Jason LaValla: “Take a break!”

Take a break! There will always be more work to do, so as soon as you start to feel yourself giving less than 100%, give yourself permission to walk away and return when you’re ready to give it your all again. It’s not always true, but I’ve often found that the fastest way to get […]

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Take a break! There will always be more work to do, so as soon as you start to feel yourself giving less than 100%, give yourself permission to walk away and return when you’re ready to give it your all again. It’s not always true, but I’ve often found that the fastest way to get more done is to do less work.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jason LaValla.

Jason came to Detroit and started Casamara Club in 2018, after five years working as a corporate lawyer in New York City.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to start and run my own business. But before starting Casamara Club, I had an office job where most of my clients were food & drinks companies. Over five years, I met a ton of smart, thoughtful people running businesses in a way that I knew I wanted to emulate, and noticed plenty of gaps in the market. But it wasn’t until I realized that I was spending an inordinate amount of time every day trying to make my flavored seltzer taste like something, that I decided I was ready to jump ship and start my own business.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

From the beginning, it was important to me that we make something totally new, and different from everything else out there. I didn’t want to worry about following industry trends. On the one hand, that’s been great, because many of the trends we would have been following when we started the business are now over and done with. But the hard part about forging our own path — especially early on — was that we had trouble getting our pitch down. How do you let people know what we make, and why it’s worth their time and money, if they can’t understand what it is in a few words? I’ll never forget the customer who, thinking he was getting a more traditional, sweet soda, said our drinks taste like “something you give to a sick horse.” Thankfully, we don’t get feedback like that anymore, and I think that owes a lot to the way we’ve learned to adapt our marketing.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

The best advice I got early on was not to sell anything I didn’t absolutely love. That, along with the fact that no one else is doing what we’re doing, makes finding the drive to keep going pretty simple. If we fail, I won’t be able to enjoy the drinks I made anymore — and I have to wait around for someone else to solve the problem for me.

So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?

Things are going about as well as could be expected! Our strategy was always two steps. First, let’s try to get this drink into every bar and restaurant that we, ourselves, would want to go to. Then, use the credibility we’ve built up among hospitality professionals, and see if we can leverage that into some retail placements. When the pandemic hit, and the vast majority of our customers closed down indefinitely, that was a bit of a shock to the system. But having that plan in place from the beginning made it a lot easier to see a possible path forward. Now, in large part because many of our friends in the hospitality industry have also been able to pivot and survive, our retail business has never been better.

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?

The first batch of product that we ran was a lot more than we could possibly sell right away, so we needed reliable storage space. So we hired a truck to bring it from the bottler to a storage facility, but when it arrived, the truck was about a foot taller than expected — and it wasn’t able to back into the garage. Not only that, but I’d double-booked myself for the afternoon, and had a product demo in about a half hour.

Thankfully, I’d done my research and had met with another facility down the road. I’d visited enough times, and developed enough of a relationship with the owner and the staff that we were able to send the delivery across town to the new location. The folks at the second storage facility were even gracious enough to start unloading the truck for me, while I was doing my product demo! To this day, I keep a storage unit with them — more out of loyalty than anything else.

As for the lessons I learned that day? Always give yourself more time than you think you’ll need! But more importantly, it never hurts to do your research and make the extra effort. Treat your vendors like you treat your customers, and do you best to build relationships with everyone you meet. You never know when you might need a favor.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

It’s our packaging, hands down. During the product development phase, I spent months interviewing designers trying to find someone who could capture the spirit of the design on my favorite craft beer labels. Just before I was about to give up and settle for something less, I realized that designer had his own website and a contact email, so I spent an afternoon crafting a very short pitch — maybe 4 or 5 sentences — and sent it off to him. Within a couple days I heard back, and we got to work! Never be afraid to reach out to someone you admire. You might find the feeling is mutual!

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Take a break! There will always be more work to do, so as soon as you start to feel yourself giving less than 100%, give yourself permission to walk away and return when you’re ready to give it your all again. It’s not always true, but I’ve often found that the fastest way to get more done is to do less work.

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?

My parents, for sure. They’ve supported me in so many ways throughout my life — from smaller, emotional support, like always being there for me if I have a problem, to big, financial support, like putting me through school.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

One of the best parts about our drinks is that so many people, myself included, use them as a way to cut down on alcohol. We hear from people all the time thanking us for creating something that’s helped them or their loved ones get sober. It’s so incredibly humbling.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

1. Don’t make or sell anything unless you love it.

2. Whenever you get good news, no matter how small, share it with everyone you can.

3. Treat your vendors the same way you treat your customers.

4. Show, don’t tell.

5. Always have a plan, but never be afraid to change it.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Treat others the way you’d like to be treated, of course. But always remember to treat yourself with the same kindness.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I run the Casamara Club Instagram page, because I legitimately enjoy it. That means people can follow me on Instagram @casamaraclub to see how I think about our marketing. Or follow my personal account @jjlavalla for thirst traps and cooking tips!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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