There's nothing like a good, old-fashioned entrepreneur origin story! The real kind, not the ones you'll find in Forbes or FastCompany, workshopped to death by PR and probably mostly if not entirely fake.
It's why, despite the man himself being an entire trash barge of garbage (bargage?), I love Henry Ford's biography.
But we're not here to talk about Ford. Today we're here to talk about Tito's Handmade Vodka, invented by — this is not a joke — a man named Tito Beveridge. BEVERIDGE!
Because I recently discovered that he wrote up his origin story on this charmingly retro personal site!
Let's dive in…
I got into the oil and gas business and did that in Texas and then down in Venezuela and Colombia…
…started a drilling company in Houston, got tired of chasing the buck and decided to move back to Austin, TX
I did ground water geology here and got in the mortgage business…
I started making flavored vodka for my friends for Christmas presents…
… a stranger came up to me and said ‘Hey you’re the vodka guy’ and I was like no, contraire, I am the mortgage guy
So, first off: this is an "older" entrepreneur with a highly varied background. This is typical of successful founders.
A lot of folks (especially in the startup/VC world) will try to convince you it's not, that you have to have a certain — homogeneous — background to succeed, and if you don't, too bad so sad.
Nothing could be further from the truth!
The push for carbon copy founders straight out of Stanford isn't evidence-based. Truly, this myth is the result of VCs refusing to admit they don't actually know what works, so they have to develop the world's most pathetic appeal-to-authority box-ticking rubric. ("I can be fooled by anyone who looks like Mark Zuckerberg," Paul Graham actually dared to commit to paper, and lamentably is not famous for saying. Yikes on bikes.)
Varied experience is raw construction material for success.
Tito is also telling us that he's a guy who scented opportunity in the air, felt the predominant flow, and followed it. Just like that old trick of licking your finger to figure out which way the wind is blowing. You can sail against the wind, for sure, but it's a lot easier to sail with it.
So when rates went up a couple points in the mortgage business I started going to liquor stores and ask guys if they’d buy my flavored vodkas, they said “No, go look at all the dust on the shoulders of those bottles there”. Then they said but if I could make it where it was smooth where you could drink straight then I might have something.
This is customer research and Sales Safari.
It may not sound like it — it isn't on forums or in communities — but it absolutely is. The bottles have dust on them: they're not selling. Therefore the potential buyer (the liquor stores) says they're not buying.
And the liquor stores (again: this would be the actual customer) also knew there was a pain point preventing more vodka sales for them: that shit burned.
Notably, Tito did not ask a trusted friend who may be an entrepreneur but had nothing to do with vodka, nor did he pay to go to beverage industry events and try to pitch distributors. Those would be far too far removed from the actual money. Liquor stores know what sells. This is boots-on-ground stuff.
We bought every vodka that was on the shelf, we put them in little kerr jars and tasted all of them and came up with the two best ones. When mine beat the other two best ones then I figured that I had my formula right.
I don't have to explain this part, do I?
The product is good. He set out to kill a pain point — a literal one, in this case, in the throat. His product went through many revisions. It was tested. He didn't fall prey to ego and the endowment effect; the tests were blinded. It took trial and error.
But the major key here is, the product did something the end customer would want, giving the immediate customer — the store — a reason to buy.
I’d go out and make it and sell it and come back and make some more and you know I was sleeping next to the still and you know just kind of boot-strapped it up
Tito was a founder doing sales and support: the most valuable form of market research there is. The more removed you are from the customer, the less you'll understand them, the shorter your horizon (at least, the real one, not an imaginary destination), the more off-course you'll go.
This direct contact is precious beyond measure, and yet so many founders can't wait to hire it out and lose touch.
And then at one point we’d gotten a phone call to come to the World Spirits Competition and I was fixing a boiler so I just sent a couple bottles there and we ended up getting the double gold medal, the unanimous judges choice. And that was up against 72 vodkas around the world including flavored vodkas. That kind of you know, helped spur things along.
The most powerful form of marketing is word of mouth; word of mouth comes from direct experience, which creates trust. Alex and I teach founders to build direct experience and trust with ebombs, a higher-order form of content marketing.
But, you know there's another, older meaning for content? Put simply: The stuff inside a thing. In this case, vodka inside of tasting cups at a world-renowned industry event.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating… and that's the operating principle behind content that serves as a sample for what's in store if you buy.
Tito even says so himself (and believe it or not, I wrote the foregoing section before finishing this one):
It’s really been a dream come true for me and it’s really due to all the word of mouth that we’ve gotten. It’s all pretty much just been from people going into liquor stores and bars and asking for it.
There you have it.
No product sells itself. But if you create a product that the audience will really love? Direct experience with the product will help you sell it, thanks to delivering on the promise, which means building trust, which creates word of mouth.
This is why Alex and I always say that good marketing isn't something you slap on top of a product, it's like a tiny product itself. A taste, not a meal. A mouthful, not a bottle.
So, while Tito's Handmade Vodka absolutely isn't a 30x500 business, it's about as close as you can get without being one. Because watching & reading & experiencing entrepreneurial stories like this helped me design 30x500.