Some of the best ideas come from places you’d least expect them to — listen to everyone. At the end of the day, they are the consumer. All you can do is make a great product and put it out to the world, you can’t control who is going to consume it or how they are going to use it. Being able to listen to the feedback and to learn/ build on it is what opens the door for continued success.
As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mitchell Yousem.
Mitchell Yousem is the founder of Blank Vodka. With a career background in Finance and a degree in Business from The University of Michigan, Mitchell is combing his experiences to launch Blank Vodka which is a luxury, smooth tasting vodka at an affordable price point.
Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Thank you for having me! To be honest I think I’ve always had an interest in the alcohol and liquor space, but my fascination must have really began during my college days — my father actually doesn’t consume alcohol because it gives him migraines, so I was never exposed to alcoholic beverages at a young age. One of my closest friends from Michigan, Charles Sachs, started working in the industry right out of college and transitioned from a large multi-brand conglomerate to running the North East region at a high-end whiskey company called Whistle Pig. Along the way I learned a lot about what goes into the making of different types of spirits, and I also got a sense of the financial side of the industry from my work at Melvin Capital, where I help cover publicly traded alcohol companies. So when Charles and his partner, Samuel Hirsch, who together have a combined 16 years of industry experience pitched the idea of blank. farm vodka to me to get my opinion, I immediately knew it was something I needed to be involved in, where I could bring my accounting/business development knowledge to the table.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
We are launching an alcohol brand during COVID when the on-premise channel is basically non-existent at the moment… I would say the entire endeavor has been a challenge! While we were working on the brand for a while, we officially launched in August of this year. For most emerging liquor brands, the typical path is to first introduce the product through the on-premise channel to the consumer at a restaurant, night club, bar, liquor store tasting, or party — all ways of utilizing product placement to foster brand awareness. With such uncertainty around the bar, restaurant, and event industries today — in addition to restrictions on gatherings and other social events — continuing to get the blank. name and message out to the public remains a struggle we face to this day.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Over the years I’ve developed the mindset that anything you start, you finish, and anything worth doing is worth doing right and to the fullest. I’ve been through many challenging chapters in my life, from graduating at a top business school to working the long investment banking hours, and there’s not much of a better feeling than attacking and overcoming those challenges. You always come out stronger on the other side and reap the rewards, including on a personal level.
I think that’s exactly what’s going to happen with blank. We know that if we continue to put our heads down and get the right pieces in place during the pandemic, as society starts to recover and the on-premise channel opens back up, our business will be in a position to explode. The reception on blank. Vodka, from both the taste and creative side, has been overwhelmingly positive, that we know we have something special here. it will be that much more gratifying knowing our success came despite launching at one of the most difficult times in recent history.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going very well today and we’ve exceeded our initial expectations, although that’s not to say we’ve taken our foot off the pedal in any way. Given the nature of the current environment, we had to take a bit of a unique approach, and are expanding distribution and e-commerce capabilities faster than typical — most recently we’ve expanded into Massachusetts, and given the proliferation of e-commerce during the pandemic, we’ve expanded our capabilities to now be able to ship to 40 states. While it was always part of our marketing strategy, given the lack of on-premise product placement and relationship building, we’ve doubled-down on the creative side. We’ve been collaborating with more local artists, which is what we were most excited for when we started the brand, and it’s proven very effective. Stay tuned for many more partnerships to come!
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?
We certainly had some bumps and initial learnings getting the brand off the ground. I guess one funny thing is we shot all the content for our original website with a sample label, which ended up sitting 2 inches lower than our actual product when it was finalized — it looked pretty ridiculous. Another instance was when we were in a pinch to get out a rush order, and we used a different label company than normal since our normal labels take a month or so to produce. The labels from the other company started to bubble up within a few days of being on the bottle, and we had to hold the order and relabel everything anyways. The lesson from both is pretty simple — don’t cut corners, it is much more important to maintain the quality and integrity of your brand.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
blank. vodka’s simple label concept is the biggest differentiating factor. We wanted the consumer to take our blank canvas and really make it their own. Most of the time, a brand is trying to define you; our mission was to allow the consumer to define what our product means to them. The front label is left open for the consumer to design. Whether they want to write a note, draw, sketch, paint, or simply leave it blank; the choice is yours. Each bottle tells a different story. One of my favorite stories was one of our customer’s friends was moving away from the city they’ve been living in for three years. Our customer had all of their friends sign the bottle to give to the girl who was moving. What I love about this story is with just a few pen strokes, this bottle went from just another bottle of alcohol to a memory and memorabilia with tremendous sentimental value, which she can keep with her for the rest of her life. That is what blank. vodka is all about. It’s high-quality vodka at an approachable price point, but the label is also meant to be enjoyed and shared.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I see burn out all the time in my primary career in finance — it’s a very real thing. The number one “tip” is simple — you have to love what you do. I can give a number of little pointers that I think have helped me through the tough times and bad hours such as having a list of your “must dos” that are core to you and you do no matter what — for me that’s things like being diligent with my diet and exercising. However, at the end of the day you have to be excited about what you are doing, otherwise it’s going to be a job rather than a passion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stayed up all night because I’ve got this idea in my head that I need to get out, whether on the investment or creative side.
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?
It sounds incredibly cliché, but it has to be my father. Besides likely being an actual genius, he is a man I admire for his work ethic and values, and in the back of my mind I think I’m always striving to be more like him. He was the head of Neuroradiology at Johns Hopkins, got his MBA at night school while working, has done numerous marathons and an iron man, and he is incredibly altruistic and always willing to give his time — whether that means travelling the world or doing online lecture courses, or inviting a research fellow on grant from Pakistan to Thanksgiving dinner. All of this while raising two kids…I’ll never understand how he does it all. My grandmother always describes him in one word — reliable. If he says he’s going to do something, you can consider it handled. He inspires me and supports me every single day, and it’s not really a story, but what I’ll share is that he sends these inspirational quotes every morning that I read.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
We touched on this a bit before, but the hope is that blank. is not only enjoyed by our consumers, but is helping create memories! We hope it adds an extra layer of depth and sentiment to all the experiences and interactions that people enjoy with each other and our brand — it makes things feel that much more personal. I also hope it gets people’s creative juices flowing. We’re not all artists, but we all have a message or an idea or even just a doodle that we want to put out into the world, and this is a fun, easy, judgement-free way to do it! And especially for non-creatives, when was the last time they developed a design or even just drew something? I think people need to let that side of them out, particularly when it’s so easy to feel like you’re put in a box these days.
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. Manage your expectations- starting a business is exciting especially because you think your idea is amazing, but often things take longer than you’d hope to get going. Being patient pays off
2. It’s ok to say no — there are a lot of opportunities that will be presented to you and you want to say yes to all of them, however it’s impossible to do. Being selective with tasks you take on allow you to stay more on track
3. Things are going to go wrong — inevitably, problems are going to arise. When it’s your companies success on the line, it makes these problems more stressful. When we first started the business, we had no idea how tough it was going to be to sort out the supply chain. I wish someone would have told us to have a few back up suppliers for raw materials to make sure we were always covered in the beginning
4. Some of the best ideas come from places you’d least expect them to — listen to everyone. At the end of the day, they are the consumer. All you can do is make a great product and put it out to the world, you can’t control who is going to consume it or how they are going to use it. Being able to listen to the feedback and to learn/ build on it is what opens the door for continued success.
5. Have fun with it — it’s so easy to get caught up in making sure everything is running perfectly, or comparing your business to competitors, that it’s always good to take a step back and take some time to enjoy your product! There were several occasions, from putting on a pop-up with several artists at LAAMS to some blank. sponsored COVID compliant events that were just incredibly fun, and remind you why you’re putting in all the hard work in the first place
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. 🙂
Self-awareness and inquiry! I think this is one of the biggest ways our education system fails us — we never learn about ourselves and how our bodies, mind, emotions, spirit actually work. The human body is the greatest and most complex piece of machinery in the world, and most people don’t know how to operate it. You need to read the manual! There are a number of ways that people learn on their own, from yoga to reading self-help books to meditation (my method of choice), but I would love to see this formally incorporated into our children’s formal education. Even from a more scientific approach, such as how humans perceive the outer world through their 5 senses, how that is then processed and interpreted by the brain, and understanding how to best use that information as well as the shortcomings of how humans are wired.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
Thanks again for having me and helping get the blank story out there!