The Entrepreneur-spiration Series: The Seedlip Story
Our second interview this month is with Ben Branson, founder of Seedlip Ltd.
Seedlip is the world’s first distilled non-alcoholic spirit. Yes, that is correct, a spirit without alcohol.
It’s interesting to check your initial reaction at this point. Brilliant or brainless? Which camp are you in?
Either way Seedlip has got people talking and Ben has created a completely new category of drink, and one that has the high end food and drink industry abuzz with excitement at the alcohol free possibilities that this innovation makes possible.
Founded by Ben to continue his family's 300 year legacy of working with the land, when they used baskets called Seedlips to sow seed. Ben has created Seedlip to solve a problem. It was been developed through trial and error, sparked by a passion for nature and the countryside, to solve the “what-to-drink-when-you-are-not-drinking” dilemma and fundamentally change the way we drink.
It is a copper pot distilled spirit that is unlike anything else.
The first product, Spice 94 features two barks, two spices and two citrus peels individually distilled to capture nature's finest flavours. The result? A combination of wonderfully rich and deep aromas and complex flavours hit your palate - cardamom, nutmeg, lemon, pepper, cloves, bitter citrus - in layman’s terms it’s a non alcoholic gin and tonic - but it is certainly not gin and it goes with a hell of a lot more than just tonic - as it’s cocktail recipes go to show.
The second product, Garden 108 is a blend of pea, hay, spearmint, rosemary, thyme and hop distillates. It tastes like England in a glass, perfect with bitter lemon or elderflower tonic - yes goodbye elderflower cordial!
Alongside the fact that the Seedlip range stand alone in the non alcoholic spirits category, and in terms of its taste and flavours, Seedlip also lays claim to the fact that both products are sugar free, sweetener free and calorie free.
Ok, so no alcohol, no calories, no sugar - but I can still have a night out with my friends and have the ability to turn not drinking into a positive choice rather than an apologetic lime and soda? Interesting!
Ben is a soul from a bygone era
I went to meet Ben in Shoreditch. In Cafe Nero.
Ben was wearing a flat cap and looked like he had just walked in from the 18th century countryside, rather than coming from a meeting on Commercial Street. He carried an antique apothecary case beside him, and opened it up as we sat down for our chat. I was intrigued. A bottle of Seedlip was set in a velvet cushioned compartment alongside delicate jars and containers of the ingredients that make it, and a beautiful mini copper still.
Every single detail of this situation - the cap, the apothecary case, the hark back to an older time, the delicate and revered presentation of ingredients and the bottle itself, all of this make up the essence of the Seedlip brand; and help paint a picture of the quality, care, authenticity and modesty of the founder that has painstakingly crafted and created it.
My first question…how you’ve found setting up your own company? Ben answers with brutal honesty, humility and a wide, self deprecating grin.
“Fucking painful is the very short answer to that!”
Ben sits back and reminisces, “It rewinds back to me being from a farming family, and growing up outside and in the countryside. Just having that love of nature and space. I’m kind of not really a city person at all.”
What are you doing in Shoreditch? “Well exactly! This is like the bright lights of London foreign world to me!”
“My family has a farm up in Lincolnshire and we have been in farming for just over 300 years. That ancestry has been instilled in me and is massively important to me. My father’s side - always ran businesses in the rag trade and as silversmiths, through to brand and design and I actually left school and went to work for my father for his agency. I spent the next 10-12 years working on other people’s brands on the drinks space - both alcoholic and soft drinks.”
“I’m a design strategist by trade and as well as working for big corporates, I found I was doing quite a bit of work with startups and I loved seeing what people were doing when they were in charge of their own destiny and seeing their journeys.”
“So that got me thinking. I wanted to find a way to package up everything I love and cherish, and know about - into something that solves a problem for people.”
Ben pauses. “But that is all with hindsight; when I look back on how I got to here. But Seedlip is really it. Being able to throw everything I love into something that has a reason for being and a purpose - it is hugely important.”
Where did the Seedlip story begin?
“Going back to 2.5 years ago - November 2013. I don’t drink but I love my food. I did a cooking course when I left school and when you go to a nice restaurant there are all these amazing cocktails and spirits, all this amazing food - yet the non alcoholic drinks are always so poor. You know, constantly getting to a stage where you can’t drink anymore tonic water on it’s own - which is about the most grown up thing you can find if you’re not drinking. It was that that led me to thinking why there aren’t any great non alcoholic drinks in this great day and age when everyone is a little bit healthier and people are spending a bit more on booze but drinking a bit less, the sugar tax, lots of forces at work etc.”
“I grow a lot of herbs and various kinds of weird and wonderful varieties of mint and all sorts, and I collect old cookery books, and I was looking at what was grown and what went out of fashion and what has been lost over the years. I was looking at all these old herbals, remedies and ingredients, like Dwarf Elder and Pimpernel, stuff that just isn’t even grown anymore. I got quite interested in that, and going to farm museums, buying old seed packets etc - and this all led me to this book called 'The Art of Distillation' which was written in 1651 by a physician called John French, who had basically collected up alcoholic and non alcoholic remedies - back in 1650’s when alcohol was still a medicine. It was a time where was no sanitation, lots of illness and so people were kind of going crazy trying to develop the elixir of life, or make gold, or find a cure for the common cold.”
“All of these remedies documented were always distilled in copper stills. We see that today in the modern day - in gin, whiskey, spirits world, but actually it was being used by apothecaries back then. So it just sparked the idea of something grown up, non alcoholic, using this process and lots of interesting ingredients, interesting flavour profiles, and using a copper still. So I thought, right I need a copper still, where can I get one?!”
“I knew nothing about distillation, so I began watching YouTube videos, mucking around in my kitchen trying to turn mint leaves into a liquid that tasted and smelt like mint.”
“I was looking at what was going on in the market and trying to make sense of my own idea through what I was seeing. The fastest growing soft drink is bottled water, Coca Cola’s been in decline for 15 years, Diet Coke has also been in decline for years, Smoothies are now declining in sales, Jamie Oliver has just waged war on sugar, people are drinking a bit less but willing to trade up and pay a bit more for a spirit. There is a whole cocktail culture going on and it just struck me that there was something in the idea. I just thought there could be something in this, and started thinking if anyone has done this before, and I couldn't find anyone who has done this before.. so I thought “ok interesting!” Now let me try and find someone in England who can do this properly.”
“Well, that proved too difficult! I spoke to lots of different botanists, and a few people concocting stuff in their garage and finally I found Norbert who is our master distiller based in Germany. You literally cannot make this guy up - he has been distilling since he was 16 years old and has long hair, plays rugby, wears shorts 365 days of the year, and he was crackers enough to believe in me and I was crackers enough to think this could go somewhere and to put the work in.”
“We don’t make Seedlip in the exact same way that you make an alcoholic spirit - we use distillation and we use copper stills, but we’ve had to work to find our own way which is bespoke to us and bespoke to each ingredient and that is why it takes 6 weeks at a time to do a batch.”
Fast forward to November 2015, where Ben remembers back to bottling 1,000 bottles and labelling them all individually by hand, and driving them to Selfridges to fulfil his first listing.
“We sold out of the first 2 batches before Christmas, and then everything went a bit bananas!”
“It was amazing, but it was also a crisis. People were like “it’s amazing, you’re selling out”. And I was like “it’s really not because now people are coming to us wanting it, and we can’t give it to them’. How do we find a bottler, how can we scale this, how quickly can we scale this? I can’t label another bottle by hand!! I don’t want to!!! Anyone who thinks there is romance in making it all yourself - there isn’t! There is loads of other better things you would rather be doing - trust me!”
“And that is when I realised there is a very fine line between making it all yourself and staying small, and keeping some of that attention to detail and quality, and having some potential for scale. Which if we want to solve this problem of what to drink when you are not drinking, then we needed to have the capacity for massive scale, because it’s a massive universal problem.”
The art of not drinking
And it is a massive problem. The Guardian recently ran an article stating that Britain is becoming a nation of teetotallers, with young adults and Londoners leading the way. According to the Office for National Statistics’ Report on Adult Drinking Habits in Great Britain, more than one in five adults (21%) do not drink alcohol at all, where as that figure was 19% in 2005. Young adults aged 16 to 24 were primarily responsible for the fall in numbers, with young adults who reported that they do not drink alcohol at all increasing by more than 40% between 2005 and 2013.
So what do you drink when you are not drinking? Ben explains his experience of it.
“Not drinking is a compromise. You start from a point of no expectation and an apology, and making excuses and you know - not feeling part of things - it taps into all these basic psychological needs that we have as human beings, and the range of non alcoholic drinks and mock-tails on offer today don’t stand up and offer you anything in return.”
“Most places don’t have a non alcoholic menu, they don’t offer non-alcoholic choices, they are lazy, they don’t have the access to or use any other ingredients, and then consumers don’t realise that there is another way in another world. I mean why can’t we have a great non alcoholic drink? So there is a lot of work to do there, but there is really latent need, and itch to scratch. It’s then a positive choice to not drink rather than a negative one.”
This in part explains the love it or hate it response to the launch of Seedlip, which is exactly what Ben set out to provoke.
“I absolutely didn’t want people to feel indifference towards Seedlip. Seedlip can make people feel very angry. People say what is the point? Why? I don’t drink things that don’t have alcohol in! It really just throws the spotlight onto peoples own drinking behaviours. It really does strike a nerve with people.”
“Then for other people it just absolutely hits the spot and they say thank you! Why has no one done this before?! Brilliant. This is for me etc. and that is a great response to have.”
“As much as I would love everyone to like it deep down, I think it’s a really easy way to gauge where we are in the market, we know if we are talking to the right people and they will tell us - and that makes it really clear.”
Becoming your own boss
“I was running my own design agency at the time and that was only a couple of years old, so that was quite a lot to juggle, and I just thought I’d be able to do both. I thought that there would be a way to do both alongside each other.”
“Knowing other peoples experience of how long it takes to bring something to market in the real world, and how crazy anyone is to do a food and drink company because the odds are so stacked against you and it takes so long, there is a huge risk, so I wanted to continue with the design agency and what I knew in case it didn’t work out.”
“It got to a point where an old family friend said to me “ Ben, you either have to get on the train, or get off it; you can’t do both - you can’t straddle two trains”. So I made my decision, it had about a 6 month lead up to it, of a plan, of I’m going to go lock-stock fully into Seedlip. There was still a hell of a lot of work to do, there was no finished liquid, there wasn’t a lot of safe landing - it wasn’t like “we’re a couple of months from launch now so here we go”, there was loads to still do! So in total it took 2 years spilt as one year just doing Seedlip at evening and weekends, and another year working on Seedlip full time.”
“In terms of setting up the business, I made two decisions. I said I’m going to do this on my own, although my skill set is very particular, and I lack the business brain, you know, common sense and logical thinking. So I also decided to buy 'starting a business for dummies'. You know there is an actual book you can buy!”
“I also went around and spoke with other people who had set up food or drink businesses and chatted to them about what it was like and asking them a load of questions. The beauty of food and drink startups is that anyone who knows what it is like, they know you have to pass on the help because it is a minefield.”
“Yeah, it was mainly painful!” He laughs, and nods, and then flashes some of the humility that makes him so engaging.
“But it is such a learning experience. And we are just a baby now and nobody knows about us, so it all is just learning and pushing on. But it’s going - and it’s definitely going a lot faster than I thought it would.”
Investing for success
What about investment? Like so many startups, was there cowdfunding, support from friends and family? How did Ben find the capital to get the idea off the ground and put his passion into Seedlip full time?
“I put some money in myself. I read a lot about investment in startups, and a few people said to me that it is good to show intent so you can say “I put some money in, can you put some in too?”
“I think you show your belief in your idea rather than just saying “give me your money”. It was quite important to me to show that I back it belief wise, but I also back it with some money.”
“Some family gave me some money and invested some time as well. I called in a shit load of favours from website to photography, and people in the food and drink world are amazing like that because they are willing to pass on the knowledge or share advice. Or it’s really simple for people to say I like you and I like what you are doing, and therefore I’ll help you with this bit - like forecasting, or how to build an excel model. Beg, borrow and steal was a brilliant help to me right at the beginning when it was literally just an idea. And even just trying to get coffee with someone, dropping emails, asking for introductions to people, it all comes down to do they back the idea and do they think you are sound enough to maybe do something about it. It also really helped having a unique idea as you pique peoples interest.”
“It is hard doing it on your own though. Probably once or twice a month I want to pack it all in. I remember when I drove back from delivering the first load of cases to Selfridges, and said to my girlfriend I don’t want to do this anymore, I’m done. I can’t do this! It is bloody hard, and I’d never recommend anyone to do it on their own, because it is a lot!”
Building the team
But Ben is no longer on this journey alone. He and his growing team, now 4 shortly to be 6 by summer are pushing ahead with the plans they have to grow the Seedlip drinks brand and business.
Ben is a reluctant leader, but also a natural leader, and the struggle of integrity and quality and being proud of what you do vs. succeeding and managing the expectations that come with that are a delicate balance and a learning curve in themselves.
I wanted to understand how Ben has found the challenge of moving from being a brand and business in his control, to having a team to support him and help carry things forwards?
“It’s been another steep learning curve of letting go of some control, delegating, and having a studio (based in Ladbroke Grove). London is our big focus so having the studio there makes sense.”
"I’m still eternally grateful to anyone who likes Seedlip or gets in touch, or wants to come and work for us. It’s amazing to have a team and it’s growing. There’s a lot of help we get from people around the business, you know help and advice and guidance, but actually the day to day and the running of the business is another thing. It frees up a bit of my time and it is great to start building a team because I can’t do this on my own.”
I ask if it will allow him to enjoy it more?
“I think so, I hope so! I don’t have that co-founder that looks after the stuff that I don’t know how to do, that’s all. So it just means that I have to do the stuff I love and then workout how the hell to do the rest!”
What’s next for Seedlip?
Having launched successfully at the end of last year, and in another half a year having listings in some of the biggest name hotel bars and michelin star restaurants across London, Seedlip is certainly going from strength to strength. I wanted to understand what is next?
“No. 1 is having the right team.”
No 2. is launching our next two products, one in June and one in September 2016. We just previewed our new product, Seedlip Garden 108 with Jason Atherton and his restaurants and launched for Chelsea Flower Show where we partnered with Smythson."
“Seedlip Garden 108 is named after the number of days it takes to seed, sow and reap peas – so no surprise really that it’s made using garden peas distillate. The peas and hay come from my own farm which is very exciting and the ingredients profile is very different from Seedlip Spice 94 - it uses a different mixer, it is for a different occasion, and it is a different kind of serve.”
“The second new product is a brown spirit, using one or two ingredients from my farm but again different serves and 3 x different occasions. More to come on this later in the year, but ultimately there will be a range of Seedlip spirits available.’’
“We are also getting this amazing traction with michelin star restaurants, and high profile bars. For something so new and different we wanted as much credibility as possible and there are 158 michelin star restaurants in the UK and that’s a target for us there. Just to build the top end of the on-trade and build the brand there, and do as much as we can as quickly as we can to lay the foundations there and then look to expand to more cities. We want to start taking this to the New Yorks of the world - where they are ahead of London in their attitude to not drinking. Its daunting because America is a big place, but the opportunity is there and the restaurant and bar tending industry is global so there is space to do this.”
“This gives us a pretty good plan for the next year or two, and it gives us ways to learn and see how our portfolio behaves. We’re trying to write the rules here of a new category here so the good or bad, we’re going to make mistakes and we are going to try new stuff, and that’s all part of fun really. People can have opinions but no one has really done it before and that’s the beauty of it. We want to set the bar.”
I wanted to understand the Seedlip approach to marketing and how Ben and the team have built the credibility and buzz they have done in such a short space of time.
“Our approach is to basically do it with as little money as possible. Beg, borrow steal endorsement and credibility and build as much desire as possible. Rather than a systematic approach to marketing, I started thinking about why are great brands great brands, and why do I love the brands I love?”
“Our voice is very very small, but when chefs such as Tom Kerridge and Brett Graham, or bar tenders such as Ryan Cheti or Alex Kratena speak, people sit up and listen, and so when they love Seedlip, that speaks to more people at higher volume than we could ever dream of! So standing on the shoulders of those giants is really our approach.”
“The food and drink industry is really small, and chefs talk and bartenders talk. There is so much hunger, competitiveness, ego, and just dynamism and energy - the appetite for new things is so strong. I found myself entering into a world where people just wanted to tell other people and asking me if I’d met this bartender or chef - and 99% of the time me saying no - and them saying “oh so they don’t know about this yet” and they then make the introduction because they want to tell someone else, the amount of introductions is absolutely overwhelming. The head bartender at the Savoy saw me and said “Oh I heard about you in Greece the other weekend” and I was like “What the fuck is going on!” and that’s before we launched - it’s nuts! It’s very simple in that sense - talking to the right people, being in the right places, having the right product, the right aesthetic, the right story that means that people will basically put their name against it. Its an extension of what they believe about themselves if they are recommending a product.”
Ben has certainly tapped into the psyche of the food and drinks community by offering the first true innovation these creators have had for a long time. By not only meeting the needs of his end consumer (the drinker) but also meeting the needs of the gatekeeper to purchase (the bartender or restaurant manager), Ben and Seedlip have created the kind of holy grail word of mouth marketing that most marketing execs can only dream of. The kind of buzz that is only generated when a product truly is unique and meets consumer needs.
Ben continues humbly…”It’s just all a bit surreal - we just got into The Fat Duck yesterday - which is totally unreal. It is all a bit nuts!”
From farm to table
I move onto product development and ask about the process of getting to the liquids. With something so unique and no benchmark, how did Ben know when he had got it right?
“Basically I’m a soppy sentimental fucker - I knew we’d got no 1 right when it reminded me of the smell of the combine harvesters on the farm at harvest time. I knew no. 2 was right when it reminded me of sitting in pea fields with my grandpa eating peas from the pod. No. 3 my grandpa smoked a pipe and his pipe cleaners on the radiator and it was that same kind of smell and feel - it’s just very personal to me. It’s not how I would sell Seedlip in saying this is what it smells or tastes like. So some of it is very instinctive and gut led, some of it is also just my naivety and my imagination of what is possible and what could we try.”
Ben’s passion for the process, his curiosity and his fascination with ingredients reminds me of a rather eccentric professor or inventor, and the endless quest to see what he can create. His passion is infectious and you can see why people are backing him and the Seedlip brand for big things.
“I don’t have the time at the moment but there are so many ideas and so many things I want to try. I want to distill the works of Shakespeare", said with a grin; "and grow all kinds of rare things. There is an amazing world of produce that I want to play with. I have a couple of guys who are super bartenders who I spend some time with, and just play with them and a mix of ingredients and flavours. We don’t have a back bar of alcoholic drinks to play with when we make a cocktail, but we do have a huge range of ingredients and flavours that there are no rules or presidents to what we are doing - there is huge amount of freedom - so we are like “why not” - “lets try this”.”
Ben is really trying to hit that sweet spot between growing a really good brand and business, and still retaining some of that discovery and the story and the evidence is in the products themselves and the long list of Seedlip stockists they have already secured.
As a relatively new entrepreneur, I asked Ben who he looks to for inspiration in the business world?
“David Hieatt, Founder of the Do Lectures and Hiut Denim is a huge inspiration. He talks a lot of sense and I agree with a lot of what he says. I like reading what he writes, I love what he’s done with Hiut.”
“I also really admire David Attenborough, not as a business man, but as someone who is absolutely timeless and loves what he does. When I was writing what Seedlip’s tone of voice is about I was like “right - its David Attenborough - someone with a beautiful whisper, who is quietly powerful, with real gravitas who is considered and steady.” So he’s another one.”
“I admire people like James Dyson, Steve Jobs - iconic, longstanding, but also not out and out businessmen, more inventors. I like people who start things and people who take risks and want to move the world on in some little way - I’m far more impressed by invention that has meaning and value than someone who spots a way to get a buck. I’m mostly interested in the people helping other people and that as part of what they do. That’s what I aspire to with Seedlip - it sounds like a cliche to put the money third, but if we solve a problem and have the best people to solve the problem, the money will come.”
Time to learn
There is a huge amount that Ben has taken on with the creation and launch of Seedlip, I was keen to understand what was the biggest learnings he has had so far on his journey as an entrepreneur?
He laughs. “I was guilty of this, and I’ve since met people who are guilty of this…and I don’t know why there is this thing that goes around within people that want to start a food or drink company, where I’m sure people say it but it doesn’t seem to filter down - it takes ages, fucking ages!!!”
“You won’t launch in 6 months after you’ve got an idea, you probably won’t launch in a year and if you do, you should get a medal. Everything takes so long!”
“I personally am not a massive believer in the launch and learn as you go approach, change it up, keep iterating, lean startup model. I think there is a sweet spot where you really have to do it properly, and you really have to show intent and commit. Planning basically failure I don’t think is personally very prudent. Yes things can always fail, but if you plan to keep changing it, I think subconsciously it says to everybody that you don’t back it.”
“Time is the most precious thing in the world and it takes a lot of it to do anything in food and drink, so why would you waste that doing something you don’t really believe in. As far as I’m concerned you just get one shot at this really, you get one chance because the odds are so low that you will succeed. So it’s got to have everything.”
Passing it on
So what is Ben’s advice for other people interested in starting their own business?
“Don’t do it! Hahahaha!!” he says with a glint in his eye, and then continues.
“Ask lots of questions, ask the stupid ones, ask all of them. Meet as many people as you can who have done it or tried to do it. And get a co-founder.”
And finally… I asked Ben if he were to meet his 10 year old self and give them some advice for the future, what would he say? He screws up his face, leans back and smiles.
“I’d probably say just buckle up!”
A huge thank you to Ben for taking the time to be part of the Entrepreneur-spiration series, and for sharing the Seedlip story so far. Seedlip and Ben are both truly unique characters, I felt like I was in the company of a true innovator and their invention, and both are definitely worth finding out more about, so check them out at www.seedlipdrinks.com