What it’s like to launch during a pandemic

Non-alcoholic aperitif brand Ghia was supposed to launch on April 1 - right in the middle of lockdown – so French-born, Los Angeles-based founder Mélanie Masarin had to rethink everything. Here’s how she pivoted her business from IRL to online.
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How did it all begin?

‘For years you think about a product that you wish existed in the world and then you wake up one morning and decide that you're going to do it! I had been not drinking for a few years – it didn't really work for me, it made me slow and hurt my stomach – and I was frustrated with the lack of options for people who wanted to be social but didn't want something overly sweet or a soft drink. Ghia was very inspired by the flavours of my childhood. I was born in France, I grew up near the Mediterranean and my grandfather is Italian, so there was a blend of appreciation for food, hospitality, running around empty kitchens and aperitivo culture, which was the biggest inspiration.’

Your background is in D2C brands – were you looking for the next big thing?

‘I was really looking for the thing that would be my thing. When I left Glossier, which was an incredible experience, it's a tough act to follow. I had decided the next thing needs to be the one that I stay at for a long time and it just needed to feel right. I really missed the food world. I think I didn't want to open a restaurant, but there was something about food and hospitality – hosting dinner parties is my greatest skill! I wanted to somehow merge my professional life with my personal life in a way that felt very vocational and I was waiting for the right thing to come up.’

So you had the Eureka moment. What was the first step?

‘The first step was doing a little bit of research. I realised that in the UK there were 120 new non-alcoholic brands that had come to market in a country where drinking is so ingrained in culture – that felt very surprising to me. Some of them had a track record of success, like Seadlip, I thought, wow, there's something there. They have really managed to create a strong brand and have garnered respect from the industry, which is very hard to do as a new category.

I was really impressed with that but I didn’t just want to drink a gin alternative, I wanted something dry and bitter. And so I had this thought of ‘how can you have an Aperol with no booze or added sugar?’ An Aperol spritz has 19 grams of sugar – it's neon orange and very chemical. I wanted something that was as cool and as fun. And so the first step was finding the formulator to help us develop this drink and to educate us a little bit. Once we found them, it took 37 iterations and 55 weeks to create Ghia.’

Did you have funding at that point?

‘No, I was using my own savings. A few months later, I had someone join the team on a freelance basis and I was making Venmo payments to him for the first few weeks until we figured everything out. Then we ended up raising a friends and family round later in 2019.’

How do you know that the low and no alcohol sector isn't just a passing fad?

‘Perhaps it is a bit of a trend, but I hope that these ‘better for you’ options are going to become more popular as people become more mindful in the choices they make. You can start drinking Ghia at 10 pm because you’ve had a night of mezcal with your friends and then you want to slowly cut yourself off, or you can drink it on a Tuesday if you only want to have a couple of nights of alcohol per week. It's something that is becoming much less binary than before being sober and I really see that as lasting for a long time.’

The design is really unique and cool. Who did you work with on that?

‘Yeah, we worked with Willo Perron and Associates and it's been a really fun process. We had so many iterations of it, but we really got in a place that I think made people smile during a time when it's hard to be joyful and optimistic.’

You guys had to postpone your launch. How did you navigate that?

‘We were supposed to launch with a friends and family event in restaurants on April 1st – and obviously all the restaurants in the world closed down two weeks before that, so that was very challenging.  It was also hard to think about how to lead during this time. I'm a first time founder, but as I called people for advice, I realised no one had the answer. Then we started having a lot of operational challenges: bottles got stuck in Italy; our factories started making hand sanitisers so we couldn't produce; some of our extracts got stuck in the different places where they were coming from; we couldn't develop our second formula because a specific spice that we'd been sourcing for a long time came from Wuhan.

‘More than ever we need to be able to bring some joy, comfort and disco to people in their homes without booze.’

You can’t invent these things! So we took this time to be very intentional about the way we launch. We were seeing alcohol sales spike because people were drinking themselves into oblivion, trying to pass time at home, a lot of people were losing their jobs. So we thought yes, more than ever we need to be able to bring some joy, comfort and disco to people in their homes without booze or added sugar.

We kept working but it was one hurdle after the other. Our launch was complicated because the revised launch date was actually on Black Out Tuesday during the Black Lives Matter protests. This was a moment of pause and we did another reset, really thinking. We're in the middle of a historical movement and we're very lucky that we haven't launched yet as we have the opportunity to build the right foundations for the business and to learn from the people that have come before us.

So we shifted the date again and realised that this wasn’t going to be the splashy launch that everyone had dreamed of. We're trying to build a forever brand and it will be a slow ramp up, but if one by one we can make a difference to customers this summer, that's what we want to do. We couldn't get into our warehouse because of Covid and I didn’t want to launch without being able to train everyone in person so we started making all the boxes ourselves and self distributing. I wrote 12,000 thank you notes by hand and I think that helped build a cohort of customers that feel really strongly about the brand. Our repeat rate has been enormous thanks to that. Whatever we can control, we want to be making a difference.’

Has the pandemic changed your actual business model?

‘For sure – we are digital first now selling online, not purely D2C selling in restaurants. But we've also been trying to support the restaurant community. No one is doing well right now but the hospitality industry is suffering more than most so If a restaurant has pivoted to selling groceries, they'll also sell Ghia now and they’re all listed on our stockist page. We're selling it to restaurants wholesale, which is a lower price than we would usually sell for on premise and we are giving them free products to help them reopen. We're really trying to build these relationships and support them.

But, I'm not a digital person, I'm a very offline person. We've had to learn and rush the build of our site. I have to learn about things like Google ads! I dream of the days when we can just go and sit at a bar and order a Ghia instead of it all being online. We're spending very little right now and thankfully we've had a good launch. We haven't had to raise more money, but we probably will very soon.’

Are you thinking you might go down the VC route?

‘Not right now. There's a lot of interest because it's a growing category, but it's also such an uncertain time to be raising capital. I don't want to just be raising a bunch of capital, I want to build a very healthy business. I feel so lucky that we didn't have the financial pressure of VC during the first few months of our launch. We called all of our investors when the pandemic hit for advice and I was able to very transparently tell them about the issues we were running into and the risks of the business. I feel that it would have been a very different approach if I had to report to someone that was expecting 20 times return in X number of years.’

You're using texts to talk with your customers. Has that been effective?

‘It started as a fun thing to do, mainly because we're not digital experts. We wanted to try different things and that was a very cheap way of communicating. I think we pay twenty dollars per month to have a text message line. It's hooked up to two team members’ phones so we cover different timezones. I answer a number of text messages for sure.

We set up 707-text-ghia because we wanted people to be able to get super speedy customer service and so that people could easily ask how Ghia tastes or how to make it. We also wanted to help them set the mood at home so you can text us and we will send you playlists. We spend an inordinate amount of time on our playlists!’

What are the big lessons you've learnt so far?

‘I’ve learnt so much but I still don't think we have all of the insights yet as we're only six weeks old. I think generally we had intuition that customer service was really a key tenant. It's part of marketing and we've really invested in that. I think that's really made a difference for people in a time when they need to feel supported and aligned with the brands that they purchase from.

Do you wish you would have done anything differently?

‘Being so uneducated about digital marketing. I used to work in hospitality and then I worked in retail and having to pivot your first company's business to be entirely digital was really scary and I wish that I had been able to learn and build a bit more of that skill set before launch. Thankfully, we had done a lot of community building offline while we could, so I think that definitely helped a lot.

So what’s next?

‘We will be building some products around the original flavour of Ghia but nothing is confirmed right now. There will definitely be a new product launch next year though that we're quite excited about.’

Find out more about Ghia at drinkghia.com.

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