How Lee Smith made a fortune from diet pills

Lee Smith used his marketing nous to take a bland-looking diet product and give it a whole new spin. James McKeigue reports.

Lee Smith, 35, forged his sales skills in the murky world of network marketing. Between the ages of 23 and 30 he worked on building up networks of sales contacts for various firms. "It taught me a lot. I became a better salesperson because, while the product would change, the end goal was always the same." But after seven years he'd had enough. "Network marketing blurs the line between business and pleasure. I'd end up going to the pub and trying to sell to friends and family it wasn't good."

Fortunately, by 2007 Smith had spotted a new market: health and fitness supplements. "Everywhere you looked gym supplements and weight-loss pills were becoming more popular it was clear it was a growth industry." Together with his brother and a friend, Smith decided to form a firm to sell pills that combined appetite suppressants with energy boosters to help people lose weight by giving them the energy to work out in the gym. "We did everything on a budget. We built a cheap website and bought our products online."

Soon Smith noticed something that would prove crucial: "lots of the pills were being sold directly by wholesalers in plain white packages, without labels, and looked almost illegal". The trio decided to buy these supplies, rebrand them with the name Forza Supplements', and sell to third-party suppliers. As sales picked up they started creating new products. When acai berries became popular, "we got a manufacturer to make a version of our supplements with acai". They also started making versions of the pills targeted at women. These were "basically the same but coloured pink and with less caffeine".

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By 2011 the firm was turning over "around £70,000 a month" and had built up a database of thousands of regular customers. Lee Smith wanted to start selling the firm's wares through other shops, but his partners wanted to protect the margin and sell solely through the website. "It was a disagreement about volume and margin and eventually we got to the point where something had to give." In the end, Smith kept the Forza brand, while the other two kept the website and database.

Smith now set about building up his new company. "I decided to get out and about in the industry, speak to retailers and find out what types of products they wanted." It turned out that none of them wanted what Smith had. "The supplement world was changing. People wanted more natural-looking products." So Smith commissioned a new pill that used raspberry extract to aid weight loss. Realising the importance of packaging, he hired a designer to make the product "look better than anything else on the shelves". Retailers were only too happy to stock it; Costco and Ocado took it on, while he also used online platforms such as Amazon and Groupon. The strong sales "we were the biggest selling supplement on Amazon for six months" financed a new range of fruit-based supplements. Forza now has 45 products covering diet, wellbeing and sports nutrition.

With annual sales at £3.5m, Smith is investing in a new technology centre that will allow Forza to package its own pills. "Presentation is key in this industry the centre will give us a lot more control over our products."