Posted: Wed 11th Dec 2019
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, Didsbury Gin has 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. We spoke to co-founder Mark Smallwood - who still isn't sure how it all happened.
Smallwood will be sharing Didsbury Gin's startup journey at StartUp 2020 Manchester on 25 January. Tickets are on sale now.
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.
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.
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.
We've picked the things we can and can't do with the business. For example, we specifically haven't done anything with exporting so far. We're doing that in the next year. We need to develop our national footprint too, so we're working with local Growth Hub and other support networks.
We'll be able to have a national sales agent soon. The key thing is getting the product out so people can buy it. You can't go restaurant to restaurant. We're doing some stuff with Aldi and the Co-op.
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.
Smallwood will be sharing Didsbury Gin's startup journey at StartUp 2020 Manchester on 25 January.