The BBC weekly The Boss Series portrays another business leader from around the world. This week we spoke to Justin Woolverton, founder and CEO of the ice cream brand Halo Top.
Just a few years ago, Justin Woolverton pleaded with US supermarkets to store his calorie-reduced ice pans in their freezers. [1
"We were stuck to the skin of our teeth," says the 38-year-old, "We would tell them, let's get up there, things will turn over."
In his wildest dreams, Mr. Woolverton could not have predicted how dramatic the turnaround would be. Only six years after launch, his ice cream is now the best-selling brand in the US.
With very little money for marketing, the LA-based start-up had attempted to increase sales by working hard to promote itself in social media
Then a journalist from GQ magazine wrote a very funny article on how he ate only Halo Top Ice for ten days
The story became viral, and Halo Top sold through the roof.
28.8 million tubs are expected to have been sold in 2016, which represents sales of $ 132.4 million (£ 101 million). These are more than industry giants Ben & Jerry's (owned by Unilever) and Haagen-Dazs (owned by Nestle) and estimate Halo Top at around $ 2 billion.
Not bad for a small independent company that has no external investors. Unlike the family and friends of Mr. Woolverton and co-founder Doug Bouton.
Despite the success of the brand, some critics have questioned the alleged health-related references of "guilt-free" ice. While others wonder if it should be allowed to call themselves ice cream at all.
Prior to founding Halo Top, Mr. Woolverton worked in Los Angeles as a corporate lawyer, a work he had disenchanted.
The idea for the ice was due to limitations that he had to enforce in his diet to get blood sugar levels.
At home, instead of sugary treats, he would have a bowl of Greek yogurt with fruits to which he would add the sweetener Stevia.
After buying a $ 20 ice cream maker, he put the mixture through to see how it would taste. From then on it was like, "Holy Cow, if I like that, why would other people not like it? "."
Mr. Woolverton then began to experiment with ingredients, including replacing milk with yoghurt, so that the brew behaves more like ice cream in the frozen state and can be made on a large scale.
"It took a year of total failure in the beginning," he says.
With his friend Doug Bouton, another former lawyer on board, they started the business with borrowed money from family and friends, student loans and £ 150,000 credit card debt.
Mr. Woolverton says there are no private equity investors giving him and Mr. Bouton more freedom. "We do not have suits that tell us what to do," he says.
To promote the brand in social media in the early days, Mr. Woolverton has developed a new idea. He hired local students to send Halo Top Coupons to people with great followings on YouTube and Instagram posting about health and fitness.
"It was a really big marketing strategy," he explains. "We thought if they can buy it, that's great, if they can not, we'll be on the radar anyway."
Alex Beckett, Deputy Food and Beverage Director at Mintel Research Group, says Halo Top continues to be heavily used Social media has been a key component of its success.
"It has increased its appeal as a cool, bold alternative to global ice cream brands with larger advertising budgets," says Beckett.
And then there was the GQ
"That [Halo Top diet] is not something we recommend, to put it bluntly, but it was a really funny article," says Woolverton. "It made the brand catch fire."
More The Boss Features Who Portray Another Business Leader Every Week From Around the World:
After the story became viral, Halo Top saw revenue rise as meteoric as the business
"[Supermarkets] Also did not know how to handle it, "says Woolverton. "For the first time, people bought three, four, or five pints at a time, and it was the first lifestyle ice cream people could eat every day."
But should people really eat Halo Top every day?
The ice cream contains two sweeteners – erythritol and stevia – instead of a lot of sugar. While these are widely used in the food industry and are being kept clean by food agencies, they have skeptics who say they can cause side effects such as irritable bowel syndrome.
Other critics claim that Halo Top and its rival low-calorie ice creams could actually help people gain weight. And a question, whether Halo Top may call itself an ice cream because it contains so little milk fat.
Mr. Woolverton says the brand's success is "a recognition of how smarter the consumer is than many companies think."
The success of Halo Top has also led to the introduction of many other low calorie ice cream brands. These include the Breyers Delight by Unilever, the "Moo-phoria" series by Ben & Jerry and the British start-up Oppo.
Mr. Woolverton was also flooded with takeover bills, including a $ 2 billion Unilever bid. He rejected them all and instead focused his eyes on global domination.
The company was founded last year in the UK and exports to countries such as Australia and Singapore. Halo Top Ice Cream Parlors, called Scoop Shops, have also opened in the US.
Mr. Woolverton is confident Halo Top will be one of the largest ice cream brands in the world in five years. "We'll be as well known as Ben & Jerry's," he says.