Lippe Taylor 22 Apr 2021 // 6:51PM GMT
Jordan Silbert is the founder and CEO of Q Mixers, the premium brand of cocktail mixers. The idea for the company came to him while he and his friends were drinking top-shelf gin mixed with low-quality tonic and he asked himself, “Shouldn’t my tonic be as good as my gin?” Next came years of experimenting before he devised the perfect blend of high-quality ingredients and ample carbonation that became the brand’s first product. Today, the Brooklyn-based company has 11 products and is distributed by all major retailers, in addition to being stocked by discerning bartenders everywhere.
Before founding Q Mixers in 2006, Jordan was Director of Rebuilding Initiatives for the Alliance for Downtown New York, where he provided the creative spark to revitalize parts of Lower Manhattan devastated by 9/11. Prior to that, he was Director of Business Development for a startup, EQuill, that was eventually acquired by Microsoft. At earlier stages in his career, as an account executive with iTraffic, he oversaw day-to-day online marketing for Disney.com and was an Economic Development Fellow with the Sonoma County Economic Development Board.
Jordan has an MBA from the Yale School of Management and a Bachelor of Arts in Public Policy from Brown University.
In this conversation with Lippe Taylor CEO Paul Dyer, Jordan discusses his entrepreneurial journey behind the launching of Q Mixers and how the brand has fared during the age of Covid. Check out the edited interview below or listen to the entire conversation on Lippe Taylor’s DAMN GOOD BRANDS Podcast below.
Paul Dyer: Jordan, welcome.
Jordan Silbert: Hello. Glad to be here.
PD: I thought we would start by sharing with our listeners the story of Q Mixers, how it came to be, and how important that story has been in building the brand.
JS: Sure thing. So, at Q Mixers we make a line of spectacular, premium carbonated mixers. Tonic water, ginger beer, ginger ale--11 different flavors that are intended to be used with premium spirits. The idea is, if you're kind of taking your spirits seriously and agonizing over whether you use a certain gin or a certain whiskey or a certain vodka, and you mix it with a carbonated mixer, you should have a carbonated mixer with the same quality and sophistication of whatever spirit you're mixing it with.
We're at every major retailer in the country: Kroger, Target, Walmart, Whole Foods, and tens of thousands of bars and restaurants. But that is after 14 years of blood, sweat and tears.
Let me tell you how the whole thing started. So, 14, 15 years ago, I was a bit younger than I am now. I used to have three or four or five or eight gin and tonics on a Tuesday night, and be pretty good on a Wednesday morning. Anyway, I was living in Brooklyn with a beautiful backyard in my apartment and that night, for whatever reason, we had some friends over and my roommate had a bottle of Tanqueray lying around. So, we started making gin and tonic after gin and tonic. And a couple of drinks in, my friend was telling the same stupid story he always tells. And I realized that my teeth were a little sticky and I was like, "That's weird."
I picked up the bottle of tonic water and saw 25 grams of high fructose corn syrup, natural and artificial flavors, sodium benzoate. And I'm like, " I thought tonic water was some kind of, like, bitter water thing." Anyway, one of my friends was drinking a Sprite. She, for whatever reason, wasn't drinking that night. So I said, "Hey Sarah, can I look at your Sprite for a second?" Picked up the can, 26 grams high fructose corn syrup, natural and artificial flavors, sodium benzoate. I was like, "Hey guys, these are the same thing. One’s just green and the other one's yellow." And my good friends, being my good friends, were like, “Whatever,” and started talking about 5,000 other things.
But gin has a real way of clarifying my thinking. It's this warm summer night, we had Christmas tree lights up, best friends in the world there. And obviously, a bunch of alcohol in my system. And I looked over at the bottle of Tanqueray and was like, "Wow, that's a pretty bottle." And then I looked over at the bottle of tonic. It was a one-liter plastic bottle of Schweppes. I was like, "What a piece of crap." The label was peeling off. It looked like it had been designed in 1958. The plastic bottle was dented. Obviously, I knew what was in the bottle. And I was just thinking, "Why is everything else so great, and the tonic water is so lousy?”
And I thought, "You know what, there should be a better tonic water. I'm going to make a better tonic water.” And long story short, I did. Long story just a little bit longer, the next morning (when my head cleared) I figured out what tonic water was supposed to be: water, a little sugar, and this thing called quinine, which is a bitter substance that comes from a tree, initially from Peru. And so I started mixing stuff up in my kitchen prototype, and then I found a small soda plant to put it in a bottle that could be carbonated.
And I sold it into some of the very best restaurants and bars in New York City: Blue Hill at Stone Barns, Milk and Honey, Little Branch, and Dean & DeLuca, which at that point was in its heyday of being called the best specialty food store in the country. I started there and now we have this full line of products that are served at thousands and thousands of the better bars and restaurants in the country, everywhere from all the Four Seasons to all the Buffalo Wild Wings. And we’re also at just about every major retailer in the country. It has been a long journey.
PD: Yeah, it's an incredible story. And obviously one where, as the founder, you have to be the Chief Marketing Officer, the Chief Executive Officer, probably the Chief Financial Officer at certain point in the journey. I'm curious though, why do you think Coca-Cola or Pepsi hadn’t done this? Why was this such an unmet need?
JS: So, the real answer is that they're big, dumb and fat or big, dumb and slow. And they just didn't think about it. The same company, Keurig Dr. Pepper, actually owns both Schweppes and Canada Dry. So, there's no real reason for them to innovate. They have different distribution relationships with Coke and Pepsi. Sometimes Coke has one, sometimes Pepsi has the same one, so there's really no one who owns it and pushes it. They're just focused on other things.
We raised a couple of rounds of funding and people always asked, "Are you worried about the big guys coming out with a product like Schweppes?" And we joked, "If Schweppes comes out with a product, they're going to call it Schweppes Premium or something like that." And lo and behold, they came out with something called Schweppes 1783, which looks not so great. It doesn't taste so great. And it's just doing horrible in the market. They used their power to get us kicked out of a place called Hannaford up in the Northeast of the United States last year. And then they performed so badly that the retailer came back to us this year, putting us back in. So these big companies, this is just not what they're good at.
And then even when they do have decent products, there's no meat on the bones of the story. And I didn't answer your first question as well as I probably could have, but I think we have this authentic story where there was an actual guy who made something that was better. Not because he saw a competitor doing it, or white space in the market, but because he actually wanted to drink it with his friends. And I think that story is worth millions or tens of millions of dollars in marketing that a big, slow company would do. Every time we say something, it just sticks a lot more because there's something real behind it.
PD: You’re also succeeding in changing the format of how the product is delivered. So in particular, on-premises in bars and restaurants, Coca Cola goes around and installs soda guns everywhere they can. Whereas you're bringing a premium product and a really tiny package that has to be opened individually. Is that something that came naturally or is it something you've gone back and forth on?
JS: It's been such an obvious decision for us. The reason Schweppes and Canada Dry and the mainstream soda companies’ products were so mediocre is because they treated them like the rest of their products: make them as cheaply as possible, and then do a little marketing around it. I started with the proposition, how do you make the most delicious thing, the one that's going to make the best gin and tonic or the best Moscow Mule? And once you have that perspective, it's pretty obvious that you need a small bottle or small can. Granted, I started a carbonated mixer business, but nothing drives me more nuts than a flat gin and tonic or a flat vodka soda. And you don't need to be a genius to figure out, "Hey, the way to make a gin and tonic fizzier is to start with tonic water that's really fizzy."
And that just doesn't happen with the soda gun or plastic one-liter bottles. They can't be as carbonated as our stuff for any reasonable amount of time. So, at the end of the day, the decisions have been pretty easy. We wanted to make stuff that tastes really good and is really going to give someone a delightful drink. So, once you have that orientation, my drunken revelation that first night--“Hey, my gin and tonic could be better if we use better tonic water"--a lot of those decisions were actually some of the easy ones.
PD: Since you now are no longer the guy carrying a case of tonic water down the street, walking into Gramercy Tavern and Whole Foods and selling it to them, what did that process look like? Was there a moment where you went from being the home-brewed thing to being at scale, or was it more of a progression?
JS: More of a progression. It was very much the frog in boiling water, where you don't really feel it. And then all of a sudden you look up and it's like, "Whoa, we're at every Kroger, Albertsons, Target and Publix in the country. That's pretty unbelievable." Part of the reason I didn't really feel that much is because I am very hands-on. I literally was at the plants the very first time I produced it, delivered the first cans myself. So I'm very hands-on, even today. I clearly don't go to the plants each and every time or make every sales call, but I'm very involved in how we do stuff.
And anybody who's built a business goes through the same thing: how do you scale? How do you take the best of what you can do, add it to the best of some experts that you hire, and hopefully do a little one plus one equals three? And I think one of the things I've done well is to recognize there's stuff that other people do better than I do, or at least are more experienced in than I am. And so on the sales side, about three or four years ago, we had hired the guy who ran William Grant Sales in the United States. That was Hendrick's Gin before, which is probably the biggest spirit company in the country.
And then on the grocery side, we hired the guy who did Nestle Waters, Perrier and Pellegrino. And on the marketing side, we hired a woman who led marketing for Godiva. So, we brought in some experts and when we combined all of their talents and experience and expertise with a lot of the stuff that I had learned (plus our better product), that's when we really started ramping up.
PD: Yeah. I mean, it does seem you followed that old adage of hiring people and empowering them to do their jobs. And that's helped you scale to this next level here. As a Brooklyn started company, contrast that to Ample Hills Creamery. They had people who were beating down the doors for their ice cream. They scaled quickly, then imploded, and it's a cautionary tale about scaling at the right pace. Reflecting on the various successes and failures of others, what are key learnings that you're taking away about building the business?
JS: Totally. So I live two blocks away from Ample Hills’ first location. And I was there that first weekend when they ran out of ice cream by 11:00 AM on Saturday. So what have we done differently? I have a partner, Ben, who is one of the biggest competitive advantages we have. I do a lot of the shaking hands and kissing babies. And he comes on and does more of the operations and finance. He's my best friend. I've known him since we were nine and he's done a great job of introducing incredible financial and operational discipline in our organization. And from day one, we've prioritized being able to make our stuff efficiently, reliably, and reasonably from a cost perspective. We've looked very closely at things like gross margin.
And we've made incredible strides over the last dozen years, as a result. So we have always approached this as a business, right? When I was in my kitchen I was just making stuff to drink. But as soon as we turned on the switch that, "Hey, this is a business," we very much treated it as such. So we made sure all the numbers worked and continue to work. And we were actually pretty conservative. We were flying high a year and a half after we had started when the 2008 recession hit. We were doing terrifically.
But the day Lehman Brothers went down, I got all these investors who had just given me almost a million dollars, asking me to rip up checks. So we ripped up the checks. And then we both went without salaries for nine months. We both moved in with our girlfriends (happy to announce, both our wives now, and we each have two lovely kids). So as a result of going through that, we've always been really conservative in terms of not spending our last dollar and making sure that every penny that we do spend is spent as efficiently as humanly possible.
PD: There's a lot of people that listen to this podcast who would love to work at a place like Q Mixers. When you are interviewing, when you're looking for talent, what are the things you're looking for?
JS: That's a hard one. And all our people say they had a transition of at least a year to working the way we work. And these were men and women who were literally the top of their field before they came to us. It was like, "Wow, the stuff that I did before, it's pretty good, but it doesn't work here." And they had to adapt to a smaller company that has fewer resources, but moves more quickly. They often describe us as the Viet Cong, rather than the American army in Vietnam. We don't need to win the ground war.
So, what I look for is not necessarily their experience running William Grant or Nestle or Godiva, but I need to see that they've adapted at some point in their life to something, realized they need to do something differently in order to do it even better.
It's also the burning desire to build something. I remember Mike (who came to us from Nestle) said to me, "What I want to be able to do is walk down an aisle in a grocery store, and look at it and say, ‘I did that.’" That’s what set him apart and got him the job. There wasn't a premium section on the mixer shelf until Mike Atkins got in the cockpit at Q Mixers and made it happen.
And the fact that he was motivated by that, rather than money or glory or things that he could more readily get at a different company, really stressed to me that he was the right person, that he had this internal need to create something in the world that didn't exist before. That's what he was motivated by. Those types of people are the ones who work well in our company. So it doesn't need to be, "Oh, I did a Q4 initiative that had 28% increase in sales over the last year." What I really am listening for is, are they getting off on creating something new? And if they have that, a lot of the other stuff can be worked out.
It took him a year to get up to full speed. And he needed to try stuff that worked at Nestle that didn't work with us. But the fact that he was so driven by that internal need to create something meant that he was going to fight through and get there at the end of the day.
PD: So, Jordan, companies today are being looked to by any number of different stakeholder groups, public interest groups, etc., to do more or be more than just sell great products. And in many cases, when we hear these stories, they are directed at the big companies. So, what about a high growth mid-market company like yours? How do you think about your company's role in society besides just delivering a great product?
JS: I guess there are two ways to think about it, right? One is the marketing side of it. How do I get credit for it? And then the other side is, do I feel good about what I am doing? And I guess I focus more on the second. How do I make sure that I (and everyone in our team) feel like we're doing something worth doing? I wake up every day and I hit things really hard, and I expect everybody on my team to do the same. And if you're doing shady stuff, it's hard to get up. It's hard to keep going for 14 years on that. So that's the kind of orientation that I take to it, to be an authentic force for good in the world.
Obviously, we cannot make the same target impact with a decision that Coke can. They could stop using paperclips at their office and probably save more metal than we could save in a jillion years. So, you have to look at the magnitude of what our opportunity is. Therefore, I’m more focused on how to be good, decent people within our organization and treat people right. For our own internal sake, if that makes sense.
PD: Oh, it does. It’s a good reminder of the importance of setting a good example, setting the culture of doing the right thing. So Jordan, it's been really great hearing your story. It's amazing what you have built with Q Mixers. Thank you for your time and we wish you the absolute best of luck in building Q Mixers into the future.
JS: Awesome, Paul. I really appreciate it.