“Amazon has been coming to us for a while and we had always insisted on maintaining direct relationships with our customers, so just selling the product via soylent.com and doing our own fulfilment,” said CEO Rob Rhinehart, a software engineer who quit the day job in 2013 after deciding “to bet my life on the idea that food could be empirically rebuilt.”
“But we ended up coming to terms under a very attractive deal that will put us on Launchpad,” he told FoodNavigator-USA.
“Amazon is making strong inroads into groceries and has seen accelerating growth in beverages so we felt the time was right, as we trust Amazon to maintain a good customer relationship and provide quality fulfillment and services.”
He added: “We’ll probably go into [bricks & mortar] retail eventually, but there is undeniably a market trend around consumers buying more products online for convenience and cost, and I really like the efficiency behind it. It also provides a great user experience.”
He added: “Part of the deal is that we are not at liberty to undercut Amazon on price [on Soylent.com]. So on both sites [Soylent.com and Amazon.com] the one time price for a 12-pack is $34 and there is a 5% discount to subscription orders [available via Amazon’s subscribe and save service].”
Amazon Launchpad is designed to showcase innovative young brands via a more streamlined onboarding experience, custom product pages, a comprehensive marketing package, and access to Amazon’s global fulfillment network.
Soylent 2.0 (the ready to drink version of soylent, which has a 12-month unrefrigerated shelf life) is eligible for free two day shipping with Amazon Prime and the Amazon Subscribe & Save discount.
Other food/bev brands on the platform include Health Warrior, Back to the Roots, World Peas and Banza.
We’re growing very rapidly
The success of Soylent, which was launched in 2013 and attracted $20m in funding last year led by venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz, has both intrigued and baffled trend-watchers, given that its sterile packaging, deliberately bland formula and utilitarian ‘food as fuel’ approach appears to fly in the face of the culinary trend towards ‘minimally processed,’ colorful, flavorful whole foods that are inherently nutritious rather than fortified with nutrients, although there has been growing interest in more portable nutrition and drinkable meals and snacks.
While the company won’t share any figures (board member Chris Dixon said last year that it “generates millions of dollars per month in subscription revenues,” but has not shared any figures since), Soylent is now firing on all cylinders after significantly expanding its manufacturing and shipping capabilities and is growing strongly, CEO Rob Rhinehart told FoodNavigator-USA.
“We’re growing very rapidly, I have said on the record that our previous year’s growth was outstanding, while we are also always finding ways to reduce our costs and increase efficiency.”
People want a convenient quick way to have a healthy meal at an affordable price point
But who are the heaviest users of Soylent – a brand some more uncharitable observers have described as “only slightly more appealing than an IV bag” - and how are they using it?
The biggest misconception about Soylent is that it is being used to replace every meal, 365 days a year, says Rhinehart, who has argued that the “future of food is not the return to an agrarian society but the transcendence of it,” and that “In time Soylent will be synthesized directly from light, water, and air with designer microorganisms; we will make food so cheap only the rich will cook.”
In reality, he said, while you could eat Soylent exclusively (it has been formulated as a ‘nutritionally complete’ food), most customers don’t, and are instead using it when they are busy, or traveling.
“A lot of people are passionately working on their careers, or their studies or taking care of their families and they want a convenient quick way to have a healthy meal at an affordable price point,” argued Rhinehart.
“If you can save time going to the grocery store or cooking now and again, our product frees up your time and means you don’t have to compromise on nutrition.”
We have a very diverse customer base across all income brackets
He added: “We have a very diverse customer base across all income brackets. It’s like coffee, people drink it however much money they make. It skews about 70:30 male to female, but we have ideas around how we can attract more women, including looking at serving sizes. At the moment, the [ready-to-drink] product has 400 calories, but we are looking at adding more flexibility.”
As for food fatigue (isn’t drinking a bottle of neutral-tasting beige liquid on a regular basis pretty joyless?), Rhinehart points out that many users customize the powdered product by adding their own ingredients, and that many foods we eat on a regular basis are “actually pretty bland,” from fries to oatmeal, and we don’t get bored with them.
“Honestly a lot of staple foods are pretty plain, look at original cornflakes – they are relatively bland, while milk doesn’t have a lot of flavor. In fact if you want to avoid fatigue, you want something without a strong flavor.”
"If you only use ingredients you can buy at your local grocery store, you are really hamstringing your development process." Rob Rhinehart, founder & CEO, Soylent
I’m a huge believer in the potential of algae to produce a lot of our food ingredients in the future
That said, Soylent is going to come out with new products in order to keep things interesting, he said, particularly to tap into the trend of mini-meals and continuous snacking, and while Soylent made its name by offering products formulated to meet our complete nutritional needs, this stricture may not apply to every product it comes out with in future, said Rhinehart.
“The Soylent brand is about being healthy and sustainable, not just about complete nutrition."
Soylent 2.0 - the ready-to-drink version of Soylent’s flagship meal substitute and one of the first food/beverage products formulated with high oleic algae oil - contains 400 calories per 414ml bottle (47% calories come from fats, 33% come from carbs, and 20% come from protein, with vitamins and minerals designed to provide 100% daily values over 2000 calories, or 5 bottles).
Other new ingredients include soy protein isolate (instead of rice), the soluble prebiotic fiber Isomaltooligosaccharide, oat fiber and gellan gum, said Rhinehart.
“I’m a huge believer in the potential of algae to produce a lot of our food ingredients in the future because it’s using far less land, energy and water and I think in the future more ingredients from algae including proteins and starches will be used in our products.”
As for the ingredients list, which is long, complex, and full of things you can’t pronounce, Rhinehart says clued up consumers understand that just because something has a name you can’t pronounce doesn’t mean it’s bad for you, and “just because something is ‘natural’ doesn’t mean it’s good for you.”
He added: “Consumers realize that to make the best products we should use the best tools at our disposal. If you only use ingredients you can buy at your local grocery store, you are really hamstringing your development process. It’s like only building cars out of wood, or if buildings didn’t use concrete.”
It would be very difficult to find another brand that has the community engagement that we do
As Chris Dixon pointed out when he invested in the business last year, meanwhile, what has made Soylent appealing to investors is not just its products, but a loyal community it has built up online, giving Soylent a clear understanding of who is buying its product, how they are using it and where they want it to go next, the kind of information many brands would kill for.
“It would be very difficult to find another brand that has the community engagement that we do,” said Rhinehart.
“The best marketing we can have is seeing our customers singing our praises. They also have a strong influence on the formula and the format. A lot of people are excited about the algae oil, for example, while the most consistent feedback we had from people is that they wanted a ready-to-drink product, so we developed one. We also had people saying they would like to buy on Amazon, so we listened and now we’re working with Amazon.”