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Q&A: CEO of Lemon Perfect Yanni Hufnagel talks NIL, growth of his booming brand

Yanni Hufnagel
Photo credit: Courtesy of Lemon Perfect

Before the days when student-athletes could profit from their name, image and likeness, Lemon Perfect had raised millions of dollars in investments from NBA players, ESPN personalities, and Beyoncé.

CEO Yanni Hufnagel’s tenacity in the pursuit of selling the best-tasting and healthiest hydration product on the market has propelled Lemon Perfect to earn a valuation of over $100 million. The brand has connections to a possible NFL MVP, a five-star basketball recruit, a gold medal-winning women’s basketball player, and, arguably, the best quarterback in college football.

The NIL Deal recently interviewed Hufnagel to talk about his brand, his background as a college basketball recruiter, and what he looks for in a student-athletes to represent Lemon Perfect.

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The NIL Deal: What is the story behind your product?

Hufnagel: “I coached college basketball for 10 years. My last year, I coached at the University of Nevada in Reno. During this time, a friend of mine wrote a book on the ketogenic diet, and in the back of his book was a set of sample meal plans. Each sample meal plan included organic lemon water to start the day. I really wanted to change my diet, and lemon water became a nonnegotiable part of my daily routine. But I hated going out to buy the lemons and making a mess. I noticed in the locker room that our guys were drinking Gatorade and Powerade, and I wanted to make a change with a mainstream flavor profile that was healthier. This year, we are expected to sell in the neighborhood of 30 million bottles.”

The NIL Deal: What issue did you want your product to solve for?

Hufnagel: “At the end of the day, water is boring. We can change that narrative by delivering something that is as flavorful as it is good for you. We are going to change the way America drinks water by elevating the drinking experience—without any sugar.”

The NIL Deal: When did you begin getting student-athletes involved? What kind of athlete is Lemon Perfect looking to add?

Hufnagel: “When we think about NIL, we want to play in one of two buckets. One being, are they hyperlocal, like (Ohio State quarterback) C.J. Stroud, who has a hold on Ohio? And the other bucket being their reach on social media: Are they what we would consider an ‘A+’ content creator, specifically on TikTok? Jared (McCain) checks that box. We are certainly motivated to do deals like that. Jared can put the ball in the hoop, and he chose to go to Duke, where he has a chance to win a National Championship. But he is big about building his brand, which is something we are interested in.”

The NIL Deal: Being someone who played a college sport and worked in college sports—directly with student-athletes—what do you think NIL means to an individual?

Hufnagel: “It allows them to make economics off their brand. I think NIL is less about what you do on the field than it is about how you create a following—and you should always be able to profit from that ability.”

RELATED: Duke commit Jared McCain signs NIL deal with Lemon Perfect

The NIL Deal: Does NIL make someone who had your job a little tougher?

Hufnagel: “In some ways, NIL may not be as big as people think it is. In reality, not every single kid on every team has a deal. At the bigger schools, you have collectives that even things out for students, but that isn’t the case for everyone.”

The NIL Deal: In general, do you think NIL is a net positive for someone in your position?

Hufnagel: “Absolutely. We get to make these decisions. There is no gun to our head forcing us to hand out deals, and that allows us to be highly selective and pick from these high school and college athletes who check our boxes.”

The NIL Deal: Lastly, what growth do you want to see your brand achieve?

Hufnagel: “We want to be the category leader by dollar share in enhanced water. We have visions for where we are going, and every day is a street fight. This industry is a war, but at the end of the day, we know our people line up better than those from any other brand out there. Our people are going to drive this thing to the next level.”