Spirits accelerator Distill Ventures uncorked a belly-full of business wisdom at this year’s Singapore Cocktail Festival with the help of three industry insiders. By Dan Bignold.

This content is sponsored by Distill Ventures.

London-based “drinks accelerator” Distill Ventures appeared at Singapore Cocktail Festival with a seminar entitled “Brick by Brick: Building a Modern Spirits Business in Asia”. Since it launched in 2013, Distill Ventures has examined hundreds of new entrepreneurs seeking funding for their products, and so far has invested nearly 50 million USD in 16 brands. But the team are always searching for more – hence its first ever appearance at an Asian industry forum.

Aimed at budding industry entrepreneurs, but with plenty of wisdom shared to benefit anyone running any start-up, the talk was hosted by Distill Ventures co-founder Dan Gasper and featured three panellists: Sam Jeveons, co-founder of Indonesia’s Nusa Cana rum; Spencer Forhart, co-founder of Singapore, Hong Kong and China distributor Proof & Company; and David Ong, co-founder of EDSA Beverage Design Group as well as The Curator Coffee and Cocktails in Manila.

In his introduction, Gasper explained how the motivations for starting a brand were plentiful ­– from a fascination with spirits production to creating a product that represented a country – although he cautioned anyone who assumed getting into the drinks game would make them rich. The most important starting point, he reckoned, was love for the project and a desire to build something that would last. With that in mind, and using the company’s Five Bricks structure, designed to help drinks entrepreneurs approach running their new business in the right way, he then invited the panel to discuss their own experiences relating to each brick. Here are some highlights from the conversation:

Business Basics
Spencer: “You need transparency in your numbers to help you drive your decisions. Be ruthless and conservative with your numbers, and every time you find some truth, add it to your numbers.”
Sam: “Cash is king. Start with a runway of 12-18 months of cash flow. Calculate your spend. Calculate how that spend is going to generate revenue.”
Dan: “It’s expensive, but spend money on a lawyer with drinks experience for your IP, to make sure you are compliant in your markets and for your contracts. It will save you time and money down the road.”
Spencer: “Choose investors like you would choose a spouse. Be transparent with them to build trust. Tell them the bad stuff, so they believe the good stuff. If you can get it right you won’t need another investor.”

Being a Great Entrepreneur
“Work all hours. Listen to everything and absorb the bits you need. Always self-improve.”
David: “It’s very essential to build a strong team, one that not only shares the same core values and philosophies, but that strives to be better each day. This way, we all get better.”
Spencer: “If you are cash-strapped, hiring consultants is where you can go off-track. If you do hire consultants, confirm deliverables, deadlines and expectations.”
David: “One of my soundest mentors, Jappy Gonzalez, is from the fashion industry. It helps me that I receive advice that is both familiar yet out of the box.”

David Ong

Selling Profitably
Be king at home in terms of your sales and then tie it to your marketing.  We are championing brand Indonesia as well as our rum.”
Spencer: “Go deep not wide. Don’t move to another market until you own one. Brands that succeed don’t care how many markets they are in.”
Dan: “If you figure out how to sell five bottles in a week to one account as opposed to one, that is a bit of magic about your brand that you can then deploy everywhere.”
Spencer: “Love your distributor. They represent many brands and you are probably not the most important one. So be a good partner and you’ll be listened to.”
David: “With EDSA Beverage Design Group, continuous training and collaboration is necessary. If we help our clients sell more, then we sell more.”
Dan: “Price yourself for success. Ensure everyone makes money.”

A Great Product
Sam: “Know what is distinctive and when your taste is too distinctive. Will customers come back to your product? You have to believe in your juice but bring people with you on your journey.”
David: “Choose your creative agency carefully and test what they produce.”
Sam: “Create packaging that truly fits what you are. Give your brand a voice. Give your brand a personality. And be confident. It’s not easy to re-brand after 12 months.”
Dan: “Be clear about a signature serve and then be ruthless about that serve.”

Sam Jeveons and Spencer Forhart

Being Interesting
“You are never done being interesting. Fortunately these days, founder-led brands have a massive unfair advantage against big brands. Consumers are much more interested in the product itself.”
David: “If you look at The Curator logo, the ampersand also represents like-minded people being attracted, moreover, being inspired by one another. We’re of the belief that networking locally and internationally makes us and others better – and we make some great friends along the way.”
Dan: “Be real, not perfect. Modern consumers like to see the things that didn’t work, or try the accident.”

Look out in the June print issue of DRiNK for even more from the Distill Ventures Brick by Brick seminar. And for more information about Distill Ventures, please visit www.distillventures.com.