Growing up in a South East Asian family, Alex Lai had long been aware of the health benefits of aloe vera juice.
The “superplant” has been widely used throughout that region for many years without having created much of an impact in the West, but upon visiting Asia again on a backpacking trip, with friend and business partner Raymond, Lai realised how popular and widespread aloe vera drinks had become. The pair crafted a plan to launch aloe vera juice in the UK.
They started Simplee Aloe drinks in 2014, and since that time the company has gained listings in some of the UK’s biggest retail chains, including Asda, Co-op, Ocado, Sainsbury’s and Waitrose. Business Advice caught up with Lai to find out what’s next for the brand.
(1) Who are you and what’s your business?
I’m Alex Lai, co-founder and managing director of Simplee Aloe, a new brand of all-natural aloe vera drinks and health supplements. After graduating from university with a first-class degree in mechanical engineering I worked at BNP Paribas in derivatives sales. Eventually, I decided to escape the city to attempt a startup.
My family are originally from Hong Kong, and I remember aloe as the “superplant” I grew up with but, whilst travelling in South East Asia, my friend Raymond and I got talking about how aloe vera is so big in Asian cultures, but really has little presence in the West. The discussion evolved into a business idea to sell aloe vera juice in the UK.
(2) How long have you been around for?
We sold our first carton of aloe vera juice to Sainsbury’s back in August 2014, so next month we will officially be three years old.
(3) How do you make money?
By sourcing the best ingredients and creating a product that is high quality, tasty and accessible, in a relatively uncovered but growing category. We have created and positioned our products at the center of a growing trend towards health foods and supplements, and we’re now selling products in retailers across the UK, including Waitrose, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Ocado and Co-op.
(4) What makes you different and why should people take notice?
Our brand is all about creating the best aloe vera products whilst educating consumers on the benefits of aloe and how to use it successfully and easily in our daily routines.
Ours is not just a sugary drink with a low aloe vera juice content, like the other options available, but rather a juice with at least 35 per cent aloe and 100 per cent natural ingredients. We are mindful of ethics, and use only the best quality ingredients, choosing our factories and plantations very carefully.
(5) What was key in terms of getting started?
Locking down a great supply chain of raw materials and manufacturers who could produce our products. This was key because without products to sell, you have no business. We also had to find great partners to work with, who believed us when we said aloe vera juice drinks would become the next big category.
(6) What’s your biggest achievement to date?
The great team we have built around us is a proud achievement of mine – we all share the same vision of educating the world about the benefits of aloe vera juice. I spend a great deal of time working to hire people who’ll be excellent at their jobs but also believe in our brand vision.
(7) What setbacks have you had along the way
Again, to do with our supply chain. It’s sometimes hard to keep up with demand when the products are flying off supermarket shelves, so we’ve constantly had to adapt our supply chain to keep up with high demands.
We have streamlined and diversified our sources of aloe vera juice from both South American and South East Asia, however as aloe vera juice takes over a month to arrive from both locations it means we have to project our sales very accurately to maintain supply.
(8) In five years’ time, I will be…
Expanding the business abroad and sharing the benefits of drinking aloe vera juice in all corners of the globe.
(9) What one tip would you give to others starting out?
Make sure you find a great co-founder who can help you build the business, and ideally has a slightly different skill set to complement your own. Having a partner is also vital to bounce ideas off. Starting a business can be quite lonely, so I am very appreciative to all the things Raymond brings to the table.
(10) Who are your business heroes and why?
Elon Musk, as he’s certainly one of the best examples of a true entrepreneur. I was particularly impressed by his drive to start Tesla after exiting PayPal, especially as he put most of his life savings on the line for that, so he’s clearly very confident in his vision!
Liked this article? Read on to meet the former Innocent Drinks duo now making waves with their own drinks brand
Sign up to our newsletter to get the latest from Business Advice.