Yanni Hufnagel

Founder of The Lemon Perfect Company

Yanni Hufnagel is the Founder and CEO of The Lemon Perfect Company, maker of Lemon Perfect, a delicious and refreshing flavored lemon water with zero sugar and no artificial flavors or sweeteners. Powered by half a squeezed organic lemon in every bottle, Lemon Perfect contains only 5 calories, is high in immune-boosting vitamin C, and is proudly certified Plastic Neutral.

Lemon Perfect is the fastest-growing brand in the Flavor-Enhanced Water category and is widely considered one of the most innovative emerging beverages in the marketplace. The company’s mission is to sustainably reimagine bottled water by promoting great-tasting, healthy hydration—anytime, anywhere, and for everyone.

The Lemon Perfect Company is headquartered in Atlanta, GA.

Before starting Lemon Perfect, Hufnagel served as an assistant men’s college basketball coach, with stops at Nevada, California, Vanderbilt, Harvard, and Oklahoma. Hufnagel earned the reputation as one of the most dogged recruiters in America and was consistently lauded for signing nationally ranked recruiting classes. In Hufnagel’s 10 years coaching college basketball, his teams reached the NCAA Tournament six times.

What is your typical day, and how do you make it productive?

Everything I do during the day is about making our team better. How do I make our people happier? How do I make our people more productive? How do we make our odds of winning better? I focus on my physical and mental health because ultimately, that allows me to be a better leader. I’m committed to fitness and eating well, and I prioritize sleep. I blend weight training with high-intensity aerobic work for my exercise routine—every morning, even when I’m on the road—which increases my productivity. A few months ago, I started cold plunging in the morning, and I love it! I find that a morning of weight training or cardio plus cold exposure sets me up for a great day. I do intermittent fasting, so in the morning, it’s Lemon Perfect and black coffee. For the sake of productivity, we schedule meetings when needed, not as a recurring formality on our calendars. I block my calendar and engage in deep work for 2-3 hours every morning, and I find that that’s very important, otherwise I get pulled in a lot of different directions at the start of the day.

How do you bring ideas to life?

We make quick decisions, set a plan, and execute. We will things to happen here. We have unrelenting grit and enthusiasm, and I’ve found that that is what propels ideas and gets them across the finish line.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I love that sugar is becoming more vilified as part of the American diet, and Lemon Perfect will be a big part of the continued reduction of sugar in homes, stores, schools, and restaurants across America. We have major health issues in our country, especially in the most underserved communities, and sugar is a major cause of many of these. You can only eat so much food, but you can really drink your sugar.

What is one habit that helps you be productive?

I rely on our Leadership team to execute our short-term plan, which allows me to be more productive in thinking about the long-term vision of Lemon Perfect. As you add great people around you, you don’t feel like you need to be as “in the trenches” day to day, which frees me up to think about our future strategy.

What advice would you give your younger self?

The years go fast. I would tell my younger self to appreciate every day with a deeper understanding of that concept. I would say, “Spend as much time as you can with those you love and those who love you, slow down, and appreciate those moments. Take a breath, look around—because we only get to go through the journey of life once.”

Tell us something you believe that almost nobody agrees with you on?

I’ve always told aspiring entrepreneurs in Food and Beverage that your margin story doesn’t matter at the beginning—what matters is that people love the product and come back and that you have great repeat. Beverage is really hard; it’s capital-intensive early on. But it’s all about trial and consumption. Your gross margin story must come, but it can come later. It’s simply not about the bottom line early on—it’s about share of stomach and share of category.

What is the one thing you repeatedly do and recommend everyone else do?

I love my morning cold plunge, and I would tell everyone that it’s an incredible way to start the day. There are numerous purported benefits—which I believe to be real—such as reduced inflammation, increased dopamine, and improved mood. As hard as it is, I love the practice.

When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, what do you do?

I’ve found that taking a walk without my phone or finding a comfortable chair on which to sit at a coffee shop and people-watching—getting out of my office or apartment—are two things I do when I feel overwhelmed or unfocused.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business or advance in your career?

We talk about the concept of “Survive and Advance.” You have to find a way to play another year. Again, beverage is really hard, and when I look at the size of our market opportunity and early velocity data, I believe we have a chance to write an incredible story. We want to end up the number-one brand in the Flavor-Enhanced Water category by dollar share. But what I really want for us is to see someone walk out of a store, X, Y, or Z—I don’t care where you are, whether it’s Beverly Hills, California, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, Bangor, Maine, or anywhere in between—holding and drinking a Lemon Perfect. To do that, we have to just continue to wake up every day and find a way to keep playing the game, live another day, acquire another customer—survive and advance. We use this concept across Lemon Perfect, and all 83 of our people understand what it takes to win, to continue to show up every day with great enthusiasm for what we can collectively build.

What is one failure in your career,  how did you overcome it, and what lessons did you take away from it?

After college, I built a college campus-specific reviews site called Loud Campus. Think Twitter meets Yelp. But I didn’t know anything about building a product on the web. Now I realize how important product-founder fit is. You need to have a great feel and gut instinct for what you’re building, and you need to be able to coach a team that believes in your decision-making. With Loud Campus, we never found product-market fit, but ultimately, I started something about which I wasn’t that passionate. We felt there was a void in the marketplace for a product like it, but I realized that my passion was not in building a web-based college reviews site.

What is one business idea you’re willing to give away to our readers?

Since I’m so close to it, I’ll share that I think there’s a void in the flavored sparkling water category. I will warn you that beverage is challenging, but I do believe there’s an opportunity here.

What is one piece of software that helps you be productive? How do you use it?

We love Slack at Lemon Perfect. Our entire organization comes together on the platform, and team members highlight their field successes and other praiseworthy or newsworthy activity. Slack is a great company culture-driver. It also helps with accountability and motivation.

Do you have a favorite book or podcast you’ve gotten a ton of value from and why?

I love BevNET’s Taste Radio Podcast. As I was building Lemon Perfect, I started at Episode 1, got caught up, and haven’t missed an episode since. Fantastic podcast for any aspiring Food and Beverage entrepreneur. There is a wealth of information from entrepreneurs who are living the fight or have scaled the mountain.

What’s a movie or series you recently enjoyed and why?

Ted Lasso because it’s about coaching people and a team. It’s also a real tear-jerker!

Key learnings

  • You must have great enthusiasm for what you’re building—that’s number one. You’ve got to walk into a room and be flying off the walls. You’ve got to bring great energy, passion, and intensity into what you’re selling and make people feel like they can’t walk away from the opportunity you’re presenting.
  • Talent is what scales businesses and can take you to the next level of growth. Talent is what ultimately gives you a chance to cut down the nets and win championships. And in recruiting talent, it’s about belief: making someone believe that you will do whatever it takes to help them achieve their dreams—we call it the yellow trampoline of growth—and being authentic in that process.
  • With Food and Beverage startups, your margin story doesn’t matter at the beginning—what matters is that people love the product and come back and that you have great repeat.
  • When you start your day in a really good way, it sets you up for success. And organic lemon water that tastes great is the perfect jumpstart to anyone