Make it fun! There are a ton of disadvantages to being the little guy, especially a new one on the block. But one of our huge advantages is the ability to make things actually fun rather than just a routine part of a routine job. During the pandemic we’ve been doing virtual happy hours with our customers hosted by a world-class bartender who teaches them to make great cocktails using our products. Each time we do it, it’s a blast and for our customers so much more fun that the rest of what they do day in day out, which in turn gets much attention and support than would otherwise.
As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company” I had the pleasure of interviewing Jordan Silbert.
Jordan Silbert started Q Mixers after a warm summer night drinking gin and tonics in his backyard with good friends. A few sips in, his teeth felt sticky, the bubbles were gone, and the taste of his gin was lost in cloying sweetness. Picking up the tonic water he saw why — a big plastic bottle already flat, loaded with high fructose corn syrup! In a gin-induced flash of inspiration, Jordan knew he needed to make a superior tonic water — one that would make his favorite drink even better.
Jordan created a prototype in his kitchen, purchasing quinine bark on the internet to create what would become Q Mixers’ original flavor, Q Spectacular Tonic Water. Over the past 14 years Jordan has built what is now America’s leading premium mixer company. Today, Q Mixers are available in 11 flavors including Spectacular Tonic, Ginger Beer, Sparkling Grapefruit and the newest, Hibiscus Ginger Beer. Each flavor is made with real ingredients, less sugar, and more carbonation than factory mixers and helps make your favorite drink even better. Q Mixers are proudly served by thousands of America’s best bars and restaurants including all the Four Seasons and Buffalo Wild Wings in the country, and carried by just about every major retailer in the US including Target, Albertsons, Kroger, Total Wine, Walmart, Whole Foods and Amazon.
Jordan lives in Brooklyn, NY with his wife and two kids. And he still really likes gin and tonics.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
My professional backstory has nothing to do with the business I ended up starting. But my personal one does: Before she got pregnant with me and was concerned about all the chemicals in the glazes, my mother was a potter down on the lower east side of Manhattan. I was a bit of a rambunctious boy growing up but the one thing I was not allowed to break in the house was the pottery that my mother had made, not the TV or my great grandmother’s lamp. You see, the fact that she had made them was what was considered valuable, not the price anyone paid for them or how long they’d been in existence. When I think about why I was motivated to start Q Mixers in the first place and then persevere through all the ups and downs, I think it comes back to that. I’m making something that I think is better than anything like it.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
It all started on a warm summer night in Brooklyn. A couple of good friends were in my backyard enjoying gin & tonics.
A couple of drinks in, my teeth felt strangely sticky so I picked up the bottle of tonic water and looked at the ingredients. 25 grams of high fructose corn syrup! Natural and artificial flavors. And artificial preservatives. I asked to see a can of Sprite that my friend was drinking. It had 26 grams of high fructose corn syrup, natural and artificial flavors, and artificial preservatives.
“Do you know that tonic water is virtually the same thing as Sprite?” “Really?” “I thought it was like club soda.” And as soon as that we were on to something else. And then something else.
Throughout the evening, we had been drinking a great (and expensive) bottle of Tanqueray and we were mixing it, drink after drink, with something lousy. Right then I looked up. The moon was shining down on the table. The light caught the Tanqueray and it looked like a glowing orb of green gin goodness. Next to it, the plastic tonic water bottle looked particularly decrepit. In a gin-induced flash of inspiration, I realized I could make a superior tonic water. One made from authentic ingredients and good enough to mix with my favorite gins, vodkas and rums.
I spent four years working to make that great tonic water. I tracked down farmers to source ingredients. Made the recipe in my Brooklyn kitchen. And spent late nights agonizing with a great, young designer to make a bottle as beautiful as the liquid it holds.
Once I had finalized the recipe for my superior tonic water and started sharing it, immediately some of the world’s top restaurants, cocktail lounges, liquor stores, and gourmet groceries started buying it. In New York City my Dad and I delivered it ourselves. Then we got a ton of press coverage and some larger chains joined them. And soon I was being asked for other mixers as tasty and high quality as Q Mixers Tonic.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
In retrospect it was remarkably easy to get my first bar/restaurant customers: Gramercy Tavern, Blue Hill at Stone Barns, and Milk & Honey. I had a better mousetrap and they wanted to serve their customers the best stuff. But getting a first retailer was much harder — I didn’t come from the business and no one would return my phone calls. In particular, I wanted to launch with Dean & Deluca, which was in its heyday as America’s premier specialty store. So I walked into their offices, which were upstairs from their flagship store in Soho, and asked to talk to the person who could decide to carry my product. The nice receptionist told me the guy wasn’t in and that I should leave my name. But I said I would wait. And I did. Eventually she went to the bathroom and I snuck into the buyer’s office and left a bottle with a nice note explaining who I was and that my tonic water was being served at these world-class bars and restaurants and that I wanted him to be my launch partner for retail. By the time I got home I had received an email from him and I was in! Where does that come from? I don’t know. I guess I’m a New Yorker: aggressive. Or it’s a confidence that my product was so good that of course Dean & Deluca should carry it.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I don’t stop and smell the proverbial roses much. But an interview like this is a good reminder. Today we have 11 different flavors of Q Mixers that are proudly served by thousands of the best bars and restaurants in the country including all of the Four Seasons and all the Buffalo Wild Wings and sold by just about every major retailer in the country including Target, Kroger, Albertsons, Publix, Total Wine, and Whole Foods. So pretty fantastically.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Sorry to do this, but I am going to reverse your reverse because I have such a great answer. Right after I sold into Gramercy Tavern I read Danny Meyer’s book, Setting the Table, and was so impressed with it that I emailed him explaining that I was so excited that his great restaurant decided to serve my tonic water that I would love more than anything to buy him a coffee and ask for advice he’d share with another entrepreneur. Because he’s the nicest person on the planet, he said yes, he’d meet up with me the next week. When I sat down with him, he started by saying, “Before you ask me any questions, I’m going to give you some advice that someone gave me and that I promptly ignored: try to enjoy the journey because you’re going to succeed.” “What do you mean? How do you know I’m going to succeed?” “Because you came up with a product that you sold into Gramercy Tavern, then read my book, and asked me to have a coffee with you. Of course, your company is going to be successful. Just try to enjoy the journey. I didn’t do it nearly enough.” Pretty nice, eh? Especially because I repaid him by ignoring his advice (just like him).
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
This is a hard one. But ultimately, it’s just a matter of prioritization. You need to figure out what gives you energy and then make sure you regularly allocate time to it, just like anything else important in your business or personal life. For me that’s spending time with my family, reading, and being outside. So, I make sure I do some of it each day, whether by committing to bringing my kids to school each day, scheduling a walk into my daily schedule, or by making sure I have a book on hand that I’m excited to read at all times.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The most common mistake I see from other founders is not having a product that is truly better than what’s in the market right now. And by that I mean at least twice as good if not more — something that just about every person who tries it easily sees that it’s better than the existing alternative. There are so many disadvantages to being the little guy, especially one who doesn’t have everything optimized and is probably underfunded. You really need a much better mousetrap if you’re going to have any chance at all.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
They say 90% of success is just showing up. And I kind of believe that is the most underestimated skill for running a company. No matter how hard the punch in the face was, you have to get yourself up off the mat and show up for work the next day with energy and drive to push things forward. Look, you can have 46 drinks that night. Or complain as much as your spouse will put up with. But you have to wake up the next morning ready to go. Without doing that again and again, you’ve got no shot.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company”? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Expect to become the expert. For years I assumed that I was just one call away from finding the person who could solve a specific question or problem for me, whether it was on a technical aspect of production, the perfect marketing initiative or a specific personnel question. But as the years went on and I met more and more people who had direct experience and should be considered an “expert” I realized that my business has similarities to others but also had unique challenges that were all our own. Ultimately, I needed to make decisions for our specific business and that the only way to do that is to become the expert, by learning as much as possible for yourself about every important part of your business. An example is the production of our mixers. At first, I tried to hire consultants to help us find production facilities that could make our products successfully and efficiently. But until I actually understood how the products needed to be made — by being at the production facility from 5am batching until the last bottle came off the line — we had trouble identifying the correct production facilities and even at those locations when something went wrong, we had trouble fixing it. Today our operations are actually a competitive advantage — during the beginning of the COVID pandemic, we were able to produce and distribute our product to stores when the big guys were not.
- Launch with at least 3 SKUs. I launched my company with one SKU: a 6.3oz glass bottle of Q Mixers Tonic Water and I sold it into thousands of retailers, bars and restaurants. But one day, the Plaza Hotel in New York City told me that while they liked my tonic water better than a competitor’s, but they preferred the competitor’s products only because they also had a ginger ale and club soda and therefore a “mixer solution” vs the soda gun. A light bulb popped in my head: I realized that it might easier to sell-in multiple SKUs at once and even if it wasn’t, having multiple flavors meant that I could get 2 or even 3 times the benefit from the work I had to put in in order to sign-up each new customer. So, I set out to make a ginger ale, ginger beer, and club soda. And then things started to really roll.
- Treat your first like your last and your last like your first. Jay Z has a line that I think is great advice. After I had gotten Q Mixers Tonic placed in thousands of locations and featured in press from the NY Times to the Today Show, I started work on a ginger ale, a second flavor. By that point I had “flavor houses” reaching out to me, and it would have been really easy to buy an off-the-shelf ginger ale flavor and just make my ginger ale easily. But at that point I made what I think is ultimately going to be the best decision I made in the whole company’s trajectory. I decided that I needed to agonize about my ginger ale, and make it as good, if not better than my tonic water. For if I made a second spectacular product I would have “permission”to make a whole line of products. But if my second product was generic, or even worse, lousy, then everyone would think we were just a tonic water producer that made other products that weren’t special. So, I went through something like 19 different ginger ale recipes and ultimately decided to use an ingredient like rose oil, which costs 1000 dollars per ounce (we don’t use much of it ;-)). The result was Q Mixers Ginger Ale, which is fantastic and enables anyone to easily make their whiskey ginger a truly terrific drink.
- Be sure to celebrate the victories. I have now been running Q Mixers for 15 years and we have had dozens of really high highs as well as dozens of really low lows. I have found that a great way to keep your energy and focus going is to make a priority of celebrating those high highs. An example is after we got the check from a huge fundraising round, my partner called me to tell me that the money was now in our bank account. I responded by saying “great” and then brought up a technical question about a relatively small initiative I was working on. A few weeks later we were working through some other project and I realized that my energy was way down — it felt like I was just moving from problem to problem to problem. That night over a cocktail I realized that the real problem is that we hadn’t truly celebrated how big an achievement the investment was and how much it meant for the future of our business. So, I scheduled a one night “off-site” with my partner in Providence, RI, where both of us had gone to college and we had a humdinger of a night. We didn’t buy ourselves matching Lamborghinis or anything, but we celebrated. It was super fun and in retrospect helped carry us through the next couple of obstacles in our path.
- Make it fun! There are a ton of disadvantages to being the little guy, especially a new one on the block. But one of our huge advantages is the ability to make things actually fun rather than just a routine part of a routine job. During the pandemic we’ve been doing virtual happy hours with our customers hosted by a world-class bartender who teaches them to make great cocktails using our products. Each time we do it, it’s a blast and for our customers so much more fun that the rest of what they do day in day out, which in turn gets much attention and support than would otherwise.
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. 🙂
Pay a little more for products made by smaller, independent companies. Large, multi-national corporations can make products much more cheaply than a small, independent companies that don’t have economies of scale or long-term relationships with suppliers. But imagine if consumers decided to value the independence and size of these little producers, like they value the benefits of some sort of (tenuous) health claim or cool packaging. More small companies would succeed and therefore even more would start, which in turn would create more jobs and entrepreneurism is our society. I believe that is we need if we’re to successfully take on the massive challenges of the 21st Century.
How can our readers further follow you online?
www.qmixers.com; @qmixers and @thejordansilbert on IG.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!