Nobody Wants to Taste Your Shit
In April 2017, Robin Robinson and Jackie Summers of "Jack from Brooklyn" and creator of Sorel Liqueur, presented at American Distiller's Institute (ADI) in Baltimore, MD and gave a dynamic, informed and real-life look of what it takes to get and keep your product out on the market. On the last day of the conference, it played to a sold-out room and the comments ranged from "brutally honest" to "the best thing we saw here in 3 days". Here's an abridged version, check it out for yourself.
The Small Spirit Manifesto
The spirit has to be true, the liquid in the bottle is where it all starts. It has to be the finest liquid you can make at that particular time using the methods currently at your disposal. It must pass the taste test of not only self-identified or acknowledged “experts” in the field, but of the most important critic of all: yourself. You have to believe in it but you have to be honest about it and know that it’s not the best in the world. Not yet. That’s where the work begins.
You need commitment. You will fail in some degree and your ability to use that toward your later success will be the most fundamental aspect of your brand. Your willingness to push to the fail point with discipline is the underpinning of innovation.
You need time. Your desire to rush an unfinished product into market will work once and once only. You’ll come up with a method, process, invention or trick to get the market to buy it initially, but you’ll be found out, the spirit will not ring true and you will have hurt your chances to grow; your commitment may falter, but worse, others will have no time for you. The market is unforgiving and it rarely comes back to give you a second chance.
You need honesty. The one fundamental truth is this: the market doesn't care about you. It doesn't give a damn if you exist or not. It was fine before you got here, it will be fine when you're gone. Once you acknowledge this, process and internalize this, it will be the most freedom you'll ever experience in your working life. And it will inspire the work that needs to be done.
You need distribution. You need someone with a license to sell spirits who believes that they can either make money from what you made, or at the very least, keep others from making money on it. You need to know the difference between them and you need to be able to work with both. You need to know that you will have to manage them, no matter how small, no matter how large, no matter what promises were given. And even then, it won’t be enough.
You need creativity. Because you have no money to be foolish.
You need support. Financial, emotional, psychological. The last especially, because we all know you're crazy enough to do this.
You need a story, an elastic malleable narrative that arcs like great literature. Successes in the whiskey and spirits world all have a great story attached to them: a story of place or pedigree; of history or personage. Some are of legend or myth; some are about process, innovation or an accident of fate. But it must be real, grounded in the reality of your experience. It’s the story that fuels the imagination, inspires others, multiplies itself in the ether between the real and unreal; it carries the brand and you across the silent airwaves, through barriers of language and culture.
The story must be compelling. It must penetrate an indifferent and increasingly crowded marketplace. It must be sustainable and scale-able beyond the mouths of the originators. This allows it to sound true coming out of your mouth and also from the third guy your salesman hired.
The story must be true and self-evident, the veracity of which will prevent it from coming apart, from being watered down and rectified, chopped up into little sound bites and bullet points devoid of its narrative arc. This prevents it from being co-opted and borrowed, misread and mistaken for someone else’s. It must retain its clarity across all 3 tiers of distribution -wholesale, retail and consumer - yet be flexible enough to have impact to 3 different sets of ears. Sales needs to hear it one way, retail/on-premise another, the consumer yet another. But it must always ring true and be connected to the same narrative arc.
The story needs to be activated. It needs to live and grow every time it comes from someone’s mouth; is printed on POS; is read in an ad or a feature story at all times when it’s associated with your brand. It is drunk with every sip. It must turn every consumer who comes by it into an evangelist for your brand. Not just loyal, not just for their own purchase. They must want to tell others, to insist their friends do the same. They want to post in on social media, make it part of their lifestyle, bring others to it. The story will connect with theirs and they will own it. People love good stories and people love to tell their friends good stories. We've done it since the beginning of time.
The story must sell product and deplete cases. If it doesn't, you've got the wrong story.
With small brands, the key is education without being didactic; evangelical without being zealously obnoxious.
The story sells the spirit.
Robin Robinson, 2015
It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Shame on the man of cultivated taste who permits refinement to develop into fastidiousness that unfits him for doing the rough work of a workaday world. Among the free peoples who govern themselves there is but a small field of usefulness open for the men of cloistered life who shrink from contact with their fellows. Still less room is there for those who deride of slight what is done by those who actually bear the brunt of the day; nor yet for those others who always profess that they would like to take action, if only the conditions of life were not exactly what they actually are.
The man who does nothing cuts the same sordid figure in the pages of history, whether he be a cynic, or fop, or voluptuary. There is little use for the being whose tepid soul knows nothing of great and generous emotion, of the high pride, the stern belief, the lofty enthusiasm, of the men who quell the storm and ride the thunder. Well for these men if they succeed; well also, though not so well, if they fail, given only that they have nobly ventured, and have put forth all their heart and strength. It is war-worn Hotspur, spent with hard fighting, he of the many errors and valiant end, over whose memory we love to linger, not over the memory of the young lord who "but for the vile guns would have been a valiant soldier."
Theodore Roosevelt, 1910
No one captured the elements of sacrifice and terror of failure when making a risky move than Roosevelt in this stirring and insightful speech, borrowing from Shakespeeare's "Henry V" and using the analogy of a boxer. What entrepreneur has not found himself bloodied and covered in dust, doubted by critics, yet unbowed and defiant till the end?
On quality and payment of a fee or price
Conrad's is in Westwood, New Jersey and has been continuously family owned since it's inception in 1928. They are an old fashioned "malt shop" and lunch counter that make their own chocolate and ice cream, and this essay on "Quality" is in their menu on the counter. They are one of the longest running brands in New Jersey and this best essay on the subject I've ever read.
Used by permission of Conrad's. JJ Krakus, Proprietor
The "Mamet" Index
Playwright David Mamet is the 20th Century's gift to the language of subverted intentions. To read, watch and understand Mamet is to know that what is said, and what is meant, are mostly 2 different things. Mamet's plays and screenplays are full of people who live in a world of angst and intelligent badinage, where words can probe and prod, wound and hurt, force you into a corner or slip a knife between your ribs. With Mamet, there is the "dialogue": the words, the broken phrases, the barking and insults on one level, what you hear. And underneath, is the "intention", the action that can subvert the spoken words and lead somewhere we didn't intend to go.
The Salesman’s Guide to “No!”: What’s beneath the world’s scariest word.
When a salesperson encounter's the word "no", its just a parlay into the next round of action. It can be your best friend.
If “No” means…
1. I’m afraid to screw up.
2. I lack the confidence to make a decision.
3. I’m not the one who makes the decisions.
4. I’m outta here in 3 days.
5. I’ll lose face/status/respect if I screw up.
6. I don’t like you
7. You’ve offended me
…then here’s the action to take:
1. Take away the risk. Re-frame your proposition without being dishonest about what you’re doing so that they don’t feel threatened by it.
2. See #1. Lack of confidence tends to make people “middle-of-the-road” and decision-averse.
3. Ask this person to get you to the decision maker by finding the thing that makes them shine in their boss’s eyes. Help them discover why it’s in their best interests to help you.
4. Find out where they’ll be next. Ask if you can give an endorsement and ask them for an introduction to their replacement. Then come back here next week.
5. See #1. Fear of failure and fear of success are 2 sides of the same coin.
6. Ask why. If it’s something you can change, let them know their honesty was the catalyst to your own self-improvement. If it’s something you can’t change, let them know you’ll miss doing business with them.
7. Ask how. Ask how you can recover. If you can, apologize, then do it and thank them. If you can’t, apologize and let them know you hope time will ease the offense.