The Entrepreneur-spiration Series: Thomson & Scott Skinny Champagne & Prosecco
This month we went and met Amanda Thomson, Founder and CEO of Thomson & Scott Skinny - a portfolio of Champagne and Prosecco for the next generation of wine lovers globally who want to drink top quality sparkling wine, whilst reducing the levels of added sugar in their bottle.
Hallelujah I hear you cry!
Amanda’s mission is to be completely open about what we're drinking and cut sugar where it's not needed. Her brand is not counting calories, but sharing them for transparency, encouraging us to ask why we can't drink better and cleaner?
The Skinny range of Champagne and Prosecco definitely answers this question, and we set out to find out more.
Let’s start at the beginning
I wanted to understand from Amanda how this journey had begun. She smiled and suggested we take a trip back in time.
“I grew up with a health food entrepreneur mother way before it was fashionable. She basically started a health business by herself, way before the tipping point, over 40 years ago. Unfortunately, she gave up way before Planet Organic! So, the health food market was in my DNA, and sugar, as a of poison of sorts, was my normal understanding.”
“I started my career in the media, and I worked as a broadcaster, mostly TV and radio because I’m not a great writer, I prefer conversation. I was often covering stories over night. It was a case of “first-world problems”… of having to sample wine, champagne, and canapés, staying out, not a very healthy lifestyle! I was in the arts, so there were events and parties to contend with.”
“As a result, I became a lot more analytical about quality of champagne and wine, and my interest grew. I’d always romanticised working with champagne but no more than guys might do with cars or football. And of course, I had a perfectly lovely job and I was really enjoying my broadcasting career.”
“I don’t know if it’s being a Gemini, I don’t know if it’s having children, or whether it was that I was arts-based and there was a shift in arts reporting towards celebrity - from sitting down and interviewing someone properly for an hour, to reporting on celebrities falling out of nightclubs at midnight. I remember I had a bit of a lightbulb moment when someone said, “Who do you really, really want to interview?” And I couldn’t think of anybody. During my career I had the opportunity to meet and interview fantastic people – Simon Rushdie, David Cameron, Tom Cruise – all kinds of people, and that was all brilliant, but I sort of felt that I’d done that and it might be good time to change my career.”
“So my husband and I talked about me studying wine and working with champagne, and after doing some research, one day, I said to my husband, “I have found this teacher and course and it’s in Paris.”
“We had two small children at the time, and it was a huge decision. But he was open-minded, up for the adventure, and we upped sticks and took the kids to France. I studied wine. I put on it all on credit cards, my course, living expenses, the lot . We just went for it. We lived in Paris and we actually found this perfect tiny apartment, a cupboard but in the perfect central location. The idea was to stay for a year. We stayed three.”
“While I was studying, I was crystallizing the idea of a business in wine and champagne, and then in my mind I was starting to marry up the health aspect – the fact that sugar was added to champagne as part of the process and that people outside the business didn’t know about it. So that was where my storytelling angle started to come into play.”
“I was at a tasting in Paris one day, and I had my Eureka moment when I tried this incredible no added sugar champagne. I knew that this was the champagne I wanted to work with.”
“I researched the producer, and he was really the king of no added and low-sugar champagne. So he was ahead of his own game, particularly in the wine industry which is very traditional.”
“So over the course of another year, I persuaded him that my idea would work. He thought it was a little crazy initially, but we became friends and I said, “When we get back to London, I want to self-launch this champagne under my brand, Thomson & Scott Skinny.”
“So that’s how it started and I went ahead and built my business around that as the initial Halo product. Finding the first product was the lynchpin, it really is your perfect no added sugar champagne, and so we are just taking the perfect example and using the Thomson & Scott Skinny brand to turn the idea of what people know on its head and really putting the spotlight on transparency in the wine and champagne sector in a way that nobody has before.”
“In a nutshell, that was how the original idea came about. I started really from that idea and then all of a sudden, I was in the wine business. But I wanted to operate outside it and what I mean by that is that all of my friends in every single industry outside the wine business felt like they weren’t part of that club. What interests me about the opportunity is there was this idea that really high-end “clean” food had been democratised in many ways in that you can get an organic hand-reared Wagyu burger from a street food truck, and yet, the wine industry still feels very formal, traditional and male orientated, and a bit elitist at times, and I want to break this down and introduce people to quality champagne and sparkling wine with less sugar.”
“For a very long time, everybody thought I was nuts, particularly those in the drinks industry. I think some people still do. And it’s quite useful. Because the longer people think I’m doing something a little bit unusual or a bit wacky or that I’m never going to be a force to be reckoned with, I find that it gives me a lot more traction.”
So, Amanda has taken the lead on introducing us to a slimmer, skinnier version of our much loved tipple in the UK. However, Amanda is quite modest about it.
“This type of product is not new. It’s been around and has existed. I’ve just found the best tasting products and built a brand and a business around them. If you ask anyone outside of the wine industry, people don’t know there is sugar added to champagne. They don’t know there is sugar added in wine. They don’t really understand the process because no one has bothered to tell them.”
“The main questions that come up with Skinny is whether the alcohol level is affected? The answer is no.”
I hear you reader, breathing a sigh of relief!
“And it’s a good question. Interestingly, as I always say to people, the fruit sugar is there because obviously, you can’t make champagne, sparkling wine without fruit, So, I always say, “I am confident as somebody who understands nutrition in the health world to separate fruit sugar from added processed sugar.”
“Skinny Champagne is made in exactly the same way as other Champagne, it's just that we don't add sugar on top of the fruit sugars already there. This means it is healthier, with the alcohol level not affected and it still tastes amazing.
"Skinny Prosecco is crisp, clean, refreshing and delicious with floral and green apple aromas. People are surprised when they first taste often saying "it just tastes like the perfect Prosecco" but the key here is it has half the sugar of a traditional Prosecco is organic and vegan certified (some wine is filtered using animal by product).”
“So once we had the Champagne sorted, I then went on to launch Skinny Prosecco, and I literally could not have dreamt the overnight success it was going to be. It was Selfridges most searched for product of any single product on their website in Spring. Any single product…And that was with zero advertising spent. I was amazed.”
“Basically, we’re aiming to be the alternative to the house champagne or prosecco. We’re not cheap - top quality, less sugar should not be seen as cheap. We’re not expensive either at £49.99 for Skinny Champagne, and £17.99 for Skinny Prosecco. The price is fair and I know that because of the quality. We aim to be authentic in all we do.”
All about the honesty
What are the Skinny brand and business values? How does Amanda keep them at the forefront of the company?
“I’m all about transparency, it’s an obsession of mine. I think that modern consumers want you to tell them exactly what goes into the products they buy. And, of course, the wine business, along with the food and drinks business have shied away from that for so long. I’m not trying to really screw with tradition, but I’m trying to say, for my bottles, I think for my clientele, they want to know what they’re getting. And I think young people in particular want to know what they’re getting. If you look at the habits of younger people drinking, they’re often prepared to upgrade and pay more for something better quality and something better for you. That’s where my brand comes in.”
So I’m intrigued, I ask Amanda to share how many calories are there in a glass or a bottle?
“With our Prosecco, there's around 1g of sugar per serving, and just 7g of sugar per litre, which is around half that of a regular bottle of Prosecco”, smiles Amanda.
“The average glass of prosecco has less calories than a lot of alcoholic beverages – a pint of beer has 182, for example, a small glass of wine contains about 159. Ours has just 67 calories – that's less than half an egg, which has about 150.”
“Because we are focused on cutting sugar, our audience is predominantly smart, informed ABC1 customers with a 70:30 female/male split and are ballpark 75% 20-30 something. They are health conscious, and on social media they are talking about us having found out about us. It’s a whole new movement I suppose once you work on the premise that the key way to feel better is to cut down on sugar and processed food and drink, that combined with the healthier lives people are trying to live these days, it is no wonder people are seeking out products to help that don’t compromise on quality or taste.”
Becoming an Entrepreneur
I was intrigued to find out from Amanda what it was like starting up her own business and taking that plunge. It’s a huge leap from a career in broadcasting to being the master of your own destiny and running your own business, and I wanted to understand more.
“I think at first, it was very, very difficult to know who to listen to. I’ve now learned, and other young entrepreneurs ask me for my advice, and now I felt like I’m in the position with hindsight to say, “What I did was…” The reality is that I just used to meet with all kinds of people. I still try to meet all the time with different people, from captains of industry in the wine business to customers in entirely different businesses.”
“I think my inquisitive mind, my being a journalist, was probably very relevant here, but I’m not afraid to ask what may seem like really obvious questions. I sit in high-end meetings, and I may have no idea what the acronym is. So I simply ask for an explanation. And everyone says later, “Amanda, thank you for asking, we didn’t know either.”
“That’s the beauty of being an entrepreneur - you can just approach all kinds of people cold and often they’ll take a meeting. So, I just initially took tons and tons of meetings, and met a lot of people from all aspects of business which was super useful.”
“I suppose the only danger is at that sort of point when you’re crystallising your ideas and you’re building your confidence, and you’re working out exactly what you’re doing, is that you can get led in so many different directions. And your brain can get a bit fuddled. And I suppose if I wasn’t strong-willed enough to have kept going, I could easily have been put off on a daily basis.”
“I’m quite stubborn and that’s probably quite useful. So I would meet people and I would always be polite, always. And then, I would work out who I really thought was worth listening to and who I really thought wasn’t.”
“As a journalist, you develop quite a thick skin. It’s not that things don’t affect me but I pretend they don’t. People won’t always want to help you. I think not everybody is charitable actually. I know we want to believe the best in people. And I think lovely help comes in all shapes and forms and sometimes the people who I thought would be most helpful turned out to be the least and vice versa. Many people are a support, but there are times when the chips are down, and you have to dig very deep and go forth on your own. It can be a lonely world as an entrepreneur”
“I think as an entrepreneur you have to know that you are on to something and truly feel it, otherwise, I don’t think you will survive. And that isn’t arrogance at all. That is self-belief in your idea.”
“I think, unfortunately, if you don’t have that as an entrepreneur, you won’t be able to continue. Because, ultimately, I think, and I said this to somebody the other day, I said, “All that’s going to separate me with my hopefully lovely idea from the next person with that hopefully lovely idea, is my personality and what I do with the idea” – obviously, we have to work on a premise that objectively the idea is sound to start with!”
“You have to stay “on the train” as it were, stay 100% focused, don’t deviate and by that I mean that you don’t take different courses. You have to stay very true to your idea, and I think that is really what ends up probably sorting the wheat from the chaff.”
“There are some wonderful stories about business that are useful. I often try to read related books . Dyson for example is one of my favourites. I mean if Dyson had listened every time somebody said that’s a crappy idea, he wouldn’t be one of the world’s most successful business people now. And actually, you pick any successful business person and mostly, they will have so many stories of somebody saying to them, “That’s shit.” Pardon my French.
"So, I think that’s where great passion comes in, that’s where resilience comes in, and that’s where staying on the train comes in."
"In one word, starting a business is very hard, and remains hard."
I wanted to understand if Amanda did any fundraising to help get Skinny off the ground?
“I initially just managed on a shoestring with credit cards to just test the concept early stage. And I raised my own early funds under the SEIS tax process. So I did a very small early fundraise.”
“I took a few VC meetings, but I decided early on that I did not want to go the VC route because I didn’t want to give away 55% of my company, take big money, potentially crash and burn and be told what to do.”
“It was bloody hard, initially. And then, I did more research. Female founders find it much harder to get early stage investment, even though their businesses are more likely to succeed. That’s an interesting statistic, right?”
“So when I learned that, it gave me confidence. I had kept going to all these really good meetings and no one was signing. And then, my first stage investments were two women actually.” I’ve since done my A round this Summer with Angels which was over-funded so that was a great feeling as you can imagine.
What is next on the cards
So after a fantastic start, what is next for Amanda and the Skinny brand? Where does Amanda want the company to take the company over the next five years, what is her vision?
“We are super focused on the global market, and I think it’s smart to be at the beginning. We are focused on key territories, because the way that I see my business very much, always have, as a global thing. We’ve already got huge amounts of supporters and early stage clients overseas as the media word has spread online. So, I think if we have the right partnerships with the distributors, right hotels, restaurants and spas, then we can look to sell successfully in all different territories.”
“Yes, we do want to scale ambitiously. We have got really big plans. But we want to scale in a different way. Selectively.”
“For example, in Selfridges, I insisted on fighting to go in the Food Hall. And that initially – what’s the polite word, perturbed the wine department. It’s probably the polite word. Now, they’re all on board, but that was seen as a really radical start.”
“I wanted to launch in their Food Hall, because that for me is where every single trendsetting Londoner, visitor, even internationally, goes. And when we did pop-ups in there, I realised my hunch was so right. It’s like a constant photo shoot of international smartness. That is what the Thomson & Scott Skinny brand is all about. I see ours more like a cool fashion brand. We’re now back there with a Christmas pop-up through to the end of December”
The Skinny Brand
Clean simple and effective, much like the drink itself, I asked Amanda how she came up with the branding and design for Skinny.
“I fortuitously had somebody who has been bit of an advisor to me. And he knew a company who I’ve come to their work, a company called Imagist. And they’re all about luxury typography. And I loved their work. And because they ended up loving my concept, we cut an early deal where they helped me develop all the brand’s family and conceptualise really early stage, offered us a good price and then deferred payment. So I think they really shared my sensibilities.”
“Now, we get all kinds of branding companies going, “Can we work with you?” I just say “Thank you. I’m very happy. I adore my branding.” I’m really happy with it. Imagist have done a fantastic job and continue to do so.”
And in terms of marketing, what’s the Skinny way of doing things?
“At the moment we only use press stories and social media, and we’re looking to push that in exactly the right ways that we can and that’s where we’re 100% focused. And I think, because the product is so strong and because people seem to like my unusual story, I think that there’s still a lot that we can continue to do with the media. It’s a medium that I understand and I think lots of wine companies don’t seem to understand that if you’ve got a why, a real reason for existing as a brand, and story, then you can jump away from the wine pages and make the main news itself.”
“We have so many different facets we can talk about, the sugar thing, the health thing, the champagne thing, the lifestyle and the fashion thing, the millennial thing, the entrepreneurial thing. I mean, there’s just content and stories everywhere with my brand and with our story.”
“We will very much continue to work with the press as much as we can, and also to collaborate and partner with people and companies that completely share our brand values.”
Now, that she’s an official entrepreneur, I wanted to understand who or what inspires Amanda. Are there businesses she admires? Are there role models she looks up to?
“Interestingly, I haven’t found it easy to find female role models in the UK wine world. But I have in the outside business world. Jacqueline De Rojas for example who was recently voted most powerful woman in UK Tech. And Chrissie Rucker who founded The White Company – even though we haven’t met yet, she loves my Champagne and featured it in their new Christmas catalogue which was lovely. My no. 1 mentor is a guy who came on board early stage as an investor and has huge experience in the drinks business having grown and sold a brand and always has time for me whenever I need a steer. That means a lot.
“I find inspiration from the social media world, from fashion brands. A little bit from the spirit world, lifestyle bloggers really. I’m into finding out what works from younger disrupters, people who are doing things in a different way. Because often when I try and learn about conventional wisdom and business, it’s interesting, but I often find that it’s not super relevant to me.”
“I read an interesting book, just now, called #Girlboss by the founder of Nasty Gal, Sophie Amoruso. I just thought that was an amazing book. I’ve read loads of business books and that was one of the least conventional but most inspiring.”
I asked Amanda what her biggest learning to date has been on this journey so far?
“It’s to try and train your brain to use people’s negative energy positively.”
I asked her… how do you do that?
“It’s hard so I’m learning. It takes a lot of practice. But I think it’s probably really my most useful bit of advice Focusing I suppose untimately on the challenge of proving people wrong. That’s why stubbornness is key!”
“I also think having grit is so important. Loads of people say to me, “I couldn’t do what you’re doing.” And I say, “Well, you could actually.” And they say, “No, no, I couldn’t.” And I say, “Well, why couldn’t you?” “Well, I wouldn’t have the confidence.” And I say, “Well, I didn’t either.” “
“I think in life, particularly as women, I think so many of us are only held back by lack of confidence.”
“I always say to people, “What is the worst that can happen?” “
“I think if you sort of apply that dictum to a lot of what you do, then jumping to a new business, if you’re passionate about it makes complete sense. It’s a really good question to ask yourself.”
And did she always wanted to be an entrepreneur?
“No, I didn’t really think about that actually. I suppose as a journalist… I suppose it’s like being an actor in that you’re a pawn in your news editor’s sort of game. I do like working with the team, but I do have high standards. Yeah,… I suppose I do like having that control. I like the fact that the buck stops with me, which again is a funny thing.”
“I give the people in my team a huge amount of rope to run with, but there are occasions when you have to make the calls. The buck will stop with you and you have to step up because you are protecting your child, your baby, your vision. This is my third child, in a way.”
Paying things forwards
Amanda is an inspiring and interesting woman, with infectious passion and a curiosity that helps her get under the skin of things. It’s clear that her journalist experience has played a part in helping her achieve what she has with the Skinny brand. I wanted to know what her top three tips for other budding entrepreneurs would be?
“I mentioned grit earlier, and I’ve been reading a lot about it recently. And they’re talking a lot about grit and resilience a lot, aren’t they, in education now. And I think that’s probably the number 1 tip which is if you don’t have it, develop it fast. You will be eaten alive otherwise.”
“I think in the business world, if you’re going to grow anything…I mean, it’s all very well the kitchen table, when you’re in a little bubble. But as soon as you want to get out to the real world and do real business, you will have to communicate with people who will think they’re more advanced than you, smarter than you, more successful than you, everything. And if you haven’t developed that self-belief, you’re going to be really in trouble I think.”
"Surround yourself with really, really good people. You’re not an island. And I’m the first one to go “’I’m not brilliant at everything, far from it”. Sometimes, people see that as a weakness and I don’t. Like I said, I want to hire people who are much better than me in lots of ways. I mean, why not fill in your talent gaps?”
“So I think great resilience, hire people that are smarter than you. And what would three be? Three, our magic three.”
“Oh, I suppose I know it’s overused in society, but I really think it’s the most important thing in modern business; Be authentic. Have a reason to exist.”
My final question, I ask Amanda if she met her ten-year-old self now and had to give them some advice for the future, what would it be?
“I think don’t waste time with people that don’t matter. I think most of us women are very guilty of that. I think no is the most powerful world. I want to encourage all entrpreneurs to use no actually when it’s needed, and be always polite, “Thank you but no.”