Talk to Everyone Willing — My first business was a marketing business, and in hindsight, I worked in a vacuum. Since meeting my mentor, Allison Evanow-Jones, and gleaning insight and resources from her, I have learned to keep myself open. I will meet anyone who wants to meet with me, whether they are someone I have met online, at a networking event, or through a colleague. You never know who people know, and you never know what golden nugget they may drop on you.
As a part of our series about “Why We Need More Women Founders”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Absinthia Vermut, Founder and CEO of Absinthia’s Bottled Spirits.
Absinthia Vermut likes a challenge. She must, as she decided to pursue her entrepreneurial dreams into the male dominated liquor industry AND to create her own version of absinthe — a spirit so misunderstood that it was banned in the United States for nearly 100 years. Today, Absinthia’s Absinthe is an award-winning portfolio of organic absinthes, and she recently announced the acquisition of a line of craft cocktail syrups. Her experiences and insights in breaking through barriers of all kind offer lessons for all.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
1996, I had my first taste of absinthe — or as close to absinthe as we could come at that time since the spirit had been illegal in the US for more than 80 years. As a recent graduate of New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts with a degree in photography and art history, I was fascinated with absinthe’s history and place in the art world. I found an authentic recipe and made my first bootleg batches of the anise tasting, beautiful green spirit. My friends started calling me Absinthia the first time I ever shared my absinthe, and a passion was born. I continued making it for friends and family until it suddenly became legal in the US in 2007, something I never expected in my lifetime. I went back to school and received my MBA from Babson College and launched the business. Shortly after, a bartender friend, Jared Hirsch, called me to help launch his wildly popular cocktail syrup, Caged Heat, and I became co-founder of a company creating a line of cocktail syrups. By 2015, I was running two businesses — selling organic absinthes and cocktail syrups.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?
Recently, my partner in the cocktail syrups business left to focus on his mixology career. We negotiated the terms of his departure. I knew I wanted to bring the syrups company and products under the umbrella of Absinthia’s Bottled Spirits, which holds federal and state liquor licenses. It hasn’t been easy transitioning to being a solo business owner without having him to bounce ideas off of, however, it is very rewarding to do so. I am now working to produce canned cocktails made from the syrups to take advantage of the huge demand for cocktails to go. I couldn’t have done this before, as the syrups business held no liquor licenses. I am very excited to work with the syrups to produce them in a format that is easy for our customers to enjoy.
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?
My absinthe labels took nearly two years to get federal approval! I met my designer through a friend, and we spent several months discussing the brand I wanted to create, strategizing over the look and feel based on consumer behavior. I loved the label she designed for me, and my distiller submitted it on my behalf. It was rejected by the TTB. We did not know why, and assumed the brand name Absinthia was too close to the product name, absinthe. So, we changed the brand name and resubmitted it. That too, was rejected, so we tried a third label with the same response.
I then started the process to find a lawyer to submit the labels for me. The first lawyer sent me an invoice after a quick email exchange with rates never discussed and an engagement letter never presented. I found another lawyer who was down the street from the TTB in Washington DC with a lot of experience submitting labels. He was also more clear about his rates and payment terms. He asked which label I wanted of the three we had submitted, and I said the first one. He submitted it, and then went radio silent for four months.
Finally, one day, I received an email praising my patience and congratulating me on the label approval! I asked him why it had taken so long, and he said he had submitted the label and it had been rejected. He meant to contact me but was busy and missed the deadline, so he just resubmitted it and this time it was approved!
I learned so much about being careful who to work with, and about the bureaucracy of the TTB and the federal government.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
While I was working on my business plan, a friend introduced me to Allison Evanow-Jones of Square One Organic Spirits. She lived near me, so we went to lunch. Allison tried talking me out of getting into the liquor business because of the overall challenges, more specifically the barriers facing a woman in an industry notorious for being a boy’s club, not to mention the length of time it takes to turn a profit. I told her that I had to — I believed in my absinthe. I also believed that the world needed to be re-introduced to this storied spirit — once found on every back bar and in many classic cocktails. I wanted to show cocktail enthusiasts in the US that absinthe did not need to be a poorly crafted gimmick, but rather could be a delicious spirit made with organic ingredients.
Since that time, Allison has always been there for me with any questions and has offered excellent advice. She has referred me to a fantastic coach, Rhonda Follrath. Allison is also one of the Founding Members of the Women’s Cocktail Collective, a group of woman-owned spirit brands. I am proud to be a member of the collective, and I have enjoyed the support, advice, and networking that it provides.
Ok, thank you for that. Let’s now jump to the primary focus of our interview. According to this EY report, only about 20 percent of funded companies have women founders. This reflects great historical progress, but it also shows that more work still has to be done to empower women to create companies. In your opinion and experience what is currently holding back women from founding companies?
Funding in the San Francisco Bay Area is really geared toward men in tech. It is very challenging for any other business to gain access to capital. Women are traditionally the caretakers of the family, and family responsibilities can get in the way of women founding companies. Additionally, since women founders are less common and women’s roles are still seen as more important at home than the board room, many women find a lack of community support. I was told by my family that I would never make my business a full-time job — in other words, I would never make a living at it, so why bother? It has been empowering to prove the naysayers wrong.
Can you help articulate a few things that can be done as individuals, as a society, or by the government, to help overcome those obstacles?
Mostly I want to see VCs and angels diversify their portfolios away from tech to include other businesses. I have often been told that I am “close” to where they would invest and to stay in touch, but rarely hear back after that. As a WBENC-certified business, I often receive emails geared toward other industries for contracts and networking. Women in all industries need access to the same funding, systems, programs, and opportunities that are available to men.
This might be intuitive to you as a woman founder but I think it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you share a few reasons why more women should become founders?
Women run businesses differently than men. This has become especially clear to me while networking with the woman-owned brands of the Women’s Cocktail Collective. We are more collaborative, less competitive, and we find ways to help all ships rise. My own personal mantra is to be someone with whom my customers and vendors like working. I have never heard of a man taking that approach, and it makes work more fun and rewarding.
What are the “myths” that you would like to dispel about being a founder? Can you explain what you mean?
One myth is about earning money. It is very challenging and expensive to get a business off the ground — especially a CPG business. We need to create all the product and pay our vendors immediately, while our customers and distributors pay us anywhere from net 30 to net 90. Cash flow can be very tricky to manage.
To help me with this, I have hired Emily Wilson of 123 Storytelling as my bookkeeper and financial manager. We have weekly in person meetings to discuss AR, AP, and cash flow. Often, she cuts checks for everyone else except for me. When starting out, it is good to have a nest egg to rely on to keep the business and your homelife running until you can start to pay yourself regularly.
Is everyone cut out to be a founder? In your opinion, which specific traits increase the likelihood that a person will be a successful founder and what type of person should perhaps seek a “regular job” as an employee? Can you explain what you mean?
Absolutely not! My former business partner loved our products but he didn’t want to sell or do the work it takes to raise a round of financing. He has recently returned to his passion, bartending. However, thanks to him, we have several well-loved products.
It takes the ability to wear a lot of hats to be a founder, including raising financing and managing personnel, operations, cash flow, all the while being a visionary. For example, during the pandemic, everyone was home making sourdough bread and homemade cocktails. That was our most successful year! Now we are pivoting again to take advantage of the popularity of canned cocktails. Consumers are tired of being at home, tired of cooking and looking for an easy way to enjoy a delicious beverage at home or while social distancing outside with friends.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your opinion and experience, What are the “Five Things You Need To Thrive and Succeed as a Woman Founder?” (Please share a story or example for each.)
- A Supportive Family/Community — Women are often expected to do it all. I left my husband because I was not only managing our children, but I was also managing him and our finances. I had no time to realize MY goals. I earned my MBA as a single mom and am proud that my children grew up watching me juggle my personal and my business responsibilities.
- Savings — It may not be a ground-breaking insight, but launching a business is expensive! I recommend any founder have access to savings to support start-up expenses and the times when there is no money left to pay themselves.
- Talk to Everyone Willing — My first business was a marketing business, and in hindsight, I worked in a vacuum. Since meeting my mentor, Allison Evanow-Jones, and gleaning insight and resources from her, I have learned to keep myself open. I will meet anyone who wants to meet with me, whether they are someone I have met online, at a networking event, or through a colleague. You never know who people know, and you never know what golden nugget they may drop on you.
- Believe in Yourself — During my first year of business, a hotel GM said to me, “Aww, you started a little business!” Another time, after a meeting, my male business partner was messaged, “It was great to meet the little lady.” My partner replied, “She’s at home with my twins. Absinthia is my business partner.” Everyone assumed we were married and I was there to help and support. Confidence and a belief in yourself are essential to standing strong when the world views you as less because you are a woman.
- Education and Skills — This is related to confidence, above. People may not take you seriously the first time you interact with them, and may even be looking for a man over your shoulder. I wasn’t being taken seriously, so I went back to school and added MBA to my credentials. I include it on everything — my Linked-In profile name, my email signature, and my business cards. It is a lot harder for people to dismiss me when my education backs me up. My advanced degree and education have definitely made a noticeable difference.
How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
Climate change is real and consumers care about sustainable business practices and products. We use all natural ingredients for the syrups and all organic ingredients for the absinthes to show the world that these products can be well crafted with excellent ingredients, a rare thing in the spirits world.
We work with as many women-owned businesses as we can. If you look at our team slide in our pitch deck, we work with approximately nine women and one man.
We collect as many of our empty bottles as possible, and repurpose them into candles that are available for sale on our website. The candles are made with an absinthe-scented soy wax, and we are proud of our efforts to reduce, reuse, and recycle.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I would love to inspire a movement geared toward funding women-owned businesses, especially those outside of the tech world. Imagine a resource for women to get the financing they need, regardless of their industry.
We are very blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Lately, I have been seeking a celebrity to endorse my product. I really admire how Snoop Dog has developed his brand, worked with Martha Stewart, with whom he seems to have a very supportive and sweet relationship. In the TV show, Weeds, he met Nancy and wrote a song about what he called her “MILF weed.” I feel a symbiotic relationship with the cannabis industry, as absinthe is still so misunderstood and was illegal for so long. Snoop, if you are reading, let’s meet up for some gin and juice!
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.