Mark Marmont makes gin - and a rather nice gin at that. Over an innocent Tuesday afternoon G&T (what else?) at 58 Gin's East London distillery and HQ, he told hubbul his startup story.
hubbul: Let’s start with the important stuff shall we? The booze. The perfect G&T. Go…
Mark: You’ve teed me right up here! Get the Gin right - obviously. But in all seriousness, the ‘perfect’ G&T is all down to personal taste. Some like it spicy, citrusy, or even salty – but the most important thing is to get the balance between gin and tonic right.
Steer clear of crap tonics too. There’s loads of great ones around, like Fever Tree – who’ve nailed it. I use Square Root Soda, a local Hackney tonic. But whatever you use, a good tonic is a must.
You want loads of ice, 50ml of gin, 150ml of tonic and a small twist of lemon. If you’re serving it to someone, let them put the tonic in – that way they’ll get a drink that suits them down to the ground.
Quick tip - if you’re in a bar, beware of that massive squeeze of lemon – it’s usually because they’re trying to disguise how awful their gin is. There's a chat up line if I’ve ever heard one...
hubbul: Noted. So, down to business. Literally. What's the story behind 58 Gin?
Mark: I suppose it started out of frustration really. I couldn’t find a gin that I liked everything about. For me the botanicals weren’t right. I don’t like Cardamom – leave it in my curry. I don’t like Star anise – leave it in my mulled wine. There were all these things I didn’t like about gins, which is when I decided to start doing some research and mucking about at home making my own.
I’m a regular at 69 Colebrooke Row – a great little cocktail bar just down the road from where I live in Islington. I’d often head there and learn a thing or two from owner, Tony – one of the God’s of the industry - which helped a hell of a lot too.
I’d show him my gin and he’d say ‘change it here, add that, remove this’, which helped me refine it. It took me about 40 batches to get the tastes right, so I had to be pretty persistent.
The moment Tony said, ‘so what you gonna call it?’ was the second I knew I had a product – that and a bunch of orders from mates.
When it came to the name – well that was easy – I live at 58 Colebrooke road – so there was only one thing for it. 58 Gin.
hubbul: Had life up until that point prepared you for the startup rollercoaster?
Mark: Not sure if anything can prepare you for that! But, on a serious note, If we go back a bit, I suppose a few things put me in a good position to do what I do.
I’ve worked in laboratories, which meant I knew a bit about the distilling part. I’ve done my time in restaurants as a short-order cook, which helped me with flavour profiles. I’d also worked as a receptionist in an ad agency, so had done my fair share of admin and a bit of bookkeeping.
I grew up on a farm in Australia, and became pretty handy with electrics, so could fit all the coppering in the distillery myself. I'd also got involved in helping my wife set up a ‘cat sitting business’, which now has over 1000 clients and 18 staff.
But you can only prepare yourself so much – once in a while you kind of have to take a deep breath and dive in. It’s all about trying your hand at everything though – which saves you a fair bit of cash – really important at the early stages of any business.
hubbul: The stress, the pressure, the sleepless nights – why wouldn’t you have it any other way?
Mark: Working for myself is great – there’s no other way to put it. I’m my own boss. There’s none of 'I have to do’ this and ‘have to do’ that rubbish. But at the same time it’ll be 4am and I’ll wake up and think, ‘shit, I really haven’t done this!’
Sure, like loads of self-employed people, I don’t have an ‘off’ button, but I could never imagine going back to helping someone else. No chance.
I love the creative side of having my own business too. I’m the guy that gets to play with ingredients to create something someone enjoys. I hand my gin over to a bartender to mix a beautiful drink. I love it.
To walk into a bar and see 58 Gin sat on the spirit shelf, or even better – someone ordering it – reminds me exactly why I do it. It gives me such a buzz. Last Christmas I went back to Aus to visit my family, strolled into a local bar and there’s my gin, and everyone’s drinking it. Can’t beat it!
hubbul: 58 Gin is a year old now – past the point where loads of startups fail. What's been the biggest challenge?
Mark: Time. It's a killer. There’s just not enough of it. I’ve got so many plans and things I want to go out and do and experiment with, but as a new, and small business owner, it’s all hands on deck – just like they said it would be.
hubbul: Cutting to the chase, how's business?
Mark: To be honest with you, things couldn’t be going better. Not kidding. I’ve recently secured investment for the next three years, and Fortnum and Mason are getting ready to stock 58 in their stores – which is a bit surreal.
hubbul: Awesome. How did the investment come about?
Mark: It all came from handing out tasters at last year’s Meatopia – which, as you can probably work out, is a festival that celebrates awesome tasting meat from around the world.
For 58 Gin it was pretty much a branding exercise, handing out 10ml samples of 58 to anyone and everyone. I think I went through something like 2500 tasters on the first day. It wasn’t cheap, I won’t lie. But it was perfect for networking and meeting the right kind of guys, and eventually led me to my investors.
hubbul: Based in Hackney, you must have seen the place explode with startups in recent years?
Mark: Massively. I’m sat smack bang in a micro-community of self-employed people, startups and small businesses. And whether it’s a freelance designer, a pop-up restaurant, or the guys I get my lemon peels from – we look after one another. It’s a code of honour. We stick together.
What’s helped this rise in startups is a change in buying culture too. These days, people care about the product, what’s in them, where they’ve come from and the guys behind the brand. I try and buy everything local, as much as possible.
hubbul: Any tips for someone about to take the plunge?
Mark: Cashflow is king. As a small business owner, I find cash-flow hard – especially when people don’t pay you on time. Which unfortunately, is pretty common.
I just made Ts and Cs, asking everyone buying from me to sign before they make an order. It’s pretty simple – but orders under 500 they have 14 days, over 500 they pay 50% up front, 50 percent in 30 days.
hubbul: Good safety net. Late payment cripples small businesses. Just last year it cost SMEs billions...
Mark: The way I see it, any startup – whether that’s a small business, a freelancer, contractor, whatever – that earns under X amount, has to be paid within 14 days. Government need to get on that.
You don’t go into a shop and say, ‘don’t worry guys, I’ll pay for this next week’. You pay immediately, and respect their conditions. I had a couple of grand outstanding for something like three months I think. It’s not on, and can be the difference between success and failure.
hubbul: So, to finish on a high. What’s the end goal?
Mark: Hey look, if in five years time someone wants to buy me out for a load of money – I’d take that pretty seriously. Let's be realistic here - who wouldn’t?
But like tonnes of small business owners, I want to reach a point where it’s virtually running itself, while I keep an eye on things and focus on growing the business – but without being completely hands on.
The nature of the industry I’m in, I obviously want to grow 58 Gin. But the way it happens matters to me a lot. I want to make sure it keeps its quality, and the company has the same core values – and I’ll never let go of that.