As the sun is out and summer is hotting up, we are on a mission to seek out the coolest new alcoholic drinks hitting the bars, beer gardens and pop ups, as well as the shelves this summer. This month we met with Jess Titcumb, founder of refreshing new ready to serve drink Twisted Halo.
For the ladies out there (and even the gents) summer bodies and summer drinking are a bit of a contradiction, aren’t they. With all of us wanting to ensure we are “beach body ready”, but with an idealised image of sipping cocktails, or a cool beer in the sunshine, or even grabbing a glass of wine on a pub corner after work, the healthy lifestyle trend and drinking don’t necessarily blend well together. Moderation you say, balance. I get it, it’s just my will power is just not always that strong and the slimline drinks on offer just aren’t that exciting.
Now when I say to you that I have found a gently sparkling blend of coconut water twisted with ginger & muddled with premium vodka. What do you think? Tasty? Yes. Refreshing? Yes. Healthy - ish? I want to try one! At just 90 calories per bottle, Jess has created an alternative that is all about balance and rescues me from ordering one more bland Vodka, Lime and Soda on a night out.
I sat down with Jess to find out more about Twisted Halo and learn about her plans for this new refreshing drink of summer 2016.
It all started way back
"I studied Classics at St Andrews and then embarked on a career as an interior designer. I know, totally different to what I am doing now! I really knew absolutely nothing about the drinks industry!”
"I was always going to the gym lots, and I’ve always quite been into health and fitness generally, but also liked going out and enjoying myself and didn't want to compromise. I would go out of an evening with friends and would always order a Vodka Lime & Soda - the staple go to slimline alcoholic drink. I don’t actually know many people who enjoy drinking it, you squeeze as much of the lime out as you can to make it taste better, wait for the ice to melt - that kind of thing. I thought “there has got to be an alternative out there to this”, but there really wasn’t. So it left me thinking “Ok, I might be on to something here, I might have an idea”."
“I’ve always been quite entrepreneurial, and I have a very entrepreneurial family. My dad and mum set up an insurance company, and they sold it just before the markets crashed back in 2007 so I’ve always grown up amongst that “build a business and sell” it mentality.”
“I never really knew what I wanted to do. I never found that right job fit, interior design just wasn’t for me, and I was looking at other jobs and trying to find my way. This seemed like such a good opportunity. I investigated and no one was doing it, so thought this was something I could really get into.”
“During this time I spoke to one of my friends, she was interested and wanted to be part of it and she ended up launching the business with me.”
“Our first stage of backing was from my parents - which was not easy at all, trust me! It was as tense as going through any investor! And good for them, at the end of the day they are protecting their investment as they are entrepreneurs themselves.
“So from February 2015 we got investment, we got a recipe, I developed the concept and name (Twisted Halo was formerly known as Lovo Drinks) and we launched in June 2015. So it was a really quick turnaround! On the one hand it was good getting to market fast, but on the other hand so much went wrong as well. Literally, everything that you could imagine going wrong went wrong.”
I was intrigued. In all the interviews I’ve done to date the entrepreneurs are often frustrated by how long things take to get to market. What was Jess’s experience of getting to market fast? How did she do it? What did she learn?
You live and learn
“Oh we had so many issues! We had issues with the manufacturer, our labels didn’t print correctly, our branding wasn’t quite right, the recipe needed a bit more work. To be honest everything just wasn’t quite there. Gut instinct told me it wasn’t right all the way along, but I kept squashing it and thinking it would be fine. I wanted it to be fine, but it wasn’t.”
“When we launched, the concept went down really well and our buyers loved the product. We did lots of events like Taste Festival and off the back of it we ended up doing the summer party for ITV, and loads of different parties and events across the summer, so this time was invaluable as it helped us really test the concept with consumers. But from it I realised the whole package needed work.”
“During this time as well my business partner left, which was a real shame. However it was good that it happened earlier on rather than later."
"It’s interesting because a lot of people say that it is great to have a business partner, which it is, it is good to have someone to talk things through with, and work things out together. However, you have to ensure you are aligned on how you want to run the business and work together."
“So from Christmas I took on a great consultant. He had had experience of working in the drinks industry from his time at a soft drinks company, and he has been brilliant for the business. He’s really helped shape the whole brand and business, and it is great to have someone advise in the areas I have no experience in.”
“It was a huge decision to do a complete brand overhaul, but luckily I was in a position where I could do it and it needed it. But it was a massive decision for me, and it took a lot of confidence in the idea and in myself to put the brakes on and say “No, we need to change everything!”
It was a really brave decision, but Jess is the kind of person who isn’t fazed by a challenge, and where she has got the brand and the product to today is testament to her hard work, charisma and determination.
“So this is it” as she hands me a bottle. “2016 is the the launch of Twisted Halo - the ultimate refreshing drink for Summer 2016!”
“We literally changed everything from the name, the bottle, the design, the recipe, and this is the end result and we are really happy with it. The new recipe includes a touch of ginger which works really well with the coconut water and the slight fizziness. It is also just 90 calories, which is really important for the female audience we are targeting.”
It is a product which is ridiculously easy to drink, being both refreshing and delicious, and with practically no vodka taste at all, it is easy to forget that this drink is 4% ABV. It makes you feel like you are being healthy even though its alcohol.
I asked Jess what the response has been since the relaunch?
“There is no one really catering for the young female market in the alcohol industry, which is in part why it has gone down so well. Also having spoken to investors and buyers, they all love that it has been created by someone who is in the target market, and someone who understands what they are looking for.
"It’s non-corporate, its not been created by middle aged guys in suits sat round a boardroom table, its created by me, for women like me, to help them have a great night out, by having a great tasting alcoholic drink that isn’t laden with calories. It’s the perfect drink when you want to let your hair down a little and still maintain your lifestyle balance."
"By choosing ingredients that are “on trend” and associated with healthy living, the appeal of the product is heightened and Jess has managed to tap into the healthy lifestyle trend that has taken the likes of Instagram by storm."
“I just saw the need for a low calorie alcoholic drink for women, and then started looking at ingredients.”
“Social media played a big influence as the health and wellness trend is huge, its exploded; and its suddenly become a lifestyle - its no longer people going to the gym to get fit, its an all encompassing lifestyle - from when you are in a coffee shop ordering a matcha latte, to even when you are on a night out.”
“I saw that this was a massive trend to tap into. I saw that it had been done with soft drinks, but not with alcohol, but thought that it was only a matter of time.”
“You can’t market alcohol as healthy, so what I did was start to investigate ingredients that are associated with health and wellness, and started playing with them as part of the recipe. Coconut water is inherently seen as being healthy. When you say to someone “it’s sparkling coconut water, ginger and Vodka” their response is automatically, “oh, it’s healthy alcohol”. We aren’t saying that, but it also means we don’t have to labour that its low calorie, that we have no artificial flavours or nasties, people make the assumption from the ingredients we use. We’ve tried to keep all of the flavours as pure as possible. They are slightly more adult, slightly more sophisticated “twists” of flavours that go together so well, in a light and refreshing way.”
I’m intrigued as to whether Jess will stick with a Vodka base or move onto other spirits?
“The first 3 flavours have a Vodka base, but after that we will look to move on to other spirits. Vodka works so well as it is such a neutral flavour and is low calorie. Having said that, Tequila is supposed to be on the increase, so…who knows?!” She says with a grin.
Becoming an entrepreneur
Jess is a sparky, eloquent, and a naturally personable business woman. Being an entrepreneur is the only job I could see her in, and she is a natural. However, I wanted to understand what had made her move from a career in Interior Design to setting up her own business. What was the point where she decided to make the leap?
“Over the years I’ve had so many random ideas. I remember being 13 and telling my best friend that I’d had an idea for an online business to build and customise your own dog bed… but I swiftly moved on from that one!”
“With this idea though, I was very careful with who I spoke to about it. I spoke to some advisors, and they agreed that there was an opportunity there.”
“A lot of people also told me no as well.”
“People in the drinks industry already were like - “it costs so much money, you’ll never be able to do it, you’ll never get anywhere”. But I just thought, “well if I thought that way, then no one would do anything!”
“I had an interior design job but I wasn’t 100% happy, I was looking at other jobs, and thinking what am I going to do now? So I just started working on this idea and creating a business plan whilst I was job hunting, and very quickly I knew I would have to commit full time to it if I had any chance of getting it off the ground and make it what it needed to be. So I literally handed my notice in and went for it.”
“I would really struggle to try and keep working whilst doing this, I’d struggle to do the two things at once. I think when you launch a startup like this, the amount of work that goes into it, it is endless and there is so much to do. There are literally not enough hours in the day to do everything that needs to be done. But you need to be 100% committed and give it your all.”
“I think because I grew up with my parents being entrepreneurs, I think I’ve got a good attitude to handling the workload and the pressure, and as a result I think I have a good work life balance. I’m very structured. I never work at weekends, and I don’t work past 7pm. In the office, our days unless we have events are 10-5pm, because the brand and company values are all about balance, working hard but also enjoying yourself as well and not feeling guilty for having a drink or enjoying yourself in moderation, so its important to switch off from work and take that “me time” at the end of the day.”
“I remember my dad always telling me “if you can’t achieve what you need to do in a business day, then you are doing something wrong”. So I try to be really productive with what we are doing, and really focused with the team in giving specific projects and tasks. I take all my team on as interns first for 3 months to make sure the relationship works and that I can see them in action - as a startup up I’ve got to make sure it works. Currently, there is me and Sophie, Georgia, and 2 interns will be joining us over summer, and I have an accountant who works remotely to help with invoicing and finance.”
“Then there is the consultant who helps us 4 days a month and helps us with industry knowledge, advice and contacts, plus the branding agency and someone freelance who helps with social media. The team is a lot bigger than you think it is. I’m a big one for playing to strengths, so I’m the first one to say “I need help in this area”. “
“I know with startups people are always looking to save money, but I think areas like accountancy for example are critical to the due diligence process if you go on to sell, so I’m a big advocate of of paying a bit more now for a great accountant because when it goes down the line, that’s what anyone who is interested in buying will be looking at, who is your accountant, how have the accounts been managed since the start, who are your IP lawyers are etc. So we have great people working on it, which also gives me piece of mind. My dad always said that “your business is only as good as the people you employ” so I’ve definitely taken that on board and which is why I really invest in them.”
“My own strengths are people connecting, branding, marketing and events. Our stand for Taste Festival last year won best stand alongside Sipsmith and Kettle One Vodka, so stuff like that is my forte. But the stuff I’m less good at, we’ve addressed by putting solutions in place. For example, we have a sales agency to help with sales, as although I’m good at this, its somewhere we need people focused constantly, and what with managing the business and the team, its just something that I can’t take on as well, so this is a good model for us.”
“When people set up a company, I think they forget that you can always hire someone in to help you. I think bringing people in is a good way to do it because they bring with them real industry advice and experience. It may be more expensive upfront, but it will save you making mistakes as I did early on.”
So with a business model up and running, and her team in place, Jess is ready to go big with Twisted Halo this year. What else does she have in store, and what is her vision for the long term direction of the business?
“We I actually have a 5 year plan”, she grins.
“The aim is for us to launch a range of drinks over the next 4-5 years. We’ve got a set structure in that they will always be under 90 calories, glass bottle to start with, then slimline cans for grocery and export. There will be a range of light & refreshing drinks, all with different flavours, a main ingredients with an interesting twists like our current Coconut and Ginger, or Cucumber and Lemongrass for instance.”
“Then the plan is to sell the business at the end of this time to a larger drinks business like Diageo, or someone similar. We’re already in discussion with Diageo about working together, and so its great to be already building those contacts and knowledge and keeping them up to date with our plans.”
“A lot of people when I started out told me to do incubator or accelerator programmes, but often they have first refusal and they set the sale price, so you don't really have control. I want to see what I can create and see what happens. I think I’m on to something and I think I can make it grow, so I want to give it a shot myself first and not be tied into anything at this stage.”
And after that?
“Well then I’ll have my own money to invest in areas that I’m interested in. But I always think I’ll do something. What’s great now is that this just feels like the right fit for me work wise which is probably the first time I’ve really had that since I left school.”
“At least I know I’m on the right path.”
Twisted Halo Marketing
This path is definitely taking Jess down an avenue of new opportunities, one of those being turning her hand to marketing. I wanted to understand the Twisted Halo approach and how she is building her band of loyal brand advocates?
“It’s been trial and error really, just working stuff out as we go. Its interesting as we have relaunched in June, but thinking about how to make that transition - from Lovo Drinks to Twisted Halo - was a challenge which I’m pleased to say I think we have managed really well.”
“Now, we are trying out newsletters, using guest social media influencers, running competitions, and working with social media influencers and events. That whole area is huge for us, and once you crack it, it just spreads word like wildfire.”
“With bloggers, I go to events and meet them and they are always keen to get involved. I never pay for someone to promote out products, if they want to talk about it I want them to do it because they love it. It’s better to build a relationship with someone who is keen on the product because then they are happy to talk about you often, rather than paying for a one off post that isn’t authentic.”
“What’s also funny is that my personal Instagram account has also grown hugely off the back of the brand launch as we did loads of PR with me as the face of the business. People want to relate to you and see what you are doing, its once aspect I didn’t expect!"
“We get approached by events and do partnerships lots as well. So far we haven’t had to go out an actively hunt opportunities. Events & shows are great for us as we get to go out and meet consumers and talk to them face to face, and we work with places like Mahiki a lot.”
Passing your advice on
At the age of 28, Jess is an impressive business woman who has achieved a huge amount in a short space of time, and with the current relaunch just having gone live, the opportunities that lie ahead look large. I was keen to understand from Jess what she has learnt on this journey so far, and what her advice would be to other budding entrepreneurs who want to follow in her footsteps. She pauses as she considers her answers.
“Mmm, the three things I’d offer are firstly, don’t be afraid to not know how to do everything. Be honest about your weaknesses and strengths! Secondly, every entrepreneur has a million ups and downs in a day. If stuff goes wrong (it will!) then see it as a learning opportunity. Finally, I’d say listen to advice. When you are so close to a project it can be really hard to take criticism!”
Finally, I ask Jess if she were to meet her ten year old self and give them some advice for the future, what would it be?
She smiles; “don’t sweat the small stuff, it will all work out in the end!”