Weekly Thoughts


Weekly Thoughts: Big Time Small Business

Here is something that caught our eye this week:

Since Chenmark started, we have had the pleasure to speak with countless business owners across North America.  We have always come away impressed with the stories we hear, and have wanted to share similar stories with our readership.  Today, we are launching the Big Time Small Business podcast where we will interview the owners, operators, and founders of great small businesses throughout North America.  We talk about the obstacles they have faced, the successes they have earned, and where their business is going in hopes it will inspire and inform you as much as it does us.  We look forward to sharing new episodes with you, and don’t worry, Weekly Thoughts is not going anywhere.  It will return after the July 4th holiday week!

Below are some excerpts from our conversation with Jordan Milne, founder and CEO of Hardshore Distilling Company, a craft distillery based in Portland Maine that recently won the title of best craft gin in the US by USA Today.  While only two years into production, Jordan and Palmer talk about the four year lead up to starting Hardshore, the difference between being a gin maker versus an alcohol professional, and the importance of authenticity in creating a differentiated brand.  We came away impressed with the focus and vision Jordan has for his company and appreciative of his candor discussing both the good and the bad of Hardshore’s journey thus far.

You can listen to the full episode by clicking the audio image below, on our website, or on iTunes (more podcast players coming soon!).  Know someone who would be great on the Big Time Small Business podcast?  E-mail in at podcast@chenmarkcapital.com.

Clear eyes, full hearts…

I don’t want to play in making spirits just to make spirits.  I want to make really truly great spirits that matter.  That’s why when we said “We’re gonna make a gin,” we said, “It’s not gonna be a juniper forward London dry.”  Because if we did that, we would be just another gin on the shelf.  We wouldn’t be adding to the conversation on the bar shelf.

My rule when it comes to products is: only do things that you want to drink.  If you don’t drink vodka, maybe don’t make vodka?  How are you going to make a good one?  You’re going to make another one.  It’s going to be good enough but it’s not going to be great.  That’s not what we’re about.  We’re only interested in making things that we’re going to care about the last half percent.

Competition or Cooperation?

I have not had one experience with a [local] brewer or a distiller or a mead maker or a winemaker or a kombucha maker that hasn’t been absolutely incredible. Here’s what we know.  There is more room in this industry for guys like us.  We are fighting large incumbents with very large marketing budgets, with huge sales forces, with very ingrained relationships with distributors and retailers.  I mean Rising Tide got the name right, a rising tide lifts all ships.  The way that the distillers talk about this is, “Look no one’s coming to Portland Maine to visit a distillery. They’ll come to visit 10.”  I mean there’s a reason that the Bourbon Trail is in Kentucky, right?  95% of the world’s bourbon is made within 35 miles of each other.  This is a cooperative, helpful industry and we all know who our targets are and it’s not each other.

On Selling…the Start-up Way

I discovered that building a gin distillery is not just about making a really amazing gin.  It’s learning how to sell alcohol, how to move the product….We had this really naïve plan [that] our distributors are the sales team.  They’re the ones that have the sales guys that go out and say “Oh, have you had Hardshore? It’s really great. You should try it in your next spring’s cocktail menu.”  No, they’re not doing that for us.  They’re doing that for the brands that keep their lights on.   They’re doing that for Hendricks and Bombay.

For us, it’s we need to get into our car, drive to the bar, drive to the liquor store and tell our story….It’s brute force. It is soles on pavement….You put a bottle of gin that says “Not for Resale” in your briefcase and you go and hit every liquor store, every bar, every restaurant that you can, and you put yourself up on those bar stools and you tell your story, and you tell it again, and you tell it again.  When they tell you “No,” you say “No problem,”and you come back next week, and you tell your story.  That is how you do it.

“People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it

Listen, at the end of the day, I think we make a really fantastic gin.  But you know who else makes a fantastic gin?  Almost everybody out there.  The incumbents didn’t become that way because they make horrible products.  They make really fantastic gin.  So we need to have something else to offer people.  What we offer people is our authenticity, our story, and their connection to what we’re doing here in Portland.

People want to hear the story behind the products on the shelf.  Otherwise, it’s just ornamentation.  We got away from that best craft gin distillery in America.  We love being named the best craft gin distillery in America, but we really want to focus on telling people about how we make this gin.  Not what this gin is, but how we make this gin.  When people can visualize that, and they can see how much we care about what we do, it’s infectious. They start to care about we do. Then they buy a bottle.

You can’t fake authenticity

Part of our culture has definitely become: if you want to work at Hardshore, bring a pair of gloves.  You are going to get in the back and you are going to get your hands dirty.  All of the people that stand in front of other people to tell them about Hardshore have been involved in the production process for that very reason.

You can’t sell someone, or you can’t get someone to connect with your small brand in a really powerful way, the way that we’re looking for, if it’s rote memorization, if you’re just repeating a script that I’ve written for you.  I need you to get your hands dirty.  I need you to smell what a tank smells like when it hasn’t been cleaned properly…because even though [they’re] never gonna be asked, pride starts to come through in their voice when they’re telling the story.

Business and bourbon: they both take patience

Whiskey is tough, I don’t know if we’re whiskey makers.  I honestly can’t tell you if we’re whiskey makers.  I know that we make whiskey and we’re putting it in barrels and we’re investing in that future but there are so many unknown variables that we can’t really control and we’re waiting to see how we can work with those variables.  It’s a big financial undertaking.  It may not pan out.

So when Hardshore bourbon is finally ready, it won’t be good enough.  It will be fantastic…or it won’t be.  We can easily put those barrels onto the secondary market and sell them to another distillery and they can put it under their own label.

That’s why for the foreseeable future…we’re gin makers, [and] we are psyched to be gin makers.  It is my only product. Hardshore Original Gin is all that I do.  It’s 100% of my company, and if that ended up being my fate, I’d be a very, very happy person.  I love making gin.  I want to make this gin for the rest of my life.

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark Capital Team

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