"We made sure that the risk of failure would not impact us financially. Zero financial risk.”
"Part-time was the only way that we could have done this as we both have children and mortgages. Our investment was in time and effort."
Overview of earlier career.
Early career in the defence & aerospace sectors. First job at the MOD found Kate accumulating more time flying air combat sorties that most RAF pilots, whilst evaluating future systems. Worked her way through the ranks at MOD before moving through the ranks within a private company and ultimately leading international innovation projects - initially based in France and currently in UK. Three young children (7, 5, 5)
The trigger for change?
There were two distinct parts to Kate’s career change story. Over a number of years, she described a gradual "wearing down" of Kate’s passion to take ideas from seed to successful implementation. She described feeling increasingly frustrated by the time needed to “make things happen” within her corporate career.
Being “worn down”: Kate engineered her return to UK after 5 years in the headquarters in France but found that interesting roles at her level were far and few between. So, she continued to perform her old role from UK. She had felt increasingly frustrated by the innovation processes within giant companies in general but specifically around their decision-making processes. Although she was surrounded by talent, ideas and capability she felt that when ideas made it to the boardroom they would be quashed by restrictive risk reduction policies and conflicting agendas. Kate mentioned one particular time when 6 months was spent debating the applicability, risk and viability of a particular idea and by the time a decision was close, “apple had already patented the same technology”. She thought “there must be more to life than bashing my head against a brick wall”.
The trigger: There was an exact moment. She remembers traveling to a board meeting in Paris. While driving to the airport, she was listening to a radio show discussing the current global gin renaissance and micro-distilleries. She felt a flutter of entrepreneurial excitement and in an instant knew she would start up a micro-distillery. Kate called her good friend Helen to invite her to join her in becoming part-time gin distillers. By the time she had got on the plane, she’d also researched how to make gin, had assessed the market opportunity and mocked up a rough business plan.
Together, Helen and Kate agreed their mission “to make the finest gin on the planet”. They did a little more research into the market and financial viability and decided to take the time and effort to create an ultra-premium gin. They assessed feasibility in terms of time, effort, split of skills, accessibility of gin making equipment and agreed their plan of attack : “we can do this” if we start on a very small scale and grow in line with demand and our readiness. The Gin Kitchen was born in Kate’s kitchen and launched in November 2016 http://gin.kitchen
We invested the money that we would usually spend on gin to fund purchases (a still, the pure alcohol base and botanicals) and tested recipes for months. ‘We didn’t want to rely solely on our own judgement’. They invited a big group of gin-loving mums over for blind tasting sessions and watched what happened. The bottles of their hand-crafted summer and winter gins were sipped dry whilst bottles with other premium gin brands were left. “That’s the moment we knew that this would work”.
They launched The Gin Kitchen in a bar in Dorking, Surrey, where Kate lives, with a cocktail designed specifically for the event “the Woodcock” (http://gin.kitchen/images/woodcocks.jpg) and very quickly were stocked in 3 bars and 2 local shops. When those sold out and they wanted to order more, “we had yet another confidence boost”. More and more venues came on board as “people seemed to be really passionate about the gins and the word spread". The market reaction was so strong and their confidence so high that they took a bottle into Fortnum and Mason’s and asked to speak to their spirits buyer. He loved both of their gins so much that he offered them “Spirit of the Month” twice in 2017. They couldn’t accept the first offer as they simply weren’t able to make the stock fast enough but happily accepted the offer of a later date. Dancing Dragontail exceeded Fortnum and Mason’s expectations and stocks had to be replenished twice after selling out over the course of May 2017. Bear in mind The Gin Kitchen had only launched in November 2016.
What Kate learned?
“Having an awesome business partner with complementary personality and skills has been key. It’s not just great to have someone to share the workload with, it’s really good fun when something brilliant happens and we can share the glory. In a partnership two heads are better than one.”
“In the extreme uncertainty of start-ups you could spend months trying to reduce risk without increasing chances of success. I love making decisions – in minutes rather than after 6 months of risk assessment, by trusting my intuition and then working through any difficulties.”
“A great deal can happen with an idea, 2 jerry cans of base alcohol, a still and some juniper.”
“I am creative. I used to spend hours drawing every night when I was a child so I was very keen to design the label for our new winter gin. When the time came to design our summer gin label, I realised that my talents didn’t extend to water colour so we asked our friend Helen to paint a butterfly garden for us. I adored the professional results and was excited about commissioning the design of our new Absinthe from an amazing local tattoo artist and I think it's perfect.
“Part-time was the only way that we could have done this as we both have children and mortgages. Our investment was in time and effort. We spent evenings and week-ends trialling recipes, navigating all the regulations, distilling, bottle-labelling and delivering stock to customers. We still do but we have some extra help now.
“Grow at the rate that you can afford to grow. We were limited in the amount of gin we could produce by the amount of ingredients that we could afford and could only buy more when we had sold our stock, and been paid.”
“Our attitude and our growth model in the beginning meant that even if this turned out to be an elaborate hobby and we were left with 80 bottles of fabulous gin that only we loved – that would have been fine. We probably only spent the amount we would have spent on gin in that period anyway! We made sure that the risk of failure would not impact us financially. Zero financial risk.”
What Kate would do differently if she had to do it all again?
“I wouldn’t change anything. But if I could go back in time, I would have started The Gin Kitchen two years earlier to catch more of the earlier upsurge in interest in gin. We are tracking so well, it’s hard to imagine it being better but we would have even faster traction – I’m not complaining at all though.”
How it feels on the days when Kate knows she has made the right decision?
“It feels great being creative all day. Being involved in everything from gin distilling, label design, launch planning, marketing, operations and delivery all involve creativity. Even the seemingly “boring” elements like risk assessment or designing processes behind 5* food hygiene ratings etc. feels creative. There is a level of care required in every activity if we are to continue to aim towards creating the finest gin in the world.”
“I sort of hope that my children catch a little of the entrepreneurial spirit. The twins are too young but my 7 year old was playing war games with a big group of friends recently. He had organized a team of boys to collect spent nerf and he had set up a shop selling them.” I think that entrepreneurial spirit might have seeped in already!
“We feel happy, proud and confident in what we have produced and we are having such a lot of fun along the way. “
“None - every aspect of this has been fun.”