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A Woman's Entrepreneurial Journey: Austin Cocktails

A craft beverage infused with childhood memories

A mojito with rosemary

Kelly Gasink, together with her sister, Jill Burns, founded Austin Cocktails, a maker of bottled, craft cocktails in 2012.

With a successful entrepreneurial father, who sold trading platforms for hedge funds and is now retired, Kelly believes it was almost inevitable that she and her sister would create a company together. She is sure their father had ups and downs in his business but she never saw them. When Kelly was about five, her mother decided to stay at home as a full- time mom.

Another childhood memory comes from their grandfather Fred, a hardworking Minnesota farmer. When the family came for summer vacations, every night he would make cocktails for the adults and “mocktails” such as Shirley Temples for the kids. The sisters came to understand much later this was definitively their grandfather’s way of making time for joy and connection. Their belief is that coming of age in rural America in the 1940s made him appreciate that one had to make time amidst life’s many struggles and ups and downs for the things that really matter in life. To him, the “things” that mattered were not things, but moments of joy and connection.

Women’s Entrepreneurial Journeys

Small Steps Lead to Big Things

Kelly Gasink, Co-Founder of Austin Cocktails

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Please see important information at the end of this program.  Recorded on April 18, 2018

 

MS. KELLY GASINK:   I’m Kelly Gasink I am co-founder of Austin Cocktails and we started Austin Cocktails on the idea that the time had come for a really beautiful craft cocktail to be as easy as nice beer or nice wines.

Right after college I actually ended up starting or becoming a co-founder of one software company that ultimately spun out and started a second software company and each of those were bought by publicly traded companies so I think that the main thing for me there I got access into the knowledge that big, big things are built through the accumulation of just really small steps.

Jill is my sister and she and I had always wanted to work together. And we were literally in our parent’s kitchen and we were making cocktails and we kind of just said really casually “We should sell these, they’re so good and they are such a pain to make.” And that’s really like the moment that Austin Cocktails was born.

It was actually inspired in large part by this tradition that was started by our grandfather, which he called cocktail time and that was to drop everything at five o'clock on summer nights and to have a cocktail with everyone around you.

So it inspired this lifelong love affair of cocktails, and that was the big piece of it.  It was a long journey filled with lots of uncertainty. I think whatever we knew or thought we knew there is nothing like getting in the thick of things and figuring it out. Inefficacies and rejection are a part of it no matter your gender. And I think at this stage I can look at critique and rejection as kind the exactly the things I need to endure to be the leader that my company needs.

 

 

 

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A strong student, Kelly graduated second in her high school class and later attended Stanford, where she majored in economics and Latin American studies. She graduated in 1997, just as the technology industry was booming and investors were “throwing money” at young people, particularly in Silicon Valley.

"Her first start-up was in Silicon Valley."

After graduating from Stanford, Kelly’s first job was with a bank. Very soon, though, “some classmates asked me to help create a company offering software solutions for high-speed internet service in hotels and apartment buildings,” she says. A publicly traded corporation soon bought that business, and Kelly’s company created and sold a second software company as well.

Kelly then decided to pursue a Master’s degree in public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government — and her first class was on the morning of 9/11. Nevertheless, she says, it was a stimulating time to study public policy alongside so many brilliant people with broad- ranging perspectives on geopolitics. After she received her Master’s, Kelly and her husband moved to Washington D.C., where she did economic policy for two high profile political campaigns. The couple quickly discovered, however, that Washington and policy work didn’t suit them.

As Kelly and her husband contemplated next steps, her father called proposing they leverage their combined macroeconomic, finance and company-building backgrounds to build a fund of hedge funds. The couple thought the timing was ripe and they were excited about an opportunity that would bring them back to their friends and family in the Bay Area. They moved back to San Francisco and, in 2005, began the process of building and managing a portfolio of hedge funds.

Kelly values her husband’s partnership in both her personal and professional journey. “Having grown up with three sisters, he always saw women as co-equals,” she says. After their two children were born, the couple moved to Austin, TX, in 2011. She was still working in finance but was not totally happy with her work. She needed this first stage of life to understand who she was and to settle with her family, she says. By 37, she felt she had navigated through the transition of young parenthood and knew she could be both a great parent and a great entrepreneur and that one did not have to come at the expense of the other. She began to feel she was coming into her professional and personal prime.

Cheers

Kelly remembers when the idea for Austin Cocktails was born. It was the summer of 2011, and she was socializing with her sister and friends. “Jill and I were doing what we always did together, we were in the kitchen making drinks,” she says. “I turned to her and said, ‘Cocktails are such a pain to make well. We should bottle ours for others.’”

They discussed the possibility through dinner and started serious analysis the next day. As Kelly says, “An incredible amount of stars aligned for us to come up, and move forward, with this idea.” They both had entrepreneurial experience, Kelly with two software companies and a hedge fund and her sister with a marketing and public relations outfit she had founded.

By February 2012, they felt they had a solid idea of what they wanted to do and launched Austin Cocktails. She wound down her fund and her sister quit her job. In hindsight, they thought they had done a deep dive into understanding the industry and business case before quitting their full time, paying jobs. However, Kelly realizes now that there are limits to what one can understand without actually having been in the trenches.

The sisters had achieved significant financial success with their previous endeavors and used $1.2 million of their own money as the seed investment. From 2012 to 2014, they worked on creating their products and listening to market feedback. They wanted to offer a craft cocktail as easy to serve as craft beer and nice wine and made with high quality, natural ingredients. They felt they were inventing a new alcohol niche and had to reach new buyers.

They also “worked on ironing out countless details such as renting space, hiring, and drafting the brand message,” Kelly says. Despite their history as entrepreneurs, this was a very stressful time for them both. “All you are doing is believing in yourself and constantly swatting down people who are doubting you,” she says. Not only that, she adds, “We were asked more than once if this was supposed to be a full-time endeavor.” Kelly recalls telling her sister, with some annoyance, “If our husbands had our resumes and were creating a company, people would never ask them that question. They’d only be concerned with the progress they’d made on the plan.” The liquor industry also presented major infrastructure challenges. The sisters needed to find co-packers to manufacture the product, make connections with the traditional alcohol distributors and then get shelf space with the retail store owners.

"…there are limits to what one can understand without actually having been in the trenches."

Their first rollouts were in Austin, San Antonio, and the San Francisco Bay area. They’ve now expanded to other locations in Texas and California, as well as in New York, New Jersey, Illinois and Georgia. Kelly notes that men dominate the alcohol industry, yet she does not feel her gender has made a difference in finding “believers.” In fact, she notes, male distributors were some of their earliest supporters. The sisters initially hired mostly marketing and sales people with deep ties and industry chops. “The cornerstone of our culture from the beginning was to hire and bring out the best in people,” Kelly says. “It’s a culture that encourages people to take chances and know it is okay to fail.”

As a small startup brand, they knew they couldn’t only count on the traditional distributors and had to build their own networks. They worked on securing topflight venues for Austin Cocktails — the Emmy Awards, Madison Square Garden and Virgin Atlantic Airways. Tenacity and resourcefulness constituted their modus operandi. If they hit a wall with product distribution, they’d try another tack, Kelly says. “You take your wins and you do not let your losses get you down.”

In 2016, to help with expansion, the sisters raised Series A capital from angel investors, who provided start-up funds for a share of the company; and they are currently seeking to raise more through a Series B offering. The money has helped them expand their product line, hire more staff and develop their distribution network. Like many entrepreneurs at this stage, Kelly says, they are “wrestling with how much equity dilution we can take and what is fair.” She adds that they hope to retain majority ownership.

Kelly and her sister have completed the process of getting certified as a women- owned business. This certification has been important and allowed Austin Cocktails to connect with corporate companies seeking women-led/minority-owned partners. Her company is young and growing and has only begun to scratch the surface of the certification’s potential.

For the last few years, Kelly says, they’ve been focused on the company’s survival. Now, raising additional money for expansion is taking up a lot of their time. Her dream is for Austin Cocktails to lead the bottled, craft cocktail segment as a major trusted brand. “We want to go bigger. We are very proud of our brand, our culture, our product,” she says. “At the same time, we also know that today’s consumer is attracted to smaller, closely held brands.” One possible solution, she says, would be to have a larger strategic partner that could expand the marketing, infrastructure and logistics side of the business, ideally giving the sisters the freedom to maintain the “craft” aspect of their product line.

"You take your wins and you do not let your losses get you down."

Work/Life Balance

How does Kelly manage all this with a husband and two young children at home? She answers simply, and wryly, “with staples and tape.” She is about focus, she adds, and stays vigilant so she’s not pulled in multiple directions. She and her husband are usually home by 5:30 p.m. so that they can have dinner together with their children and are very involved in their lives. The only thing she makes time for outside of her kids and work are initiatives helping advance parity for women. She says “no” to absolutely everything else.

Constant negotiations and trade-offs are part of every mother’s life, she says. “Almost all twenty-first century women are navigating these scary, emotional choices. There is no universal solution but I hope that parity for women is ahead and that co-parenting and choice will ease the dilemma.” Kelly says, “For me, clarity on my priorities and extremely rigorous discipline on how I spend my time is the tool that works for my personality. That does not mean it works for everyone else.”

Another source of balance comes from working with her sister. Kelly feels that she and her sister work well together because they are a classic left-brain versus right- brain pair. Their roles rarely overlap. They talk “19,000 times a day,” she says, and do “80% on a project then check with each other.” Working with a sister gives an instant understanding and trust, she believes. “We are true partners.”

"The joy of entrepreneurship lies in creating and innovating, and employing others so they can provide for themselves."

Kelly believes her journey as a serial entrepreneur began when she was offered the opportunity to work with her college friends and she quit her job working at a bank. That experience taught her that it isn’t necessary to have everything mapped out and stick to a business plan to successfully grow a company. “Successful serial entrepreneurs live in the trenches, just going for it, working it out as events occur, putting one foot in front of the other,” she says. Much of the joy of entrepreneurship lies in creating and innovating, “and employing others so they can provide for their daily needs and pay their rent,” she says. Kelly believes “entrepreneurship is a very virtuous cycle that not only drives progress, higher wages, and tax revenue, but also affirms how the private sector (versus public sector) is the endowment upon which nations can best prosper.”

Women tell her that they are afraid to even start a business because they do not know anything about “it.” “Fear of what they do not know keeps people from doing anything,” she says. Yet not knowing or fresh eyes is often one’s biggest strength. She puts it this way: “You just need to believe in yourself. Be brave with the conviction that there is something to be brave about. You can figure it out. Take the leap. We all should recognize that the best things happen the farther we travel outside of our comfort zone.”

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