Given Sarah and Ben Bonoma had no previous experience in the liquor industry, they put their brave decision to quit corporate jobs and start a spirits distillery business down to new parents’ sleep deprivation.
Former IT developers, the couple met through their respective jobs - Ben was living in New York and Sarah in London and they decided to start life together in a place neither had been to – New Zealand.
Arriving in New Zealand eight years ago they quickly secured corporate jobs in Wellington. But both Sarah and Ben were keen to start their own business and began exploring possibilities. During their research online, they saw an advertisement for a spirits still for sale in Golden Bay. A weekend trip to Tākaka not only secured them the still, but set them off on the path of establishing a business.
“We immediately saw a huge opportunity before us, so we went for it,” says Sarah. “The deciding factor was that we could see a clear gap in the market…and we both loved drinking gin.”
When they first bought the artisan distillery and existing rum stock they thought their white and gold rums would be the top sellers. But the craft gin industry was gathering momentum and the focus turned to their unique gins.
Dancing Sands, named after the nearby Dancing Sands freshwater spring at Te Waikoropupū, one of the clearest in the world - is now New Zealand’s most awarded distillery. Supplying over 500 outlets across New Zealand and selling to 10 international markets, including the UK, Singapore and Japan, Sarah and Ben are in the process of signing a distribution deal for the USA.
From Wasabi gin and Sauvignon Blanc gin to Saffron gin, Dancing Sands has changed people’s palates across the globe.
Ben, who Sarah says ‘is the creative one’, is responsible for new product development and marketing strategy. He has concentrated on making gins that he and Sarah like to drink… and it just so happens, so do the rest of the world.
While they have given themselves titles – Sarah is managing director and Ben is strategy and marketing - they run the business together. “Ben and I are very complementary. He is the entrepreneur – the ideas, the creative mind. He has developed every single one of the products we’ve launched. My skillset is the structured one, rigorous, disciplined and detail orientated. But all strategic decisions and plans we discuss together.
Launching a new business has not come without its challenges. The liquor industry has a huge amount of regulation and compliance.
“There’s no guide book on how to start a distillery and none of the support systems of large corporates. When you’re on your own and things get tough and don’t go to plan, it’s hard,” says Sarah.
So when Sarah happened to hear about the work of Business Mentors she jumped at the chance to get help. Within a few weeks of applying, Sarah was matched with Nelson based coach and mentor, Gael Gordon, a business consultant with a diverse business background. New to Nelson, Gael had decided gifting her time as a mentor for Business Mentors was a great way to get out into the community and get involved.
Gael has worked across many different industries with significant exposure to international markets and while she didn’t know the liquor industry intimately, she could apply her knowledge and skills.
“It’s really important to listen and observe what’s going on. I always start with a conversation and let things flow as they need to. Sarah has some incredible talents but she was wise enough to know what she didn’t know and where she needed help,” says Gael.
“Being a mentor is very rewarding. When you can help people to grow and discover their potential and then see the business results come from that, you know you’ve done a good job. It’s like giving them a key and helping them unlock their treasure chest,” continues Gael.
Sarah felt she needed a third party to bounce her challenges off. “I wanted someone who wasn’t my husband, a business partner, or a friend but someone completely removed who would know what I was talking about. Gael met that brief, and more. I’m eternally grateful for her time and expertise.
“Having an experienced and independent viewpoint has been invaluable to me – both personally and business-wise. Being able to talk freely and openly with Gael, knowing she had been through some of the challenges I was dealing with was great. She didn’t just give me the answers but coached me through it, helping me arrive at the answers myself,” says Sarah. “She helped me see that sometimes the hardest conversations to have, are the ones that will bring the biggest breakthroughs for the business, and she helped give me the confidence to tackle challenges I was facing head on.”
Sarah says running your own business is more challenging than anyone gives it credit for but it’s also incredibly fulfilling. “I wouldn’t change a thing.”
“It’s wonderful that people like Gael give their time freely for Business Mentors. I hope that at some stage in the future, as my experience grows, I will be able to pay it forward.”
Sarah and Ben’s three takeaway points for small business:
1. In the early days you need to just get stuck in – it may mean doing things you hadn’t anticipated but it’s a matter of rolling up your sleeves and getting on with it.
2. Know your numbers – you need to know how to read a P&L or a balance sheet as you must have a good grasp of the financial state of your business. Helpful resources and tools can be found on MBIE and NZTE websites.
3. Expect the highs to be higher and the lows to be lower than anything you’ve experienced in the corporate world. When things go well, the feeling of accomplishment is like nothing else but also, the lows are lower than anything I’ve felt below – either way, you’re 100% accountable.