In conversation with the CEO and Co-Founder of Distill Ventures
What's your role at Distill Ventures?
I'm responsible for the overall strategic direction of the business, ensuring we evolve to meet the support needs of our portfolio companies. Most of my time is spent supporting our respective Managing Directors in North America and the 'Rest of World' and the teams they lead. I also work closely with the senior team at Diageo to ensure our partnership continues to thrive.
How has your previous experience and background helped you in your role?
I've set up several businesses and advised dozens more, both inside and outside of drinks. My experience in deal structures, launch strategies and effective brand positioning helps me advise brands on how to look for and achieve game-changing pivots that lead to growth.
How did the idea to create the world's first spirits accelerator come about?
I met my business partner, Shilen, about 15 years ago when we set up an innovation agency together and worked with various start-ups and on projects for brands including ASOS, H&M, Smirnoff and the BBC.
Then about seven years ago a friend of ours was attempting to launch a gin brand and it took months for them just to secure the paperwork to get a bottle out of the distillery. Shilen and I realised there were great drinks entrepreneurs out there with outstanding products, but they were all facing the same challenges and had little access to advice or help. 'Start-ups' were very much something that the tech market had the monopoly on. We wanted to change that, and so launched DV in 2013.
What opportunities did you see for the business in the early days?
At that stage we were the world's first and only drinks accelerator. We knew how many potential drinks brands and concepts there were out there that we could help grow and we were not going to restrict ourselves to any particular categories. Our focus was on finding the best founders out there and before long we'd met Maximillian Wagner and Sebastian Brack, the founders of Belsazar. The brand became the first in our portfolio, and five years later was also the first to be acquired from us by Diageo.
How has Distill Ventures evolved since then? (e.g. new focus on non alc, moving into the US, Redwood, what you offer and what you look for?)
Our goal has and will always remain the same; to give founders the tools to make better decisions and fewer mistakes while allowing them to remain fully in control of their business.
Over the last six years DV's gone from strength to strength. We're now a team of talented industry experts operating from London, Dublin, Amsterdam, New York and San Francisco.
To date we've committed over £60 million to more than 15 founder-led drinks brands around the world, including German aperitif, Belsazar, the world's first distilled non-alcoholic spirit, Seedlip, Danish whisky distillery, Stauning, Australian whisky producer, Starward, and American single malt whiskey, Westward.
In what ways has this evolution followed drinking habits around the world?
We're broadminded and aren't set on specific drinks categories, but a by-product of seeking out the most exciting founders in the industry means we're pretty on top of future drinks trends and the shape of our portfolio is always evolving.
The launch of our dedicated non-alc practice is an example of this. Pioneering this emerging drink trend is something we're immensely proud of and currently about a quarter of our portfolio is made up of non-alc brands.
We're also active in the whisky category, as we see a huge appetite for discovery amongst consumers and amazing innovation from distillers. Our role is to help those producers create brands which can resonate with new whisky drinkers globally.
Where in the world are the most exciting drinks businesses being created right now? What has driven this?
It's much more interesting to look at which categories we're seeing the most innovation in. It goes without saying that non-alc, which has been a major focus of ours for some time has quickly become the fastest growing and most exciting drinks category the industry has seen in a long time. With the birth of brands such as Seedlip and a major cultural shift to focussing on wellbeing, the sector has exploded.
We're also interested in new world whiskies – i.e. those from distilleries outside of the traditional whisky producing locations in Scotland, Ireland and the USA. We've made investments in three of these distilleries - Starward, Stauning and Westward - as we believe brands in this exciting new sub-category are reinvigorating the whisky sector and attracting a modern generation of drinkers and fans looking for something new.
However, we always have an open door. It's an exciting time in all categories and we're certainly not restricted to non-alc and whisky - our priority is finding the most exciting founders out there, regardless of what sort of brand or liquid they're developing.
How do you know if an idea or an entrepreneur is worth backing? Is the decision driven by heart, head or a combination?
There's a wide array of things we look for when founders come to us. Clearly, they need the bones of a great brand and/or liquid that we believe is scalable, but for us it's about much more than that. It's essential that we believe in the founder and their team; they don't need drinks or business experience, but they must have the drive, passion and ambition to bring their concept to life and rapidly scale it.
What's been a highlight for you since founding Distill Ventures?
Now. Over the last 18 months our business has supported Stauning opening a brand-new distillery, seen Starward and Westward launch into the market and win top awards, and we've seen the growth and subsequent acquisitions of Belsazar and Seedlip. These all represent major highlights for DV and me personally.
Some of your brands are beginning to 'graduate', what impact would you say you and your team have had on the entrepreneurs behind these success stories?
Fundamentally, we create impact in three keys ways: providing cash investment, mentoring founders to become better business leaders, and offering access to our global network of drinks professionals and their technical, financial, production, legal, commercial and marketing experience. It's important to recognise that our approach with each entrepreneur is completely bespoke; there is no 'one size fits all' solution to scaling these brands effectively.
Because of this, the impact on each business varies. In some cases it has been about founder mentoring, helping them be a better business leader. In others you can point to more specific moments like helping to get to clarity on a brand position or a commercial proposition. Hopefully in all cases we've allowed them to grow faster, and in a way that's closer to their original vision, than they could have done without our support.
What does being an entrepreneur mean to you?
At DV we pride ourselves on being a business that is run by entrepreneurs, for entrepreneurs. That's important, because there's an immediate familiarity. We understand the difficulties of starting a business, but we also understand how personal it is.
For me, being an entrepreneur is about controlling your own destiny, being able to pick the most inspiring people to work and collaborate with, and being able to demonstrate that belief and values can build great businesses.
What one piece of advice can you give to budding entrepreneurs in the drinks industry?
Be really clear why the world needs your brand. Until you've got an honest, compelling answer to this, you haven't got a viable business.
More information on Distill Ventures can be found on the Distill Ventures website.