Surround yourself with a team of advisors early in your company’s development. This team will be invaluable in teaching you how to function in a new industry — the knowledge your advisors can share with you is more than you can ever learn in a book or course.
As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Michael Davidson. Michael is the owner and CEO of Black Infusions, an artisanal spirits collection that includes Black Fig and Gold Apricot Vodkas. The inspiration for Black Infusions stemmed from Davidson’s personal interest in wine-making and the desire to create a great-tasting spirit that pairs well with food, while staying true to his promise to create all-natural products that are free of artificial sugars and preservatives of any kind. Since its inception, Black Infusions has grown to national distribution across the United States and its first expression, Black Fig, was recently awarded Double Gold honors for Best Flavored Vodka at the San Francisco World Spirits Competition. A Massachusetts native and graduate of The University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Michael holds over 25 years of experience in launching, and investing in, small businesses.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I was born into a successful family business — for three generations, my family has owned and operated a hi-end garment and fabric cleaning company throughout Boston. From an early age, I knew the family business was not my calling, but spent the early part of my career working there while finding other outlets for my creativity in my spare time.
I started making wine at home as a hobby, some years making as much as 30 cases of Chardonnays and Cabernets. I was always drawn to the creative part of wine-making and the feeling of satisfaction in seeing something that I crafted with my own hands become a product that I would eventually share with friends and family. Eventually, the pull to start my own business from the ground up won me over; I traded in my steamer for a shaker, and Black Infusions was born.
What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?
I was always intrigued by how wine would traditionally be paired with so many different types of food at restaurants, but the same was not happening with spirits and cocktails.
This presented an opportunity to me — if wine could be paired with so many different cuisines and during every part of a meal, why were we not seeing the same with spirits? This became my biggest challenge and my greatest motivation — to change the way we drink spirits, and create new occasions to elevate the cocktail experience.
There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?
Translating my idea of creating all-natural spirits that are free of artificial flavors and additives, into a business, has certainly presented its share of challenges.
The biggest, to me, has been learning the spirits industry from the inside out. It’s not enough that we have a superior product that’s one-of-a-kind; one still has to learn the ins and outs of the industry, too. I’m not sure we ever really overcome our challenges; we just learn to adjust and keep moving forward.
What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?
I can speak from real experience here, as I left a very comfortable family business to build my own brand.
The best advice I can give is that you need to be willing to sacrifice everything to make your dreams come true: time with family, friends and the stability of a steady paycheck.
But, there’s nothing like the feeling of creating something from nothing, and each step along the road to success presents new challenges and new reasons to celebrate.
It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?
I think that the key to keeping it fresh and enjoyable is to never get too high or too low: there will be moments that feel like you’ve achieved success, only to be met by a setback the next day.
It’s only by staying grounded and taking things day by day, that you can enjoy the process and keep the excitement going.
What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?
The best part about owning my own business is the feeling of creativity that it provides. The drawback is that it never feels like you have enough time to get everything done. I’m able to overcome this by taking things as they come and remaining focused on my larger goals for the business.
Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?
The most striking difference between what I actually do every day and what I imagined it to be, is that the job is truly 24–7! Getting used to the pace of this business has been the part that can’t be charted out on a grid. The best part of this is that I have learned the business at the ground level and I now understand it from every angle.
Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?
I have that feeling all the time! I overcome it by remembering what drove me to start my business in the first place. This keeps me focused on my goals and continues me on my path to success.
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?
When I was first starting out in the spirits industry, I made so many mistakes that make me cringe now! I didn’t understand all the differences between the various types of spirits, such as bourbon versus whiskey. Thankfully, some wonderful mixologists would take me aside and discreetly correct me. These experiences made me stronger and more resilient-and once you make this type of mistake once, you most definitely won’t make it again.
Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?
I have been, and continue to be inspired by restaurateur Joe Kane of Big Night Entertainment Group in Boston, one of the preeminent hospitality and entertainment leaders. We meet every few weeks and he teaches me the business from the inside out. I’m forever indebted to him for his counsel and his friendship.
What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- Starting a business takes a lot more capital than you’d think! Make sure you raise enough funds to avoid serious financial strain.
- There’s A LOT of administrative work. I can spend the entire day processing paperwork, paying bills and invoicing. Set aside time each week to tackle these tasks or they’ll pile up…
- Make sure you understand the distribution system of the business you’re getting into. The time to start learning about how your products are distributed is in the infancy of your business.
- Learn all you can about the Cost of Goods and Services (COGS), as this will dictate how your company becomes profitable. This is critical to you on your path to success.
- Surround yourself with a team of advisors early in your company’s development. This team will be invaluable in teaching you how to function in a new industry — the knowledge your advisors can share with you is more than you can ever learn in a book or course.
What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible 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.
The movement that I’m most passionate about is the one I’m already leading — the movement to change the way people drink cocktails. The mass-produced flavored vodkas on the market are all filled with artificial preservatives and sugars. This is not making us any healthier! How many times do we go from the gym to Happy Hour, only to pour unnatural, sugar-filled cocktails into our bodies afterwards? What’s the point of all that sweating!
So, I hope that by creating a line of great-tasting, all-natural products made with real fruit, Black Infusions is inspiring both cocktail enthusiasts and home chefs alike to change the way we enjoy our drinks.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
I believe that persistence and perseverance are the key drivers to success. Thomas Edison famously said that, “Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” I believe that failure is not an option and this drives me to drive forward to succeed in everything I do.
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 with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
I’d be most interested in meeting the founders of Total Wine, brothers David and Robert Trone. What started as two small liquor stores, has grown to become the largest independent beverage alcohol retailer in the country. Their story is inspiring to me and I’d welcome the opportunity to meet them, learn their secrets to success and share ideas.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.