Virtuous Vodka co-founder Claes Stenmark is unique. That much is clear as soon as I get the response to my email asking him to participate in our popular Q&A feature on the FundedByMe blog. “Sure,” it reads, “But let’s do it over lunch instead”. And that pretty much summarised Claes right there – no frills honesty, a whole lot of passion and this unique drive to connect with the people around him, coupled with a burning ambition to make the world a better place. “There’s so much fake in the world, I want to help move us towards a planet that is more real,” he says while scratching his trademark beard. And, sitting across the table from him, I can’t help but believe that he is going to do that. Claes Stenmark is going to change the world into a better place. And successfully launching the ecological, natural-flavoured Virtuous Vodka into liquor stores around Sweden is only the first step in this process!
Introduce yourself – what is your background, what are you passionate about and what are your hopes and dreams?
World domination. Through real flavour! At Virtuous Spirits (the holding company for Virtuous Vodka) we strive for a fake-free world. We want to touch real people. Provide real – and great – products. Be honest. And help everyone take responsibility towards the effect that we are having on our planet. I was born and raised in Sweden and have just always loved flavours. My mom tells the story of fetching me from daycare when I was four or five and asking me how my day was and what I had for lunch. When she then asked me how lunch was I replied, “Good fish meal, but they forgot to put wine in the sauce!” I mean, this was in the early ’80s…no one cooked with wine back in the ’80s! But in our family cooking and flavours was part of the make-up. My grandma and I spent hours together in the garden, picking herbs and then washing, chopping these…those are some of my best memories.
How did the idea for Virtuous Vodka come about? Describe it to us.
While at university I started working as a chef – it was the perfect job for me as it allowed the opportunity to explore my love of food and also helped pay the bills. After finishing university I ended up working in advertising and filming for a number of years, longing for the day where I could start my own business and, somehow, rekindle my love for flavours and cooking. Opening a restaurant was the natural choice, but the long hours, along with the sheer number of great restaurants already out there, didn’t really appeal to me. I wanted to make a difference and bring about change…
My brother-in-law is a super entrepreneur from Cuba who fled to the Soviet Union in the ’90s and was living in the Brazil at the time. We were always talking about different business ideas and I one day emailed him an idea to create an ecological vodka, flavoured with only natural ingredients. His responses always came back swiftly, but on this one he was quiet for a few days. When I finally pushed him about not replying to my email the response came back with a resounding ‘YES’! Fast-forward a couple of months and he had quit his job and relocated to Sweden and we were focusing all our attention on creating and launching Virtuous Vodka.
Why did you decide on crowdfunding? What about FundedByMe appealed to you?
We see crowdfunding as marketing…Yes, the money was key, but the bigger motivator was getting this captive audience who tasted our product during the process when we invited them to tasting events, who became shareholders in our business and who would, today, move heaven and earth to help us succeed. That’s the power of crowdfunding! FundedByMe was a natural choice for us as it’s the largest player in Scandinavia and the platform was just launching equity crowdfunding, so we got lots of attention for being the first consumer brand in Sweden to raise funds this way. The fact that the team got really involved (I think most of them invested in us!) and that they really opened up their network to help improve our competencies was awesome.
Today Virtuous Spirits employs three of us full-time. Additionally we have about a dozen people putting in long hours and an additional 117 ambassadors spreading awareness and helping us out by connecting the Virtuous brand to their networks… It’s awesome.
What was the best part about running a campaign on FundedByMe? And what was a challenge?
The equity crowdfunding phenomenon in and of itself is probably the highlight. The FundedByMe team was super approachable and easy to talk to, helping us along the way and becoming our biggest fans! The challenge is the amount of work it takes to really make an equity crowdfunding campaign succeed…uploading a strong presentation is only a small part! Once your campaign goes into Pre-Round the actual work starts. We contacted a lot of press to help educate the world about our product. When you launch a new concept, in our case naturally flavoured vodka, education is key. We also hosted four exclusive tasting events to potential investors and I’m proud to say that 25% of the people who tasted Virtuous Vodka became investors in our brand.
Would you recommend other entrepreneurs to consider crowdfunding – and FundedByMe – for their financing needs? Why? Any tips or advice to those considering it?
Do it! Have a good pitch. Show how you plan to make money. Explain your product or service in a simple way. Have a great elevator pitch. Then work it. Be accessible. Be proactive and don’t be shy to talk about your campaign. It’s all about how you explain your brand and you have to get to the point very fast!
Now that your crowdfunding campaign has closed, what’s next?
Well, we just got accepted to sell through Sweden’s Systembolaget, the nation’s only liquor outlet. We are working on exporting our product outside of Sweden and are establishing relationships with wholesalers in key markets. Right now our next batch of ecological vodka is macerating (that’s a fancy word for ‘infusing’) at our production facility in Nynäshamn, 60km outside of Stockholm.
The real work is just beginning.