Tough Sledding

Scotland BoundWhy do people give up?

I’ve been thinking about this for the past couple of weeks – ever since listening to a panel at the Chicago Independent Spirits Expo.  The panel was a roundtable discussion of the current state of craft distilling in the United States.  And while the panelists had a lot of positive things to say about the state of the industry, a few also mentioned the challenges faced by smaller distilleries.  One particularly astute panelist noted that he was seeing a fair number of distilleries simply give up – going out with more of a whimper than a bang.

I’ve certainly seen a fair share of this.  And I know that the life of a small business owner can be a real grind.  Spirits businesses are no different.   In fact, they are worse than many businesses in that they generally require significant capital investment up front – before you can even begin to generate products that you might hope to one day sell.

So maybe the better question is – why don’t more people give up?

First and foremost, I think the answer is passion.  I’ve worked with people across a wide spectrum of industries. Many are passionate about their work.  Unfortunately, however, many others are not.  But I’ve yet to meet a single person in the spirits business who wasn’t passionate about at least some aspect of their work.  Even in the context of the less glamorous aspects of the business (e.g., cleaning and polishing the still or completing the never-ending stream of regulatory paperwork that comes with having a DSP), people in this industry are almost uniformly enthusiastic and passionate about their work and their product.  That passion helps you push through the grind.

Secondly, I think the answer is community.

When I’m advising startup clients, I tell them to surround themselves with people who’ve run similar businesses and learn from their examples (both successes and failures).  By having an informal cabinet filled with people who are willing to share their experiences, the entrepreneur can avoid some of the more common pitfalls in starting and running a business.

The spirits business is no different in that entrepreneurs need mentors.  But the spirits business is very different in the ready availability and generosity of those mentors.  They’re simply everywhere, and they share constantly.

This was on ready display in Chicago this month.  And it is found in abundance within the ranks of the American Craft Spirits Association, the American Distilling Institute, and the many state distillery guilds and associations.   By participating in one or more of these organizations, the hooch entrepreneur can surround herself with like-minded entrepreneurs from across the industry, take advantage of key learning opportunities they offer (whether one-on-one informal discussions with colleagues or even the occasional formal presentation by a goofy, bowtie-wearing hoochlawyer), and generally get the extra support you may need if your passion alone isn’t getting you through the long hours of doubt that accompany entrepreneurship.

Seriously.  Join one of these outfits.  There is a cost – but in my experience they are worth the price of admission.  After all, they can help you avoid the whimper.

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