As a part of my series “ Ideas That Can Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Owen Meyer. Owen is the founder of Liquor Lab (LiquorLaboratory.com). The first of its kind, Liquor Lab is a company that has set out to re-define how consumers and bartenders experience beer, wine, and spirits brands in order to generate quantifiable ROI toward their marketing budgets/marketing goals. Liquor Lab has closed funding from West River Group (the firm behind Top Golf) as well as several independent investors including several West Point alumni. Liquor Lab operates in a uniquely high margin space and has expansion plans for 30 markets in the next 3–5 years in addition to raising more strategic capital. Owen graduated from West Point in 2010 and played ice hockey for the Black Knights under Coach Riley.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
After graduating from West Point, and serving a shortened career in the military due to injury, I wanted to learn about an industry that had a social element as well as a business element. Careers at companies in the management and consulting fields were appealing for business and stability reasons, but I wanted to surround myself with a social aspect as much as a business one. This led me to focus in on the spirits industry, which I already had several friends involved in at the time as well.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
A mentor of our business/management program at West Point (Kevin Plank, the CEO of Under Armour) told me one day when I get out into the world to “take a leap and create something”. It was during my time at Beam Suntory when I recognized that spirits brands were not connecting with consumers the way I would envision it. I started pilot testing Liquor Lab for about a month while I was still working at Beam. I eventually amicably left, and several years later the great folks at Beam Suntory held a launch event at our Liquor Lab location in SoHo, and I reconnected with many of the folks.
Can you tell us about your “Big Idea That Might Change The World”?
Elevator pitch: So you are familiar with companies like Sur La Table and Williams Sonoma in the cooking sphere, right? Now, imagine those cooking classes and retail goods for cooking, except for the beer, wine, and spirits/cocktail world. Our model is focused more heavily on the consumer experience with learning how to create cocktails in a fun and experiential way, but we also have programs for the trade/bartender professional that are led by some of the best bartenders in the business.
In addition to events, Liquor Lab captures a very unique, and highly accurate, type of consumer data at the point of consumption. Through feedback cards consumers “rate” each course at every event and the best course gets put into a cocktail cookbook mailed to every consumer each year (paid for by brands). Liquor Lab digitizes this data, then tags it with brand and taste profile tags before finally pairing it with demographic data. Companies like Nielsen, IRI, and the beer/wine/spirit suppliers can then access this data in real time through an online portal. The accuracy and real-time nature of this data has never before been matched and companies pay a yearly fee to access different levels of data.
How do you think this will change the world?
Thousands of customers who have already attended Liquor Lab voice this to us every night. It is a life changing experience when they bridge the gap between knowing almost nothing about creating a cocktail to leaving with the skills to shake, stir, and sip like an aspiring pro. And, since the underlying experience is rooted in laughing and having fun, the customer actually retains more information They can create drinks at home with our Dollar Cocktail Club (DollarCocktailClub.com) ingredient kits. These kits allow consumers to continue using the skills they learned at Liquor Lab in a fun and easy way for their own guests at home, or when they are out being social (which is a huge part of life for many).
Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?
It was several things that collectively created the idea in my mind, but mainly, it was working inside the spirits industry and seeing the volume of capital that was allocated to consumer and bartender events and the low level of quantifiable ROI the company received in exchange. In layman’s terms: it seemed to me like a lot of people were showing up and drinking a free drink but never getting any real value or fun from it, relative to the cost to produce the experience. That isn’t to say there weren’t lots of great things done as well, but if you ask the majority of consumers what they learned it was pretty bleak.
What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?
This idea is all about one thing: the people on our team who believe in maintaining a consumer-focused approach. The more people who experience Liquor Lab, the more who want to experience it. The word of mouth from an exceptional experience where value is created is one of the most powerful things leading to widespread adoption.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why.
1. Start finding people who believe what you believe early on. It took me two years to hire someone that started reducing my workload. Every person who is a part of Liquor Lab today has the same beliefs I do. If I had started this earlier, I think we would be a little further ahead.
2. The customer and their experience is more important than profit in the beginning. I often turned down private events early on because they didn’t want to pay what I felt the experience commanded. Here I sit today selling a $65 reservation as one of the best deals in NYC, and I’m happily doing so with a large profit margin. You learn a lot from early customers, but you learn even more from returning customers.
3. There is model that I call the “Elon Model”. Learn it, mold your business into making it feasible (if possible), and beat the competition on quality and price. If Liquor Lab can deliver a customer experience that is years ahead of the competitions and a fraction of the price, you’ll make the majority of people very happy, and you’ll create other revenue streams from loyal consumers increasing their customer lifetime value to the company.
4. If you don’t have the ability to grow the business yourself, you need to hire help (or make a foolproof checklist in Trello that you can spend hours Googling). Things like reconciling your bank transactions and issuing POs while building websites and updating product iterations are not easy unless you can grasp those things on your own. Have a plan and draw out how you are going to execute it, step by step. In the military, it saves lives, and in the civilian world it can save your business.
5. It will get harder each time right before your biggest leaps forward. After I pilot tested Liquor Lab and went VC hunting, everyone around me said “it was nice while it lasted”. It was almost as if they thought it failed. At that moment, I was thinking about what a Liquor Lab will look like when it opens all over the country. Now, two years later, we are set to open a state of the art facility in Nashville with Denver, Las Vegas, and more all in the pipeline.
The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?
I think there are many variables to consider when attacking this way of thinking. Career landscapes are rapidly evolving and depending on your career path, or category of business, there are several things you can do to benefit yourself. First and foremost, maintaining a relevant mindset with respect to your industry is key. Ask yourself and research: what innovative applications are in the works in that industry? What companies are evolving their products (or services)? Is there any disruption, and if so, could those competitors offer you better development? Keep tabs on these things weekly and find publications that interest you. Knowledge is power when things move fast.
Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?
This is going to sound extremely biased, but I would throw it right into Liquor Lab. The guys from West River Group, who back us, are an amazing team of visionaries that believe in the mission of experience. I truly believe that Liquor Lab is poised to make a huge impact with not only informal consumer education in a fun way, but also formal bartender education in a serious way.
Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?
My life was guided mostly by the culture of competitive sports and the military, specifically hockey and West Point. My career has been guided by one philosophy from someone I admire. His name is Howard Tullman and he said, “If your only goal is about making money you’re going nowhere. If your goal is about making a difference, the sky is the limit.”
Can you share with our readers what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?
I used to think that people who talked about success, or how they gained success, was very cliche. Over the last few years, I have thought quite the opposite. The energy and drive that it takes to succeed and overcome challenges one day at a time with seemingly no result is only for a certain type of person. My most important habit is to grind away a little of that obstacle each day. Dream big but work small and efficiently.
Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?
I would say this to any VCs that have deals in the beer, wine, and spirits industry: You are competing against an amount of noise that is unheard of until now. There are thousands of brands vying for attention of consumers and cutting through this noise to gain loyalty is nearly impossible unless you leave a mark on them. Remember your brand is A-Z and most consumers are stuck on vodka soda at first base. Education through fun is one of the only ways to cut through that noise and be remembered, hence the mission of Liquor Lab.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
I’ll be updating these more often soon but you can read my thoughts here..http://drinkwire.liquor.com/user/owen-meyer
And follow us at @LiquorLab and @DollarCocktailClub
Thank you so much for joining us. This was very inspirational.