Next to an 8ft Moose costume, Claire Harper keeps an old filing cabinet. Somewhere deep inside the filing cabinet lurks a tatty old beer mat from nine years ago. On it is Claire’s first business plan, written whilst sitting in a pub in 2010. The plan might not have looked like much at the time but today, Claire is Managing Director of Muscle Moose, a brand owned by Harper Innovations – the business she set up off the back of her beer mat business plan.
The story of Muscle Moose proves you should never judge a business plan by the beer mat it’s written on. What’s important is the person writing on the beer mat.
The NatWest Great British Entrepreneur Awards named Claire the Great British Entrepreneur for the North West Region in October 2019. She also took home the North West’s Food and Drink Entrepreneur of the Year award for 2019. Just over nine years earlier, Claire was working full time as a physiotherapist and part time as a fitness model and Ninja. Ok, the Ninja bit isn’t true; she was and still is a Taekwondo 1stDan though! “Taekwondo is about courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control and indomitable spirit”, explains Claire, “and there’s a lot to be said for transferring those skills into life and business”.
The Muscle Moose journey for Claire started several years earlier, with a different brand. At a body building expo in 2010, Claire discovered Smartshake. It was a discovery that would change everything.
Claire recalls, “back then, shakers in the UK were cheap and the quality wasn’t the greatest. Smartshake caught my eye at the expo and when I looked closer, I could see they had a genius product. Their shaker had compartments attached at the base, for storing things like protein powder, supplements etc and was (and still is) made from BPA Free, DEHP Free plastic. There was nothing like Smartshake available on the UK market and it got me thinking that I could be the one to bring this amazing product to the UK – that I could become a distributor of Smartshake.
A few months later, whilst on holiday in Thailand with my partner Jon (Birkett, co-founder), I couldn’t stop thinking about how great it would be to bring such an innovative product to the UK. Jon and I discussed opportunities and the whole time, I was thinking “come on, we can do this”. I still remember using the hotel’s library computer to register the domain www.smartshake.co.uk; I was so excited, I literally couldn’t wait to get going! Looking back, it might not have been the wisest move to register the domain before speaking to the owner of the brand and luckily for us, when we did speak to him to discuss becoming a distributor of his product in the UK, he saw our enthusiasm. A couple of months later, a 20ft container of Smartshakes arrived on our doorstep. We were in business!”
Effectively changing your life overnight might seem like a risky move. It was. Claire remembers, “when we ordered the container of Smartshakes, we had a price point we knew we’d sell at, but we hadn’t finalised margins. Because we couldn’t guarantee how many we’d sell in a year, the plan simply became to “sell shit loads”. I knew we’d succeed; it was instinctive”.
Scare yourself s!*tless
Her impulsive decision may go against your average accountant’s advice; Claire frames it differently. “If you plan too much, you put yourself off. If you know it’s going to work – if you feel it in your bones – you will make it work. You should research some things, of course, I appreciate that, but if you believe in your heart that you can make it work, just do it! If you only dip your toe in the water, you’re never going to make it. You have to scare yourself s!*tless if you want to succeed.”
And succeed she has. Building on the success of distributing Smartshake, Claire and Jon became distributors for another product they had fallen in love with: Muscle Mousse.
“A few years ago, protein products didn’t taste great. They were more a mix-it-and-down-it-as-fast-as-you-can kind of thing,” observes Claire, “Muscle Mousse was different; like Angel Delight but full of protein. We adored it and Jon and I really felt we could grow the brand and add more to it.”
They approached the owner of Muscle Mousse to try to buy the brand. At first, he declined but in 2015, the wheels were set in motion and by 2016, Muscle Mousse was theirs.
The key to success
In 2016, the Muscle Mousse brand underwent a transformation, becoming “Muscle Moose”, quickly adding new products to their range and growing the brand as Claire and Jon had envisaged when they first became distributors. Products in the Muscle Moose range now include Moose Juice, a zero-sugar energy drink with added protein and vitamins and Beaver Bar, the world’s first two finger protein bar. You can find Muscle Moose products sat on shelves in Holland & Barrett, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Ocado, to name just a few of their stockists. Muscle Moose products are also exported to Europe, the Middle East and New Zealand.
So, what does it take to achieve this incredible level of success? Claire shared some of the key things she feels helped take her business from an idea at an expo to building a protein fortified food and drink empire.
1) Naivety combined with raw energy
“When we ordered that first container of Smartshakes, the idea that our investment wouldn’t work didn’t even enter our heads. It wasn’t an option for it not to work, we just knew the product would be a game changer. I guess you’d say I was completely naive. Looking back, I realise that naivety is the best thing. It’s gold dust. It gives you the energy and fearlessness to get to where you want to go. If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t give my younger self any tips at all. I’d just tell her to get on with it and go with your gut.”
2) Sales Tenacity
“In the early days of Harper Innovations distributing Smartshake, we’d go to fitness shows and sleep in our van to save money. To sell more Smartshakes, we came up with new uses for the shakers, to demonstrate more value for our customers. We went to a pet show once and showed people how you could put bird seed in one compartment and water in the other – budgie fanatics loved the idea and we started to supply pet stores!
Where we are today, sales techniques are a little different, but the same principles of persistence and lateral thinking apply. We want our products available in as many retailers as possible and that means approaching places like supermarkets to discuss putting Muscle Moose products on their shelves. Any business owner dealing with big retailers will tell you, the “no’s” are always going to happen, it’s how you react to them that matters. You have to keep knocking on the door, a “no” is a “no for now”, not “no forever”.
You need to be innovative and memorable. We really wanted to have a meeting with Tesco to discuss listing our products, so we took out a billboard outside one of their busiest stores, asking the buyer to call us. We got the meeting. I’m not suggesting a billboard is the way for everyone to go, more that sometimes the more out-there ideas are the ones that bring results for you.
We’ve taken our 8ft Moose to a meeting with a retailer – it’s all about being memorable. It might still be a “no for now” but with so much competition, the critical thing is to stand out. If you’re calling yourself an innovative brand, you need to make sure that you have an innovative approach to doing business.”
3) Standing out from the crowd
One of the key reasons we achieve success in such a competitive sector is our branding, Muscle Moose is fun, friendly and vibrant and stands out a mile on the shelf because the visual element of the brand is so different to what we’ve all been used to seeing on shelves for so long. We have bright, bold colours and we use fun characters like our Moose to make our brand the one people remember.
The final word from CLIC
Claire thoroughly deserves her recent victory in the NatWest Great British Entrepreneur of the Year Awards for the North West region. Her ballsy approach has moulded Muscle Moose from a niche product to a mass-market brand with bags of growth potential. Her discipline and determination will surely take the company even further. Anyone wondering how to grow their business would do well to emulate this dynamo. Of course, an 8ft Moose always helps too!