Simone Musgrave - Grit, Sales, and using Femininity in business.

Aneme Dlamini of Startup Grind chats to Simone Musgrave of Musgrave Gin about perseverance, building an actual business, and bringing your femininity as a force to be reckoned with in the business world.

Aneme = A, Simone = S

A: Welcome!

S: Thanks.

A: So, I am not going to go with the traditional ‘background story’ (laughs), I am sure you’ve been asked that many times.

S: I have, yeah (laughs).

A: Cool. So, to jump right in, you left the food industry after 13 years. Why after 13 years, why not before or after then? You mentioned in your SG talk that you actually started Musgrave as a side hustle...

S: Yeah, I was single mom with two small children and I needed that stability. So I stayed in the role. It was also a really good role in the business. I got to travel a lot, I was exposed to every brand within the business. So, the role was a great opportunity to further learn the industry. But towards the end of my time there, my kids had finished school, and I felt like I was not being challenged enough. So, I decided to leave. So long story short, the timing was right (laughs).

A: Awesome! Uhm, I wanted to also question you about your thoughts on expansion (in business). So, first you did Musgrave Original, then Musgrave Pink. Musgrave Pink exploded and was well-received. But my question is, as an entrepreneur, when did you know it was the right time to expand?

S:  Yeah, so I always wanted to do a pink from the beginning. But I knew had to cut my teeth on a classic gin, and I launched the classic. But I needed more sales, so that meant I needed another product. My history being in product development and category management, taught me that. Also, from it, I knew that about a year, would do, for us to launch the next product. The timing, again, was important. People were starting to buy and love Musgrave, and they wanted something more from us. It’s never one factor, it’s a combination of factors. I also had the entrepreneurial surge of ‘f*ck it, I’m going to do this now.’ (laughs).

A: Okay, and how do you mix that sense of urgency and patience, like how do you balance the two for the sanity and sake of your business?

S: It comes down to discipline. What I have seen in the gin industry is that a lot of companies launch one gin, then another, and another, and another. That’s what innovators do, they launch products – the sexy part of the job. Having too many products does not make sense, for an early-stage business. The discipline lies in having a one or two product company and focusing on selling those products to the best of your ability. We haven’t launched a new gin since and we won’t. There is a fine balance between pushing your products and being disciplined enough to not want to do the sexy stuff all the time. It is all about reading the market and knowing whether it makes sense to innovate! ‘Cause often, just putting your energy into your current products will give you more sales and exposure than new products.

A: You’re quite fearless in the way you approach business and the way you have done things. Do you ever have days where you say, ‘Shit, I don’t feel like doing this today’? (laughs)

S: Yeah, the past few days actually! Being an entrepreneur is scary, you know.

A: Yeah

S: I have just had an employee leave me high and dry. No handover, nothing. Just dumped me in the shit. They were working the most important part of the business… So you’ve got to step up. I mean, who else is gonna do it? I am gonna do it! I now have her job, too. So yeah, there are days where I feel, ‘What the hell?’ There’s also the challenge of dealing with retail, when you’re a small player. It’s difficulty, quite a gritty arena to play in. Having said that, I don’t know if I get unmotivated, but I do get tired of the bullshit. And sometimes, that anger energizes me, other times, I just feel like running away (which I can’t) (laughs).

A: Yeah (laughs), that’s the thing about being an entrepreneur, right? You can’t just up and leave when you feel like it.

S: Yeah, I always say, my life looks sexy from the outside. The picture painted on social media is: I am travelling around the world, tasting different gins… but at the end of the day, I actually pick up boxes of gin and sell them. You can have the best product but if you don’t get on and sell them, it’s not a business.

A: So, talk more to that, right. The, what some would call, unsexy part of business, the actual selling of Musgrave Gin. What’s the daily grind?

S: The daily grind is getting listings (getting into the stores you want to be in), and once you’re in: managing that. So, most of my day is spent managing stock coming from the distillery into the warehouse, and out to the retailers – making sure that everything is on time! Big companies have big teams to help them do that. We are four, in the business.

Oh, and chasing distributors to actually do the selling. And finding answers to my questions like, ‘Why aren’t we listed here, I am paying you commission. Why aren’t we listed?’ So, it’s a chasing game, constantly. It all comes back to selling, that’s where I spend most of my time. The parties and the events are cool, but if you don’t sell, you can’t have an event. You have to be a good salesperson as an entrepreneur (laughs).

A: 100%! And talk more towards, what I call, the ‘fake entrepreneurship lifestyle’- entrepreneurs just doing it for the events, the glitz and glamour, the fame etc. What’s your opinion on it? I mean, you were self-funded from the beginning. Didn’t raise any funds etc. Not very typical. Versus startups that raise R 5 million bucks, but haven’t sold anything at all.

S: Hmm. Yeah, I don’t know if those businesses would survive. Also, someone else owns you. I believe in keeping the business 100% owned by myself. I think, if you see an entrepreneur being involved in the glitz and glam that may be just for show. A true entrepreneur does long hours of gritty work. The unsexy stuff – HR, recruitment, cash flow management, etc. So, the guys who you see raising R5 million won’t be around for long. I just don’t believe money comes easily, nor does quality business growth. I think, truly long-term successful people will have done everything from the ground level.

A: 100%! What are some of the characteristics that you define as ‘vital’, for an entrepreneur to succeed?

S: Grit! I really believe that they need to have grit. Grit and hard work. You have to be focused. You can’t let anyone tell you ‘no’. Whoever tells you ‘no’, just ignore them. And the ability to break the rules. You have to break rules every day. The rules are not made for entrepreneurs or innovative spaces. Just do it, and find out how, later.

I also believe an ethical or moral stance will keep you going in the long-term. The guys that say bad things about other brands, bad mouth others in the industry – aren’t going to work out in the long-term. You get caught out much quicker these days than in the old days.

If you can put all those things together, you can do anything you want with any product. And I look at the youngsters of today (you’re a youngster, no offence), and it is really hard to find those qualities. Young people don’t have as much grit. And in a time where you’re having to be an entrepreneur more than an employee, I really worry, sometimes.

A: What do you look for in employees, or in strategic partners?

S: Yeah, so for strategic alliances, we mainly look at whether or not the brand aligns with our brand and whether our customers align. We pay attention to how they speak to their customers, how they treat their customers, and all such things. From an employment point of view, I look for experience. We have a small team. And as a result, we need super-experienced people. I don’t really have the time right now, to grow people, in my business.

People management is the hardest part about running a business. The unsexist part, but it is going to be the future of business.

A: I have noticed that you’re very open, quite public with your vulnerability. Do you feel like that adds a certain authenticity to your business?

S: Hmm. It seems like people like to connect to human spirit. Things that they can relate to. Putting my surname on the bottle is me putting myself out there. Also, I was a single mom – I don’t like to talk about it that much, because nobody would ask a man in business if he was a single dad – I actually reject the question quite a lot. But it is my reality, and that is why I speak about it. I am who I am. I am on this journey, not to be famous, but to build a successful business and a legacy.

The ‘new consumer’ wants a story, they actually want to know the person behind the brand.

A: That’s quite deep.

S: Yeah.

A: How, if they have, have your daughters impacted the way you do business? Your values etc.?

S: Growing up in a single mom household (our cat is the only male in the house – laughs), they are quite strong and opinionated. They come with a force and a confidence, and I see them becoming powerful and vulnerable – in a balanced way. That inspires me to do as I do.

A: Staying on the parenting topic – as a parent you had to make sure your daughters were in school, everything was okay etc. How did you balance the discipline of ‘I really want to start this business vs. parental responsibilities’

 Also, what is your advice for parents that want to start businesses but are worried, for example, that the first six months will be unpredictable and they still have kids in school etc.?

S: Yeah, so I started it my business while still working. So, I was still getting paid a salary. Just make sure that you are exposed to very little risk.  For me, that worked. It will not always work. But I was at a point in my career where, they weren’t using me that much. So, I had a lot of free time. It’s about finding something that keeps you secure – even if it is your basic salary, and cutting your costs I wouldn’t suggest dumping it all and going straight into business.

It’s not about not taking a risk, it’s about taking a smart risk. I am not a conservative person in terms of risk, but I am conservative when it comes to making sure my home, daughters and other necessities are secure – then I do the risky stuff.

Also, a lot of people are in a rush. To become an overnight success. It’s okay to transition from a job into a business. I still don’t pay myself as much as I was earning at corporate.

A: What are some of the things that you have had to sacrifice?

S: I miss leave. Having time off with no responsibilities. That is what I miss the most. Going from four weeks of leave, to zero days at all, isn’t as cool. I don’t eat out as much etc., when I do, it is for Musgrave.

A: You had a baby food business that you said didn’t pan out too sexily. Did it knock your confidence as an entrepreneur?

S: Not at all. I am actually very thankful that it failed. I learned so much from that business and it actually launched me into the cool corporate position I spoke about earlier. Without that failure, I wouldn’t have been where I am today.

It was disappointing, yes. I felt like I had a good idea, and a good product. But you know, that’s part of the game. But I think, if you look at every successful entrepreneur, they have about 3-4 businesses that didn’t work out.

A: So, when did you know it was time to let go of that business?

S: Yeah, so you could see it, you know? I wasn’t making that much money, the sales were dropping. I was losing too much money on a monthly basis, to continue.

A: Do you feel like burnout is a frequent thing in your life?

S: Yeah, I do. I have burned out, almost twice, this year. As an entrepreneur, you hardly switch off. You can’t. It’s also part of your personality. A lot of entrepreneurs face the same problem. I think, part of dealing with burnout in a better way, is learning to see the signs. It’s not about taking four weeks of leave a year, it’s about that ‘in between’, are you taking care of yourself when you need to?

A: Do you feel like the Type-A/’never switch off’ personality ever disadvantages you? Do you ever feel like you dwell/overthink on certain things?

S:  Yeah, I do think it disadvantages us. Not so much overthinking, but I just think that we don’t become as effective. It’s not only about work now, it then becomes ‘I must do yoga everyday’ or I must go for my run every evening. And you just become obsessive. And it actually helps nothing. It makes you less effective, less creative, and less of a leader. With an A-Type personality, you have to watch yourself.

A: Just to go back to the beginning for a bit, how did you survive those tough first weeks/months of your business?

S: Grit and determination. But also being surrounded by amazing friends. Friends that are supportive and loving can do a world of good! My friends are my go-to group about complaints or successes, anything really. It is important to find laughter within the chaos.

A: One key piece of emotional advice to entreps?

S: There is an obligation to be true. You don’t really want to paint a sexy picture and have people saying ‘Oh, I can’t achieve that’. Always paint an honest picture of the way things are. You never know who you are inspiring.

A: The age-old question, being a female in a male-dominated industry?

S: Yeah, it is quite difficult. I often find myself having to put on my ‘manly boots’ in order to have an equal conversation. I am conscious of keeping my femininity with me in meetings, but also not letting people step all over me. And that balance is quite exhausting, I must say. I come back from conferences emotionally tired, sometimes – because I am constantly putting on my ‘male’ side.

A: What’s the one message you’d love to give to female entrepreneurs?

S: Self-belief and lack of fear. You just have to say to yourself that you’re going to do it. There is no other way. There really isn’t. If you have a good concept, and you work really hard, you will be respected and doors will be opened.

And use your femininity. Use it, actually. I am not saying wear short dresses or anything of that manner, but use your intuition. Women have a lot more perceptive ability, emotional connection, and are not as competitive. These three things can really work to your advantage, use your femininity!

A: Thank you so much for your time, Simone. Super awesome to chat to you.

S: Thanks Aneme!

Check out Simone's super inspiring talk, here: