Origin Story Interview W/ Johnny Drain, Win-Win

Origin Story Interview W/ Johnny Drain, Win-Win

Brighter Future


Mar 27, 2024

#BrighterFuture #originstoryseries #entrepreneurship #Sustainability #EthicalChocolate #FoodInnovation #CocoaFreeChocolate #FoodTech #FutureOfFood #Chocolate #seekthechange

Brighter Future

We’re very pleased to be joined by Johnny Drain, co-founder of Win-Win. His company produces a more environmentally-friendly cocoa-free chocolate.

Thank you so much for being here, Johnny. Do you think you could tell us a little about yourself and your company?

My name is Johnny Drain, co-founder of Win-Win, and we’re creating the future of chocolate. Beyond that, we’re creating the future of ingredients by creating more sustainable, more ethical ingredients and choices for consumers and ingredient companies alike.

Why do you think Win-Win’s product is important?

We feel it's important because there is not just chocolate, but lots of different food and drink that the world loves, like coffee, tea, and vanilla, and these products could have a much less detrimental environmental and social impact. Our position is that we don't want people to stop enjoying the food they eat. We want that joy you have when you eat a chocolate bar or when you drink a cup of coffee in the morning. We exist to find different, better ways to create these flavour profiles and to support the good people already working in chocolate ethically and sustainably. We just want to create “routes” to these flavour profiles, so people can carry on enjoying all of these wonderful foods without feeling guilty that they've negatively impacted the world.

That's a huge issue that extends beyond chocolate and carries on to other food and drink that we love. How did you find yourself first getting engaged in this area?

I grew up quite near a chocolate factory. I've always loved chocolate, and I think it's the same for my co-founder Ahrum Pak. That said, though you’d think everyone loves chocolate, since we started this company people have emailed us to say, "I love chocolate, but it gives me migraines," or "it makes me ill.” So there's a quite small stratum of the global population who like chocolate, but for various reasons can't eat it.

I studied something called material science, which is a cross between chemistry and physics. Then, about 10 years ago, I finished a PhD in that subject and started working for restaurants, quite fancy restaurants that have R&D teams. This led me to become an expert in fermentation and food innovation, which in turn brought me into sustainability and the issues surrounding food systems: the very reason Win-Win exists. I co-founded MOLD Magazine with LinYee Yuan, focusing on the challenge of feeding approximately 10 billion people by 2050 sustainably. Through this endeavour I began interfacing with VCs and investors in food tech companies, which explains my current path.

I had this idea: why can't I start a food tech company that looks fun and interesting and also impactful? I was working for these fancy Michelin star restaurants where you make food for 50 really rich people at night, and we were doing food innovation and making interesting things with byproducts, and so on. You look out into a dining room and think, actually, how much of an impact am I going to have? So Ahrum and I bonded over this idea of impact at a time when we both wanted to start a food tech company.

The other piece of the puzzle was about six years ago. There's a story to do with potatoes: I was at my parents' house and I boiled these three slightly old potatoes. When I smelt the steam I realised they smelt like hot chocolate. Why did these three weird, gnarly, old potatoes smell like chocolate? That’s when the questions started. Why does chocolate even taste like chocolate?

It feels today like we're in a golden age of chocolate science. People have been investigating that with greater clarity in the last 10 to 20 years than they ever have in human history and chocolate, of course, is an ancient product with thousands of years of history. Why does chocolate taste so much like chocolate? And more importantly, is it possible to make that flavour from a potato? Now, we ended up not making it from potatoes, but that is what started us on this route to Win-Win.

When you go back to your childhood, where did this entrepreneurial spirit start and did you ever think of wanting to have your own business?

My parents were not explicitly entrepreneurial, but I've got two uncles who sort of were, so I suppose I had those kinds of role models from an early age. But the word 'independence' also resonates for me. I've spent the last 10 years working as a freelancer consultant, doing things not within a classic sort of corporate structure and basically, I spent most of my life avoiding actually getting a proper job with a proper boss, for better or for worse. This led me to want to start my own company and found that magazine. I sort of had a couple of brushes with starting companies about five or six years ago and all roads led to this idea of wanting to run a food tech company, essentially.

There are a lot of challenges in a startup. How have you dealt with your biggest challenges?

As long as you're aware that it's going to be really difficult and you're going to experience peaks and troughs, then I think it's okay. I've always believed that the most important asset we have is the co-founder/co-leader relationship.

We both have, separately, networks of people that we ask about their experiences doing this similar thing, and we've chatted to founders of companies that have been successful and asked for their top three tips on preserving this really important relationship. You just have to listen to those people who have been through it and take their advice. But I'd also say, I don't think there's a template because, regardless of whether there are two, three, or even four co-founders, as we know some companies have, I don't know if it's easier or more difficult, but you are humans, and you're weird and idiosyncratic, and you have to just deal with the other person on the other side of the screen or the other side of the table. And that's quite a unique experience.

I would like to shift a little bit into sustainability and regeneration. In your career or childhood, where did this passion start?

I suppose the weird thing I would say is that as a kid, I was always into making things out of a limited set of ingredients.

I remember making a cart during the summer holidays when I was about nine out of a wooden pallet and then some wheels that I found in my dad's garage. I took it out on the road in front of the house and it broke straight away. This was five weeks of work on these waste materials that I'd collected, and I was really sad that I had spent all this time and then this thing broke on the first trip out. Today, though, I give lectures sometimes about creative constraints and the idea of using waste materials in the context of food.

I suppose that focus on sustainability, which is fundamental when we think about food waste, is not the only thing that's important within food systems and sustainability, but it's one of the most important ones. So, for example, the world grows enough food to feed everyone. But, up to 50% of the edible mass that we grow is just wasted. I think the idea of just making do with what you have and making the most of it represents an idea of sustainability more broadly.

At the first Michelin-oriented restaurant I went to work in, I saw them throwing away huge amounts of food, and it bothered me. They had things like this bit of deer loin that you have to cut both ends off of to make it into a perfect and unnatural cylinder shape. I saw the end cuts going into the rubbish and I thought, what are these people doing? Can I eat this? So I took the wasted meat and it was so delicious. It blew my mind that this happened in all restaurants, all over the world, whether Michelin-starred or McDonald's. Oddly enough, though, fast-food restaurants are often basically run by MBA people and management consultants, so they are super-optimised and don’t tend to waste quite as much as the fine restaurants.

If we jump off at some point and ask what Win-Win’s culture is, I suppose part of it would simply be the question, “Why can’t we do things better?”

What would you say is the most fulfilling part of your job?

I get a real kick out of paying people's wages. It’s both daunting and exciting for me. I think of us as this family looking after these people. There are routine tasks the staff have to perform, but I also cherish the idea of us being an incubator that helps them grow and develop new skills beyond their day-to-day. Just like we talk about incubation in our fermentation processes, I like to think we're nurturing and developing our team in a similar way.

But as much as we focus on the short, medium, and long-term goals of the business, we also have the idea that if some of our employees leave to start their own businesses, it will be a measure of success for us. So I get a kick out of the people, the people element excites me.

And then there's the progress of the product. Even two years ago, the product was far less good compared to what it is now. Seeing how everyone has contributed to this, the wonderful team we have shown how they've changed the product and made it so much better. That also obviously is really, really thrilling.

What is your favourite mistake or failure that you had to go through with your company, and what did you learn?

We wanted to be the first company that sold cocoa-free chocolate, so we rushed the launch of our very first product because a couple of other companies, who had been working on the same concept for a similar amount of time as us, emerged. Creating the packaging for it was a new challenge for us. There were five people in the company then plus an intern and none of us were packaging experts.

So we spent ages on this packaging, sourcing very sustainable packaging material from a company and made this relatively complex design that allowed the packaging to close at either end without adhesives and then had to get each piece laser-cut. We were let down by a third party, so the laser-cutting and printing were really bad, and in the end the wrapper just looked a bit rubbish! Everyone had put so much time and effort into it. It was heartbreaking!

And then a few weeks after we’d had to send all the products out we realised that we could have made something much simpler and much cooler-looking with the same packaging material. But we took that realisation and for the next product release we created a much simpler version of the packaging.

I would love to know your tactics of how you ground yourselves or how you keep a cool head.

Despite saying our journey has been quite easy and it’s been the best thing I've ever done, it's always challenging.

There's this common saying about the founder journey being very lonely. And even with the most amazing team around us, I’d say it’s true. So make sure you create and leverage a network of mentors outside of the company who you can run things past. I’d also advocate strongly for the use of a coach and coaching. Trust and vulnerability are really key on the founder's journey, so embracing those, which coaches can help you do, I think is vital.

And acknowledging that you're all human and just being forgiving to yourself and then forgiving each other because we're all flawed. This is really important. People normally have some deep-rooted reason and motivation for seeing things or wanting to do things in a particular way. The real trick is to try to see the human behind the position, action, or decision.

How do you envision the future? What would you like to see?

I suppose there's a chocolate answer and then there's a food systems answer as well. Let's tackle the chocolate one. At the moment, there are a few companies in the world making cocoa-free chocolate, though it's still only a handful. We're consequently very much in that kind of vanguard pioneer category. I think the tricky thing with the world of chocolate, which is really important to emphasise, is that we love chocolate and we want a future where there's more chocolate. The problem is that today almost all mass-market chocolate is produced in ways that involve child labour, slave labour, deforestation, and an oversized carbon footprint. What we want is to be a pillar that supports many of the people who are already doing amazing work in the world of chocolate.

There are people out there who can buy chocolate that costs more but is produced in ways that are ethical and environmentally friendly. We want to be a pillar to support that type of chocolate-making and cocoa-growing. The idea would be that we're pioneers at the moment but in the medium to long-term future, in 10 to 50 years, this cocoa-free chocolate becomes one pillar of this chocolate confectionery industry, and that industry will have changed such that most of the world's chocolate, in 10 to 50 years, is produced in equitable ways, with cocoa farmers getting paid fairly for sustainable, environmentally-friendly cocoa farming. That's what I would like to see.

If you could share one message with the general population, what would it be?

Always ask questions and challenge everything. Even ask the dumb questions: the questions that you think are too simple. Even if you think you know the answer. More than ever, I think asking those questions can bring about the most insights.

I think that's excellent advice. Johnny, I want to thank you very sincerely for spending some of your time with us, and from all of us at Brighter Future, we wish you nothing but the greatest, most delicious success in Win-Win’s cocoa-free chocolate endeavours.

To learn more about Johnny and Win-Win, please visit www.eatwinwin.com.

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