Posted: Thu 8th Jun 2023
Some business ideas come from a moment of inspiration, while others come after a hefty gin bill. It was the latter that led gin enthusiasts Mark Smallwood and Liam Manton to launch Didsbury Gin in 2017.
In less than two years since its launch, Didsbury Gin landed listings in national pub chains, supermarkets and department stores. Vogue Magazine called it "one of the most exciting new British gins" and, after an appearance on Dragons' Den, the business received £75,000 in investment.
It's been a whirlwind ride. Mark and Liam fill us in on the journey.
From bar tab to business idea
It started in a local bar that stocked 54 gins. Judging by the bill, myself and Liam got through quite a lot. It turned out we both liked a similar thing. At the end of the night, we thought: "There must be a cheaper way of doing this."
Then Liam said: "Why don't we do it ourselves?"
We did more research than we make out. We met with distillers, distributors and people who run gin stalls or make products for other people. Then we started working on the flavour profile and the style we wanted to come up with.
Originally, we were going to make some gin for ourselves and our friends. When we created a sample, the feedback was good so we did a taster event. I ended up running a big party with members of the press there. We decided then that we would start it up as a business.
Landing Harvey Nichols as a customer
Our first-ever customer was Harvey Nichols, just through the power of LinkedIn. We somehow managed to get a meeting. They tasted the gin and liked it, so we agreed on a three-month exclusivity deal. It was more to help us – it gave us time to get stuff produced, get the business right and finish the branding.
LinkedIn's a really helpful tool because you can get the right information before you go in to meet people. It's been really handy.
Apart from Harvey Nichols, we started very locally. It meant we could get some good press in the Manchester papers. We got a local PR agency to look at the local market for about a year. They came up with some innovative ways to get press because we didn't have a marketing budget.
Taking Didsbury Gin to Dragons' Den
Coincidentally, we both got made redundant within two weeks of each other. We'd both been working full-time because we couldn't afford not to have jobs for a business that was just selling some gin. We'd had a phone call from Dragons' Den before but turned them down because we didn't really have a business. When we got made redundant, this call came through and we thought it was the best time to do it.
We didn't have time to get nervous about it. We got the call and we were in the following Tuesday. Other people had known about it for months.
You have no idea what the Dragons are going to ask you. We were in there for about three hours. We simplified the figures to help us remember them. Then the first question came in and we were like: 'we didn't think about that one!' It was from Peter Jones, who said: "You don't have a distillery and you've only just done this or that. Why should I be interested?"
We got investment from Jenny Campbell. She doesn't manage too many businesses, so she's very hands-on. That's a great advantage. Dragons' Den brought us national coverage as well – it got us in front of 2.8 million people on a Sunday night.
A gin business making hand sanitiser for the NHS
We were fully supportive of the lockdown because we needed to stay safe. But from a business perspective, it had a massive impact. One of our largest revenue streams was switched off overnight with the closure of bars and restaurants during lockdown.
Fortunately, Didsbury Gin could still generate revenue through its supermarket sales. Liam had initially planned on relying on this trade to weather the storm but then came a change of plan.
We were approached by Greater Manchester Police to create hand sanitiser. It was something the team hadn't made before but we started playing with formulations.
Within a week of lockdown, we'd diversified our production capacity and produced the equivalent of one million units of hand sanitiser for the NHS, police and fire services. We were producing something we'd never done before at a staggering volume.
Didsbury investor and Dragon Jenny Campbell celebrated the team's ability to move so quickly.
HAND SANITIZER - very proud of my @DidsburyGin team who within 7 days of the request for help had produced the equivalent of 1 Million 50ml bottles of anti-bacterial hand sanitiser for emergency, health and support services. E;email@example.com
— JennyBCampbell (@jennybcampbell) April 1, 2020
The biggest hurdle was the unsustainable price hike of ethanol, which is the key component of hand sanitiser. It was going up 20% week on week. At the time, we made a lot of noise in the press about the behaviour and ethics of some of the suppliers.
Words of advice
People ask me where they can get the money to start a business. For me, it was just taking it a step at a time. Make sure you understand the law and the financial implications. Make sure you know the people you're working with too. Ultimately, whether you succeed by luck or a well-made decision, it doesn't matter.