This interview series features inspiring female entrepreneurs who have launched and run successful businesses. Through our peers’ experiences, we can learn practical lessons and insights to empower us on our entrepreneurial paths. Crucially, storytelling de-risks entrepreneurship so we believe it is an essential pillar in closing the opportunity gap for female founders.
- Finally taking the leap and committing to her new, exciting business
- The challenges of finding the right investors and working in a remote location
- Being a woman in the whisky industry
Hello Annabel! Tell us a bit about you.
I’m Annabel, I’m the CEO and Founder of Ncn’ean. I live in London with my husband and 1 year old daughter but spend every third week on the west coast of Scotland at the distillery. I studied history at university, then had a job for eight years at Bain & Company as a strategy consultant, including a year and a bit working in innovation for innocent drinks, before leaving to setup the distillery in 2013. The things I love most in the world are food and drink, sustainability and being outdoors, especially if it involves exercise.
Tell us about your business, Ncn’ean.
We are a young, independent, organic whisky distillery on the west coast of Scotland. We are focused on two things: making whisky as sustainably as possible and thinking about what is a very traditional product and industry with a new and creative approach. What that means in reality is that all our products are organic, we only use renewable energy, our waste is recycled to the farm that the distillery is on. And in making the whisky, we like to try new things – so we experiment with different yeasts, we’ve produced a Botanical Spirit based on our unaged whisky, and many more experiments to come!
We are based in a very remote but beautiful location, which is both a positive and a challenge. I have a small team of five who work at the distillery doing everything from chipping wood for the boiler, making the whisky and showing visitors around.
We are still very early in our journey (although I’ve been working on it for six years already!): our future whisky is still maturing in our warehouses (it has to be at least 3 years old before we can release it as whisky), and will finally be released in June 2020. That almost feels like it will be the beginning of stage two of our development, when we finally release our whisky creations for the world.
What was the moment that everything changed for you? Describe that moment when you decided to fully commit to your idea and the first few steps you took to make it possible.
I decided to fully commit when my father and I had been working on the plans ‘on the side of our desks’ for 6 months and we realised we were making very slow progress. It was just too much work to do like that. I thought ‘well I’m never going to get the chance to start a whisky distillery again’, I talked to my husband about it and then jumped in head first. I think if I’d thought about it too much I might have chickened out!
Making whisky is a REALLY long journey, and also very expensive, so we knew the first steps were going to involve raising money. So my first job was to get some seed funding and work on developing the physical plans for the distillery (getting planning permission and so on) and creating our brand.
What were the initial challenges you came up across and how did you overcome them?
The two early challenges were raising money and then getting the distillery built in such a remote location. Raising money just took perseverance and patience. It was the most difficult bit of the whole process to date, as until all the money was really in the bank, you never knew whether you’d make it or not. We were very lucky in the end to find a group of shareholders who shared a vision for what we were trying to create and understand that it takes time to build a business like this.
What was the first win that made you feel you were onto something?
The first time we knew for sure is when we released our first product, a Botanical Spirit. It had taken us a year to develop it (and it wasn’t even in the original business plan!) but the trade and consumer reaction to it has been fantastic, we were listed in the top 10 innovative spirit releases of 2018 by the Spirits Business, and that really felt like great validation of everything we’d been working on. And of course before you have a product, it’s hard to get that feedback in any real way, so we’ve had to wait a long time to get that feedback! Now that we have 2 year-old “nearly whisky”, we’ve been doing some tastings of that as well, and we’ve been getting great feedback which bodes well for launch next year.
Did you take the investment route for your business or are you self-funded? Can you share some insights on your decision and the process?
Definitely investment, because we needed to raise £7.5 million just to build the distillery and run it for the first three years before the whisky was ready to launch. So the decision was really made for us – it’s the reality of being in a business like whisky which has a really high upfront capital investment. The process was painful, because it’s like searching for a needle in a haystack to find the right investor for your business, and you never know if you’ll find that needle. Psychologically, it was definitely the hardest thing I’ve done, especially as I was transitioning at the same time from being in a buzzy high energy office with loads of people to working on my own at home.
What has been your best investment?
I think finding the right brand agency to translate what we knew we wanted the business to be into a visual look and feel that represented that. It was tough at the time because we discarded the first brand we’d developed back in 2013 (which never saw the light of day) and started afresh in 2016/2017, but it was definitely the right answer in retrospect.
Have you made any mistakes or faux pas? If so, can you share with us?
So many! Where to start?! We made loads of mistakes whilst we were building the distillery – from not having the right advisory team structure in place, to having issues lining our cooling pond, to trying to get lorries down a small road that were way too big for it. More recently, we’ve made a couple of HMRC faux pas as well – easy to do in such a highly regulated industry as alcohol – but they have been very understanding that we are just starting and learning the ropes and we got away with a “don’t do it again”. More recently, we were featured on ITV’s Sunday Brunch and whilst we knew our product would be featured, we had no idea what an impact it would have had – our website crashed and we were generally completely unprepared – a lesson for next time! We also didn’t realise how hard people would find it to pronounce our name (which is said Nc-knee-anne for anyone interested, Nc is the female equivalent of Mc -it means Daughter of / Son of…). We’re just looking at whether we can change it to make it a bit easier!
What’s been the greatest lesson you’ve learnt since starting your own business?
To trust my instincts more. I think to begin with I thought there must be other people on the board or out there that knew better than I did, but actually, that is not always the case. Yes, they do on certain more technical things (like finance or how to sell to bars) but on things that concern who the company is, or what we do, or what products we develop, if you are a young and agile company you just have to take a leap of faith and do things sometimes.
Have you had any role models or mentors along the way?
Yes definitely. I think it’s impossible to do without mentors or support of some kind. There are two people on our board who have provided a lot of support – Benet Slay who is our chairman and ex-Diageo has been completely invaluable on the sales & marketing side of the business, and my father, Derek Lewis, who is also on the board is involved across the business but is particularly so on the practical side of things at the distillery.
What’s your experience of being a woman in the start-up ecosystem and what in your mind needs to change?
My experience is quite specific because I’m in the whisky industry, which is just totally full of gender stereotypes. The number of people that ask me ‘do you actually like whisky’ is bizarre. Having said that, there is some advantage to it – I think I look at things from a different perspective to our competitors and perhaps people remember me more!
We’ve also just run our first internship for two women to come and work at the distillery for a week as our small contribution to trying to change gender stereotypes and encourage more women to think about a career in the industry. We were completely overwhelmed by the number of applicants we had, so there is definitely a need for it – and we hope we’ll be able to run it again next year.
Beyond the whisky industry, I don’t think I’ve had any experiences in the broader ecosystem that have been influenced by being a woman, generally, I think everyone is pretty forward-thinking and accepting.
What can we do to support your business?
Ask for our Botanical Spirit in bars and retailers, follow us on Instagram and buy a bottle for yourself or when you need a gift for whisky/gin-loving friends or family!
What books, podcasts or resources would you recommend?
Most of the time I prefer to read fiction or magazines that aren’t related to work (Positive News is a particular favourite at the moment as an antidote to the rest of the news!). But I do also dip into podcasts and books for inspiration, particularly stories of other people who’ve created their own businesses or achieved fantastic things. Particular favourites this year have been: Michelle Obama’s autobiography (I listened to the audio book version on my long journeys to the distillery, narrated by Michelle herself), Emily Eavis and Lubaina Himid on Desert Island Discs, How I Built This podcast and Secret Leaders podcast. I also found John Timpson’s ‘Upside Down Management’ a totally fascinating story with many valuable lessons.
What advice would you give anyone about to start a business?
Don’t trust the ‘outside’ version of what it looks like. Find someone who you trust and who trusts you and ask them what it is really like. I know it sounds obvious, but I think this kind of mysticism has grown up around starting your own business and it doesn’t all smell of roses. There are massive benefits, but also huge downsides and stresses, that are not always obvious from the outside, and social media does a great job of making it all look wonderful.
How can readers get in touch with you?
You’ll mostly find us on instagram but also on facebook and twitter. Or drop us an email (firstname.lastname@example.org), or even better, come to the west coast of Scotland for an adventure to the distillery itself! Anyone who makes it that far is welcomed with open arms!
Thank you Annabel! – Lara
About the Author
Indiana Julian is the Blog Editor for Found & Flourish, working with Co-Founder Lara Sheldrake to ensure every piece of published content is empowering, inspiring and well presented, just like the women we work with.
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