I was 6 years into my career on Wall Street but, despite things going well there, I was restless and had a desire to follow a more entrepreneurial path – my own little piece of the American Dream!
It was a chance observation that led me to the spirits world. While socialising with my friends and colleagues I noticed everyone drinking vodka rather than gin, despite gin being a more flavoursome, heritage-rich category.
Following some research I recognised that there was an opportunity to create a super-premium gin for a more youthful, more discerning consumer and thus, the idea for Bulldog was born. A year later I decided to take a calculated risk, quit my job and began working on my premium gin.
I partnered with the leading Gin distillery in the UK to develop the recipe. We experimented with different levels of juniper, the predominant botanical in gin, to tone down the slight bitter flavour often associated with gin.
From the very beginning, Bulldog was all about defying the category norms. I wanted a smooth, mixable London dry liquid that would make a standout G&T and work in a variety of other serves and cocktails.
We also assessed countless botanicals – many of which I found through my travels – and finally settling on a list of 12, including Turkish white poppy, Chinese liquorice, Moroccan coriander and Asian lotus leaf. These were to infuse the liquid with a distinctive aroma and character and make sure it was well balanced.
I took the same approach when it came to the branding and design. To encapsulate the brave new gin with a fitting brand name, I chose Bulldog as a name to reflect the brand’s independent spirit and tenacity.
I knew I needed the packaging to be super-premium, stylish, modern and iconic to reflect this bold positioning. To really stand out we moved away from the traditional clear package with the typical British icons and went with a customised charcoal black bottle with subtle purple hues. In 2007 we successfully created the iconic bottle I so coveted!
Our distinct positioning and packaging were a huge part of our success. In a category that was teeming with new entrants, Bulldog managed to continually differentiate itself with its instantly recognisable look, confident tone of voice, differentiated proposition and delicious, smooth flavour.
Another major driver was the premium gin boom in Spain – and subsequently the rest of Europe – as we launched it (in 2019) just as the Spanish consumer was developing an insatiable appetite for the “Modern G&T”, which included different flavoured tonics and exotic garnishes, and served in a snazzy balloon glass.
We experienced strong annual growth and quickly became one of the leading brands in the market. This position propelled our launch across Europe, as Spain is a very popular holiday destination, allowing many Europeans to discover the brand there and then look for it in their home market.
A lot of Bulldog’s success was driven by the strength of our relationship with Campari Group, our global distributor. In 2014, the group started distributing Bulldog around the world and helped us accelerate our growth significantly.
Beyond distribution muscle, they also provided invaluable expertise. This really catapulted the brand on a global scale. The group subsequently acquired the brand in 2017.
Missteps & obstacles
Like most entrepreneurs before me, I had a couple of unfortunate episodes with unsavoury characters in the industry early on in Bulldog’s evolution. However, I was able to relatively easily manoeuvre through those and it didn’t hold the brand back.
One of the biggest challenges is picking who you want to work with, or have as an investor. I was often solicited by so-called industry experts who wanted to partner; and I was often seduced by the “sizzle” in their sales pitch. So, make sure to pick your partners as wisely as possible. Do some diligence on their abilities and character.
After all the work on the liquid and branding, I thought the hardest part was over. How wrong I was! The spirits industry is complex and as the “little guy”, it was a real uphill struggle to success.
I tried to go at it alone for as long as possible and build distribution by knocking on doors and introducing myself and my product. I soon realised this was harder than trying to ride a bike up Mount Everest. I recognised the need for a stronger distributor partner, which is where Campari came in.
Another layer of complexity peculiar to the drinks industry is that, it’s not just about distribution and consumer awareness – you also need to win over the bartender. I assumed that once Bulldog was in the bar, everyone would love it as much as I do, and so it would be served.
I quickly saw that neglecting the influential bartender was a mistake. I teamed up with a network of influential, well-respected brand ambassadors (bartenders and mixologists) around the world, who worked with the bartender community, educating them on the product and immersing them in the brand experience.
What I can say about raising capital is you will always need more money than you anticipate. Being well capitalised allows you to focus on driving the business forward.
Being in a position where you’re only focused on fund-raising can really put a strain on the growth of the business as it’s an all-encompassing “soul-drain” to raise funds as an entrepreneur. I always suggest raising a larger round than you anticipate, since there are far too many unforeseen challenges and it’s good to have dry powder in the bank.
I was fortunate to have a great group of investors – including industry veterans – and directors who helped me navigate this unique industry. They were mostly always supportive, which was helpful.
When you’ve built a brand from scratch and poured your heart into it, there is no right time to let go – it’s like losing a limb!
Is there a right time? I would start by saying that the appropriate time is when there’s a buyer! Most people assume that it’s automatic that a start-up will succeed and be sold. Statistically, that’s not true.
However, with hard work and a little luck, it can happen. That said, the opportunity with Campari Group, who I knew well and trusted a lot, was too hard to walk away from.
I knew my baby was going to a good home and that I’d continue to see Bulldog in more and more bars around the world – 100 countries as of now, and counting!