I'm pleased to highlight a new series of articles focused on understanding the thoughts of successful entrepreneurs. For our inaugural series, entitled, “The Samurai Mask,” I speak with the CEO and Founder of BULLDOG Gin, Mr. Anshuman Vohra, 31. “Shu” was once a JP Morgan Banker who gave up his lucrative career to start BULLDOG Gin three years ago. I was very inspired after watching his story about overcoming rejection on Donny Deutsche's “The Big Idea” and I'm pleased he's here with us today. This is his story about finding entrepreneurial success, and going against the odds. I invested $61,700 in BULLDOG Gin in 2007.
FS: Shu, thanks for taking the time to speak. First of all, tell us about BULLDOG Gin, and why it is such a hot product?
Shu: It's good to speak to you and it's an honor to be the inaugural interviewee for your new series. BULLDOG Gin is a quadruple distilled, ultra premium gin with dragon eye and other distinctive botanicals. This is not your old folks gin, but a younger, brazen breed of gin that you can imagine Steve McQueen and James Bond drinking.
FS: Sounds pretty rock and rolling to me! I'm sure many readers will wonder how you could give up a lucrative job to join a startup. How did it all come about?
Shu: I was looking to leave the banking industry for a while. After several years on Wall St. I found it wasn't really for me. A former colleague of mine brought up the idea of creating a hip new gin – taking a page from the playbook of brands like Grey Goose and Ketel One – this immediately peaked my interest. Vodka is a saturated market, but gin is ready for a revolution!
However I didn't take the plunge until the 11th hour. All conditions for success were right, namely that we had raised a first round of financing, got our distributor and done all the necessary production development work. I think it's very important to hold on to your current job, while exploring different avenues and then make the switch when the time is right.
My income now is a fraction of what I made at JP Morgan, but that's just short-term thinking. For me it's about building a product from nothing, and watching it grow into something recognizable and consumable. I believe that if I'm successful in doing that, monetary gain will follow.
FS: What is the culture like at BULLDOG Gin and how important is company culture to you?
Shu: Culture is very important. Unnecessarily bureaucracy permeates in 100K+ organizations. I want to offer the most fun work environment with no unnecessary hierarchy, and an organization of responsible professionals all working towards making BULLDOG a success.
MOTIVATION & DIFFICULTIES
FS: What are your Top 3 motivations for success?
Shu: 1) Creating something that's tangible and lasting of value to people everyday, 2) Fulfillment and 3) Freedom from “The Man.”
FS: What's the most difficult part about running your start up?
Shu: Going from a big corporation to a start up is not easy. I didn't realize how much administrative work goes into running your own company. Big corporations have a very uniform atmosphere where there's established process. and protocols Not only did I have to market my company, I was in charge of supply chain and at the same time, I had to figure out how to do payroll taxes and by the tech help desk! Furthermore, I am the HR manager, which is definitely a full time job by itself! I run into Murphy's Law daily, where whatever can go wrong, will go wrong! It's important to just roll with the punches.
FS: During the downturn, how did you cope? What was going on in your heads 12 months ago?
Shu: Frankly, I was very nervous and immediately cut some overhead expense as well as focused on raw material cost cutting. Thankfully, liquor is more recession resistant that most other products given people tend to drink when they're merry as well as when they are sad. During the downturn, we just continued to focus on stuff we had control over, and things we do right. Sentiment has definitely improved since 1Q09, and we are entering the peak holiday season for spirits. We do 65% of our business in 2H. Despite the downturn, volumes are up 70% to date.
FS: You've been interviewed by The Wall Street Journal and countless other high profile publications in the past. What is something big media didn't ask you, that you wished they did.
Shu: Yes, we have a good publicist that gets us great press. Clearly we've hit a new high with Financial Samurai!
The other publications focus on the glory of being an entrepreneur rather than the day to day complexities involved in running a business. I certainly understand why they did so, and in the interest of full disclosure, a large part of my mental capacity is visualizing the “glory.”
Nobody ever asked me about the strains involved in getting things up and running. It's brutally difficult to raise capital when you're a first time entrepreneur with just an idea on paper without anything tangible to go by. Anything that will go wrong does go wrong. So, it's important to be a wall and let the hardship bounce off of you.
But, I tell you, it's hard. You've got to be relentless and resolutely focused with keeping your eye on the prize every moment. I get up everyday with the end goal in mind, and that is for BULLDOG Gin to be as big as it can be. (By the way, look out for Bulldog Gin in the Financial Times this month!)
Takeaways From Starting Your Own Company
FS: What is the one thing you've learned from being an entrepreneur that you can share with us?
Shu: The greatest idea in the world is nothing unless there's proper execution. If you build it, they will come is NOT a viable strategy for success. You've got to really get your name out there and invest in advertising and sales. Look at Coca Cola – one of the most recognizable brands on the planet – they don't just rest on their laurels, rather the still spend billions a year on advertising. There's constantly an endless supply of work that needs to get done with never enough time to relax. The “highs” of the business as an entrepreneur are much higher, and the “lows” are much lower and lonelier. That said, I'd take the entrepreneurial equation any day.
FS: What is something nobody will ever tell you about running a start up?
Shu: Nobody in the world will believe in you and your product more than yourself. So you have to set a vision for the company and everything should start with that. I take everything associated with the business incredibly personally and therefore have a very long memory of critics who tried to impede my progress.
The Future Of BULLDOG Gin
FS: Where do you see BULLDOG Gin 3 yrs from now?
Shu: We are currently concentrated in the northeastern US , and have an international presence in Spain and the UK. We hope to expand further in the US, especially in the Northern California market, and make BULLDOG Gin as big as it can be. Much like personal finance, it's important for us to expand strategically, and not overspend too early.
FS: Here’s a curve ball, would you ever have imagined you'd make Gotham Magazine's Top 100 Bachelors next to the likes of Leonardo Di Caprio, Bradley Cooper, Edward Norton, and Robert Pattinson from Twilight? That's like hitting the love jackpot!
Shu: Ha! I never would have thought in my wildest dreams I would be on the same page as my idol, Adrian Grenier aka Vinnie Chase from Entourage! I still can’t believe I got on the list! I'm grateful for it, and to the extent it helps BULLDOG Gin, that is the most important thing.
FS: Hypothetically speaking, if JP Morgan came back and offered you $5 million a year for two years, would you take it?
Shu: I wouldn't even think about it. Well, maybe for a nanosecond, but that's it. This is not a knock on JP Morgan as Jamie Dimon has done a fine job and I really enjoyed my time there. For me, fulfillment lies not in creating large paychecks, but in creating something and working on something I can truly call my own. Money is certainly a key motivator, but I see it more as a byproduct of success.
FS: If Diageo or Constellation Brands buys you out for $500 million one day, what would you do?
Shu: To be honest I've never thought about that question. I'm not a very materialistic person, so my answer may disappoint some people.
Hmmm… I might go to Disney World, and I've always wanted to live in the South of France and chill out on the beach there for 6 months while brushing up on my French. I think it would be an enjoyable respite after all these years of working 100 hours a week! I'd probably come back and finally find myself a decent apartment in Manhattan, compared to my extremely humble spot in the East Village. Ok, maybe I'd like to kick it with the boys for a bit.
FS: Thanks for your time Shu, and I wish you all the success!
Shu: Absolutely. Thanks for the opportunity to be interviewed, as well as your support of BULLDOG Gin!
BULLDOG Gin on CNBC's The Big Idea with Donny Deutsche
Update 3/10/2017: Campari Group acquired BULLDOG Gin for $55M. Amazing how things work out 7.5 years after this interview was published.
Update 2020: Just Say NO To Angel Investing – You'll se my returns from BULLDOG Gin. Not that great. But at least I made money, unlike most people who lose 100% of their private equity investment.
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