Today, we delighted to have top bartender Nate Brown on the blog. Since his last post, he’s been trying to open a bar, struggling with COVID and HMRC, and has just launched his own drinks delivery service called Easy Social Cocktail Co. Here’s the full story:
Launching a brand at any time is a little crazy. We talk about round pegs in round holes. However, the essence of a new business is to find a new shape of peg that fits perfectly into a new shape of hole that no-one realised was there before.
In a perfect world, it would involve tonnes of analysis, and market research, insights and consultants, coupled with scrupulous product development and feedback. Only then, could the creator or founder announce with certainty ‘I have created this thing that no one in the history of the world has done before me and it is good and you shall all want it desperately even though you had no need of it before!’
Or, more likely, a few ideas are strewn together with a bit of boredom, a pint or three, coupled with a ‘close-enough’ acceptance, (not forgetting a wing and a prayer) and hey presto, something almost similar to the original idea comes to market. The spawn of the ‘Well, if you don’t try you won’t succeed’ platitude.
And then, perhaps, you’ll be up and running, right? Wrong.
Only when your company/ product comes to life, does the real sleeping giant raise its ugly troll-head from under the bridge. Like it or lump it, the beast that is HMRC will be your bedfellow in any adventure you take. More open to interpretation than ending of Inception, its rules must be obeyed, and its randomly generated deadlines must be met. You need to be Doc Brown and Marty McFly to keep on the right side of this grumpy, leviathan riddler. Don’t read Kafka, kids, just file a tax return.
Considering all of which, it’s remarkable so many businesses actually exist, and even more so that so many businesses exist well enough to employ others. Having staff is a real sign of continued confidence in your business. A commitment to not only pay them regularly, through funds yet to be received but also to pay HMRC its share (again seemingly randomly generated).
But now imagine launching a business in the time of COVID: a time where all semblance of confidence in the future dissolves before your eyes. At the time of writing, we don’t know if we can go for a pint for next week. As an operator, we don’t know if there will be an appetite for pints next week, regardless of their availability. When things return to such semblance of normality, will people rush out and pack the bars, or trickle out in small numbers? And this is just one microcosm of uncertainty in future behaviour.
We had planned to open a cocktail bar, and to follow this with a bottled cocktail company under the same brand, and then look at something more mainstream. Instead, COVID dropped the grenade and our detailed, considered, meticulous timeline was obliterated. And, at the risk of sounding like a broken record, running a business is simply accurate future planning, or an educated guess. Suddenly we found out that fifteen years of industry insight and experience was essentially worthless. Who knows what the next six months will look like in terms of appetite, tastes and behaviours? How do you plan?
However, where there is change there is opportunity. We had been working on that idea for a drink-at-home cocktail platform for 18 months. I’ve written before about changing tastes in the drinks market, the move away from elaborately prepared drinks and the appeal of simpler, low-fuss-pure-flavour serves, like the Highball. So perhaps we are well suited to the upcoming brave new world?
For context, I know I’m not alone in harbouring the frustrations of the label ‘bartender’. When I turn up to parties, I’m inevitably asked to make drinks. Like a comedian asked to ‘tell us joke’. If a chef turned up to your house you wouldn’t tell them to ‘get in the kitchen and whip us a meal’.
Simply put, I don’t want to be in the kitchen, I want to be in the party. Being stuffed into the back room to serve drinks sucks, even if it’s just a round or two. And if that’s how I feel, how bloody difficult must that role be for someone who hasn’t made 40,000 Daiquiris in their life? Making rounds of drinks isn’t easy, and it isn’t social. Which is one reason why we would go out. Until we couldn’t.
Suddenly, even Stanley Tucci was online showing us how to make simple drinks. Fortunately, we had already started to (unfortunately, slowly) build a bottled cocktail company that was being tested, tasted, discussed, thought about, tasted some more… but the ideal time had jumped up and slapped us in the face. Without bags of money, as any business owner will tell you, getting off the ground is the balance between the ideal and the mechanics available to your means.
No, we didn’t have the confidence in the future (or even the present) of the market.
No, we didn’t have months to trial various ideas.
No, we couldn’t afford consultants and prototypes.
No, we didn’t have the means to construct and execute feedback loops and A/B testing.
Hindsight is an overlooked superpower.
But what we did have was a clear opportunity. We had a cocktail-shaped hole and cocktail-shaped peg: our ideal demographic was drinking at home or in the park. Our skill set allows us to put together tasty cocktails. We had friends with great palates and awareness of the demographic. We knew exactly who we were making these for, and had years of making drinks for them. The context gave extra prominence to our tagline – ‘Life is better when we mix’.
And so, Easy Social Cocktail Co. was born.
We’ve sent drinks to our friends and family and gathered their thoughts. I’ve designed simple, minimalist packaging based on the proposition. Our cocktails don’t rely on the brand strength of an existing bar (and its subsequent narrow market), and so it may have trickier inception, but our brand has a larger ability to scale. We’ve navigated HMRC and obtained the necessary licensing and registrations. We’ve asked for help where we needed it and more than often got it.
Yet, in a COVID world, nothing seems to go exactly as you’d think. Everything is slower. Everything is more expensive and less expected. Assume nothing. We’ve tripped over a few hurdles and are scaling a hundred more.
You’d think mixing some well-sourced ingredients in a bottle and posting it out would be a simple affair. You’d be very wrong. As with a bar, the idea is the drink, the insight is everything that facilitates that drink: the lighting, the music, the glass wash, the license, the lease, the contracts, the HR, the regulations, the mop and bucket. For a business like Easy Social, that’s the website, the labels, the shipping provider, the social media, the shipping container and the eco-friendly pouches and the canned seltzers. These are the brush-strokes that make the painting.
For us, Easy Social is more than just a response to COVID, but an estimation of the future of drinking. Bars will remain and rebound, but not like before. The joy of sharing nice drinks with nice people has out-grown the four walls of the bar, flooded out of the basement dives, grown weary of the evil service charge. We can all drink nice drinks at home, it can be easy and it can be social, we just don’t want to have to make them ourselves. Maybe this is the new future. Who knows?