In this week’s Success Story, I take a look at one company’s efforts to combat obesity. Led by CEO Sean Kelly and co-founder Andrew Mackensen, H.U.M.A.N. Healthy Vending seeks to improve vending machine snack fare with foods that are healthy, affordable, and accessible. Their success shows that anything is possible when you stay true to your beliefs.
An Idea Bears Fruit
Back in 2003, when Sean Kelly was still a pre-med student at Columbia University, he witnessed a woman at his gym buying a can of vending machine soda in the middle of her workout. Sean was struck by the irony of the situation, and a seed was firmly planted in his head.
This seed sprouted into a business that Sean ran out of his dorm room, in which he sold vending machines stocked with healthy snacks. It soon grew to cover three different states, and Kelly was having a difficult time keeping up with the network of interns that kept his machines stocked.
He saw a chance to shift his business to distributing healthy single-serve snacks, which was more manageable and profitable than his current setup. But when large-scale distributors started to enter the market as well, Kelly decided to return to his original goal of providing customers with healthy vending alternatives.
It was at this point that he was introduced to Andrew Mackensen, who was working on a vending machine of his own that specialized in providing hot food. They joined forces to form H.U.M.A.N. Healthy Vending in 2008. Fast forward 4 years later, and H.U.M.A.N. has become one of the premiere suppliers of healthy vending machines in the United States, with machines in 40 states and revenue in the millions.
Obesity is a major issue in North America, with over 83 million U.S. citizens being overweight, including children. Medical costs associated with obesity and obesity-related illnesses are estimated to run into hundreds of billions.
Though both the government and the private sector have expressed support for anti-obesity initiatives and made several big steps, there is still a severe imbalance in the availability of junk food as opposed to healthy alternatives.
Thanks to Sean and Andy, however, this imbalance is being addressed—one vending machine at a time. HUMAN’s vending machines are more than your regular snack stations. They are specially constructed to Sean and Andy’s specifications. Conveyor belts replace the standard corkscrew racks, ensuring that no product gets snagged and trapped. The lights are LEDs instead of regular bulbs, and even though the machines are bigger than average, they are 30% more energy efficient. In a step towards better customer service, these machines also take credit and debit cards in addition to cash. The machines also have a top-mounted display that runs ads to educate consumers about the products that the machines carry.
It’s not just about the machines, either. H.U.M.A.N. partners with and encourages its franchisees to source locally grown and produced food when stocking their machines. This limits the food’s carbon footprint and increases business for local farmers and producers.
The Seeds of Success
While there is no one single factor responsible for H.U.M.A.N. Healthy Vending’s success, there are many lessons that other entrepreneurs can pick up and apply to their own businesses.
Need + Timing = Opportunity.
When Sean first got the inspiration for his business, obesity was just creeping into the public consciousness. It was at the point where the problem was becoming known, but there was not yet enough widespread concern to spawn significant competition. Although Sean had been edged out of the distribution business, he was able to re-enter the vending game and make his mark well before other healthy vending machines gained traction—or even saw the opportunity in the first place.
Draw from personal experience.
Sean used the incident at the gym to spark his idea, and his experiences with regular vending machines within a health-food oriented context probably influenced the way he ran his business as well. It is this familiarity that allowed him to connect with his target market and create a snack company that will be valued and popular with franchisees and customers alike.
Stick to your brand’s values.
Instead of compromising on certain product lines and stocking popular but unhealthy foods along with healthy items, Sean decided to keep his product offerings in line with his—and his customers’—core beliefs: healthy living through healthy eating. This consistency and clarity of purpose helped the company focus its marketing and drive sales to new heights.
Use the community.
The healthy living community is a close-knit group with a strong sense of identity. Its members place a lot of stock on a company’s truthfulness and commitment to their ideas and welcome those that possess these traits. These types of people also make up a large part of HUMAN’s staff, and the company was able to connect with community members and bloggers in order to promote the company and product.