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Once an NCAA basketball coach, Yanni Hufnagel now helms a $100m enhanced water brand, Lemon Perfect

As he coached top university basketball players, Yanni Hufnagel, founder and CEO of The Lemon Perfect Company, had a eureka moment. He invented Lemon Perfect, a five-calorie, zero-sugar enhanced water beverage much like those the basketball players glugged in the locker rooms. One difference: Unlike many enhanced water beverages, the lemon-infused beverage includes plant-based sweeteners that don't negatively affect blood sugar.
Image by on Freepik
Image by on Freepik

With his market entry, Hufnagel wanted to positively impact US consumers’ health. Along with researchers, physicians, and consumers, he’d grown concerned about the high-calorie, high-sugar options that dominate the American beverage ecosystem.

As soon as he developed the drink’s formula and his early-stage business, he realized there was a synergy between coaching basketball in the NCAA – which he did for a decade – and being an entrepreneur.

“Every day that I was coaching, I built stock in what we are now doing [at Lemon Perfect],” Hufnagel recently said on The Rising Coaches podcast.

Founded in 2017, The Lemon Perfect Company is currently the fastest-growing brand in the enhanced water category, according to a 2023 Forbes report. Lemon Perfect has attained a valuation of over $100m. Advantageously, Lemon Perfect fits into the functional water category, whose popularity is at an all-time high. Flavored water brands continue to flow into stores like – wait for it – water. It’s a shift the consumer packaged goods industry has noticed, and the award-winning Lemon Perfect arrived on the trend’s cusp.

Coaching college basketball for a decade prepared Yanni Hufnagel to lead an early-stage company to success

Since Hufnagel launched Lemon Perfect in 2017, he’s expanded the beverage into eight flavors. In April 2022, the company closed on a $31m Series A funding round fuelled by marquee-name investors from the worlds of basketball and entertainment. Financial supporters included superstar recording artist and entrepreneur Beyoncé Knowles-Carter, NBA power forward Kyle Kuzma, New York Knick Josh Hart, former NBA champ Channing Frye, and former NBA shooting guard Nick Young.

There’s more success behind the little beverage that could: Beyond the first SKU to be offered, Original Lemon, the enhanced water brand has sent forth seven more tasty flavors: Dragon Fruit Mango, Strawberry Passion Fruit, Pineapple Coconut, Blueberry Açaí, Peach Raspberry, Kiwi Star Fruit, and the newest flavor, Watermelon. Significantly, Lemon Perfect is organic, non-GMO, keto, gluten-free, and made from natural fruit.

Hufnagel has beaten the odds in propelling the Lemon Perfect brand. According to US Bureau of Labour Statistics data, approximately 20% of small businesses fizzle within one year. By the second year’s end, 30% of companies will be defeated.

In a recent Forbes article, Yanni Hufnagel discussed how his extensive coaching skills morphed into the ability to drive a company to win. He said, “I’m still coaching a team today. It’s a bigger team – we currently have more than 70 employees at the company.”

The company isn’t shy about ensuring the whole team knows where the numbers sit against the top-line revenue plan for the year. As when he coached basketball, Hufnagel watches the score.

“Beverage is a scoreboard business, and there’s one winner that walks off the floor,” said Hufnagel. “The first thing you see when you walk into the Lemon Perfect headquarters is the scoreboard: gross revenue – the one number on which we bonus our entire organisation.”

Yanni Hufnagel credits coaching for the team-first attitude that wins in the beverage business

Renowned psychologist Carol Dweck introduced the world to a 'growth mindset' in her seminal book, Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. In her book, Dweck illustrates how people perceive their talents and abilities to yield success in almost every human endeavor, such as academics, sports, and artistic pursuits.

“It all comes down to mindset,” Hufnagel told Forbes, echoing Dweck’s findings. The mindset concept goes beyond the individual and can be applied to organisations. A leader with the right mindset – like Hufnagel, a textbook example – motivates teams to transform anything.

“At Lemon Perfect, we are team-first and scoreboard-focused,” he said. “That’s coaching, irrespective of the sport.”

In college basketball, Hufnagel had to tell a story, sell an opportunity, promote the university, and elevate the coaching staff to recruit the best athletes.

“At Lemon Perfect, we sell hard and tell the story of a unique product with great flavour that’s also good for you.”

In her book, Dweck describes teams with the right mindset as people unafraid to take risks despite high stakes. They embrace audacious goals. And they’re eager to try new processes, tools, or methodologies. These are the attributes Hufnagel encourages in the Lemon Perfect team.

“To win in basketball, you must have an incredibly connected team, both on and off the floor,” he said. “You must prioritise constant communication and elite energy – and that’s something we talk about all the time at Lemon Perfect.”

The enhanced water market is watching Lemon Perfect’s popularity skyrocket under CEO Yanni Hufnagel

Hufnagel calls Lemon Perfect 'the magical intersection of good for you and great flavour'. He believed in his new beverage from inception, but he admitted to Forbes that he didn’t realize the extent to which the enhanced water space desperately needed disruption and innovation.

“I didn’t know there wasn’t a water with juice squeezed from real fruit or that we were paving a new path for enhanced water with delicious and refreshing flavor without the sugar,” he said.

The brand’s sales reflect its phenomenal success since its 2017 launch. “In 2018, we did just over $20,000 in retail sales,” said Hufnagel. “In 2023, we plan to achieve 3,000 times that. That’s very exciting growth over a five-year period. The brand is truly on fire.”

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