Inga Koster is not concerned with what others think. The co-founder of the Bonn smoothie producer True Fruits, uses phrases like, “balls of steel,” to advertise their product.
Koster worked – together with her team and co-founders – on this provocative campaign and it paid off: it brought a lot of attention to their company. This unconventional approach is part of the startup’s business model.
But Koster is not too keen on being in the spotlight herself. She’d rather work on True Fruits from behind-the-scenes, with her two co-founders: Head of Marketing Nicolas Lecloux and CEO Marco Knauf.
Since founding in 2006, the trio has created a profitable company selling thick fruit juices in glass bottles: The startup reports turnover of €40 million ($44.7 million) in 2016. A smoothie costs up to €2.50.
From slacker to entrepreneur
Koster, 38, did not think things would come this far. Earlier, Koster explains, she was a slacker. She partied a lot and would even ditch school. “The teachers hated me,” she recalls laughing, while sitting at a table shaped like a True Fruit bottle in a colourful meeting room in Bonn.
Although she only did the bare minimum in school, it was enough to get good grades, she says. After graduation she trained to become a bank clerk and the bank job suited Koster well: It was here that she cultivated her natural propensity for thinking analytically.
But passion? It was non-existent. At the bank she was responsible for assisting chief financial officers who worked for various industrial companies.
She remembers thinking: “They were so proud of the tractors or cars they produced. They knew what they were working for – the product. That was not the case at the bank.”
There you had to be able to feel enthusiastic about interest rates, she continues. In the end, she decided to quit her job and study again. “This cannot be it,” she thought at the time.
Inexpensive bus trips – or pornos?
While studying business administration, she met Nicolas Lecloux and later on Marco Knauf. For more than ten years, Koster has been privately linked to Knauf and in 2005 the couple decided to spend a semester abroad in Aberdeen, Scotland.
It was here in a university shop that the pair first saw pureed juices made from fruit and vegetables.
Six months later, when they returned to Bonn, Koster and Knauf decided they wanted to be self-employed.
But how? First they considered an affordable long-distance bus service – or to create a platform for amateur pornos. At that time, Youporn and Flixbus weren’t around, Koster recalls. In the end, however, they opted for a different idea: smoothies. And just like that, Koster found her passion.
In 2006, True Fruits was founded in Bonn. “When I am passionate about something, I stand behind it completely,” Koster says. Koster says she has passion for smoothies, even if she does not drink them herself. She believes in the product. “I am someone who does not like to be told what to do.”
Her gaze wanders to three colorful portraits of True Fruits’ founders that are hanging in the meeting room. Each portrait includes the respective founder’s strengths. Intuition, control, strategy and power are listed on Koster’s.
“You can’t let others introduce doubt.”
The first years in a young company are exhausting. It is a challenge creating recipes, finding producers and collecting advice. Industry experts provided advice like, “move to Hamburg” or “glass bottles do not work at all.”
Koster and her co-founders did not listen. Although she does admit, “You have to be really sure about what you want and you can’t let others introduce doubt. That is hard when you are in your early twenties and know relatively little about life and the industry.”
During the early years, Koster “required” her two co-founders participate in business competitions. First, because it ensured they created a business plan. Secondly, because of the reputation that comes with winning such a competition. She believes that participating and winning awards, would help True Fruits get money from investors.
“Whether you are with buyers at Rewe or suppliers, they are all just people. When they hear that a product comes recommended by others, they are convinced.”
It worked: Two business angels provided financial support for True Fruits. Koster’s analytical approach works in a startups. She ensures things stay orderly and solves problems. She “grounds” the team, one investor, says about her.
“Sometimes I think that other companies manage everything so easily,” Koster says. “But then you look a bit closer and realize they are even more chaotic than you are. Running a business is not easy, but you don’t need to be superman to do it.”
Marketing is not her thing
At first Koster focused on marketing, but she did not like it. “You worked on something for eight hours – and then you have a flyer,” she complains.
“I am more the type of person who controls the company and ensures that everything is running. That is more satisfying.” Her co-founder Lecloux took over marketing and Koster turned her attention to administrative responsibilities.
The same is true at Suckit, another startup she runs with Knauf and another Cologne founder. Their product? Alcoholic slushies.
Koster and Knauf are still together, and have two sons, who are two and five years old. At the company there is no separating their private and professional life. “Sparks fly,” at the office. “You cannot always have the same opinion,” Koster says objectively. “We’ve known each other for 15 years, so you know each other’s tics.”
Even in her role as a mother, Koster tackles and solves problems efficiently, thought through and without drama. So if her youngest son becomes sick and cannot go to daycare, she’ll take him to work – there is a bed in her office just for him.
Knauf and Koster divide their tasks in their everyday personal life, just like at True Fruits. As a general rule Koster takes the children in the morning, the CEO in the evening. In the evening she sits down on the couch to answer emails, she says. Between 6 and 9 o’clock she prioritizes her work, as some afternoons belong to the children.
Setting aside work is often hard for Koster. For example, if a swim lesson is planned she always has to tell herself: “Yes, what I am doing is important, but the swim lessons are just as important.”
“If I were to just drop it, then my son would never be there. There are always important things that need to be done.”
“I’m not just an extroverted attention hog.”
When Koster talks about being a woman and sexism it becomes clear she doesn’t just crack down on issues in her personal life.
She cannot understand why the topic of gender always comes up in conversations with her. “What annoys me is that I am always asked to address women’s issues, like the female quota at company boards,” she says. “Yes, I am a woman, but I am not an expert.”
Of True Fruits three founders, she negotiates the hardest, she emphasizes. “Our business partners get it eventually,” she says. But she won’t let herself be pushed into the limelight.
Her two co-founders often receive more attention and Koster voluntarily takes a role behind the scenes. “Of course, a lot more people know Nic. He holds talks or is on TV. But this is also a job role that I do not want to fulfill.” She’ll give a talk every now and again, if someone forces her to do so, she says laughing. These talks, however, are a waste time, that she could use to do other more important, things. She is more concerned about True Fruits: “I am not just an extroverted attention hog.”
This text originally appeared on NGIN-FOOD.