Q&A with Thought Leader Chris Joseph, Founder of Wild Roots Spirits
Chris Joseph always had the sense he would build his own great company. But even he has been surprised by the trajectory of his craft spirits brand, Wild Roots. “We’ve been chasing our growth for six years,” said Jospeh. “And we’re still doing it.”
Chris shares how he found the direction for Wild Roots; how he uses customer feedback to develop new products, and his approach to testing the market. He also shares how he grew his brand from a passion project into a growth company that is disrupting the 25 billion dollar US vodka market.
In this post from our Q&A series Noah Koff interviews innovators and risk-takers to draw on their approaches and insights. The following interview has been edited for clarity. We hope you find it valuable and welcome your comments.
What did your parents do for work?
My dad owns a company that installs communication devices and recording devices in prisons and government facilities. My mom did retail banking, then she raised me and my brother and two sisters.
Was there a life event, or experience, that influenced your focus in business today?
You know, it's really growing up and seeing my dad being a business owner. A lot of my uncles are either executives or started their own business too, so I saw a lot of that growing up and I knew it was something I wanted to get into. I worked for some corporate companies: Bank of America, Dick's Sporting Goods, 24 Hour Fitness and Verizon. Although those are all great companies, and create a lot of jobs and opportunities for a lot of people, I knew that wasn't what I wanted to do.
‘I didn't want to build some other business owner's dreams because I'd rather build my own.’
What was your first job as a kid, before you got into the corporate scene?
My first job was berry picking and working in farms, because I grew up in Sandy and everyone has farms out there. Then I worked for my dad, going into prisons and doing install jobs.
For folks who are unfamiliar with Wild Roots, tell us about it
Wild Roots is a Pacific northwest distillery. We have a wide variety of different fruit infused vodkas, everything from raspberry, to marionberry, pear, huckleberry and peach. There's no artificial flavoring, coloring or additives in our products. It's just all real fruit.
How did you end up creating Wild Roots?
It was something I started in college, when it was more of a hobby, and I gave it to friends and family. Then before finishing school, I decided to commercialize the idea. I looked at the market for liquor, and even though it's an over-saturated market, I spotted a hole. There was no all natural, locally sourced, fruit company. We decided to launch one, despite not really having a ton of experience in liquor. I decided to give it a shot.
How important is taste in your products?
Taste is everything.
How do you involve your customers in creating your products?
We pay attention to customer emails. And when we do tasting events they say, "Hey, have you guys ever thought of this?" We listen to this feedback. Peach and pear were probably the number one requested products that led to those product releases. And huckleberry, it’s one that we never thought we’d be doing. It was asked for so many times at events, that we ended up making it.
What have you learned from your customers? What have they shared with you about what they like most about your product?
They appreciate the honesty behind the brand, that we're not trying to put a bunch of different flavors in to make a raspberry. That our product is real, actual raspberry, and real pear — customers appreciate that it's true and simple. They also like that we’ve made a product that’s easy to make a good cocktail with. They'll drink it and then they're really just flabbergasted that it's 70 proof vodka. Sometimes, it takes them a while to believe that it’s vodka.
Why spirits? What about the category motivated you to get into this business?
I like the craft scene. I looked at beer, cider, spirits, whiskey and vodka — there's a lot of different options. One thing that goes really well with our local fruit here is vodka. So that's why I focused on it. Spirits are a good opportunity and, looking at the market, it’s an opportunity to connect with consumers and give them a product they enjoy.
How do you reach new customers?
We started the company doing events. I launched at the Portland Berry Festival. We did a ton of Farmers markets. We took advantage of the rules and laws in Oregon changing when we launched, where you can sample and sell at Farmers markets. That's where we really hit most of our customers, and we continue to do it that way. We do all sorts of different events where consumers will be at — Crafty Wonderland, and the Christmas Bazaar, to sportsman shows and cheese festivals. It helps us to educate them about our brand and our products.
How important is recipe and food related content to build a relationship with your customers?
It's important. It's great to know what you can do with your product. If I buy a vodka, I'm always looking to try something new with it. Customers share their recipes with us and we put them in our brochures. Bartenders who use our products also give us great suggestions.
Knowing what you know now, if you were to start over today, and do this all over again, is there anything you'd do differently?
Starting a business and not having really any real work experience or background knowledge, other than doing your own research from reading books, leaves you open to make a lot of mistakes. The growing pains for us have been not having the right contacts in our local community, to not scoping out our property to make sure it works.
Our packaging is something that I wish I would have had more knowledge about, we've changed it four times. Some of the changes have been subtle and we’ve also done a complete bottle change. Our first packaging was a wide bottle, which was hard to hold in one hand. When your focusing on bars and restaurants, you want to make sure the bottle is an easy pour - so you can grab it with one hand, pour, and make quick cocktails.
Regarding capital, and financing, and bootstrapping versus taking money, what have you learned?
‘We’ve been chasing our growth for six years — and we’re still doing it. And we're doing all of this without raising capital.’
I think, in this industry, it's easy to spend a ton of money really quickly. We started the company with $50,000, which is not a lot in this industry. Our game plan was to launch with a co-packer, a private manufacturer. We did that so we could focus on marketing and building our brand. It really allowed us to test the market to see if it would work. It allowed us to tweak things to make it work better in the market. Personally, would I start a company again with $50,000? Probably not.
Endless nights of work. Although, I’m still young, that’s just tough. The benefit of building a team for me is, you can take a start-up from a garage into a big company.
‘It starts with building a team. If you don’t have money, you have to be creative.’
What are the disruptors impacting your business?
A lot of people are lowering their prices right now and that's something we haven't done. A big one is with the cost of materials, since we purchase our glass, and the price has gone up quite a bit. Then there’s competition from big brands, some using the botanical, real fruit type of look. There's even distilleries down the street that are trying to get something close to our products. At the end of the day, we're Wild Roots, we've built this brand first and I'm confident in our brand.
What's your favorite cocktail that you like to serve currently?
I stick to the basics. I like raspberry with lemonade, huckleberry with lemonade, marionberry with lemonade. Otherwise it's just vodka and ginger beer.