Irish International Business Week recently interviewed our Managing Director Laura Bonner about her background and the journey to starting her own liquor company. You can read the full interview in detail below.
- Give a brief description of your company.
The Muff Liquor Company produces award winning premium potato based Irish spirits. Named after the village Muff in Co Donegal. We launched in February 2018 with “Muff Gin” and shortly after in November the released “Muff Vodka” and plans to release Muff Whiskey next.
- How did you get the idea/ concept for your business?
My Grandad Philip McClenaghan was a potato farmer who made poitín in his barn and from the age of 19 I became obsessed with the idea of making it into a business; he truly inspired me and that is why his image is on the back of the bottles with a dedicated poem.
- Give a brief account of your education background.
I started off in Carndonagh community school and then transferred to boarding school- The Sligo Grammar. I studied law in Dublin, I knew that wasn’t for me and then decided to do a post grad in Public Relations.
- Did you always know/ ever think you would become an entrepreneur when you were younger?
To be honest, yes. Although it took me 12 years to actually start my business from when I had the idea. I always knew I was going to do what I’m doing now. I believe the route I took was meant for me and it’s all about right timing.
- Is entrepreneurship a common trait in your family?
Yes. My Father, two brothers and sister are all successful entrepreneurs so it’s in the blood for sure. I’m a late one so I grew up with strong, ambitious, determined people constantly around me. I saw the good and the bad and was taught the value of hard work, the value of money and good ethics.
- Did you have prior knowledge of the industry before setting up your company?
I hadn’t a clue. I think people thought just because I launched this business that I had a wealth of knowledge but I didn’t. I had a dream and passion; and the determination to make it a successful business that I studied and learnt as I went along; I’m still learning now. I would easily say in a meeting “what does that mean?” “Sorry could you explain that to me” some people would snigger, but I would reply “If you tell me now I’ll know and never ask again”. I believe in surrounding yourself with good people and something great will happen and I’ve done that.
- What was your previous work experience (if any)? Do you think this gave you an advantage when setting up your business?
I graduated in 2008 and Ireland was in a recession. I was given a few intern roles in Dublin but was never going to survive on working for free so when I was offered a job through a friend of a friend in London who was setting up an estate agency I took it. I started off in lettings on 10k per annual. In the six years that I was in London I climbed the corporate ladder, I joined Colliers International, one of the leading estate agency in the world and was promoted to Associate Director. I had great mentoring from senior level who taught me so much about leadership and handling difficult situations; I also was given my first team to manage, luckily, they respected me so they took it easy on me for the first few months until I found my feet. I then got head hunted by an Australian property investment business who had over 300 agents across 17 offices throughout China that were selling property in the UK. I travelled to China quite a bit and was promoted to Sales Director UK. I believe everything I experienced has helped me become the business owner I am today.
- How did you initially fund your business? (self-funded, government funding, etc)
We have self-funded to date. We start crowdfunding in 3 weeks time which we’re excited about. We tried to get government funding and a loan from the banks but to no avail.
- Looking back, would you have changed the method of funding you chose?
No, we’ve done it by ourselves and we could continue doing what we are doing but to help take us to the next level globally we need a cash injection to fulfil our contracts for next year. it’s been difficult but I think going through the struggle we’ll appreciate it all so much more when we get it and we learned so much.
- What difficulties, if any, did you encounter when securing funding?
We got turned down mainly because we have only been trading for 18 months. We were told to apply again in 6 months time. We also got turned down for not having land or assets other than our personal homes as guarantees which for any start up to have what they ask for is unrealistic.
- Did you encounter any financial difficulties in the first year of operation? If yes, what did you do to surpass them?
No, not really. Our main issue we had/have is we have no credit line with our suppliers so we have to pay for everything as soon as we place the order so say glass, corks, labels etc and without having everything we don’t have a finished product so cannot sell. Our customers then have anything from 30 days to 120 days to settle their invoices so balancing the cashflow has been difficult.
- What characteristics do you feel benefited you most when starting your business?
Belief. I believe in myself. I believe in my business and I believe in my team. Having no ego and admitting you don’t understand something or apologizing when you’re in the wrong is important. Following your gut is crucial, there has been times when I had turned down contracts in 20 seconds after meeting people which drives my business partner mad (laughing) Be determine every day, even when you feel you are been constantly challenged. Be kind, I don’t believe you have to be a ball breaker to be successful or respected in business; and appreciate your team. No one gets anywhere in life on their own so be nice to people who are on your journey and be grateful every day.
- To what do you attribute your company’s success/growth to?
The product themselves, most white spirits are made from grain; our are made from potatoes. They are gluten free, vegan friendly and are suitable for coeliacs. We distill our liquid six times; one more than most premium spirits. Our liquid is clean and crisp. The botanicals we add to our gin are 100% natural. Since we launched we have won numerous blind tasting competitions in Las Vegas, Hong Kong and the UK and also our name is cheeky and memorable!
As for personal growth myself and the team practice daily mediation, yoga, group therapy sessions, team building with Gerry Hussey and weekly catch ups. I believe having happy and healthy staff is key is growing a successful business. Like anything that grows, it starts with the roots.
- What is your opinion on the importance of a professional network for an entrepreneur?
I haven’t met one entrepreneur who has said it’s been easy from day one which is refreshing to hear when you think you are the only one failing. When you are a business owner and you share with your love ones that today was difficult they panic and think that’s it, they are going to fail so having the same like-minded people around you helps a lot plus they are more willing to help with introducing you to people they may know because they appreciate the struggle that it is.
- Do you think entrepreneurship has changed in recent years?
No not really. If you read or watch interviews from successful entrepreneurs throughout the years they all tell the same story in their own version. The dream, the belief, the struggle, the rewards. You either have it or you don’t.
- Would you ever consider starting another company or involving yourself in new start-ups again?
Yes, absolutely. I have a few personal ideas I would like to do later down the line and I’d love to be in a position one day that I could offer funding to people who have great ideas and no access to funding. If it creates jobs, then I’m all in!
- If you had one piece of advice for a new entrepreneur, what would it be?
When something doesn’t go your way, know that it’s just part of the process and to keep going. Don’t go to your loved ones for advice, they love you and want to protect you so will tell you to go back to what you know you’re good at or say you’re fine just as you are. Surround yourself with winners. Successful people. The game changers. Reach out to those people and know if you had the courage to start it, you have the courage to continue. Do not let anyone stand in your way.
I read once that FAIL stands for First Attempt In Learning. That’s NO stands for Next Opportunity and that’s how I look at things now. Nothing is failure, just a lesson.