CEO and co-founder of Heaven Labs on how MANA nutritional product went from hobby to successful business

Jakub Krejčík is the head and co-founder of Heaven Labs, the producer of the MANA nutritional product, which went from being a hobby to a major business. MANA is specially-designed food in liquid form for people on the go, rigorously-tested to provide the nutrients the body needs. One bottle serves as a single meal for anyone with a busy schedule. Last year, Heaven Labs had a turnover of more than 50 million crowns and is looking to expand its existing network in Europe and newly to the United States.

Jakub Krejčík, photo: archive of Heaven LabsJakub Krejčík, photo: archive of Heaven Labs I met with the CEO this week to ask how about that but also how it all begin, starting with his MBA.

“The MBA gave me two things: discipline and learning how to get things done. Over time, you learn things along the way and in the end the most vital experiences are things which you cannot get in school. Life is a ‘different’ teacher than school.”

Life has a way of throwing you curve balls, so to speak, but also gives you ideas and being able to apply them in practice is probably very different than within a safe school environment…

“Right.”

How did you decide to go into the field of nutrition? You founded Heaven Labs with several people…

“I did but the first idea was my own, nutrition was my hobby, and this was a personal project. I had no intention on turning it into a business. But gradually word of mouth grew and my friends and their families tried samples, so first it was 10 people, then 50, then a hundred and soon I wasn’t able to meet demand.

“At first I offered the first product for free to be able to get outside feedback. Then people began paying for it and that is how it started. I was no longer able to manage things by myself, so I got the smartest people around me, awesome people, and started the company with two partners, Marek Humpl, an organic chemist, and Greg Vyatkin who is a great painter and designer who is on the spot and of course my wife, Zuzana, who handles public relations. So we started small and that was it.”

You had MANA which is a nutritional product – how is it defined? Is it a supplement or a replacement?

“It is registered as a replacement.”

Which means what?

“Which means you can live from it as sustenance and that it has everything the body needs. It is not missing any nutrients, it is not a supplement designed to help you lose weight, this is a complete package. All the vitamins, minerals, fat, carbs, the body needs – it is a complete product.”

I have one bottle here in my hand, how many calories will this provide me with?

Photo: archive of Heaven LabsPhoto: archive of Heaven Labs “It is the equivalent of one meal, one-fifth of the days calories required, 400 calories. That is based on the European organisation for Food Products EFSA, which says that the average daily calorie intake for Europeans should be 2,000 calories. Of course, there are other factors, whether you are male or female, whether you do a lot of sports and so on. But this is the average.”

You mentioned that this is not a product for losing weight; on the other hand, it is clearly labelled, so if you are someone who is counting calories this is useful. You know exactly what you are getting.

“Exactly.”

How do you get the balance right, providing the ingredients the body needs, and how long and how difficult a process was that?

“It was not easy but thankfully it is something we were able to do. We were able to make progress very quickly. Each ingredient is sent for state testing and certification. We test for everything so that there are no toxins or heavy metals and we test for vitamins and minerals. That is how we do it with each ingredient and we combine it in a bigger picture which is then spelled out in the nutritional facts label. There was a desire, right from the beginning, to get into the problematics as deeply as possible, to know everything we could, and use the technology available on the market to get it and for it to be certified. That was the priority for us.”

And it of course has been tested and certified by the Czech equivalent of the Food and Drug Administration…

“Yes. And you can find the full list on our website. We use a blend of oils, algae, canola, for protein we use oat and soy protein, for dietary fibre oats as well. We put everything to the test and the process is as transparent as possible. Customers with questions can communicate with us 7 days a week through email or livechat.”

Obviously, more people today are interested in exactly what they are putting into their bodies… they are reading labels so to speak.

“The whole issue is actually very complex. It is about trust and about declaring what is inside. You wouldn’t want to live in a world where you couldn’t trust the water out of the tap, fearing it would be poisoned. It is about declaration and trust and this is something very important for us.”

Photo: archive of Heaven LabsPhoto: archive of Heaven Labs There is a major debate about food quality on right now which has brewing and the V4 met to discuss it…

“The problem is that a lot of things in the food industry are not transparent. Many shelves are being stocked with empty products and people can’t tell the difference until they begin having health problems. From the start we didn’t want to say you are doing it wrong and we are doing it right, we just wanted to do it our way. And to tackle the issue as best we can.”

Your firm has grown substantially and last year had a turnover of more than 50 million crowns. How is the product sold now? Is it in regular distribution?

“We sell exclusively online. That is a major point for us, unlike most food products which are sold through retail chains or stores. Thanks to that we are able to keep our margin, keep the price low, and those are the benefits. Right now we have a big warehouse from which we ship all over Europe, for the same price, but we are establishing regional warehouses by country, such as in Germany. We are working on Spain, on the United States, so this year the most important step for us is global expansion. That is the big question for us right now.”

Your most important markets?

“The Czech Republic, Germany, France, Spain, It is growing more and more. We are working to ensure that MANA will be available in all the different languages, along with customer support.”

And MANA is available both in powder and bottled form?

“Yes, bottled (special Tetra Paks) since this January. The Tetra Paks have the advantage that you can store them, unrefrigerated, for up to one year.”

Who is the ideal customer for MANA?

“The MANA customer is someone who has a busy life and is often on the go. The biggest demographic is between the age of 20 and 40. It can be a sports person or artist or business person who has little time and less time to eat a full meal. The range is broad, but 20 – 40 is the major group that have less time to get nutrition effectively.”

I am going to try MANA (Mark 3) for the first time… but before I do, tell me a ittle about the taste.

“It is quite neutral but some people say there is a bit of vanilla, others taste a bit of salt, a lot depends on what you have had before, if you drink coffee and so on. So it is individual.”

Photo: archive of Heaven LabsPhoto: archive of Heaven Labs On an off note, when someone goes to your profile at your website, they find out, I think in the last sentence, that you are a big fan of Marvel comics. I got a kick out of that because as a kid I kind of grew up with the friendly neighbourhood Spider-Man.

“I am a big fan of the invincible Iron Man. That is a character who gets me. I like how he gets things done. A friend of mine owns a well-known hobby and comics store in the Czech Republic so I am collecting Iron Man statues Mark 1 through 4…”

Wait, Mark 3 is what you have on your own label for MANA, are they connected? Was that an inspiration?

(laughs) “It was. Mark 3 on our label is the latest recipe, now we are also working on Mark 4 and later 5 and 6…”

I like the fact that your own interests play a role…

“It’s all a part of the package.”