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Welcome to Becoming the Boss, our series celebrating small business owners who have made the transition from solo-entrepreneur to employer. Check back periodically for new installments.
Sandy Wood and Alex Laufer first met as students at Vassar College in New York. After graduation, Laufer, a biology major, took a job in the biotechnology industry in Silicon Valley, while Wood headed off to law school before embarking on what he thought would be a long career as an attorney in Washington, D.C. But in 2012, Wood began reading about small-scale distilleries, and slowly, he started to develop an entrepreneurial itch. Knowing he couldn’t build a distillery from the ground-up alone, he reached out to his college pal Laufer.
“Alex and I talked and agreed that D.C. was a great market for this sort of business, and we both had a passion for building a company and making something,” Wood said. After a ton of research and a lengthy search for the perfect location, the duo launched One Eight Distilling, the second small-scale distillery in the nation’s capital, in January of 2015.
One Eight Distilling today creates a range of spirits, from a gin named after Ivy City, a neighborhood in northeast D.C., to an unaged whiskey made from locally-sourced rye. Every Saturday, the distillery opens its doors to give tours and tasting sessions to the public. One Eight Distilling’s spirits are also served in several restaurants and bars across Maryland and Washington.
Wood and Laufer have hired four employees in the past year to expand the number of spirits they sell to the public. They recently started experimenting with different flavor profiles, and they plan to soon roll out aged whiskeys. In a recent interview, Wood and Laufer discussed how they found their first employees, the unique challenges (and of course, tasty rewards) of owning a distillery, and their advice for aspiring business owners.
How is working in a distillery different than your old jobs?
Alex: I worked with three different biotech startups, and there are some similarities when you’re beginning a distillery in that you’re small and you have to wear many hats before you begin to hire staff and your role becomes a little more niche. But that’s about as far as it goes. There’s a lot more that goes into this than working for my other companies.
For instance, on the biotech side, it can be such a slow process from beginning your research to getting a product to the market. In distilling, in the case of our clear spirits, we began production in December of 2014 and we opened our doors in January 2015, so a month later we had our products. It’s so much more rewarding to realize the fruits of our labor in such a short time.
What’s your favorite part of running a business?
Alex: There’s a lot of rewarding things. I’m the head distiller so I’m mostly on the production side. I really do enjoy the routine of production. It can be long hours and physically taxing work. Sometimes it’s meditative, hearing the machines whirring and tasting throughout the day every day. I like that regularity. I also love the more unique products we’re creating. We’re not distilling for ourselves – though that’s a nice bonus – and I enjoy sharing it with the public.
Sandy: Broadly speaking, building something brick by brick is enormously rewarding. It’s not like anything I’d ever done before. It’s especially challenging to get to that point where we’re operating at a net profit. But in the meantime, from every new employee to every new spirit we’ve released, literally every customer we connect with, it has all been rewarding.
When and why did you hire your first employee? What was that process like?
Alex: Our first employee came to us. He had read about us opening long before we opened, and he got in touch with us, and it was a slam dunk. But it got harder after that.
Sandy: It’s been an eye opening experience partially because of the job market, which has required us to attune ourselves to the needs of millennials. But if every hire had been that easy, this would have been a dream. It’s been a time consuming process to bring people on who are the right fit.
What has been the most challenging part about building out your team?
Alex: The industry is relatively small also so finding people that have direct experience is quite challenging. Our assistant distiller came from another distillery from Brooklyn because most of the candidates did not have that background experience. Our other employee who does some production and management actually interned with us during the winter before we offered him a position.
Sandy: The applicant pool for our jobs has literally ranged from beekeepers to car salespeople.
Alex: It’s definitely been hugely rewarding to be not only making a product but really building the company and bringing on people who want to be a part of that. It’s been an exciting piece, but as Sandy mentioned, it’s really challenging to find the right people. But I’m very happy with the folks we have brought on board so far; they have an important voice in what we’re doing.
Sandy: I agree, it’s been really gratifying to be able to turn over various pieces of the big puzzle and know that they’re excited about building on what we have already accomplished. And for me personally, I feel like I have my father sitting on my shoulder all the time. He stared his own business, and I feel like I have connected with him through this process.
Sandy Wood, co-founder of One Eight Distilling
What’s the most challenging part of managing employees?
Alex: As a startup in a global economy, it’s definitely hard to bring on people and keep them interested and satisfied Our first employee, for instance, moved on to a new opportunity, and we can’t offer the salary he’s currently making, so that’s definitely a challenge. Still, I think we can provide interesting challenges for our staff and an opportunity to become part of a growing company.
Sandy: Keeping your growth and your staffing aligned is a major challenge.
What kind of skills and characteristics are you looking for as you build your team?
Sandy: A passion for the craft–that’s the underlying thing. You have to have people who are passionate and want to engage with others about what we’re doing at One Eight. As we grow and start to have a larger geographical footprint, skills in both the production and sales and marketing and events, and just general management skills. Right now, we’re looking for passion.
What are your long term goals for One Eight Distilling?
Alex: As a young distillery, we have great clear spirits and unaged spirits. We’re also passionate about our aged whiskeys that will begin to hit the market in the wintertime, and we’ll continue to expand from there. Our production is focused on the whiskey. At the same time, we’ll be able to grow the sales footprint of One Eight Distillery to 20 to 25 states, as well as be able to distribute in Europe and Asia within five to seven years.
What advice do you have for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Sandy: People who care about what you do and who bring skills that might not be on your initial checklist can bring so much more to your company than you originally imagined. Among our six employees, we’ve got a former attorney, a former biotech worker, a former farmer, a fisherman, and then one person has extensive experience in the business of spirits. So it’s a pretty diverse mix, and that’s been great, because each person has some perspective that the others totally lack.
Alex: I’ll add that at a business like this, it’s much more than a job. There’s definitely weeks where the hours are insane, and it’s a physically demanding job on the production side. So if you’re imagining that starting a new company will be like a regular job, it’s not going to work. You have to be so passionate about it; otherwise it would be too overwhelming. It’s beyond a job, but that can be fun and exciting.