Diana Miller, co-founder of Ecology & Co, talks about her past life in business and how she builds businesses to fill gaps in the market.
What does your business do?
Ecology & Co makes alcohol-free spirits. We're based in Devonport in Auckland, we have a distillery there. My husband Will started making alcohol-free spirits for me because after I had my daughter, I struggled to process alcohol; I'd wake up at 3am and I couldn't get back to sleep. I got really sick of being given sweet drinks all the time, every time I went out. I really wanted something that was beautiful and adult in terms of palate, that made me feel like I was included and part of the social occasions, without compromising on taste, so that's where the idea was born out of.
What was the motivation for starting it?
Will was a hobby distiller back in the day so he started making it in the kitchen, in a little still that I bought him for his birthday. He'd been making alcoholic gin up until then. We'd have friends over for dinner and all of my girlfriends would be like: 'Oh wow, I've been looking for something [non-alcoholic] like this'. They wanted bottles, and it got to the point where we realised that there was a business here, so what we did was took the idea and some basic distillations to the Go Green Show a couple of years ago. We had two bins there, one that said 'hell yeah' and another that said 'hey no' and I colour-coded the cups based on the five different variants that Will had created, so when people threw their cups in the bin we knew which of the different blends people enjoyed the most.
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People on the day wanted to buy some. We said we were only doing market testing and we ended up taking a couple of thousand of dollars worth of orders on that weekend and I kind of had a business by default. I had to figure how to build an alcohol-free distillery around that. That was exactly two years ago, and by October 2018 we'd produced our first bottle commercially that came off the production line.
I'm a serial entrepreneur, I'm always looking for the next disruptive business opportunity. I was involved in the inception of the call centre industry in India, I went out there and ended up with three business partners, and the four of us set up a call centre company and got going out there in 2001.
We were one of the first companies out there to build a call centre; it was hugely disruptive. And that's the same with Ecology; the alcohol industry and the soda industry is so strong that there wasn't really anything out there that was a comparable product that could do the same job for me that an alcoholic drink could. Until we got going, we didn't even realise that [UK non-alcoholic drinks maker] Seedlip existed. Our product, which is quite different to theirs, is made for people who actually love gin and the taste of it, and would quite like another gin, but for whatever reason can't.
How big is the team today?
We've got a full-time salesperson, some part-timers that help us with markets; they're not with us a the moment as markets aren't operating. Will works full-time in this job but he also does part-time work with TVNZ on the money side of the business. Our very first full-time person started during the first week of lockdown.
How has Covid-19 affected your business?
Literally overnight, everything stopped. Lion was one of our biggest customers and during the entire lockdown we didn't have a single order from them. The supermarkets we were dealing with; a big chain in Wellington, they had a staff member who had Covid-19 and so they ended up shutting down quite early, and we haven't had an order off them either, they were our second biggest customer. We lost pretty much 50 per cent of our business overnight and so we pivoted and started selling online, selling a lot directly to customers. E-commerce and going online is what saved us.
We were doing a bit of e-commerce before Covid-19. Will set up a big warehouse out by the airport to manage it for us, that would ship internationally and domestically, but they were in absolute disarray, and they still are now, and as a result they couldn't get our product out so we actually had all of our product shipped to our house and we have been sending orders out during lockdown. We're still sending orders out from home now.
In the next few days we are going to pivot into a subscription service as well, so people can purchase our products and get it on a four-week or six-week cycle, so online will definitely be an integral part of our business moving forward, an absolute necessity to keep costs down and build an e-commerce presence.
What are your expansion plans?
We're looking at exporting to Singapore and Hong Kong to start with, but when we do so depends on when we are able to present in those markets. We're constrained to when the borders open again. It is going to take a bit longer to get to that export point than we perhaps hoped. We hoped to have been exporting to at least one market by the end of the year. We're also hoping to break into Europe and the UK where one in five adults are now non-drinkers.
What advice do you give others thinking about starting their own business?
Nothing is going to go the way you want it to but it all goes the way it is meant to. If it isn't going the way you want it to, then you haven't reached the end.