The founder of Conker Spirit embarked on a journey leaving his hard hat and hi-vis jacket behind in a leap to build Dorset’s first gin distillery.
At 28 Rupert Holloway was working as a charted surveyor when he realised he felt uninspired and miserable so began gin tasting around his kitchen table.
Business Advice caught up with Holloway to find out what made him give up the day job and how he managed to stock his gin in Marco Pierre White’s restaurants.
Who are you and what is your business?
My name is Rupert Holloway. I am founder and ‘Head Conkerer’ at Conker Spirit, Dorset’s first gin distillery. We distil our Dorset Dry Gin in small batches using ten botanicals, including gorse flowers hand foraged from the local area. Last year we wanted to expand our offerings and instead of going down the well-trodden route of flavoured gins, we decided to do something completely different and launched a cold brew coffee liqueur – Conker Cold Brew.
How did you come up with the concept?
At the age of 28, I realised that I no-longer wanted to carry on pursuing my career as a chartered surveyor – the job had not made me smile in years. I knew I wanted to work for myself, and at the same time I saw craft drinks rising in popularity. But whilst you could go to any bar and find a number of brilliant local craft ales and ciders when it came to gin you mostly had a big green or blue bottle to choose from. I was a long-time gin lover in a county with no gin distilleries so as I saw it there was a clear gap in the market for a quality Dorset craft gin. I was so convinced that if I didn’t launch Dorset’s first gin distillery then someone else would – and so the journey to launch began.
What was key in terms of getting started?
Conker was an incredibly lean start-up. I sold my car for £6k and made up the rest with a £10k Start Up Loan, a £10k Grant, and a combination of credit cards and scrounging off friends and family. We grew organically – investing in a new kit at the distillery as the sales grew. Then it got to the point when I realised that I had to give up the day job in order to get Conker to the next stage, and that was a big step. Sometimes the only thing stopping you from starting something new is fear. I had to overcome my own fears and leave a career where I had walked along the safe road for years. Once I had done that I could move forward, and I am so glad I did.
What makes the business unique?
Both the Dorset Dry Gin and Conker Cold Brew are the labour of endless tinkering to get the perfect taste. Conker Cold Brew in its final form is in fact recipe number 96, which is reflected on the bottle. We use locally sourced ingredients and distil them carefully in small batches and that’s it; No gimmicks. No fuss. Just great drinks.
What were some of the biggest challenges you faced when launching?
This is always a hard question, mostly because it’s all a struggle but also because when you are running your own business it helps to have a short memory when it comes to the pain. In the year I spent trying to set up the distillery, I spent a month fitting out a building which ended falling through. That low point didn’t last long mind you; after about 10 minutes of sulking, I jumped on Gumtree and found a perfect unit in my hometown in Southbourne. We are still there now distilling 1000 bottles a week.
What’s your biggest achievement to date?
When I started Conker Spirit I knew there would be very little separation between work and life, which can at times be exhausting. But I have always been happy to keep on going in the knowledge that instead of spending my days working for someone else, every single decision I make is all about the life I am building for myself and my family. For me that is a massive personal achievement.
Something else happened recently which also stands out. We had a call from Marco Pierre White, and he now has our Dorset Dry gin and Cold Brew coffee liqueur in his 50 restaurants across the UK. That was a pretty great moment, which the team celebrated with a Conker G&T, naturally.
Describe your marketing technique – what strategies have you used?
The internet has been absolutely crucial to us. Simply put, Conker wouldn’t have happened without it, and in the early days that was the only marketing we could afford. I think being connected with the people behind a brand is very powerful; it’s more authentic and makes people more invested in a brand’s journey. We’ve coined the phrase ‘transparency is our marketing’, meaning that all we do is show people what we do day to day, rather than cooking up some marketing around a boardroom table. We simply use our social media channels to give a little window into the life of a Conkerer. Once the business was starting to grow, we took on a PR firm which put Conker in most of the mainstream media, which of course had a big impact.
In five years’ time, I will be…
Happy in my work. As each day passes Conker grows and becomes bigger, more challenging and moves away from the one-man-band start up that I ditched the day job for. So every day I work to make sure that Conker is the company I want it to be.
Who are your business heroes and why?
There is a guy called Scott Harrison who founded Charity: Water to end world’s water crisis. He has flipped ‘charity’ on its head to create a meaningful, transparent and modern organization that has already brought over seven million people out of water poverty. Scott could have built a private company to make himself a lot of money, but instead he founded one of the most progressive and effective charities out there.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
Anything can be learnt. Thanks to modern technology, you can find the answer to just about any question with a couple of taps on your phone. This means a lack of knowledge is no longer a barrier to starting a business – the only hindrance now is your dedication to learning.
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