Yanni Hufnagel, Founder of Lemon Perfect & Former NCAA Coach | Hoop Story #061

Yanni Hufnagel, Founder of Lemon Perfect & Former NCAA Coach | Hoop Story #061

Where are you originally from? Has that affected your experience with or view on the game of basketball?

I’m originally from Scarsdale, NY and currently live in Atlanta, Georgia. Basketball has been a part of every stop on my journey. When I was 7 or 8 years old, I used to pick starting lineups and run plays for them from under the covers in my bed. I had dreams of coaching and love for basketball early on.

As far as playing, I got cut from my high school basketball team going into junior year. Going through that experience with disappointment, I ended up becoming the colorman for a local access TV network. My partner was Ed Cohen, who is now the radio voice for the NY Knicks. We had a lot of fun for two years. Afterwards, I was a student manager at Cornell. Then, I became a basketball operations intern for the New Jersey Nets, and after that, I was a graduate assistant at Oklahoma. I went on to serve as an assistant coach at Harvard, Vanderbilt, Cal, and University of Nevada, Reno. Basketball has always been in my blood. Even though I never played the game at a high level, I always processed the game at a high level. I’ve always had an unyielding love for the game. The truth is that my passion for the game has fueled everything in my life, including the Lemon Perfect journey.

How would you describe your coaching and recruiting style?

Prioritizing the players and their development was always important to me. Early on, I decided I wanted to become the best player developer and recruiter possible. Both of those come from the heart. Player development is a time investment. Recruiting is borne out of being authentic and building unbreakable bonds. Those two things for me were very parallel to each other–that's where I spent my time.

My coaching and recruiting style is straight from the heart! I tried to be as authentic as I could in every conversation. I never sold a dream about the school I was at or the head coach I was assisting. I presented our vision and opportunity while letting the chips fall where they may. It proved to be a good approach.

Never be a salesperson–just be a person of great integrity and character and be relentless in the pursuit of your dreams. Honestly, a lot of that has carried over from my basketball career into Lemon Perfect.

What moments during your career stuck out to you?

All of the recruiting wins–as well as losses. I can tell you exactly where I was when I heard “No” from the top recruits I chased for over 10 years. Painful moments, very painful moments. Beating New Mexico in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament in 2013 when I was at Harvard. A Thursday night in Salt Lake City, a magical moment. Being a part of 6 NCAA Tournaments in 10 years. All the great comebacks and agonizing losses. The hard practices. The bonds I’ve built with fellow coaches and players. A lot of incredible memories coaching and working in college basketball.

I’ve been able to visit 49 states–every state minus Hawaii–either through coaching or Lemon Perfect. Each state has its own appeal. I don’t have any favorite spots, but It’s been refreshing to travel for work and see so much of America. I’ve grown fascinated with the different cultures, the way they live their lives, and the access to certain things–or lack thereof. It’s a great dive into socioeconomics. I’ve become the resident travel agent here at the company (Lemon Perfect). We have 72 people, and I tend to give suggested flight and hotel options. I’m a travel agent at heart, and it stems from my having traveled so much for basketball and for getting into trade with Lemon Perfect.

What was the origin of your beverage business, Lemon Perfect? Did basketball have any influence?

During my last year at Nevada, a friend of mine published a book on the ketogenic diet. In the back of the book are sample meal plans, and every morning starts with organic lemon water. At the time, I was interested in exploring approaches to optimize my fitness and nutrition. Lemon water first thing in the morning became a non-negotiable part of my routine, and honestly, I hated it. There was only one Whole Foods in Reno–which is where I had to go to buy organic lemons–and it was 15 minutes away from me in the opposite direction of where I needed to go every day. I’d squeeze the lemons, cut them, juice them. Juice spilling everywhere; the taste is bland. But I stuck with it.

During this time, all our coaches and players were drinking a product called Bai. We all loved it. The question, “Can we take organic lemon water and give it the flavor profile of Bai?” then occurred to me. That was the seed of the journey. The idea of great flavor that is also good for you has been the bedrock of Lemon Perfect from day one. It’s not like I ran out of the locker room and decided to start a beverage business. The season ended, and I was having lunch in Santa Monica with a very entrepreneurial friend of mine. I told him about this idea. He jumped up, claiming he loved it! He said, “Anything you can do that captures part of a daily routine–what people first do when they wake up, when they go to sleep at night, or anything B-C-D-E in between–is what you should go for.” I decided that that is what I’d go for. I took a year off of coaching, googled how to start a beverage business, and here we are 5 years later with a business that will do in the neighborhood of 60 million dollars in retail sales this year.

What advice would you give to anyone looking to start their own brand or work within the basketball industry?

First, you have to have an intense passion for what you're doing. For me, there's nothing more important on Earth than Lemon Perfect’s winning, creating a great business, and ultimately crossing the finish line. If you want to be in basketball, you have to have the same zeal and enthusiasm. So, number one is an unrelenting passion every day for what you're doing professionally. Second is a relentless work ethic. If you can pair those two together–which normally go hand in hand–you will set yourself up for success and accomplish anything you set your mind to.

When you’re feeling unmotivated, put one foot in front of the other and live another day. If you’re stuck, you can't move forward. You have to try, compete, and fight through adversity. There is going to be trauma involved, but growth lives on the other side of it. If you can, understand that through the darkness comes light. When you're doing something entrepreneurial or starting a career, there will be dark moments where you wonder if this is really for you. The answer is that you have to continue to believe in yourself and put one foot in front of the other, and eventually you will get to a moment of light.

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