Lamar Letts was a high school track star until a rare heart condition abruptly ended his athletic career. When he was eventually able to return to a fitness regimen after a year of bedrest, Letts knew monitoring his nutrition would be crucially important. But he discovered that all of the popular sports drinks on the market fell short of meeting his needs.
So in 2016, he launched his own drink brand, Hylux. And last week, at age 27, he became one of the youngest CEOs to have his product sold on Walmart.com.
“I oftentimes had to water down a drink just because of calories and sugars in it,” said Letts, a 2017 graduate of Northeastern University. “The more I spoke to people about this, it seemed like everyone was doing everything besides just drinking it out of the bottle.”
Letts knew exactly what he wanted to put into a drink that could better help athletes perform and recover. He teamed up with a food scientist to create a safe formula for Hylux, a low-sugar, flavored water infused with vitamins and electrolytes. (Walmart.com sells a mixed-flavors case of eight 16.9-oz bottles for $19.99.)
Having been deficient in potassium and magnesium — both of which Hylux contains — Letts said he wants to bring awareness to the fact that many Americans don’t consume enough of those and other essential nutrients.
Letts came up with the concept for the brand in his college dorm room, where he worked on logo, tagline, and bottle shape ideas. Meanwhile, he met with his food scientist for what seemed like an endless series of taste tests to inch closer to the perfect flavoring.
“Maybe most people couldn’t tell the difference,” he said. “But even if it’s a minor tweak to how much, maybe, strawberry you put in, I thought that going an extra mile made the difference.”
He initially received a $10,000 grant from Northeastern’s student-led venture accelerator, IDEA, and raised more than $14,000 from a Kickstarter campaign, but Hylux found its first outside investor in Winslow Sargeant, managing director of early-stage investment firm S&T LLC.
Sargeant met Letts after a colleague at Northeastern introduced him to the then-undergraduate. He said he immediately noticed Letts’s humility and intelligence, and could tell the young entrepreneur had plenty of ambition.
“I liked his drive. I liked where he was going. I liked the fact that it was a consumable product,” Sergeant said. “Many good ideas come out of a problem that affected you that is a problem someone else may have and you might find a bigger market for. I liked that story. I understood it.”
But Letts didn’t know how to launch or scale a business. Aside from investing between $40,000 and $50,000 to get the business off the ground, Sargeant introduced Letts to lawyers to set up the company, as well as connected him to people in the industry he believed could help get Hylux into stores.
Manufactured in New Jersey, Hylux is now sold at 21 brick-and-mortar businesses across Massachusetts and can be found in convenience stores, restaurants, and private grocers. Letts also has four employees, along with various contractors and partners.
Dan Gregory, founding faculty adviser of IDEA, became a mentor to Letts after getting to know him through the program. Now retired, he still keeps in touch with Letts, whom he describes as a “classic bootstrapping entrepreneur.”
“He has incredible energy,” Gregory said. “Instead of getting others to do the work and raising lots of money to hire a team before he was ready to, which he is now ready to do, he just rolled up his sleeves and he went after it.”
Letts said his journey with Hylux — which also launched on Amazon earlier this year — has been a “rollercoaster” of challenges and successes.
He initially hoped to distribute the drink to gyms, people he knew, and perhaps on his personal website. Landing on the digital shelves of big-name retailers seemed unattainable.
“When I was first starting, it wasn’t something that I really even had in my mind that was a possibility,” Letts said. “The fact that Amazon and Walmart now are interested in carrying it, I can’t even put in words how exciting it is.”
Angela Yang can be reached at email@example.com.