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Tyler Jorgenson 0:03
All right. Welcome out to Biz Ninja Entrepreneur Radio. I am your host, Tyler Jorgensen. And today we have Mara Smith, who is a founder of a really cool spirits brand called Inspiro Tequila. And I know a little bit of the story about how she wanted to have a gluten-free spirit and wanted it to fit into our active lifestyle. But I’m excited to learn about how you got here and how you decided to, instead of just going to the store and buying one, why you decided to build one and create a brand of your own. So welcome to the show, Mara. It’s great to have you. Thanks.
Mara Smith 0:36
So nice to be here.
Tyler Jorgenson 0:37
So I like to start with this question. When was the moment that you first realized that you were an entrepreneur?
Mara Smith 0:44
So I think that came to me much later in life. To be honest, I don’t think it was very risk-tolerant. When I was younger, I probably saw it as a young girl. My dream job was that I wanted to be a Supreme Court justice. So there’s nothing more secure and stable as a position that you have for life. So I think I went a very linear path. I studied accounting, I went straight to law school, and I worked at a really large law firm. Before that, I had worked at a really large accounting firm, then I went to a Fortune 500 company. So it actually wasn’t until I was at work at McDonald’s Corporation corporate strategy, after my law career, that I kind of started getting that entrepreneurial bog. And thinking of like concepts and businesses would be interesting to me. I was part of a group there. And we were studying consumer trends and customer insights and ideating, and kind of coming up with new concepts for the company, and I found the whole like, ideation process really fascinating. So that’s where I started thinking like, oh, maybe I want to start my own company, I actually, at the time, looked into starting an ice cream franchise, like a chain of an ice cream franchise, not the best locale Chicago. So that kind of idea got scratched, but then, you know, what happened there is my corporate kind of career came to a screeching halt, because I became pregnant with my twins and was put on emergency bed rest. So they’re kind of like I ended that whole part of my career. And the biggest pivot of my life that I never expected was that I made the decision to stay home because I had preemie twins. So I think it took me many, many years until I was ready to you know, reenter the workforce and start something on my own. But I think that’s kind of where I started thinking as an entrepreneur, and like, How can I do things better? What can I do to improve on something? You know, how can I start my own company, but I think it required me being a little more risk-tolerant, and Epping coming later in my life. And I did not start this, like out of my dorm room.
Tyler Jorgenson 3:04
Right? You know, and it’s interesting, we have, you know, we’ve interviewed several 100 entrepreneurs through the years. And in my experience, there’s, there’s really two types, right? There’s the people who like you how to add a successful career, and now are able to apply a lot of the different things they learned and kind of have a shorter learning curve, because you’re only filling in the gaps of what you didn’t know. And then you have the people early on that are like, like me, I was five years old. And I was like, I create my own opportunities. I never just I never saw the corporate path as a path. For me. It’s just not how my brain worked. And there’s not a lot in between, I feel like it’s either the early stage, like that’s just who they were, and then are the people who are like, Hey, I think I can do this, this would be really neat. So you’ve, you’re, you have twins, you’re kind of like okay, I’m going to do something you go through a few different ideas. How did you settle on the idea to get into the spirits world? Because there is some extra complexities there compared to some other types of businesses? Yes.
Mara Smith 4:03
Unbeknownst to me, yes, the compliance issues with spirits and the fact that the laws are the ones from 1933 Post prohibition, and every State operates completely independently with their own set of laws like dealing with you know, 50 different countries. So I did not know that when I started this luckily, having a legal background as you said, there are things that you can apply and, and that piece of it being able to like wrap my head around that pretty quickly and and get up to speed that was really helpful. That I had that background but so I’ve been thinking of ideas. I probably just, you know, watch too much Shark Tank and listen to me founder stories, and always found them really inspirational how people got started. And actually, I knew I wanted to be a product. So I’m just a consumer product person. I’m actually like a really good consumer of consumer products. I love your taste, testing and trying things. And I actually thought of that I was thinking about another idea and it just wasn’t really resonating with me. And I kept coming back to tequila. So I’ve been a tequila drinker for years, it became my kind of clean spirit option. I didn’t like things that had a lot of sugar. I didn’t feel good the next day. So surgery good tequila. And when I was just learning is so many women are telling me that they’re tequila drinkers, and that’s their drink of choice. So really, I just saw an opportunity, I was walking down the aisles of the local liquor stores looking for bottles that I thought like resonated with me, looking for brands that like, kind of spoke to the consumer, thoughtful female consumer like me, using you know, scantily clad women and dark club scenes just did not resonate with me as a consumer. And I just really thought, here’s a market opportunity. Women drink a lot of tequila. And I couldn’t understand why brands were not focused on this consumer, she just generally overlooked in the spirits world. And she makes 80% of the purchasing decisions is the main Entertainer of the home. And as I started researching the category discovered, she makes up 50% of tequila consumers. says that, okay, there’s someone, you know, there’s a consumer here who is just overlooked, and no one’s really speaking to her. And can we do that and who better to speak to her than someone who is her like I am that thoughtful consumer cares about what she eats, and drinks and the brands she supports. And also, this was a reentry into the workforce after being out for many years. So for me, if I was going to do that I wanted, I wanted to be in an area where I can make an impact. So spirits, just like many industries, you know, women are very underrepresented. And I thought here was an opportunity to bring just another female perspective and to have women involved in every part of our process, from our master distiller Mexico to operations, sales, marketing, that we could just bring another female voice to the industry.
Tyler Jorgenson 6:54
I love that. And so for you, you, you came up with this idea after seeing that, really, there wasn’t a brand that really spoke to you and the type of consumer that you were in your demographic. And so you’re like, I’ll build it, I’ll create it myself. What was the first major hurdle that you faced? And then how did you overcome it?
Mara Smith 7:11
Lots of major hurdles. And there will continue to be many more. So the first thing was I had the impeccable timing of starting this company in February of 2020. So then the entire world shut down, right, and that happened. So I couldn’t get to Mexico for production, I couldn’t get to Mexico to find a distillery to interview master distillers. I knew I wanted a female master distiller I read a book on all the women in tequila, it’s a really small book, and narrowed it down. So I had to find consultants down there to be like my eyes and ears to do virtual tours of distilleries. I found the master still I really wanted I had to get find, you know, have them connect with her to get her on board. So it’s really just a matter of trying to do that all virtually without being there. And in fact, I couldn’t be there for our entire first production run. And that was another huge hurdle because they finished the run they sent me samples. I was so excited I’ve been like awaiting these samples for so long. They sent me samples. I tried it and I like had a total I had a pretty much a meltdown. They didn’t like it. And I was like oh my gosh, what are we gonna do now? I don’t like it and and it was recommended well maybe we take this batch and we mix it with the next batch and like to me that’s like taking something not good and something really good and getting something mediocre. So I actually decided to scrap the entire run which set us back like six months but and because we have to start over again.
Tyler Jorgenson 8:55
That was probably a hard decision to stay that true to your desire for quality and taste instead of just like well I guess we got this what we have I guess we got to try to sell it you know,
Mara Smith 9:05
right? I have to love it like I I’m just really transparent and in everything I mean there have been drinks that people wanted me to mix with like another brand and I taste tested and I didn’t like it and I wouldn’t do it so I had to love it there’s no way I’m not a natural salesperson I you know came from an accounting background law and so for me to really be out there and talking about it and selling it and believing in it has to be something I really love and so and quality I’m just all about quality. I mean I took months and months conflict our battle design I wanted a unique custom battle even though everyone said just find the stock bottle and you know, make it pretty good. I’m like no, I really want this custom designed bottle that didn’t realize how difficult it was to you know paint in a gradient And so just if I was going to do something, it has to be like, done really thoughtfully, meticulously. And the quality inside the bottle has to match the outside the bottle for me.
Tyler Jorgenson 10:14
So you stayed even though you were faced with production challenges, quality challenges, manufacturing challenges peeking out the bottle, you you stayed true to your vision of what you wanted the quality inside and outside to be. That had to be a challenge, especially when you’re, you’re bootstrapping and you’re, you know, this is time and money that happens to go into each of these things. Now, on this show, we talk a lot about work life balance. And recently the conversation has been around a lot more about work life blend, right, a balance is almost an impossible thing. How do you blend? And how do you manage being a mother of three being a founder, and manage all the parts of your life?
Mara Smith 10:58
Yes, I’m not sure I manage that. Well. And I agree that first thing is balance I actually just posted on LinkedIn, I think it was last week how like, blend makes a lot more sense to me than Beyonce, because I don’t know that I believe in balance. And I’m definitely not good at balance. I hope that every day, I get one thing done really well. And a lot of other things and a lot of other balls are going to drop. And you can’t get everything. You know, I can’t split my focus between so many parts of my life on any given day. But, you know, what I tried to do is if I meant my son’s basketball team basketball tournament, like, that’s my focus, right then. And if that’s work that has to get done. When I’m in work mode, I’m completely focused on I’m that’s kind of, I feel like a quality that I have is I can be like all in and totally in the zone and getting things done, and not easily distracted. So that’s kind of what I try and do. And I recognize, there’s lots of different pieces to our life. Unfortunately, the piece that probably falls at the bottom of the list, on most days, is anything that’s you know, related something for me. So those are the things that kind of fall, everybody else’s needs. I try and beat as much as possible. I probably am too far down on the list. Most of
Tyler Jorgenson 12:29
it happens. And hopefully, you know, at least when it comes to like the higher needs, right, those are at least getting take care of. But I think entrepreneurs struggle with that, in general. Because you’re wearing so many hats, and then you still have your, your non work hats that you have to wear, like taking care of yourself can fall really low on the list. And that’s something I think all entrepreneurs and all founders and CEOs have to be continually reminding themselves is, it’s okay to prioritize yourself and take care of yourself. Even if that means the one thing I love that idea that you said every day, get one thing done really well. Some days that one thing might be self care, right? And that’s it’s a challenge to take. Because that’s not the type of checklist we’re used to doing, right? It’s like no, I wanted to, you know, make a big decision on branding or make a big decision on manufacturing or, you know, production. But so what as you started going and got this momentum in the business, when did you first realize, hey, there’s something here, this might actually take off, because I know you started in a very tough time. And then you went right into some manufacturing challenges. When was the first time you’re like, Okay, this is going to work.
Mara Smith 13:35
You know what I think when I found that retailers were receptive. Once you saw that, like retail and retail chains, thought, wow, this is a really great looking battle. And they like the quality of the juice and the story and the authenticity behind it. And love that there was an option of a, you know, woman on brand because they are, you know, really looking for diversity on the shelves. I think that’s where I I thought, oh, okay, this really could you know, this could be something because there are people who, you know, especially at that level, bring it in because that’s our, you know, focus is really selling through retailers. I think the other thing and I hope this never gets old for me, honestly, is when I hear people, they see me somewhere and they see the brand and like oh, I’ve heard of this and I’ve tried it, and I’m always fascinated. I’m like, really? How would you hear it? How do you know about it? And it gets me excited every single time. And you know, I don’t know that they would ever wear off?
Tyler Jorgenson 14:42
I don’t think it will especially because it’s like when it’s not someone that heard it from you, right? Oh, yeah, you’re my friend. Of course. You know what I’m doing right? It’s someone that you run into and they’re like, Oh, I know that brand. They had it at the bar. Oh, is that with the girls night out the other night or it was oh, they This was at a wedding that I was just that like it’s really neat to see your product and In the wild, who was one of your first retailers that that said yes and give you a shot.
Mara Smith 15:06
We’ll actually hear Benny’s, which for in Illinois is the, you know, most major independent liquor chain. And that was really huge because that’s a big hurdle getting in, is a really big hurdle. And staying in, is even harder. So have to sell through in my head of sales actually is a really good kind of assessment that it’s, you know, 25% of the work is getting on the shelves and 75% is, is making sure you pull through to stay on the shelves. And so the fact that we’re there, and they’re adding more stores, that, to me is what
Tyler Jorgenson 15:49
it what did you you and your company do to ensure that once you got in there, you actually were able to sell through? Did you guys have any creative marketing or any strategies? Or was the goal just hey, we trust that the story and the product is going to do the work?
Mara Smith 16:03
It takes a lot. So I Yes, I think it takes a lot. I think there are a number of things, you know, I spend a lot of time not only going to my local store, but I went to like 10 different stores in two days to do staff education, off making sure they understand. So that’s an independent liquor store where people go in because they ran recommendations and they trust the staff to be knowledgeable and know things. And you see a lot of people like you know, bewildered in the tequila aisle not knowing like what to grab. So for me going and educating the staff at as many stores that I could to tell them about the brand, the product, the story, why it’s unique, that were confirmed at a free when 90% of tequila brands use additives and how we created our taste profiles without using additives. Like really educating them, I think that was one piece of it. I think having anything you could do to relay the story at the point of sale. So we added like little bottle neckers onto our bottles that talk about, you know, that were certified women owned that were confirmed at a free or awards like anything that customers can get as much information right there at the shelf. And then I think we’re doing things a little bit differently than maybe a typical spirits brand in a couple of ways. One is that we use digital, and we use digital to support retailers a lot. So if I’m a huge brand, I can’t really do that. There’s just too many retailers out there. For us, because we’re small, we can have you know, local influencers go and do a run through some of our local stores here like different, you know, retail chains, we can post things we can do email that’s targeted by locale that promotes stacking up and giving different retailer options that we’re in. So we can do a lot to support them digitally, as well as events. I mean, I do a lot of events. And I think I try and find events where we stand out because they’re a little bit different. Like it’s not music festivals, not tequila festivals, that spirits festivals, it’s more like getting in front of the women that we want to speak to it’s me speaking to the women in law coalition, and telling about the brand and having a resonate with them, getting them to try a cocktail and then letting them know where they can purchase. So think getting in front of those kinds of different groups, especially those bigger like women’s networks that I’m very involved in. I think that’s also something unique and an opportunity that I can something I can do because it’s it’s me. It’s a small independent brand. And because I’m really the person behind the brand,
Tyler Jorgenson 18:45
so So what’s one piece of advice that you would give someone who’s considering starting a consumer consumable product business? If they’re getting into it, you know, post career and they want to start something? What would you tell them?
Mara Smith 19:00
Actually, two things that I think I’ve been loving, I’ll accept to to is okay, yes. First is that there’s no getting around doing the hard work. I did a ton of research before coming in. I came into an industry that people have been in I felt I felt like spiritual world, people have been in it for a long time. It’s like this like small, like insular group that you had to break into. And I didn’t realize that coming in as an outsider. So I had to, I really had to do my homework. I had to learn everything about the production process, how it works compliance, I got certified by the CRT governing body in Mexico and the production and history of tequila making. I listened to webinars I reached out to industry veterans, I listen to podcasts, I read newsletters, I mean I wanted to get up to speed on industry and in general how to start a business I knew nothing about marketing for example, I mean I I didn’t know how to use social media. I did a one on one like, tutorial with some of this is showing me having Use like Instagram and things like that. So I would say, there’s just no getting around doing the hard work and it’s very time consuming. And that would be the first like test of can do you really want to do this because it’s gonna require a lot, a lot of time and effort. And then the second part, I would say is no matter how much due diligence you do on your own, I think, especially as a solo entrepreneur, you need a support system. So for me, it was about building a community. And a community of, especially a women who are like, collaborative and supportive, I came in my last job was CEO of my home, I did not have a big network of people, you know, great friends, really supportive friends, but you know, no business contacts. And it required me building it, like, step by step, reaching out joining like, I looked beyond just the spirits world, I joined like, and found people in the spirits world, but then I looked at the bigger CPG world to learn from them. And then I looked even wider than that, just like, Great women’s organizations and female founders. I’ve connected, you know, with so many female founders and leaders now who have helped me provide guidance, feedback, I collaborate with them, you know, I support their businesses. But I think you need to do that part of it too, and really build a community behind you. Because, you know, one, it’s a lonely endeavor, and too many people, you know, to bounce ideas off of, and to kind of be cheerleaders or even when you’re like, looking for something. Okay, where can I find, you know, a social media agency, and then I have a whole network of people that I can reach out to that can give me suggestions. And hopefully now, I’ve done a lot of that legwork that they asked me, because they know I interviewed, you know, 25 PR agencies and narrowed it down and I can give them some advice.
Tyler Jorgenson 22:04
Right, right. Yeah. And I think that’s what’s great about as you grow that network, and that community is, at the beginning, you might be asking a lot, but then later on, you’re able to give back and kind of then pay it forward to other people as they come in. And I love that I’m a I’m a big believer of having that community and that support system, I think those are great pieces of advice. Is there anything that you learned from your time at McDonald’s that you apply into the spirits world?
Mara Smith 22:32
I honestly think because what I learned there was like, looking at like, really customer insights, and really focusing on like, what drives the customer and speaks to them. I think probably my legal career is where I learned more than I apply, and not just compliance, but like, and it’s funny because people kind of don’t see the words, you know, going from law to like starting a company. And I actually think there are a lot of skills that I honed their right, like efficiency, as far as work ethic. I mean, I was at the largest law firm in Chicago, I knew how to work really hard, and you need to be really efficient, with my time really efficient with other people’s time, get feedback really directly and succinctly. Writing skills, I think that’s something that we overlook often. And it’s really critical. I mean, I don’t how many times I’m writing, pitches, blog posts, social media posts, email newsletter, like, there’s a lot of writing that goes into it. So I do think there are a lot of skills that I refined as a lawyer that really help I mean, strategy, analytical thinking. And, actually, as a stay at home mom also I think there are a lot of things that I learned that I’m better at, and better at running a business and because of that, I mean I preemie twins, I can multitask, like the best of them. flexibility with kids, like no day ever goes as planned. So when you talk about all the hurdles and things I had to, you know, get through Well, I’m a good problem solver because of that like and constantly problem solving, you know, whatever is going on with my children, it’s the same here. There’s always something where I’m coming up with a plan B and maybe a Plan C. So I think all those things really helped build my skill set that you know, I use to start a business and and honestly I think most important is that you want to continue to learn I like to say I’m a learn at all and I didn’t know at all and learning something new every single day.
Tyler Jorgenson 24:46
Yeah, absolutely. I love that. I love that you. There’s things from each step of your career in your life that you apply into what you’re doing now. And we talked a little bit about work life blend and early when I started this show, man over 10 years ago, a lot of it came was because of Tim Ferriss book, The Four Hour Workweek and the idea of lifestyle design. So I like to ask this question. And if you said, you listen to a few shows, so you probably know, I usually end the show with, because life isn’t just about building businesses, it’s about having experiences and living your life. What’s one item on your personal nonwork, your personal bucket list that you’re gonna accomplish in the next 12 months?
Mara Smith 25:29
Oh, gosh, I mean, personal bucket list. I think for me, it’s all about spending more time with family. So I want to carve out more time. I obviously see my children but more like, quality time, not just quantity, so trips, family trips, and also with the, you know, parents, things like that, my, my in laws, my parents just carving out and finding more time on a on a more consistent basis. That would be Michael.
Tyler Jorgenson 26:04
I love that. So I’ve really enjoyed getting to know more about in Spiro tequila and everything that you are creating. It sounds like you’re doing really great things. And as all of us here at the business community, we we wish you tons of success. And to all of my businesses, wherever you’re listening, please go check out in Spiro tequila on Instagram or on our website and remember, it’s your turn to go out and do something
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