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How Soylent is bringing plant-based meal replacement into the future


When Soylent first was introduced in 2013, its value proposition seemed shocking: the end of food as society knew it.

A protein shake that was meant to replace food, containing all of the calories and nutrients one needed to get through the day. A new idea targeted at tech workers and gamers who didn’t have time to eat. Only plant-based ingredients in every bottle.

And with all of the attention it was receiving, Soylent was seemingly destined to be either a runaway success or an epic flop.

Eight years later, Soylent is still around and is no longer so polarizing. The company says it’s on track for $100 million in sales this year, with products in about 30,000 U.S. retail stores and a thriving direct-to-consumer business.

CEO Demir Vangelov, who took the helm at Soylent at the beginning of 2020, said that the company has changed many of its strategies in order to stay afloat and become more successful. One of those, he said, is shifting the brand’s positioning away from the unapologetic meal replacement declaration to fitting into what consumers’ needs and desires actually are. And while Soylent still attracts the core “too busy to eat” consumer, it also has remade itself to be a nutritional option that exists to meet and maintain healthy lifestyles.

“We are not a medical nutrition brand,” Vangelov said. “We’re not a ‘you go to the moon with Soylent and you don’t need anything else’ brand. We’re not a dieting brand. We’re really a lifestyle brand.”

The protein shake category is incredibly hot right now, growing at a 14% to 15% clip, Vangelov said. Plant-based protein shakes are only a small portion of the category with about 2% share, Vangelov said, but that segment is seeing more growth.

Headshot of Soylent CEO Demir Vangelov

Demir Vangelov

Courtesy of Soylent

 

Bloomberg reported in May that Soylent was exploring strategic options, including a potential sale. Vangelov declined to comment on the report, which said the company may fetch $225 million or more in any transaction.

But Vangelov said he’s helped reform Soylent into a profitable growth engine, one that helps people have more complete and nutritious diets and make more sustainable — and affordable — food choices.

“We are striving to provide one option for the food industry to feed the world,” Vangelov said.

From obscure to ubiquitous

Soylent seemed like an odd proposition in its early days. The company came to prominence after co-founder Rob Rhinehart wrote a blog about consuming only Soylent for 30 days.

The viewpoints of Rhinehart, whose quirky persona and apocalyptic takes on the future of food were captured on his now-offline blog and company releases, often were conflated with the corporate message of Soylent itself. The prevailing portrayal of Soylent was that of a tech company that sold food.

In 2017, Rhinehart became the executive chairman of Soylent’s board, handing the business’ reins to experienced CPG exec and Flying Embers co-founder Bryan Crowley. And just over two years later, Vangelov — who had previously been Soylent’s CFO and COO — took the helm. In early 2020, the company was showing signs of struggle with rumors of quiet downsizing, discontinued products and rumblings of poor retail sales.

When Vangelov became CEO, he had his work cut out for him.

“In 2020, we redesigned just about everything around the company: our fulfillment, our warehousing, our manufacturing, our procurement, the way we do things, our team,” he said.


“We are not a medical nutrition brand. We’re not a ‘you go to the moon with Soylent and you don’t need anything else’ brand. We’re not a dieting brand. We’re really a lifestyle brand.”

Demir Vangelov

CEO, Soylent


He realized that the company’s customer acquisition campaigns were not providing good enough returns. So Vangelov redesigned the strategy to better address both Soylent enthusiasts and to bring new consumers to the brand. This also meant renovating the product to address different needs. There were ways to meet both old and new consumers with one product line, as well as make it feel accessible to different kinds of people. Vangelov said Soylent had been trying to do too many different things, which can stretch a smaller company way too thin.

Soylent, like other plant-based food companies, also had issues with its margins, Vangelov said. He’s got experience with helping a plant-based company become profitable, having previously worked with plant-based dairy maker Califia Farms. And he said that as he came into Soylent’s top role, the company had to turn its system around and stop losing money immediately. Through the changes in messaging, formula, distribution, procurement and people, it happened, he said.

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