One of the most fun parts of my job is that I have the opportunity to meet, interact and get inspired by fascinating entrepreneurs. So I’ve decided to interview some of them, as I believe that their story, challenges, and advice will inspire other entrepreneurs as well.
This interview is with Marc Grossfield. Marc is a serial entrepreneur who has started and sold half a dozen companies including a promotional marketing agency and a company selling baby safety products. One of his current ventures is Aviv 613, a brand of super-premium Vodka.
What is Aviv 613 and why did you launch that business?
Aviv is a super-premium vodka. I started it because I had sold my promotional marketing agency. This is really where my sweet spot is. My expertise is in sales promotion. And I had this idea that I could create a spiritually based product that people use to toast. And I had access to Eddy Philips. Eddy Philips created Belvedere and Chopin and I had access to him because he was my uncle’s best friend. I normally would never go into a business that I know nothing about, but I knew enough about sales promotions and how companies create products, I felt confident I could do that and I felt Eddy could help me with the rest. Eddy owns the Phillips Distilling Company and Millennium Imports. I have a passion for Israel, I have a passion for packaged-good marketing, I drink vodka, (that’s my drink of choice) and my favorite vodka happened to be Chopin. So I kind of put it all together as I asked myself “what could I do next, what could be my next business that could take advantage of all my skills and use my connections and have a lot of fun?” The other neat thing about this particular business is that while it is very risky and very tough to get into, the numbers are very big if you succeed. So I figured, I would go for it.
What keeps you up at night? And how do you try to tackle that challenge?
It’s interesting- most new businesses don’t last five years. And it’s because the people who start them typically run out of cash. Or the business is failing and they can’t figure out how to turn it around. So they just give up. I’ve started 7 businesses before Aviv so I have been up and down and all around, and had to jump through hoops.
What kept me up with Aviv was really during the year 2016. We launched the brand in the 4th quarter of 2013, so 2014 was really our first year. We were shipping products in 2014. 2015, we were really just adding a lot of distribution and I wasn’t worried that the sell-through numbers were not that strong because I figured I just needed more distribution and awareness. It’s kind of like the tipping point where people would find out about it and then all of the sudden our sales would start going up. But it didn’t. Typically in this industry, the barrier to entry is distribution, since a distributor has 30 or 40 vodkas already. In my case distribution wasn’t my problem. Every distributor I went to said yes. My issue was selling it through to the consumers. And I was wrecking my brain. I had won all these awards, everyone tells me that they love it, I am at the bars and restaurants and I am still not selling. It wasn’t until I learned that the conventional model of marketing for packaged-goods does not work for luxury goods. And I did everything that my advisers and distributors told me to do. What we were doing was pushing the product out to the market using sales force incentives, dealer loader programs, display allowances, etc. to get it displayed in the stores. And we got a lot of people to try it but what I learned the hard way is that for luxury goods, especially luxury goods that are an extension of a person’s identity, the rules are different. For example, for men, a lot of time their cars or watches are an extension of their identity. It’s the same with liquor. A person who has a high self-image will never order a vodka tonic. They’ll order a Grey Goose and tonic, a Kettle and tonic. And that’s the beauty of liquor; even if you can’t afford a Mercedes you can still afford a Grey Goose and tonic at the bar. So with liquor, you can be consistent with your image. That’s what we learned the hard way.
That’s what was keeping me up at night. I couldn’t figure it out. And I am the kind of person that, if I can’t figure something out, I can’t turn it off. So I literally would be up at night. And I was up many, many, nights trying to figure that out.
So right now what is keeping me up is that in order to get to the next level we need to raise additional investment capital. And for a product that hasn’t had good sales results, who is going to take that leap of faith to make a huge investment like that? That’s what is keeping me up right now.
What is the single most successful thing you are doing that is helping you grow your business?
For the vodka company, I would say it is not giving up. You have to have dogged determination to be an entrepreneur. It would be easy to get down, because when you start a business, at least all the ones I have started, they never go as planned. There are always things that are beyond your control. Like, I had a baby safety product company. We were the safest product in the world. We had four patents. But because baby bumpers (the dangerous type) were killing kids, we find out that the state of Illinois had a bill in front of their congress to ban all bumpers. And I am thinking, wait a minute, we are the safe guys, don’t ban them all, just ban the ones that are dangerous. So now I had to go spend money to lobby the state congress to make sure they understand that, and that we are part of the solution.
It is about being very persistent and having that dogged determination and being able to handle the “nos” and downturns and the things that are beyond your control and not get down or demotivated because of those things.
Based on your own experience, what advice would you give other entrepreneurs and small business owners?
Well, you need to surround yourself with people that are experts in the industry that you are going into because you just don’t know what you don’t know. Most entrepreneurs are young. So they have little to no experience. So you want to have people that you can bring in to be on an advisory board or at least can help you think through your business plan. You have to have a business plan. Without a business plan, you are likely going to fail, and the key things in the business plan are your marketing plan, your product plan, and your financial plan. Those are the key three parts of your business plan. And you need to do “what-if” scenarios. That’s what I call a SWOT analysis: strength, weakness, opportunities, and threats to your business. And so my advice is to surround you with fine people who are experts and ask them to review your business plan and poke holes in it and then fill those holes.
I also would advise not to use your lawyers or your accountants as business advisors. Because many of them think they are brilliant business people, but they are not. You ask your lawyer for legal advice. You ask your accountant for tax and financial statement advice but not for business advice. Ask business people about business advice. And your CEOs are going to be able to relate to you the most because they understand the risks from your point of view. So that’s why I joined a group called Vistage International. There are 14 CEOs in our group. When I have an issue I am not comfortable with or don’t know about, I go around the room and ask “what would you do if you were me?” And I’ll get 13 answers and walk out of the meeting knowing what to do. That’s I think my best advice to an entrepreneur. Surround yourself with people who are expert in your industry.
What is your favorite online resource?
I use Google to look up my competitors. And I study my competitors. I look at their websites. I try to find as much as I can find out about them, I’ll go to the stores and I’ll talk to the retailers, I’ll talk to the wholesalers, I’ll talk to the sales force. Typically, a salesperson knows the most about your competitors and about your competitors’ products. But it’s really just Google.
If you are an entrepreneur and would like to be part of this series, send me an email. I’d love to hear from you and your business. First The Trousers is a brand strategy an innovation boutique with a special suite of strategic services for Entrepreneurs, start-ups and small business owners.