Today I’m chatting with Alexandra, the Founder of Kasama Rum.
As the daughter of the Belvedere and Chopin vodka co-founder, Alexandra brings the same level of quality and experience her family company was built on to her first solo venture. Kasama is distilled in the Philippines, bottled at her family's distillery in Poland, and enjoyed around the world. Leaving behind the typical tropes associated with old-school rum brands like sailors and pirates and absent of heavily spiced flavor profiles - Kasama brings a refreshing approach in both branding and palate to a category in need of a breath of fresh air.
If you’re in the alcohol industry or you’re wanting to launch a spirits brand, this episode was a real eye opener for me. We chat through how she sold out of her first batch of 12,000 bottles in less than 3 months, why she’s not optimising for profits and what she learned from the family biz that she’s putting into action with Kasama.
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Please note, this transcript has been copy pasted without the lovely touch of a human editor. Please expect some typos!
Alexandra. Hi, welcome to the female startup club podcast. Thank you so much for having me. I've been a fan of your show for a while so I'm so thrilled to be here myself. Oh. Oh my God, that's so cool. Thanks. I love that for those who don't know who you are. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and what your business is? Sure. So my name is Alexandra. I'm the founder of Kasama rum, which is a rum from the Philippines. We just soft launched in September of 2020 and our official launch was in February of this year.
00:04:43 So we're very, very new but I feel like this is a business that's really been in the making for my whole life? So I just turned 30. But I sort of like to joke that I have 28 years of experience in the alcohol sector. I was just two years old when my dad started his business is so he co founded two of the leading premium vodka brands, So, Chopin vodka and belvedere vodka. And I really grew up shadowing him in his work. And when I mean I was young, I was like really young. I remember being five years old or very young and he would take me to restaurants with him and say, come on, we have to go meet the bartender, We have to check the back bar, We have to shake his hand, like see what's on the menu. And so that's really how I got into this space. And I just sort of got more and more involved as I got older. And so because I was really a labor of love and sort of the culmination of all of my experience in the alcohol space. Mm That's so cool. And I love how you are able to leverage what you knew and the people around you to come to the table with something that you're actually really uniquely positioned to tackle in the industry.
00:05:52 But put your spin on it. And I think that's a really important question that people should ask themselves is like what am I uniquely positioned to tackle? What do I know that other people don't know and like what have I got at my fingertips? So why rum? Why not vodka? That's a great question. So I think first of all I love drum always and I love tropical cocktails and I love sort of sour cocktails and things like that. But I never felt like there was a rum out there that was really speaking to me. So if you think about the rum category, I think it's very stuck in what I like to call the nautical rut. So there are lots of rums that have pirates on them or cartoon sailors on them or ships or I don't know, all dead men. I think it's a category that should be really, really fun, but it's just really stuck in the past. And I always felt like where's the rum for me? Like where's the rum that speaks to me as a millennial woman? And it didn't exist. And I actually set when I first had the idea because I set a google google on my phone, a daily google alert for rum and I woke up every morning being like someone's made this rum, it's so obvious like someone's got to do it and just nobody did it.
00:07:03 But so I sort of saw this gap in the market, but like I said, we are vodka distillers, we own actually a distillery here in Poland where we just still all of our vodkas, but we don't have sugar cane in Poland. So while I saw this gap, I didn't think it was really my, I didn't know how to solve it, I just didn't think it was my problem. A couple of years ago, I actually learned that the Philippines is one of the largest rum producers in the world and my mother is from the Philippines and when I learned that I had, I literally had and ah ha moment, like a light bulb moment and I thought, wow, I can create the rum that I wish existed and I know that there's a need for and also make the branding all about this, you know, my filipino culture in this country that I'm so passionate about and that has so much to bring the world. And so it was sort of like the perfect storm of, of seeing a gap in the market and realizing I had a story that I wanted to tell that really worked in that space. And so the rum is really about, first of all modernizing the category B you know, being young and relevant, being more than just a product, but really about the lifestyle of the, you know, the tropical islands and the Philippines and and the beach life and we really just try to bring rum to a new consumer that maybe hasn't thought about rum in a really long time and what's the industry like now, are there many female founders in the rum space?
00:08:24 And have there been more brands coming out since you started this project a couple of years ago? I don't know that there are many female founders in the rum space or an alcohol in general. There are some, not a lot. I would say that there are more sort of female blenders and things like that or marketeers or brand managers in terms of female founders, there aren't that many, but I would say that there are a couple of other rooms that I can think of, I won't name them, but a couple other rooms that I can think of that are trying to modernize the category, but I would Say that I think they're doing it in a way that's slightly different from the way that we are trying to do it. So Kasama, like I said, it's a celebration of the Philippines, you know, it's I think the most beautiful country in the world we have over 7000 islands that literally are like heaven on Earth. And so it's a celebration of of that lifestyle, but also sort of plays on this wonder less that I think our generation really feels and the visuals that we find really compelling and no, like so far, I literally don't know how, but nobody else is doing this in the room space yet?
00:09:30 Yeah, that's amazing. And I think that again, that's one of those things where look to kind of male dominated products, but not even like being built by male founders, just like more masculine products, like what you were saying, it was more nautical, it was more piratey and you know, whatever sailors and stuff. Uh, and then being like, where's the fem version of this? Where is the version for the millennial woman? It's a really cool way to approach like different industries. If you're thinking about what ideas you could go out and start a brand around definitely for a really like, you know, novice in terms of, I've never created a spirits brand, I don't know anything about that side of the industry. How does one create a spirits brand? Like are you shipping sugarcane from the Philippines to Poland? Are you like, how does it work? What are the steps to getting started? So in our specific case we're actually sourcing the rum from a distillery in the Philippines and we actually bring it to my family's distillery in Poland where it's blended, bottled and packaged and then we ship it off to primarily the United States right now, but we're also targeting many other international markets.
00:10:38 So that's how we do it. But how do you go about creating a spirit spread? I mean, I think first and foremost it's about having a really strong concept, you know, different people do different ways. Some people actually go out and build a distillery or create the alcohol themselves, but there are also lots of third party sort of white label distilleries or wineries if you want to make a wine that can actually create it for you and you can source what it is that you're looking for. So first and foremost you start with the liquid and then you sort of work backwards from there on the branding, the packaging, and then all the regulatory aspects that come along with that. What are the kind of regulatory aspects that come along with? I'm sure there's gonna be a lot. Yes, so I, a lot of people come to me and tell me that they want to start the spirits brand and I always tell them to just take a minute to really think about it because it is not like other industries. I'm often really sort of jealous of people who start, I don't know, clothing brands or jewelry brands or cosmetic brands. Not that that's hard, but you can sell direct to consumer and that's a huge advantage in today's world where, you know, people want to click something and purchase.
00:11:49 What makes the alcohol space really complicated is that it's highly regulated because it's sort of, it's a controlled substance. So specifically in the United States, there's something called the three tier system and this is a hangover from prohibition basically, where they were trying to make sure that nobody had too much control or power within the spirit sector. So there are producers. So like me and we can only sell to a distributor and only distributor can sell to a retailer. So that might be a bar, a restaurant or a store. And only a retailer can sell to a consumer. And so it does a couple of things. First of all, it means that the margins are not what they appear because there are lots of people in this chain. That's one thing. And the second thing is is that the moment between when a consumer might see your brand, whether that be like on social media or on your website or something and the moment they can actually buy it, they're very far apart, both in terms of time and in physical space. And so it makes it really difficult to actually find consumers.
00:12:52 You can get people interested, but you cannot sell, I cannot sell directly to somebody. People message me all the time on instagram, they're like, hi, your run looks cool, can I buy it from you? And I'm like, no, no, you cannot, unfortunately. And that's a really, it's a really hard thing to try to navigate. So that's just one thing. I mean, in the United States, for example, there are something called Control States. So there are states where the government actually sells alcohol and they're the only ones who are allowed to sell alcohol in sort of government owned liquor stores. There are whole countries like that, like Sweden is a good example Canada is like that as well. So that makes it really hard because they're not sort of driven by market forces, there are lots of regulatory aspects like labeling every country has a different regulation on what needs to be on the label, where it needs to be on the label, how big the font needs to be, Does it need to be parallel to the bottom of the bottle? Can you, can you make it vertical? I mean, down to the nitty gritty like that, it's super, highly regulated and it makes it very difficult to navigate.
00:14:02 Wow, That's so interesting on so many different points that you just mentioned. Does that mean for you, like, if you're wanting to take a DDC approach, you basically have to come up with like RTD ready to drink, like mixed drinks kind of thing. Is that how you could basically reach your customer directly in a different way? That's one way. Although RtGS are very different than spirits in many other ways. So, for example, in retail, that's typically a different fire. So it doesn't necessarily have the synergies that you might think it has, What we've done, for example, is on our website, you can buy Kazama rum you like from the consumer standpoint, it feels like it's on our website, but in fact it's routed through the distributor, a retailer and this sort of technology platform that's enabling the sale. So from the consumer, they feel like they're on our website. They feel like they're buying it from us. But in fact it's it's enabled through like this very very long chain of people. That's why the shipping is painfully expensive.
00:15:05 That's why I can't control what packaging it comes in, things like that. So that's the first thing we've done is enable, you know, sales through our website and we're thinking about R. T. D. S. But like I said, it's quite different to produce and it's also quite different from a retail standpoint. So we're just not we're not there yet but certainly something that we're thinking about, you know, Rtgs are are obviously huge right now. Mm. Yeah, absolutely. What about amazon? Can you buy spirits on amazon? Is that part of the mix or out of the mix? I don't want to say decisively. No, I haven't checked to be honest. So I'm not, I'm not sure. I think in some places you can, so for example in Germany, I know that you can sell through amazon in the US. I'm not sure it's not a huge part of our business yet, although it probably should be and I'll bring that down to check after this but we're not selling on amazon right now. Yeah, okay, got it. So I read that you started with a small batch of around 12,000 bottles which you sold out really, really quickly? That's amazing. Congratulations, by the way, how much money do you need to start a spirits brand and like what kind of capital did you need to invest in the beginning?
00:16:15 Sure. So I invested my first investment when I came up with the idea for Kasama was in branding, so like many other people who listened to your podcast, I think I had had many, many business ideas before this and many ideas for spirits brands, but they all fizzled, you know, for various reasons because life got in the way because I had a job because I sort of got maybe overwhelmed and never went through with it. So the first thing that I did was when I had this idea, I really wanted to make myself commit to it, so I said okay I'm going to hire a branding agency and I'm gonna sort of create the packaging and the look and feel of the brand so I can feel more invested in it. So I hired an agency in Manila Philippines called serious studio. It was very important to me to work with locals who could sort of bring the brand to life in a very authentic way That probably cost me around $10,000 and so it was an investment but you know, it, it felt like something that I was ready to take the risk on and it really helped me because it meant that I, you know, was more committed to the idea and actually went through with it And in terms of the first production run, which was you know 12,000 bottles might sound like a lot, but it's very small in the industry and I just sort of took it as a proof of concept, you know, I thought of this brand, I made this brand up in my mind and I wondered, is there anybody else in the world who actually wants this thing?
00:17:39 So I just made a very small production run to test that out, And that probably cost me around $50,000 that I took from my savings, but it did go well, I I think there are other people in the world who want this, this rum and so from there I became much more bullish and started to work on larger production runs. What's your kind of financial, like, approach to building this business? Are you boot shopping, bootstrapping, bootstrapping or you kind of like, Okay, now I've proven the concept, I, I read that you did another order of, I think 75,000 bottles or something like in that range. And are you thinking, yep, let's get funding now that we've proven it. So for now I'm still, it's a combination of bootstrapping and then also, I've been lucky to have help from my family business, which is a wonderful thing that I'm very grateful for. I used to work before before last time I worked in a private equity fund for four years and I worked there actually, while developing, because I'm around on the side and to be honest, this, the experience made me very skeptical of taking on outside investors.
00:18:43 I really think you should never like take somebody into your business unless you absolutely have to. And so far, thankfully I haven't, I haven't needed to do that, but I'm not saying I would never do it. It's something that I'm open to. But I personally am very skeptical of funds or VC VC investors who are not super specialized in a specific field. So I would do it. But I think I'd be most open to investors or companies that have deep expertise within the spirits or CPG space because I just think that capital is relatively easy to find in today's world. There are lots of investors who sort of reach out to me on linkedin and things like that. They're just kind of like looking for something to put their money in and I would only do it if they could really bring deep expertise. So it's something that I'm open to, but I'm not quite there yet. Yeah, no, I totally get that. I totally get that. I wondering before we get into talking about the launch of the brand and how you marketed it and like what the strategy is for launching a spirits brand with knowing all these challenges that you have to launch with, when we look back at your family's brand, your dad started Belvidere and he started shope shope in.
00:19:53 I never know how to say it because I don't have the accent obviously and you know I suck at saying those kind of words show Patton being Australian Chopin When you look back at his, you know he did really well with the brand. I I believe you sold Belvidere you know in 2008 or something like that. What do you think made the brand successful? Like everyone knows this brand, it was all over the world, we all know it, we can all picture it. What do you think it was about that that made the brand so successful that you're able to then take into your brand. That's an excellent question. I think I think it was a combination of timing and a lot of strategy and I think every brand that gets built to that size or some element of magic involved in that to just sort of luck and you know the contributed to it being so large. But I think it was the nineties, it was a moment of you know the dot com world, like there was you know, people were getting rich quickly and I think that they wanted to, it was a very celebratory moment and it was Belvidere actually Chopin was the first luxury vodka in the world which was created in 1992 and at the time it was four times more expensive than any other vodka in the world.
00:21:06 The most premium vodka in the world in the world at the time was absolut vodka. And everybody said You guys are crazy, like nobody's gonna buy Vodka for $35, are you, are you off your rockers, essentially. And the story goes, is that they ordered 100,000 bottles in the beginning and they thought, okay, we're going to, we're going to have this for years to come, like we're just gonna sell it off slowly for for several years. They put it in a wine type bottle, it was the first vodka to be in one of those tall sort of slender bottle that looks a bit like a wine to sort of signify the quality of it and they sold out in three months. So I think it was, I think it was a combination of just really high quality spirits, really unique packaging that spoke to the quality of the spirits, something unique and different the right moment in time and maybe some, some level of magic. And look, I think as well, but what I took from from that is, I think you cannot underestimate the power of packaging.
00:22:09 I think a lot of people think the most important thing is the product inside and absolutely, that's super important. But the fact of the matter is is that consumers buy with their eyes first and in a sea of other products. I mean, if you imagine your local liquor store, there are thousands of bottles there and how do you first of all get them to buy your product when they already have a shelf full of rums and second of all, how do you get an end consumer to, of all things, pick up your bottle and actually buy it and I think it speaks to the packaging and so we really took a lot of time to design the brand, so the bottle itself, but also the secondary packaging. So for example, my shipper cases, I'm sort of looking at them over there, my shipper cases are really beautiful and the reason is that sometimes they get stacked in a store and so if they're stacked in the store, I want it to be super eye catching and exciting and really pull people's attention and so that's what I took away from the experience was to sort of think about branding from start to finish, think about packaging in a level of detail that maybe some other brands don't think about and try to differentiate myself that way.
00:23:18 And I think you're totally right. It's like, especially in today's world, the competition for good looking products and great marketing is fierce, like there are so many good looking things. So if you're sitting and whether this is in beauty or food or beverage, whatever you, if you're looking at two products side by side and one has better branding, You're going to go for that and nine times out of 10, I actually think I'm the kind of girl who is a Marketer's dream were like even if I knew the product wasn't as good on the other one, I'd still probably go for the one that looks good because I'd want that to sit on my shelf and I'd want to look at that definitely our generation is very visual in a way that I think is hard for older generations to understand. I remember having a conversation with someone recently and I said, you know, millennials think that everything that we buy is a representation of ourselves, whether that's our toothbrush or our suitcase or I don't know anything. We think it says something about ourselves. And so I think that's something that older generations don't understand very much.
00:24:22 I think that's something that maybe men don't understand as much as women, this is a very male dominated space and I'm actually happy about that because I think it means that there are lots of gaps that men and I'm not mad, I'm not, you know, I think you it's natural to create products that you relate to and that you want to buy. But in reality women are half the market there, you know, they often do most of the buying for the household and there just aren't as many people creating alcohol brands for women and I think it leaves lots of gaps wide open. So Kasama is my first foray, but I have lots of brands in my head that I'm working on. So this isn't the last, you're going to hear from me. Yeah, and I think like in addition to that, why it's such an advantage to be a woman in that industry is like what comes to mind is, you know, speaking opportunities as if like you know, if there's all guys on a panel, of course they need to have you know, more women coming to the table and speaking on these topics that traditionally they haven't been, you know, at the forefront of and so that gives you a really cool advantage and opportunity to go and like, you know, that's obviously one category, but like there would be so many opportunities like that where you can take the fact that it's male dominated and really use that to your advantage, which is awesome, definitely.
00:25:43 I mean it's such a great time to be a woman in this space, I really think that first of all consumers are looking for, they're looking for something new, whether that's something owned by a person rather than a corporation or female owned or minority owned. I really think consumers are buying what their values are and retailers are really listening so in the case of Kasama we have several really important american retailers and the reason that were there is because they had a specific initiative around female owned spirits brands. So one is bev mo which is I think it's the second largest alcohol retailer in the United States sort of alcohol specialty store in the United States. They had initiative around females own spirits brands and then there's a midwest grocery chain called Meyer has never been to a Meyer but they are my new favorite grocery store. They also had an initiative around that. And so it is a really good time. And I think for anybody who's listening, who has, who's trying to launch a brand, you know, look for retailers that say what it is that they're looking for because a lot of times they're being pushed by their customers to take a stand on certain things and that means that there is space for there is more space for female and brands and minority on brands in many cases.
00:27:01 Mm That's really interesting. A great time to be a woman launching a business. Mhm. Two. Mhm. Hey, it's doing here. I'm just popping in to bring you a quick message in every episode of the Fsc show, you'll hear women who were just like you trying to figure it all out and hustled to grow their business. And I would know a lot of you might be sitting there asking yourself, but how do I actually scale my revenue and get to that next level from where I am now. You also know that so many of the entrepreneurs I speak to have mentioned facebook and instagram ads as a crucial part of their marketing mix From today onwards. I'm really excited to be able to offer our fsc small business owners and entrepreneurs and no strings attached, our long chat with leading performance marketing agency amplifier, Who you might also remember from our D. I. Y. course, full disclosure amplifier is my husband's business. And what's really important to know is that I've been able to witness first hand the transformation of so many businesses going from as low as $10,000 a month.
00:28:18 all the way To $300,000 a month and in some cases upwards to seven figures. So if you're listening in and you feel like you're ready to take your business to the next level, jump on a no strings attached call with amplifier where you can ask all the questions you have about performance marketing and whether it's the right time for you and your business to get started. Go to female startup club dot com forward slash ads. That's female startup club dot com forward slash A. D. S. And booking a call today. Okay, Let's talk about the launch. You sold out of 12,000 bottles within three months or very, very quickly you ordered another 75,000 bottles. How did you do it? How are you selling those 12,000 bottles? Um, so it is a very grassroots operation. So as I explained, it's a very disjointed value chain in terms of how we get things to market and how consumers actually buy them. So it was a lot of hard work on my part.
00:29:21 I also important with the largest distributor in the United States, which is called southern glaciers, wine and spirits and they've been very supportive of my brand. But if you see Kasama in a liquor store or restaurant, it probably means that somebody, so either me or somebody from the distributor probably physically went to that location, set up a meeting, you know, tasted the buyer and had to hand sell that product in. And so it's a lot of just pounding the pavement and literally going to all of these that hand to hand combat strategy. That's what I say exactly. Every single liquor store, every restaurant, every bar, every hotel, every grocery store is a battle and it's a continuous battle because you can get it in one day and then sell out or not sell and then somebody else will take your spot. So it's a continuous battle in every single location, which is another thing that makes it really, really hard. But we have also had a lot of sort of grassroots support from the community. It's a Filipino brand as I mentioned, and Filipinos are so supportive of their own.
00:30:28 I think they're really excited to see a brand that represents their country and culture in a way that's modern and exciting to them and is also, this is key, not just for Filipinos. I think a lot of times we do a lot of talking to ourselves about how great, you know how great our country is, how great our food is, how great our culture is, but I think I really said I want to be a brand that's loudly and proudly filipino, but not just for Filipinos, and so we've gotten a lot of, you know, write ups and mainstream press and things like that, but the Filipino community is certainly my base and they've done an amazing job in being so supportive, but also sharing it with other people. And I would say that that's how we That really contributes to our success so far, and how we sold out of that 1st 12,000 bottles. Yeah, that's so cool. And I have read a few of your really cool pieces, you are in vogue, you're involved, you're in all the places. Was that a matter of you finding journalists and emailing them yourself, or did you hire someone specifically to run your pr efforts?
00:31:32 So one of the very first things I did was hire a pr agency, I knew that it wasn't a skill set that I had. I thought that we had a really cool story that people I hoped would want to write about. And so I I hired an agency in new york in november of last year and they're absolutely amazing. I love them and they've done an amazing job of telling our story and getting it out there, but also were helped by the fact that alcohol, thankfully it's a very high interest category, you know, people really are interested in it, they want to talk about it, They want to write about it, They have questions and so I think it's been, I don't want to say easy, there are lots of alcohol brands, but I think it's it's easier than some other categories which maybe aren't as newsworthy. Yeah, I totally get that and I think as well, you have a re