The Road to Ugly

Eighteen months ago Hugh Thomas and his colleague Joe Benn
had an idea to rock the drinks industry — what if they
could produce a drink that not only promised
to be healthy but that actually was healthy?

Hugh met Joe whilst working at Vita Coco (you know, that coconut water everyone drinks now!) and hit it off. At the time the team was only small so they mucked in and enjoyed the challenges of helping to launch a product and it’s brand into a new market. Vita Coco was already established in the USA but bringing it over to the Brits was a challenge. Coconut water? We’d never heard of it but soon enough it was everywhere. For Hugh the move to Vita Coco was actually a little bit strategic. He knew he wanted to start his own business one day so getting experience of how to start up a company by working in a company that was launching into a new market made perfect sense.

In his head this was the last job where he would be working for someone else and, coincidentally, Joe was having very similar thoughts as well. After a couple of years working together at Vita Coco and rising through the ranks to senior positions (Hugh within branding and Joe within sales) it would seem that the question of whether they should build a business together never really arose — it was a given. They were both frustrated with food and drinks businesses making promises that they weren’t fulfilling, they longed for a brand that encouraged consumers to think about what they were consuming and were transparent enough to put that on their labels.

Solve a Problem

The question was — what can you drink without any sugar (natural or otherwise) or sweeteners? The answer: water. But sometimes you want something a bit more interesting than water. Thus began their exploration into infused waters and the concept of Ugly was born! For the next 18 months they worked mornings, evenings, weekends and took days off from their jobs to get their business up and running. As with any startup there were obstacles to workout before they could confidently say that Ugly was viable and, in the meantime, they had to pay their rent.

During those 18 months they spent a lot of time talking to customers and also, crucially, to manufacturers. They knew that infused water was possible having created various ones themselves over the years, but could a manufacturer make the product with a longer shelf life than few days but without using preservatives? It was a process that took nearly five months to find the right production partner for Ugly and whilst it was a long time Hugh looks on it as a huge learning curve and a period of meeting a lot of fascinating people with tonnes of knowledge.
When they knew that the product could be made and they had a manufacturer in place it was time to look at the figures. Once it all started clicking into place towards the end of 2014 they knew this was something that they were going to do and whilst there were still lots of things to work on, ultimately, this was happening. However, regardless of all their meticulous planning there were inevitable obstacles that got thrown in their path which they had to work out how to deal with and not be defeated. One of Hugh’s learning points was that quite often, a month later, they had forgotten the problem ever existed. Often the solutions that they come up with were better than the plan they originally had in place. For example — they never expected to launch a company called Ugly!

What’s In A Name?

With a background working in marketing, communications and branding Hugh had experience in how to build a brand and communicate with consumers — he hadn’t created a brand from scratch however so they decided to look outside of their partnership for these expertise. They took their brief to a branding agency with the desire to build a brand that challenged the status quo of the drinks industry, an industry that they believe needs to change.

The Ugly logo

The branding agency came back with the name ‘Ugly’ which both Hugh and Joe instantly loved it. However, after sleeping on it and some time to overthink it the doubts crept in. Ultimately it is a polarising and provocative word with a negative connotation in the traditional sense but they decided to take on the challenge. After all this water wasn’t going to make you faster, stronger, or prettier as a lot of other drinks brands promise to do — but these brands do it with sugar and various other additives. They realised that if that’s what you need to be beautiful then they’d rather be ugly. Ugly’s philosophy is that if you want to get faster, go for a run; if you want to get fitter, do some exercise; if you want more energy, get some sleep.

Counting Beans

Alongside all of this was the issue of money. A day job isn’t going to pay for the manufacturing of a product so they had to raise funding for this. A lot of options were put on the table; from Kickstarter, to crowdfunding, and the equity for cash deal. Neither Hugh nor Joe wanted to go down these routes and with their experience of the industry they put together a strong proposition and took it to family, friends and contacts which brought in the funding they needed. Hugh believes that whilst this was their way, there is no right way — it depends on your product, your industry, the stage your business is at, and what you are trying to do.

Ugly was born and now it’s stocked in Selfridges! (Kudos guys!) With his experience in sales Joe was the driving force behind this. They pitched their product very early on and Selfridges got on board with their vision. In general Selfridges are very supportive of small food and drink brands, their Food Hall is one of the best places to go to check out what’s new in food and drink.

Magic Moments

Whilst Ugly being stocked in Selfridges alongside giants in the food and drink industry was a huge highlight, one of their other standout moments was when their product became a physical reality. Leaving London early Hugh and Joe headed to their manufacturer just outside of London to see and feel their product in the flesh. They both have time stamped bottles, the first ones that came off the production line.

The Ugly line-up

The support from those outside of the business has been, by their own admission, staggering but they say they are not alone in the start-up world in saying this. From people helping with spreadsheets, business plans, to pointing them in the right direction for people to speak to it seems those who have gone through the start-up journey before are keen to ‘pay it forward’ and help the new kids on the block on their way to success.

Hugh and Joe have big plans for Ugly. They want it to be as accessible as possible to as many people as possible, so keep an eye out for it. Go get Ugly, because you’re sweet enough already.



Work on your business idea alongside your day job until you are sure of it’s viability.


Have a product or service that consumers actually need and solve a problem for them.


Be creative in your thinking and fluid in your decision making.


Everything takes longer than you imagine.


Learn from those who have gone before you.


Pay-it-forward. Ask for help and when you’re asked in the future — help!

Lorna Morris is the editor of Hatch Journal and a freelance graphic designer. She believes in Ugly drinks as looking after your body is so important — it’s the only place we’ve got to live (until cloning is invented that is).