There's always room for one more product, don't you think? I'm amazed at how product marketers keep reinventing everything from toothbrushes to dish soap to perfume to jeans to yogurt to artificial sugar for your coffee -- with vitamins in it!
So why not super-premium tequila? That's what Ken Austin asked himself. Austin, 46, was one of the founders of Marquis Jet, and before that spent over a decade with Seagram and E&J Gallo Winery. Austin has long had a thing for really good tequila. The kind that doesn't burn your insides and require chasing with a beer. There's already a dominant brand in the super-premium ($40-$60 a bottle) category -- the ubiquitous Patron. But try naming the number two super-premium tequila brand. You probably can't, because there isn't one that's even close to Patron.
Not having a major second-place player doesn't make creating a new tequila a slam-dunk. The liquor market is a mature, highly competitive, highly regulated arena with all kinds of barriers to entry. Austin got in anyway, and started Tequila Avion in 2009. He is fueled by what he calls his "insane DNA." And, as any entrepreneur knows, a little insanity definitely helps.
Lesson Number One from Austin: Ignore "Them." Everyone will tell you that you're nuts when you want to start a company, and "they" are of course correct. Austin had money from his success in the liquor business and Marquis Jet. He could have coasted and sipped other peoples' tequila for the rest of his life. So he started by ignoring the people who said, "But what do you know about the tequila business?" He learned a lot from working for and with Ernest Gallo and then at Seagram, but that was as an executive running field operations, not as a CEO. All he really knew when he decided to start Tequila Avion was that there was only one really good, highly developed brand in the space.
"I knew nothing about making glass, corks, about federal label registrations. I was a total neophyte on the back end of the business," he says. So, like any insane entrepreneur would have done, he said to his wife, "Honey, I'm going to Mexico." She went along with his plans (did she have a choice?) and he started visiting distilleries in search of a company that would make Avion according to his recipe and specific filtration requirements. "I found people with the best agave plants, grown in the highlands, where the agave is sweeter," Austin notes.
Lesson Number Two: "Visualize the end zone." Austin says his goal with Avion, now in its second year in business, is not primarily about money. His goal is to create an "iconic brand that lasts 100 years." Tell that to investors and others and "they" will say you're even more insane! Create an iconic brand? How the heck do you do that?
One way to get a brand going is to create some serious buzz. Through his being a top exec of Marquis Jet, Austin had his share of celebrity clients and leveraged a relationship with the creator of the HBO series Entourage. to feature Avion in the series's plot. The writers wrote it into the story line -- at no cost to Austin's company. The branding was so successful that many people thought Avion was a fake brand invented just for the show. The company had to resort to skywriting in Hollywood during the Grammy Awards: "Avion Tequila....Yes it's Real." The thing that really convinced the public Avion wasn't fake was when it won a Double Gold award at the 2011 San Francisco World Spirits Competition.
But even getting onto Entourage doesn't guarantee success, and Avion's launch hasn't been without its bumps. The product officially launched in July 2010, which Austin concedes was bad timing since tequila is a somewhat seasonal (summer) drink. The company launched in New York and California initially and, Austin says, and did not have national distribution and promotional programs in place. Earlier this year, though, the company concluded a national distribution and investment agreement with Pernod Ricard to assure Avion's broad availability.
Austin offers a bit more advice for entrepreneurs:
- "It's important to listen to other people, but as an entrepreneur you have to listen to yourself more than anyone. Everyone told me I would never break in to the business."
- "Never quit. When you think it's over, fight harder. Avion is going to be big because I'm going to make it big."
- "Don't breathe your own vapors too much. If something is wrong, you've got to change."