Whiskey has run in my blood for generations – a story that began in 1782 when Walter Teeling opened his own small craft distillery in the heart of Dublin’s historic Liberties district, the former epicenter of Irish whiskey production. But, starting in the mid-19th century, the industry experienced a massive global collapse and the last Dublin distillery shut its door in 1976.
It seemed as if this important chapter in Dublin’s history was closed. Yet, in recent years, after noticing trends in global whiskey distillation – in particular, the emergence of urban craft brewers and distillers around the world – my brother and I saw our opportunity to open a new chapter.
In 2012, we struck out on our own with a clear mission to restore Dublin’s reputation as the premium center of Irish Whiskey production. Three years later, we opened the first new distillery in the city in more than 125 years.
We had several advantages on our side, including a rich family history in Irish whiskey distillation and our own previous experiences in the industry, but we faced many of the same challenges of entrepreneurs in other categories: resistance to our idea, limited resources in comparison to category leaders and a shortage of learnings in key aspects of the business such as real estate and hospitality, as well as challenges involved in growing a team of employees.
While being first is never easy, six years into our experience, we can say with some confidence that we’ve successfully conquered many of the first mover challenges most entrepreneurs face. Here are a few key lessons we’ve learned as we’ve built our business:
Build a team that shares your vision
Good entrepreneurs know how to leverage all of the resources available in order to to reach their goals. For us, this meant bringing on team members with skills we didn’t have internally, including a team of planners, property consultants, designers and other professionals with the experience to tackle the maze of planning permits and construction management needed to build our distillery. We learned early on that it wasn’t enough to find talented people. We also had to find ones that shared our vision.
As an entrepreneur, you will want and need to be involved in all aspects of the business. But, to be able to scale, you will need a group of people around you to delegate to, as there is only so much you can personally do. It’s important that these people are an extension of your vision or you can easily lose your momentum.
Invest in your community
As an entrepreneur, you must be mindful of how your business will impact your community, particularly if you’ve launched your company in a city like Dublin, on the brink of a comeback. Our goal was to be a good citizen of the city and ensure we were supporting its rejuvenation, while maintaining the character that defines the old manufacturing area of the city.
We started by hiring as many locals as possible, partnering with new businesses in our community and helping promote their success. Consider donating a portion of your proceeds to a local charity, so as your business succeeds, your community thrives, too. Moreover, make an effort to safeguard your community’s character and personality from mindless over-development.
We could have built our distillery 100 miles outside of Dublin to cut down on costs and avoid red tape, but our investment in The Liberties reflected our confidence in the community and our promise to bring people here. And we’ve made good on that promise — attracting more than 300,000 visitors since opening our distillery’s doors in 2015.
Use competition to fuel your innovation
The Irish whiskey landscape is more competitive today than it was when we founded our company six years ago. Ireland is now home to 20 operational whiskey distilleries up from just four in 2013, according to the Irish Whiskey Association. Irish whiskey remains the fastest growing premium spirits category in the world, attracting many multinational drinks companies into the category.
But more competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, we’re reminded of our decision to become a first mover in the first place. Increased competition demands creativity and new ideas. Smaller new entrants need to be nimble and responsive, like a speed boat, as opposed to the bigger players who operate more akin to ocean liners. Being very close to your consumer allows you to test and respond to their fast-changing needs and wants, leading to more successful innovation. Our products won’t improve without our customers, neighbors, partners and competitors along for the ride to inspire and challenge us.
Focus on the the opportunities in your position
As the first distillery to manufacture whiskey from grain to bottle in Dublin in more than 40 years, we have first mover advantages over our competitors in the Irish whiskey category. Our first-to-market position and visibility have allowed us to partner with global players in the spirits industry and expand to markets in other countries, including the United States. We now export to over 60 international countries, and we’re also propelling the Irish whiskey category as whole while paving the way for a new generation of distillers in Ireland.
Remember: you don’t know it all. Be open to pivoting or doing things differently as you see the need to do so. Talk to other entrepreneurs and learn from their experiences. As a first mover, you must always be moving forward. Make the best decisions with the information you have, trust your gut, stay true to your values and lead.