Skratch Labs - A Little Better Everyday
A closer look into the brainchild of Dr. Allen Lim.
The story of Skratch labs goes back further than its launch in 2012. of course, IT meaning the person behind it goes back to the 1980's with Allen Lim attending the Coors Classic as a fan. Before, power meters, rice cakes, ice vests, compression boots and drink mix Allen was just trying to get a glimpse and maybe an autograph of riders such as Greg LeMond and Bernard Hinault.
Allen and the rest of the group; brother Almerick and cousins John, Sean and myself got into cycling around the same time. I remember that their Boy Scout troop in Glendale California, were doing a big ride from L.A. to San Diego. For kids it would take a several days. It was the epitome of adventure for the us and a chance for the cousins to hang out while riding on roads that have served as training grounds for so many cyclists. It represented a world that had so much possibility and potential and I could not go. I experienced the ultimate FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) as I stood there and saw them all ride off. I couldn't go on the trip for two reasons. First, I didn't have a bike and second at nine years old I was just too young. Sure it was the time of "free range" parenting but even that era had it's limits. At age nine there is not much of an age gap as I was the youngest of the group. The rest of them were about 12 to 14. There was however a massive physiological difference and with only one BMX race under my belt there was no way I was going to make the journey.
Without even going on the trip I was certain that riding bikes would be a major part of my life. It was the same attitude for my cousins as well. It wasn't until about a year later I was able to get my first proper road bike. My brother made me buy his old Nishiki Olympic off him for fifty bucks. The same compulsion to ride either consciously or unconsciously happened to Allen. He had talent on the road as a bike racer and a curious mind to always figure out how things worked and how they could be manipulated. Through the years as his cycling talent increased into the top of the Junior ranks so did his needs. He was constantly tinkering with different ways to increase performance including what he put into his body. At the time Gatorade or water were the only major options for drinks and neither were adequate enough for those long and hot SoCal training days. Allen started making his own mix with a combination of water, salt, sugar and some flavors that would be easy on the stomach.
Allen continued to excel in cycling and academics all while working on his side projects. At UC Davis, he started coaching the collegiate cycling team. He moved to Boulder and while getting his masters he coached the CU collegiate team which led to coaching at USA Cycling in Colorado Springs. He starting his own Pro Team under the title sponsor Celestial Seasonings in the late 1990's all while trying to get his PhD.Earning the PhD helped bring to market the first US made power meter - the PowerTap. And that the work with Garmin helped connect power monitoring to the age of GPS enabled cycling computers. Allen also believed that training was only about the numbers but rather the human connection and feel.
In November 1 2005 he was working with the TIAA Cref team also known as Slipstream Sports which is now the EF Cannondale team. In 2006 and 2007 he started introducing his drink mix to the riders on the squad more out of necessity. The riders were always complaining that their own drink mix made them sick, that it was too sweet, and always left a bad taste in their mouth. So Allen started trying to fix the probably by making the team their own diluted version with extra sodium that we secretly used to replace the sponsors drink mix. Due to existing nutrition sponsor obligations for riders, it remained without a name for a while. It was served in unmarked pouches and it started to be more widely used. By 2008 there were full batch orders being made all while the brand was running pretty lean. It was Allen and just a few people like Aaron Foster and Ian MacGregor who is now the company's CEO. The drink mix was put in empty plastic buckets and put in a paint shaker to mix at the local hardware store in Boulder. From there they were filled in mylar packages. I remember Allen giving me a bucket full of mix after one of the Tour of California stages and I took it home and kept it in that bucket. I would scrape it down with a hard spoon to get it in my bottles. In 2011 it was called Secret Drink Mix was born and that's when they tried to turn it into a business. The first SDM single serving packets served as the blueprint for what Skratch today uses on their packets.
While Allen and the crew thought the name Secret Drink Mix was clever, it was not sustainable. They needed a new name. A name to convey that their products which at the time was only drink mix was made from real, natural ingredients. The name Skratch Labs was born in 2012 and with it came a movement of the cycling and endurance sport industry. People started realizing that food for athletes was not some futuristic pill that would solve all of your needs. The solution and in turn products had to be real flavors from real foods. The response was overwhelming. In 2013 I remember going to Sea Otter in Monterrey. After racing, I worked the booth watching people sample Skratch for the first time. The reaction was overwhelmingly positive and went something like this: "Wow! It's not too sweet, but it's so good. It tastes like real fruit. I'll check it out! Can I take a sticker?" I must have heard that the entire time. Also earlier in December of 2011 Allen and Biju Thomas had just released his book The Feedzone Cook Book which stressed real food aligning with the ethos of the Skratch Labs essentially releasing the same time Skratch as a company was.
With the demand growing, Skratch needed bigger facilities. It started out in the garage of co-founder Aaron Foster but now needed to meet all the demands a growing business required. It included more employees, a company culture and Boulder Colorado served as the headquarters for the brand. Over the years it has changed locations but always kept a strong sense of identity that includes lunchtime recess sessions of "knockout basketball". The crew has worked and traveled to be the face of the brand to just about every industry trade show, bike race, fun run and Fondo. I've had Allen on one of the earlier episodes of the SCC Podcast Ep. 40 and in it he talks about trying to run the company "with as much humanity as possible." That compassion and mindfulness with how he has created the company is the same conviction he has had throughout his career filling a mostly mentorship role.
Part of the way Skratch has had to compete in the tough market of sports drinks is by being innovators as well as through hard work. During the Amgen Tour of California, Skratch became "Neutral Human Support" similar to neutral support for equipment. The idea was to provide all cyclists during the race, all of their hydration needs as well as taking care of all of the food, snacks and nutrition throughout the race. A big ask for at the time was a very small company. In terms of the sheer amount of labor, it equated to very little sleep, high stress and lots of travel. Allen and the crew made it happen and brought Skratch and the products to more people's stomachs and mindsets. Their trailer being towed across the country to events served as the entire kitchen to also make burritos, rice cakes and other goodies that hungry racers and the public could sample. I remember during one Costco run for Sea Otter, we practically cleaned out the fridge space as we filled one cart with 80 dozen eggs for the burritos. Eggs had to be cracked, onions chopped and rice cooked. That kind of "All In" attitude has built and further sustained the brand into what is now a common name among cyclists and athletes. In a way they were setting precedence for what could be possible everyday. Partly because they didn't know any better and also because they had a mentality to always hustle and outwork their counterparts.
That hard work is paying off. Not necessarily in the form of fat paychecks and vacation homes in Cabo San Lucas. It's more of a mentality to keep pushing the envelope by innovating, leading and being a beacon for healthy individuals and employees who are nurtured. Their ability to take calculated risks has launched the brand into more than drink mix. They have a line of clothing and kits, chews, bars, new flavors along with new customers. The small Secret Drink Mix crew is now over twenty five employees strong. They have a contingent of brand ambassadors from top cyclists, runners, rock climbers, Nascar drivers and even fire fighters. Products can be found in just about every bike shop and sporting goods store. It has come a long way since the days of making runs to the hardware store to mix SDM in buckets.
The journey hasn't been that surprising since that is the way Allen has always been wired. He is the original tinkerer who is always thinking about ways to intertwine culture and innovation into something people can be passionate about using. Allen references the future of the brand as incremental improvements rather than large jumps.
It is the principle of Kaisan - a little better everyday.
“For the future, I envision Skratch becoming a household brand, or at the very least, a brand that people identify with because they want to help themselves and others become better. Mostly, I just want to make sure that the people who work for Skratch and its customers are cared for. More simply, I want to keep on doing what we’ve always been doing - grow, stay profitable, and innovate. That’s something we’ve been able to do every year of our history and the further along we get, the more I marvel at how incredible that is.”
Skratch is perhaps the only brand I've been able to see from it's inception to it's current state. No, I'm not objective in any way. Skratch is not paying me a penny to write this. Skratch does not sponsor SoCal Cyclist. Skratch is in my blood even though I'm not an employee. It's part of my family, heritage and culture. It's part of what inspired the podcast, and my passion to hustle, stay disciplined all while having fun in the process. Here's to the next generation of great innovators and a well deserved Happy Birthday.