Laura Johnson of You & Yours Distilling Co,: “Own what you don’t know and don’t be afraid to ask questions”

Own what you don’t know and don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help. Somewhere in the first year we had issues with our distilling equipment, specifically our electrical load and build out issues. I was in such a dark place, but finally forced myself to reach out to a fellow distiller in […]

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Own what you don’t know and don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help. Somewhere in the first year we had issues with our distilling equipment, specifically our electrical load and build out issues. I was in such a dark place, but finally forced myself to reach out to a fellow distiller in San Diego who was so happy to help. I didn’t expect that. Being the youngest, let alone the only female distiller, in the San Diego Guild, I was just so intent on proving myself. There’s no shame in asking for help. My stubbornness got the best of me for the last time there.

As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Laura Johnson, owner & founder of You & Yours Distilling Co.

With a passion for distilling, a natural talent for building and highlighting flavors, and her innate hospitality and business prowess, Laura is a strong voice and advocate in the spirits industry.

Opened to the public in 2017, You & Yours Distilling Co. is California’s first urban destination distillery. With You & Yours, Laura strives to not only provide high-quality, transparent spirits made with sustainable practices and top-notch ingredients, but also a welcoming and enjoyable tasting experience for all, which she also felt was missing from the craft distilling industry as a whole. A line of canned cocktails became available at the end of 2018 and today all You & Yours products can be found not just behind the bar and in retailers in California, but also throughout the United States.

Since launching the company, Laura has been named a 2018 Eater Young Gun, made it onto the 2018 Forbes “30 Under 30” list, and has won ‘Best Local Spirit’ by San Diego Magazine in 2017, 2018 and 2019. Laura has also become an invaluable resource and inspiration for other new small businesses looking to penetrate the beverage and hospitality industries.

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 tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

Though I mostly grew up in a few suburbs around Dallas, TX, we moved around quite a bit when I was younger. A different neighborhood / school district almost every other year or so until I was in high school due to moving a lot for either my parents’ business or my older brother’s budding golf career. Thanks to constantly having to make new friends and settle into different environments, I became quite independent and content with entertaining myself from a young age. I also grew up in a very entrepreneurial family, as mentioned. When I was younger, my mom and dad were growing their business and traveling a lot. Instead of getting me a sitter, they would just take me with them everywhere, which I’m so grateful for now. I saw a lot of the world by the time I was 18 and was comfortable traveling alone. But the main thing I appreciate from how I grew up was the ability to hold conversations with adults from a very early age. I can remember always kind of feeling ahead of my peers, emotional maturity-wise and mentally. This all helped tremendously later on when I created a business plan and raised capital for You & Yours straight out of college.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“Jump First, Fear Later” and to get comfortable building the plane as it’s flying. Both I learned from Jason Russell, the co-founder of Invisible Children, a non-profit I worked at all through college. I remember being this young kid in a new city and working for this incredibly energetic and exciting movement. His words really inspired me. I feel like IC was a launch pad of sorts for a lot of creatives and entrepreneurs-to-be at that time.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

A big chunk of the family business is rooted in personal development and entrepreneurship, so I was just kind of raised within that culture and those resources. I was naturally exposed to business-related and otherwise motivational knowledge whether I liked it or not. I will say that the book Aesthetic Intelligence really resonated with me last this year. I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

So many, looking back.But on a road trip with my dad at some point in high school we happened to stop and go on a distillery tour and I remember being fascinated. Just enthralled with the entire process from beginning to end. That kind of created the first spark as it pertains to an interest in spirits.

There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

This might sound insane but I never saw bringing my idea to life as a challenge. I saw it as a calling, something I had to do, no matter what. I knew that my idea (for a gin-focused and hospitality-minded distillery & tasting room concept) had a rightful place within the industry and was otherwise missing from the distilling and craft spirits landscape at the time. When you have that sheer, unwavering conviction, roadblocks just don’t register.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

A lot of Googling, reading and traveling/exploring to see what’s really out there.

Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?

My final semester of college I had a professor who scheduled standing one-on-ones with each graduating student throughout the semester just to talk about our dreams and goals for our future. He encouraged us to think about what we wanted from life, not just career-wise, but what we really wanted from life as a whole and to imagine what that dream looked like without any constraints. That was a huge moment for me because I had all these reasons in my head NOT to try to start a distillery straight out of college but to him, it was like “well, why wouldn’t you?” and “what do you have to lose, Laura?”

For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves? In particular we’d love to hear about how to file a patent, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer to distribute it.

Graduating from college, I didn’t have a clear career path I was excited about. I’d studied Economics & International Business and I knew I wanted to own my own business one day, but I didn’t really have a lot more in mind beyond that. I also knew I had a deep passion for wine and spirits and the production processes of those products. My then-boyfriend (now business partner and soon-to-be husband) encouraged me to sign up for an intensive distilling course after graduation. The day after I got my diploma, I was on a plane to attend that course. It was pretty much all over from there — I was hooked. I spent the better part of that year traveling all over the US soaking up as much distilling education as I could. I then returned to San Diego hoping to get an assistant or apprentice distiller position, but the industry was so nascent at the time that there weren’t a lot of opportunities. I had already started working on a business plan and knew I had developed contacts and relationships throughout my travels and college years who I could go to for capital. Thanks to an incredible support system and a lot of encouragement, I decided to just go for it. We opened the distillery and tasting room about 2.5 years later in March of 2017!

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?

It definitely wasn’t funny at the time, but there was one very early on that I’ll never make again. I was about to open Y&Y to the public and we were launching with our two flagship spirits — Y&Y Vodka and Sunday Gin. I was only 23 or 24 years old at the time and there was a lot of hype in the press about this new female-founded distillery. It was a lot of pressure and I immediately had this onslaught of unsolicited advice. I was told by a semi-prominent figure in the San Diego food & beverage scene (at our launch party for media, no less) that my gin recipe wasn’t juniper-forward enough and so in those first weeks I tweaked the recipe I’d spent months on only to find out it was a horrible mistake. I immediately went straight back to the original recipe I’d landed on and it hasn’t changed since. Now I always trust my gut and more importantly, my palate and always take advice — from anyone — with a grain of salt. I trust that I know this brand and these products and what they should be better than anyone else ever could.

The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

Honestly, just this year. You & Yours turned three this past March and once we hit June/July things started to finally feel like they were taking off. I think Covid played a part in that, seeing as canned cocktails have obviously skyrocketed in popularity thanks to the pandemic. Beyond that, we’re having a lot of conversations this year that feel more exciting and real than they have in years past.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. Trust your instincts. See “mistake” story above.
  2. Always call references. Making hiring decisions as a 23–24–25 year old when all the candidates are older than you is intimidating. I unfortunately allowed some people into the business during those first couple of years I really regret. People who didn’t have the best intentions and/or didn’t deserve to be there in those roles.
  3. Don’t make decisions from a place of desperation, only from a place of power — even if you have to fake it. So many examples, but especially when it comes to investors especially. You’d rather have no investors than ones who aren’t right for you and your vision.
  4. Own what you don’t know and don’t be afraid to ask questions or ask for help. Somewhere in the first year we had issues with our distilling equipment, specifically our electrical load and build out issues. I was in such a dark place, but finally forced myself to reach out to a fellow distiller in San Diego who was so happy to help. I didn’t expect that. Being the youngest, let alone the only female distiller, in the San Diego Guild, I was just so intent on proving myself. There’s no shame in asking for help. My stubbornness got the best of me for the last time there.
  5. Work on yourself tirelessly — your confidence, your leadership skills, your steadfastness. Companies and products, big or small, will always benefit from having a leader who is mentally fit and emotionally intelligent. While you’re working on growing your company, don’t forget to invest in yourself as well.

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

I’ll speak to the alcoholic beverage industry in particular. You first have to decide whether or not you have that conviction, that all-or-nothing mentality. If not, or if you’re not sure, then I wouldn’t move forward. I know that’s quite a harsh start to an answer here, but unless you have contacts at a major liquor conglomerate and/or a LOT of money, this is an extremely tough game. Beverage, specifically alcohol is one of the most mind-bendingly difficult industries to really “make it” in. Therefore, not for the faint of heart or those who waver in their ideals. I often say I’m so glad I didn’t know just how difficult it was going to be because I probably wouldn’t have even tried if I knew HALF of what I know now.

Once you DO feel confident in an idea, research the s — t out of it. Develop your palate. Work on your palate vocabulary. In the alcohol space, and especially in emerging categories like canned cocktails and “hard” this-or-thats, the last thing the industry needs is another sub-par SKU taking up already impossible-to-land shelf space. Make sure that if you’re bringing something to market that it really deserves to be there. Ditch the ego, build a team of people you trust that do things better than you do and get ready to do the work for a long, long time.

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?

Depends. I’m definitely one to say the latter, but I can’t speak to working with an actual product development consultant. That said, I definitely am a proponent of staying in your lane, knowing your strengths and letting others do the same. When it came to formulating the flavor compounds for our canned cocktails, I knew I wanted to work with a flavor house to perfect our recipes. All the flavors and formulations are my own and based on my palate decisions, but the actual production of the proprietary flavor compounds we use are done by an outside party with a specialised, FDA-accredited lab.

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

I’m a big fan of raising money on your own, at least in the beginning. Start with friends and family. Chances are if you’re well respected enough by those people that they’re willing to throw you some start-up cash. Others will catch on eventually too and do the same in your future rounds of fund-raising.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

Great question, as my team and I are currently putting together a scholarship program. Beginning next year, we’ll be sending an aspiring female distiller to Moonshine University’s 6-Day Distiller Course on a regular basis. It was without a doubt the best education I could have asked for at the time (I completed the course in 2014). I’m beyond excited to be in a position where I can provide that for someone.

We also have a permanent cocktail on our menu at the tasting room where for each one ordered we donate 1 dollar to a different organization every quarter. After the recent wave of protests around racial injustice, we’ve been donating proceeds from Q4 to the ACLU of San Diego.

In addition, my business partner and I also run a separate hospitality business — The Loma Club, a historic 9-hole, par 3 walking course and clubhouse here in San Diego. The golf course has a large outdoor patio with plenty of seating and space to social distance, so we’ve been opening up the kitchen to one San Diego-area food business per month to allow them to hopefully be able to earn a little financial relief after all COVID has done to wreak havoc on our industry.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire 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.

I’m not sure what the answer is here, as there are a lot of hoops to jump through and red tape to navigate, but the current distribution model and laws around selling distilled spirits in the US are incredibly detrimental to the emergence and growth of small brands. I sincerely hope we see change and innovation in the spirits distribution space in the near future or small brands worthy of global attention will continue to be buried alive.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest 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, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

David Coors.

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

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