Why the couple behind a growing caffeine strip business are moving to Wakefield

If John Nolan-Neylan’s nose for a business opportunity is as keen now as it was as a student in Australia, his latest venture could prove rather successful.

Saturday, 20th November 2021, 12:00 pm
John and Jacqui Nolan-Neylan, co-founders of Revvies Energy in Wakefield.

While in his second year at the University of Newcastle, in New South Wales, a large earthquake struck the city, levelling thousands of buildings. With economic activity sluggish in the wake of the devastation, commercial rents fell and Mr Nolan-Neylan struck, sinking his student grant into a shop.

“We sold all the things you couldn’t get in Newcastle, but you could get in Sydney,” he told The Yorkshire Post. “Candles and jewellery, band T-shirts and incense holders – the kinds of things that students like.”

He opened a second shop within a year and more followed, including a wholesale business. He only sold his shares when he became President of the National Union of Students in New South Wales.

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His latest venture is aimed at a rather different crowd. His company, Wakefield-based Revvies Energy Strips, makes caffeine-impregnated gel strips that dissolve in the mouth to give a burst of energy.

Endurance athletes are among the early adopters, and high-profile fans include US distance runner Sarah Hall, Australian Olympian Eloise Wellings, and UK internationals Charlotte Purdue and Natasha Cockram.

All Revvies products carry the Informed Sport logo, which guarantees that every batch has been independently tested for substances banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA).

“For athletes, that’s really important, because contamin-ation could potentially be career-ending,” says Mr Nolan-Neylan.

“There’s a lot of dishonest labelling, where people are putting things in products and then not listing them on the products, and sometimes those things are banned.

“One in 10 products internationally either has some contamination – accidental or intentional – with WADA-banned substances.”

Reliability apart, athletes are also attracted by the notion of getting a caffeine boost without drinking coffee, which is slower-acting and can be an irritant.

“We’ve found that the easy-on-the-stomach, fast-acting format makes it very appealing for endurance athletes. They search out the product and then tell everyone about it. With a small brand it’s really important to find your tribe.”

A dissolving strip beloved of an elite band of high-performance runners may sound a little esoteric, but Mr Nolan-Neylan is having none of it.

“Eighty per cent of the world’s population has caffeine every day, so this is not niche,” he says.

“There’s a lot of evidence to suggest that early man chewed plants that contained caffeine, and that would have been absorbed through their cheeks, not their gut. So in some ways, it’s like going back to the future.

“We foresee a time when the product moves mainstream, and people might have it in their desk drawer or car glove-box. They might not want to stop for a coffee, so they’ll take a Revvies.”

So far, the company has sold over 400,000 packs and revenue is forecast to surpass A$1.5m [£800,000] next year. Sales have doubled annually over the last two years, and the strips were named Sports Nutrition Product of the Year by Nutra Ingredients.

This year, the company, which Mr Nolan-Neylan co-founded with his wife Jacqui, raised A$200,000 (£107,000) through equity crowdfunding site Seedrs.

Although the couple, who hold dual citizenship, currently run the business from their home in Sydney, Australia, they met when they were both working in London and plan to return with their family next year to live near Wakefield, where the company currently supports about 12 jobs.

“We just found it really easy to work with people in Yorkshire,” says Mr Nolan-Neylan. “There’s a slightly different attitude that maybe aligns with ours – it’s no nonsense, just get it done.

“As a small start-up, we’ve had issues that our team and business partners there have helped us through, and get to the stage where we’ve really got our foot on the accelerator.”

Those issues have been varied. There was a trademark dispute early on, which forced them to change the company’s name – “but to a better one” – and at one point the couple had to drive Ubers to make ends meet.

“We thought we’d secured a large piece of funding, and then made commitments to spend it, before pen was on paper. It was painful, but those are the hard yards – if you’ve not got a lot of money but you’ve got a dream for a business, sometimes you just have to do it. It taught us a lesson and I think investors have seen our commitment to the business, and that’s actually helped us secure funding.”

The latest challenge is Brexit, which, says Mr Nolan-Neylan, has increased costs and workload, and looks likely to necessitate the launch of a subsidiary on EU soil.

“Obviously, that means that we’re going to have to pay the taxes in Ireland, for example, if we locate there, before we bring the profits back to the UK,” says Mr Nolan-Neylan. “So some of the profits that would have landed in the UK will not, which is a shame. That’s not the way we wanted to do it.”

Nevertheless, the couple will be ramping up distribution from their Yorkshire base, and remain “laser-focused” on building the brand internationally.

“We get approaches from all over the world – Hong Kong, Singapore and Central America, for example – and I’m sure some of these other markets will come, but over the next two years we’re targeting Europe and North America,” he says. “That’s more than enough to chew on, I think.”