Nicolette Teo And Joel Blum Of LA Spirits Awards: “Don’t underestimate the importance of logistics and operations”

Don’t underestimate the importance of logistics and operations — no matter what industry you function in. Know what’s involved in running the company and understand that the skill sets required to provide a product or service — in our case, the judging of spirits — are completely different from those required to manage the business. Training staff properly is critical, too. […]

Thrive Global invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive Global or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

Don’t underestimate the importance of logistics and operations — no matter what industry you function in. Know what’s involved in running the company and understand that the skill sets required to provide a product or service — in our case, the judging of spirits — are completely different from those required to manage the business. Training staff properly is critical, too.

As a part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nicolette Teo And Joel Blum Of LA Spirits Awards.

Nicolette Teo. Nicolette Teo has immersed herself in the world of wine and spirits evaluation and promotions for her entire career.

As Managing Director of the San Francisco World Spirits Competition (SFWSC) from 2015 to 2018, Nicolette developed or re-engineered its complex organizational systems to chaperone over 2,600 entries and more than 50 judges each year through the judging process.

Nicolette has always maintained a close relationship with competitive events involving copious amounts of liquid: Prior to her diving professionally into the wine and spirits industry, she was a three-time Olympic swimmer for her native Singapore.

Joel Blum. Joel Blum has been breaking traditional marketing rules — resulting in great success for his clients — for most of his working days.

Joel’s strategic marketing firm, Pace Design Group, helped Charles Schwab Mutual Funds break sales records and gave E*TRADE Securities its upstart image by challenging a common expectation that financial services marketing should be dull.

Joel helped launch the San Francisco World Spirits Competition in 2000, developing promotional programs for it and its winners that quickly made SFWSC the largest and best-known event of its kind.

He can’t one-up Nicolette’s Olympics experience, but if you press him for his own personal competitive history he will modestly tell of his first-prize victory in KCRW’s Good Eats Pie contest, savory division.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of L.A. Spirits Awards?

NICOLETTE TEO: I don’t think I’d say it was one “ah ha” moment, but more like a series of them that nagged at us over time rather than struck us like a thunderbolt. I think that deep down I’ve always known that this was the natural progression of my career path.

Joel and I had worked together for years for another spirits competition whose owner was very hands off and trusted us to run the company as we saw fit — me (as Managing Director) to create or refine the systems that made the competition run smoothly, and Joel to create and develop its visual identity and marketing voice. We helped the competition grow enormously in size and prestige, but it wasn’t our company. We didn’t have full control of all aspects of the business, some of which we felt were critical and needed improvement. We saw problems that weren’t being addressed by the owner, but that as employees we were powerless to correct.

JOEL BLUM: I’d add that that series of “ah ha” moments started long after we’d left that competition, as we observed our former employers’ problems metastasize and heard grumblings from their judges and staff. And each grumble we heard became a voice in our heads that told us we could do so much better — creating an event that made more sense for the industry it served, supported its winners better, and generally filled in the competence gaps that existed in most other competitions.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

JB: Well, I can usually find humor in most of our mistakes, and I can usually coax a laugh out of Nicolette about them, too. The one that comes immediately to mind occurred just as we started, bringing in someone to fill an important management position whose vision of her role turned out to be at odds with ours. Unhappy when the relationship ended, this person vented her frustration in a surprisingly unprofessional way on social media. The problem wasn’t at all funny at the time, but we just had to find some humor in the situation and move on, especially since we can’t control rumors or untruths that someone may choose to invent about us.

NT: Yes. Only Joel would laugh at that. As far as lessons learned: When hiring an employee or contractor, it is essential that you clearly state your expectations and set some parameters up front. This not only helps narrow down your choices to the most ideal candidates but avoids wasting your time interviewing those who don’t align with your needs and expectations. Don’t just go with the first candidate you interview, either, no matter how much they impress you. For filling executive roles, even if your company is small, you really need to conduct multiple interviews and take your time for everyone to know each other, so that critical differences — in expectations and personalities — don’t become known after you’ve committed to each other.

And if you do make a wrong choice, be willing to admit quickly when it isn’t working and end it right away. In the example Joel mentioned, we spent way too much time trying to make the relationship work when in hindsight we knew it was a poor fit pretty early on.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food or beverage competition? What can be done to avoid those errors?

NT: The mistake we’ve seen people make when starting a competition is underestimating how complicated it is to organize and make sense of all your entries. Not just the information about each entry, but also about the logistical details. The process is like a huge machine with thousands of moving parts that must work in unison with no margins for error. We receive hundreds or thousands of bottles that must be processed, and each entry goes through dozens of processes to ensure it’s tracked and judged correctly. The logistics are incredibly complex and there’s simply no room for mistakes.

JB: Yes, and we carry a huge responsibility to our entrants. They pay a lot of money to enter, and the awards their products can win can have a huge impact on their sales. We owe it to them to ensure their products are classified accurately, tasted by the most appropriate judges, tracked properly, etc. We take this responsibility very seriously.

NT: In just the past two years, we’ve seen a lot of spirits experts start their own spirits competitions, but expertise in spirits — and in judging spirits — has nothing to do with a competition’s logistics. Most competition judges simply have no knowledge of the enormous, detailed work required to actually run a competition.

JB: Exactly. Imagine you’re a great auto mechanic. It doesn’t mean you know how to run a garage.

NT: What can be done to avoid this error? Don’t underestimate the importance of logistics and operations — no matter what industry you function in. Know what’s involved in running the company and understand that the skill sets required to provide a product or service — in our case, the judging of spirits — are completely different from those required to manage the business. Training staff properly is critical, too.

Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a business they’d like to start. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

NT: Know who your customers are and what they need, and ask yourself if you can provide it. Find out how long something is going to take, and then double it.

JB: Seek out people who know a lot about the things you don’t and ask for their help. Make sure you have enough money!

Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?

JB: I’ve always found it crazy that if you love and are really good at something, or have an idea for a product or service that people really want, and you want to start your own business and be your own boss, you need to take on a lot of other roles that you may be completely unqualified for: You have to be a good salesperson, a good financial manager, a good business strategist, a good marketing manager, an IT specialist … the list is long, and most people aren’t good at all those things. They may not know the first thing about them, but they’re all as critical to your business’s success as that one original thing that you are so good at.

My advice is to learn the things that only you will be able to do, and be sure you can do them well. Then have a really good understanding of all the other required roles so you can be competent in your choices of people — whether its a partner, employee, vendor, or consultant — who can do them better than you ever could. And choose them wisely.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

NT: I think the answer depends on the industry and type of product you are working with. If you have a consumer product that’s very unique or builds upon ideas and products that already exist in the market, then working with an invention development consultant can be very beneficial.

But since we’re a service company that’s not really reinventing the wheel, such a consultant is not beneficial to us.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

NT: If you’ve run the numbers and you know that taking VC investment means you can increase your revenue growth rate meaningfully, then you should take that route. We always ask ourselves, “Can we deploy this capital to increase our business growth? Do we have an exact plan for the capital?” If the answer is yes, then we would recommend taking the VC investment. If, however, you are just taking the capital to avoid debt or to pay yourselves a salary, or you aren’t sure how you would use the capital, then I’d recommend you don’t take it.

Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?

JB: You must rely on the advice and referrals of trusted friends and colleagues. (This is true for any business, and for any area in which you lack expertise.) For us, some things — like the logistics necessary to run the competition — came easily because we already had the knowhow. But then we had gaps: We know dozens of qualified spirits judges, but finding just the right ones who fit our long list of criteria required serious networking and soliciting advice from professionals with more connections than we had.

NT: It’s not an exaggeration to say your network is your greatest resource. For example, navigating the government regulations for shipping, receiving, handling, and storing alcohol would have been a morass and we’d probably have made a lot of mistakes if not for finding a great lawyer with extensive, specialized knowledge of wine and spirits law. We found him through a referral from a referral. The same thing goes for our tech development team. We’re heavily reliant on our proprietary management software, so choosing the right developers was critical. Referrals were key to finding them.

What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Business” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1. NT: Begin with a detailed plan for attacking your challenge ahead but be flexible enough — and prepared — to pivot if needed.

When the first pandemic lockdown happened, we had to throw a lot of our initial plans out the window and quickly pivot from an in-person competition to a remote one. Instead of gathering all entries, judges, and staff together for three days in a single venue as planned, we switched to a remote model, conducting “tele-tasting” sessions via Zoom. This required a completely different method for getting thousands of entry samples to our judges who were scattered across the country, shipping glassware, judges’ paperwork, instructions — even food items to use as palate cleansers. It required a different use of staff, a complicated juggling of schedules, and an entirely new way of communicating. It was a completely different animal than we’d designed. And we could never have turned ourselves around like that without our extensive knowledge of competition logistics and the flexibility to adapt to the challenge.

JB: Many other competitions postponed their judgings or cancelled them altogether, and others reduced their numbers of judges. I said earlier that we have a serious responsibility to our entrants to get everything right, but we also have a responsibility to consumers who rely on our medals as product recommendations. Competitions that reduced their numbers of judges did a great disservice in that regard. We actually increased the number of judges we employed by 50% in our second year to accommodate the increase in entries. I don’t know of any other competition that was able to do that.

2. NT: Surround yourself with the right people: Mentors and strategic partners aren’t the only people who are important to align yourself with. Your staff matters. When the going gets tough, hiring positive go-getters is invaluable in making rather than breaking your small company.

JB: It makes me think of Cecilia, our resident polymath. Her main role is to handle company finances, but she’s willing to wear as many hats as necessary if it helps get the job done. She’s our go-to person for tying up so many loose ends. I don’t know what we’d do without her.

3. JB: Know your audience and understand why they come to you: One thing I think many people don’t understand — including a lot of competition directors — is that distilleries don’t enter spirits competitions just to get a pat on the back for a job well done. They enter in hopes of winning an award that will help them build awareness of their brands and sell more product. We place enormous importance on the expertise of our judges because without the best judges an award has no value. But it’s equally critical to understand the motivations that drive our entrants, and that means also helping them promote their award after the judging ends.

4. NT: Find a healthy work-life balance: Starting and running a successful small business is not easy and requires an inordinate amount of time and effort. It’s a challenge to keep work from dominating your life, but if you don’t take care to find time for yourself, you will burn out quickly — a major disservice to your business.

5. NT: Grow a thicker skin and do it quickly!

JB: I’m reminded of a friend who years ago opened a cafe with no prior knowledge of all it involved. She was terribly offended when customers would complain about the food or the service until one day she realized that the only ones complaining were those who wanted her to succeed. They liked the place and if they complained about the soup it was because they wanted to come back for better soup. The customers who didn’t care didn’t complain, they just never returned. This was a major business lesson for my friend to learn. I’m a better businessman for her having told me about this revelation.

NT: The number of complaints I’ve received that aren’t an opportunity to learn something are few and far between.

Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?

NT: I don’t think there’s a magic pill that makes people love your product. Instead, make sure you yourself are passionate about what you’ve created. If you don’t believe in yourself, if you aren’t thrilled with what you’re producing, how can anyone else buy into it?

JB: Since we don’t offer a product per se, I can only speak to those who offer services: And I think you have to think of yourself as a problem solver. Your customer has a problem and you offer a solution. It’s actually that simple. If you only boast about how great you are, that offers little appeal. But if you can demonstrate that you understand your customers’ needs and that you know how to fill them, that’s the ticket.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

JB: It might be presumptuous to claim that any spirits competition can “make the world a better place.” But one of the first observations that Nicolette and I had that drove so much of our initial planning was that most spirits competitions’ judges don’t really look like the consumers who buy spirits products. The spirits industry has traditionally been the domain of older white men, and many competitions draw from that familiar demographic to judge their entries. But this isn’t the way the “real world” looks.

NT: The people who make spirits look different now than they did even a decade ago. People of all stripes buy liquor. And spirits experts, too, come in all shapes and sizes. We wanted to gather together a panel of judges whose diversity better reflected the face of the contemporary spirits industry and its consumers. I think we’ve succeeded. (We have SUCH great judges!!) We certainly have the most inclusive and diverse judging team in the industry. Does that make the world a better place? I’ll leave that for others to decide.

JB: We also have committed to donating a portion of our profits to the Equal Justice Initiative. EJI works with communities that have been marginalized by poverty and discouraged by unequal treatment, and is committed to changing the narrative about race in America.

If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?

JB: I’d like to see everyone get vaccinated. The sooner we can lick the pandemic the sooner we can focus on the harder problems the world has to solve.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why?

NT: Living or dead? If I’m not restricted to the living, I would love to have breakfast with coach John Wooden!

I’m a UCLA athletics alum and a big fan of Coach Wooden’s philosophical building blocks for succeeding at basketball and at life! His Pyramid of Success has been and always will be very influential and applicable to me — during my time as an Olympic athlete and today as a small business owner. I was fortunate enough to hear Coach Wooden speak to the UCLA athletic department a few years before he passed, but I would love to break bread with him and learn more!

JB: Probably a writer, and most likely an historian. Can I choose more than one? I’m a firm believer that if we don’t remember history, we’re bound to repeat it. There are some amazing writers that bring our own history to life, like David McCullough, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Joseph Ellis. I think this country wouldn’t be in such a mess if more of us understood the details and the consequences of our past. And I think that would be a fascinating topic to discuss with any one of these writers.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

Share your comments below. Please read our commenting guidelines before posting. If you have a concern about a comment, report it here.

You might also like...


Los Angeles in Sun and Shadow

by Alexander Maxwell

Six Steps to Reset Your Mindset and (Finally) Turn Your Passion into Your Profession

by Cathy Heller

Jason Alvarez Cohen and Nick Eischens of Popl: “Don’t be everything to everyone”

by Tyler Gallagher
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.