classic cow's milk, but she was not satisfied with what was on offer at the time. Either the drinks contained too much sugar or too little protein, or they were not convincing in terms of taste.
As a newcomer to the food industry, she first gained an overview of the market and its production conditions and founded UNMILK in February 2020. As a marketing expert, she at least knows what is important when building a brand. So she conducted extensive tests and surveys to be well prepared. Among other things, the recipe, logo and packaging were put to the test. For example, in an early version, the entire labeling was upside down; in the final version, only the UNMILK brand name was.
In her improvements, Jennifer applies the lean startup method of proceeding in small steps in order to be able to react quickly and flexibly to undesirable developments and feedback. This comes primarily from the online community and was especially helpful during the Corona pandemic, when direct contact with potential customers was not possible.
If you ask, you get answers
While Jennifer was still in familiar territory when it came to market research, she was breaking new ground in other areas. She made good experiences with asking people who know about it. Some founders shy away from this because they fear that their idea could be stolen, but this is usually unfounded. In the food industry in particular, there are completely different challenges.
One of these is finding a suitable contract filler. Many companies are not prepared to fill vegan pea-based protein shakes, UNMILK's first product. Others would be able to do so, but demand too high purchase quantities right from the start. But persistence wins out and Jennifer built up a helpful network that in the end helped her find the right production partner, so that sales via the online shop were able start in September 2020.
The first retail test brings UNMILK the breakthrough
Jennifer still personally took the first deliveries to the post office by bicycle. However, the rapidly increasing demand very soon made this no longer possible. Fortunately, UNMILK has an investor in Square One Foods which can provide both financial and technical support. A test listing in 20 selected stores of the drugstore chain Rossmann is a first step into the retail market. The success is resounding and four weeks later UNMILK is everywhere at Rossmann. Soon after, she receives a call from Starbucks, which Jennifer thinks is a joke at first, but which actually earns her the next well-known customer.
Nevertheless, not everything always runs smoothly when dealing with the retail trade, where other habits prevail than in the startup world. The fax machine is considered a museum piece there, but on the customer side it is still part of the basic equipment in many places. Years of experience also carry more weight there than the presentation of a sophisticated market analysis.
The list of business partners keeps getting longer
As a woman, Jennifer still had to gain respect in some places in an industry that continues to be dominated by men. The fact that she has succeeded in doing so is shown by the steadily increasing number of sales outlets where UNMILK is available. In addition to Rossmann and Starbucks, REWE, Budni, Müller, Gorillas and Flink are now on the list, and more well-known names could soon be added.
Already certain are several partnerships and collaborations that make 2022 a real success year for UNMILK. It started in January with the news that the investment company Katjes Greenfood had invested in the startup.
In March, another prominent investor joined the company. Jens Herrndorff, manager of the band Fettes Brot, as a vegan has a particularly close relationship with UNMILK's products. In addition to the protein shakes in three varieties, they now also include oat milk in four flavors as well as a powder for mixing one's own oat drinks. This variant requires only a fraction of the usual Tetra Pak packaging and is therefore very environmentally friendly.
Made in Hamburg: UNMILK x FC St. Pauli
In Hamburg in particular, a cooperation agreement announced in April triggered a positive response. Since then, the cult club FC St. Pauli has been a partner of UNMILK, initially not with the professional team from the 2nd Bundesliga, but with the eFootball team, which recently won the German Cup in this gaming discipline. "We are delighted to have found a way into gaming through a strong and successful partner like FC St. Pauli. While we are turning the dairy world upside down with our plant-based drinks, FC St. Pauli is already doing it successfully on the virtual pitch - so it's a perfect match," commented Jennifer Schäfer.
The UNMILK team of seven is now at home in many worlds and also benefits from the fact that vegan products are no longer a niche product but have arrived in the middle of society. Seen in this light, UN-MILK is not upside down at all, but just right.