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“This drive to stay true to your vision comes solely from your belief in your product or concept.”with Bill Dessel, Tom McGowan, and Phil Laboon

This drive to stay true to your vision comes solely from your belief in your product or concept. Without this belief you may as well not even begin your journey. You have lost before you have started. However, if you stay true to that vision and have that belief, amazing things can happen. KEEL is […]


This drive to stay true to your vision comes solely from your belief in your product or concept. Without this belief you may as well not even begin your journey. You have lost before you have started. However, if you stay true to that vision and have that belief, amazing things can happen. KEEL is a great example of that.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Bill Dessel and Tom McGowan, Co-Founders of Rhode Island-based KEEL Vodka, a premium light vodka with low ABV (23.8%) and will help you stay balanced the next day. It is a “better for you” vodka with zero carbs, zero sugar, and only 58 calories per serving (most vodkas have over 100 calories).


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

BILL:

It’s a culmination of many stories and experiences. I always wanted to create and build a brand. For years I have always been involved in making brands and products for other people. Eventually I came to the realization to create real value momentarily and personally, you need to create a brand. It’s like writing songs for others to sing, it came a time to sing my own song. Specifically to KEEL, it was buying a restaurant spontaneously, that got me into the hospitality industry. Through the restaurant I saw a lack of innovation in spirits, I just thought there should be a product out there that I would drink, something lighter and more refreshing that would allow me to truly enjoy life to the fullest.

TOM:

My partner Bill and I were college friends at Boston College and many years later we were reunited in our home state of Rhode Island. I had been on Wall Street for years and, at the time, Bill was the owner of a very successful restaurant in our home state. Seeing the lack of innovation in the spirit world, Bill had been kicking around the idea of a lighter spirit and at the same time I had mentioned to him how I had noticed how popular light beer was, not just for women, but also for men. The two conversations came together on one long, unbalanced night at Bill’s bar, we wondered aloud why a premium light vodka did not exist? From there, the concept of KEEL Vodka was born. The name KEEL comes from my idea to open a bar in the islands which would be named KEEL … while advising me not to get into the business he was very successful at, Bill enjoyed the name for our newly minted concept. The keel is what balances a boat and keeps it moving forward — the perfect dovetail for the concept of KEEL and our tagline: STAY BALANCED.

Can you share your story of Grit and Success?

BILL:

That’s kind of like, if you knew how hard it was, would you do it again? In the beginning being ignorant to the regulatory side of spirits worked to our advantage. The government, TTB basically said you can’t make a light vodka, it doesn’t exist. That was our motivation. Not just create a brand but, create a whole new category. It took almost two years to get our Federal Permit, and label approved, our COLA. Then trying to do what we thought was normal, getting the ingredients on the bottle was unheard of in the government’s mind. But, really embracing the challenge and asking for help within a very bureaucratic operation we were able to accomplish a growing breaking bottle label and a new category.

TOM:

Well, as most people realize, one of the more difficult things in all walks of life, is when someone needs to deal with the government. Unfortunately, it is no different in the Spirits Industry, especially for two acolytes like Bill and me! In the beginning, we were quite aware of what we wanted KEEL to represent and how our label spoke to and informed the consumer. We wanted to change an industry. Being a new concept and innovative idea, the governing body of the spirits industry, the TTB, was unsure how to deal with us. We were asking to put nutrition information on our bottle that no one had done before, and the TTB continually attempted to block or question what we were doing. Unbowed, we remained resilient and convicted to our ideal and, after months of back and forth, we got the label that KEEL deserved and became the first spirit brand to list its nutritional facts on every single bottle! You will hear “No,” far more often than you would like…always stay determined, steadfast and never compromise your vision.

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

BILL:

I think I got the drive from my father, he never gave up and saw obstacles as opportunities. My father, having no money for college living in New Haven enlisted in the navy after Pearl Harbor. He was sent to flight school in Pensacola, Florida. Since so many young men were enlisting, the Navy was desperate for officers. He saw a sign, took a test and, believe it or not, was sent back to New Haven as a freshman at Yale; the navy changed his life. Through that experience, my father always believed you can accomplish anything. Eventually, in his fifties, he created a medical device company in our basement eventually selling a very successful business to Saint GoBain.

TOM:

This drive to stay true to your vision comes solely from your belief in your product or concept. Without this belief you may as well not even begin your journey. You have lost before you have started. However, if you stay true to that vision and have that belief, amazing things can happen. KEEL is a great example of that.

So, how are things going today? How did Grit lead to your eventual success?

BILL:

It’s going great! We’re not only creating a brand but, developing an emerging category creating the nation’s first “premium light spirit” If it was easy everyone would do it!

TOM:

Since we began, the “Stay Balanced movement” things have really started to take hold across all consumer products, including the beer and spirits industry and this movement has obviously helped KEEL expand very quickly. We are raising more money constantly that will go to boots on the ground and marketing, both essential to the success of a small brand. We know there will be tremendous challenges ahead, but, there’s no question that KEEL’s success today and in the future, would not have happened if Bill and I did not draw upon our own grit and ignored the ‘no’s’ of yesterday.

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

BILL:

The “ah ha” moment. When the light goes off in a bartender or customer’s head. That moment when they say, “I can’t believe no one thought of that before,” or “it just makes sense!”

TOM:

Quite simply, KEEL has changed the paradigm of the spirit industry. Nutritional facts on our labels and being the first “premium light” choice in the vodka space differentiates KEEL from all competitors. Our concept provides an alternative (and in many ways, a better one) for the consumer. We at KEEL believe this resolutely and are committed to spread the balance!

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?

TOM:

Early on, when Bill and I mistakenly thought we were flush with cash (we were not!), we thought it would be a good idea for KEEL to advertise with a local TV sports station that covered the Boston Red Sox and the Boston Bruins. I wrote a commercial that somewhat alluded to the Bruins (it was winter) and we shot the commercial on a local high school rink and had the voice-over done by our 3rd founder, Matt Light, a retired New England Patriot…not surprisingly, the commercial was not Oscar worthy and the time slots we ran the ad were terrible and extremely expensive…a tactical error to say the least. One day I need to go through our ample archives and watch the commercial with Team KEEL and chuckle…therein lies yet another lesson: Don’t be afraid to laugh at yourself and the mistakes you will undoubtedly make. Admit them but don’t make them twice!

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

BILL:

Burning out is not an option, you must be all in, live and breathe the brand. Because it’s too hard, waking up in the middle of night, sacrificing time with your family and a financial sacrifice… you could make a lot more money working for someone else…you need to keep your eye on the prize. I don’t differentiate between weekdays and weekends, it’s the nature of the beast, the industry we work in never rests. I literally tell my kids as we’re driving to school, don’t talk about vodka, the other parents are going to think I’m nuts. Most of all, you need a great support network, mine is my wife and family. They’re all in and always supportive, I would have folded many times without their support and encouragement.

TOM:

You’ve just got to believe 100% in your mission and make sure you’re having fun along the way.

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?

BILL:

My father-in-law, who was a real mentor to me was very successful in business, life and family. He basically lived by the notion to” shoot for the moon, if you miss maybe you’ll hit a star”. He used to always say, “I can find a thousand guys that tell we can’t do it, I’m looking for the one guy to say “how can we try this?” Kind of like my original manager at J&J. He said that “Losers find excuses on why it failed, winners find a way to succeed.”

TOM:

This question is an easy one for me. Without a doubt, KEEL would not be in the tremendous position it is today without the stewardship of my partner, Bill Dessel. He is tireless, resolute and never afraid to tackle the very real problems that all startups will face. One brief story I can share, with minimal details, is that early on, KEEL had a very substantial investor, with no spirit industry experience, who quickly turned rogue and had become almost impossible to deal with, imparting dark days upon our executive team and our strategy moving forward. Bill immediately dug in, refused to be influenced negatively nor bullied and stood up to the investor. He single- handedly found other investors to buy the investor out, remove him from our board and essentially save our small brand. It was an amazing display of grit, intelligence and determination. I was incredibly impressed and equally proud of my partner. I will always be grateful, as will all of us at KEEL.

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

BILL:

Through KEEL we try to support almost every charity event that comes across our plate. We’re really committed to giving back to the local communities that support our mission. We also believe that KEEL as a product is really helping folks to live life to the fullest and giving them a way to enjoy themselves fully in the moment without sacrificing tomorrow.

TOM:

Part of the KEEL culture that we’ve created is to give back to the communities that have supported and continue to do so. We try to encourage our entire team to say yes to giving back and support any charitable event we come across. It’s a modest start but we continue to strive to do good for the world every day.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started my company” and why?

BILL:

While there are probably a few things I wish someone had told me before starting KEEL, I don’t wish I knew any more than I did. The saying “ignorance is bliss” is true and is sometimes what you need to have the courage to start your own company. Knowing all the details of what may or may not happen in your journey in building a company isn’t always the best thing. Being able to learn as much as possible, surround yourself with smart people, and persevere through the hard times is probably all you need to do to be successful in business.

Based on your experience, can you share 5 pieces of advice about how one can develop Grit?

TOM:

1) Keep your head up.

2) Know that the sun always comes after a rain storm.

3) Do the right thing no matter how hard it is.

4) Take care of your health first.

5) Surround yourself with positive people who care about you.

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.

BILL:

Don’t be so serious! Life is short go for it! At the end of the day, your kids are your greatest legacy, combining that with an iconic brand and creating a restaurant or as I say an ongoing party is pretty cool!

TOM:

I certainly do not pretend to be a person of “great influence”, however, I do believe that KEEL and its’ underlying concept represents a very powerful idea that effects all consumers. The idea of KEEL, the concept of KEEL, says that you can make better-for-you, more balanced choices in your personal life. It is an idea that supports a lifestyle and may have the power to get consumers thinking a certain way in all aspects of their lives. The KEEL lifestyle is about balance and not only do people today want balance, in this crazy, frenetic world, they need it. Stay balanced everyone!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Readers can follow our journey on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter with our handle @keelvodka

Thank you so much for joining us!

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