Lamar Letts is doing it all. He’s a rising Northeastern senior and full-time CEO of Hylux, the sports drink company that he founded, manufactures, markets and distributes all on his own. With his history as a student track athlete, Letts was always careful about what he put in his body. But when he was diagnosed with an unexpected heart injury, his doctors advised him to let go off his track career and start paying even more attention to his body and health. That’s when Letts started diluting his sports drinks with water to offset the amount of sugar found in popular brands. Doing so led Letts to think that there had to be a better way, and there is: Hylux. Letts brands Hylux as the best sports drink alternative on the market. It’s low calorie, low sugar and high nutrient with four different electrolytes, more potassium than a banana, 10 grams of sugar (less than both original Gatorade and Vitamin Water) and only 40 calories per serving. Letts has taken Hylux a step farther by adding a philanthropic component to his model; three percent of the company’s proceeds go towards Water.org, a nonprofit co-founded by fellow Bostonian, Matt Damon, that works to provide clean water and sanitation to underdeveloped regions.
Talking with Letts about his journey from retired track athlete to full-time CEO was beyond motivating. Here is a 4th year college student who studies hard and started building his company all before he could order an alcoholic beverage; if that’s not a story worth reading, then I don’t know what is.
“I just had a dream of a drink and to go from
that to actually being in the facility when the
first bottle came off the production line…
I’m always gonna remember that.”
1. Let’s start off with you telling me a little bit about your background, like where you’re from, when you came to Boston and why.
Absolutely. Right now I’m a student at Northeastern, I came to Boston essentially for college. Northeastern, because of the co-op program, was really my top choice, so that’s how I made the switch from New York to Boston. When I came over I thought I was going to major in finance and go down the track of working at a bank or another financial institution. During my freshman year, I was kicking around the idea of a sports drink. It was something I always thought of but never put too much time into because I didn’t think it was possible. I felt that I had a lot of time my freshman year so I actually started really looking into what it takes to start a beverage. I’ve actually been around food all my life, my parents have a Jamaican restaurant in Brooklyn, where I’m from, and my dad’s always been in the kitchen trying foods.
With my background in track, and after doing some thought and research, I started taking baby steps toward starting a beverage. The more I looked into it and the more I learned, I found there was more to it than I thought. I would just call up people in the industry asking them all sorts of different things on how to be forward, and eventually I was able to put together a beverage. I got $10,000 from Northeastern University through their IDEA Program and I started waking up before class and selling, just pitching it to gyms and health stores in Boston. Little by little, I was getting people to try it, buy it, and I was able to demo it a lot. That’s how it all started.
2. Can you tell us a little bit about how the community here in Boston and at Northeastern has helped you achieve your goals?
Starting with the Boston community and the gyms, I found that I was able to get a lot of responses. Pretty much my way of selling was just by walking into the store, asking for a manager and seeing what would come from that (Laughs). There are two places in particular that I remember that proved to be a really big help. One was the local convenience store on campus at Northeastern. Usually when you approach a chain, they generally do the ordering through their corporate headquarters. It’s really like a bureaucracy, and it’s not really easy for people to get in because there’s so many layers of authorization as opposed to a local shop or regular, locally-owned gym where you can get to the manager or the owner pretty quickly. One of the first real breakthroughs was the (local convenience store) manager noticing that I was a Northeastern student, wanting to help out and just saying you know, we’ll give it a shot and see how it goes. That’s how I got in the door for a couple of places.
One of the best, or probably the best accomplishment to come from that was that I got into UFC Gym, which is a chain. I decided I would pitch to UFC Gym (in the Financial District) knowing it was a chain, and I got in touch with one of the managers and he was really interested in everything, even the whole story behind it. He gave me a shot because he liked the fact that I literally opened the door, walked in with the product and asked him to try it and sell it (Laughs). That was something he really liked. He liked the initiative and he gave me a good outlet to market. It was little things like that here and there, was how I was able to validate the product and move forward in Boston.
Northeastern on the other hand has given me a lot. They have a great working network of alumni and professionals. They’ve always been really helpful even in ways that I wouldn’t think of. They’re always checking in and seeing how I’m doing.
3. I noticed that your company’s contact address refers me to a location in Brooklyn. How are you balancing working out of two different locations? As a college student, maybe you’re on the road a lot–how has that influenced you?
(Laughs) You kind of hit the nail right on the head. It is pretty much a juggling act. It’s definitely very tough. What’s pretty unique to Northeastern that helps is that I was able to work on the business as part of the co-op program, where there’s 6 months of work that you can do. For 6 months you can work on a job or an internship, but actually for those 6 months I was able to start developing the drink. I was able to get the time off from school for that and right now I’m taking a little bit of a break from school (summer vacation), but I’ll be back in the fall. It’s been a juggling act, I’ve been back and forth from Brooklyn to Boston. One of the reasons why I am on the road is that I don’t have a distributor that really covers Boston, so that’s a tough area for me. I have to do a lot of the shipments myself. I just work all the time on trying to build a track record so that I can get on board with a distributor soon that would be taking care of a lot of the sales and deliveries.
4. What is the one thing you would say you’re most passionate about?
In general, I’m just really curious about all sorts of different industries. This might sound really broad, but I’m genuinely curious about how the world works, how businesses work, how people do business, just norms and things like that. It is business related, but that’s just where my general interest is. To give an example, I have no knowledge in the healthcare industry, but I’m really interested in pharmaceutical companies and insurance companies and what their relationship is and how they do business. That speaks to every industry. What I found is that school doesn’t really provide me with the specific answers that I want for pretty much everything, and that’s why I’ve chosen the path of knocking down the door of the beverage industry. I’d say that is just a small part of where my interest and general ambition lies. I just really like business in general.
5. Talk about someone who has had the most influence in your life.
I’d say definitely my parents. My mom was somebody who, to this day, was one of the biggest driving forces for my education and my curiosity for the world. She and my grandma were always pushing that I go to college, get a degree, make sure I get educated, and even beyond. My mom, she went to college and everything, got out, was the manager of a hospital and ended up helping my dad manage. She’s really the manager of the restaurant now. Just her experiences with everything offer me a wealth of information. She’s always given me advice and been there supporting me whenever something doesn’t quite go the way I’d like it to. Or if I’m genuinely confused about an outcome, I found that I’m always able to call her and she always has something to say. She’s just a really helpful person even beyond the simple parenting things, like how to check the engine oil. (Laughs)
6. What has been your greatest accomplishment so far?
Creating the drink honestly was my greatest accomplishment because just so much work went into researching the ingredients, regulations, finding the food scientists and all that stuff. I didn’t think about it at the time, but there were so many hurdles that I just kept going through. Funny enough, during the time leading up to the creation of the beverage, my main concern was that I thought I was behind schedule because I, for some reason, thought I would be able to create the drink in 3 or 4 months which is ridiculously short, ridiculously quick. During the time when I was getting everything together that I needed to make it, I wasn’t really thinking about how much I was actually accomplishing. But now when I look back, thinking back to how one day I was just sitting down, writing down different ingredients that I hoped could be in a drink–I didn’t even speak to a food scientist at that time. I just had a dream of a drink and to go from that to actually being in the facility when the first bottle came off the production line…I’m always gonna remember that. The follow-up to that was the first time I ever saw somebody, who I didn’t know, drinking the drink. I was just coming from delivering in Cambridge and I was getting ready to leave and I saw somebody crossing the street right in front of me in the intersection drinking the product. That was a pretty happy moment for me. I called my mom right after that. I never thought, especially just months after I made it…I was just floored that people actually liked it. I was getting some good feedback and attraction.
7. Do you see Boston in your future after graduation?
I do. I like the city, it’s very different from New York and I like how it’s different. It’s hard to explain but it just gives me a different pace. New York is more fast-paced and I do enjoy that a lot. I like that New York is the city that never sleeps and things are always going on but I like how Boston slows down. It feels very refined. I enjoy being here, I enjoy the people, I enjoy the places and I do see myself continuing to stay here. I think the fact that the gyms in Boston were the first places to take in the product means a lot. I think there’s a lot I can do in the city and that there’s a great opportunity here.
8. If there was one thing about you that you would want people to know, what would it be?
I guess that personality wise something that I’ve noticed is that a lot of people or people that don’t know me too closely think that I’m pretty much all business. But people that know me pretty well know that that is very, very far from the truth. I’m just serious when I need to be. I enjoy doing all sorts of different things, I used to play piano, I used to do jiu-jitsu, even before my track background I experimented with a bunch of different sports, I did lacrosse, I did football for a little bit. I’m a pretty open person and I’m easy-going.