The Startup Interview: Kitsch Drinks

“I’m never going to do a focus group or anything like that,” says Craig Johnston, the founder of Edinburgh-based Kitsch Drinks. Well, there goes everything you were ever taught in a business class. Think what you like, but Craig’s unusual view of market validation does work for him. “I made this because it was something that I wanted, and people want it,” he says. So, to find out more about making craft sodas, his views on good business and his unusual startup advice, I met Craig for a chat. Here’s how things panned out.

Craig’s running late to Brew Lab, a coffee bar popular with Edinburgh’s student population and one of the first stockists of his craft sodas. He’s spent his June afternoon delivering the latest batch of his sodas to his ever growing list of cafés, restaurants and bars so, when he does arrive, he’s quite happy to order himself a drink and take a seat at one of the bar stools overlooking the coffee bar where his produce is prominently displayed.

“So tell me how all of this came about,” I ask as I pour my first helping of his Rhubarb and Thai Basil soda. “About one year ago I’d say, I’d just started making my own cola,” he says. “I just got bored of soft drinks I found. There wasn’t really anything for me.” He admits that his experimentation at making cola was unsuccessful, however, he began to ‘play’ with seasonal fruit and vegetables which eventually led to the two sodas he produces today (the other is Cucumber and Fennel seed flavour). “I’d always wanted to set something up, it seemed like it could happen, and I got it together eventually,” he tells me. To get started, Craig approached the Princes Trust for a small business loan of £5,000. “It was a surprise because they didn’t even try the drink,” he exclaims. “They literally just had me saying ‘this is what I want to do,’ and they believed in it, which was awesome.”

“They literally just had me saying ‘this is what I want to do,’ and they believed in it, which was awesome.”

On a whim, I ask him if he’ll explain how he’s producing his sodas and how he has developed his first two flavours. To my surprise — I was expecting him not to share such secrets — he’s very open on the subject. Beginning with the Rhubarb and Thai Basil I have sat in front of me, he explains that it “started off as rhubarb and basil, but it smelt like some Italian cooking. Basically, it smelt like pesto. It tasted good but it was really weird on the nose, so that was changed to Thai basil which was an improvement.” I’m inclined to agree as I take a sip — it tastes almost like a sorbet. “The cucumber one took ages to develop because cucumbers are really temperamental,” he says. Not wanting to get bogged down in the details of food production, we leave it at that.

Craig tells me that one of his major sources of inspiration are craft beers which, he says, are produced “really naturally, really just true to what it should be, but tasting of something interesting.” His focus on the natural side of things comes across throughout his business, whether it is in the recycled glass bottles he uses, the manual labour he puts into producing it (there’s little electricity involved) or his focus on sourcing ingredients from local market stalls. Of course, such things don’t come cheap and Craig is happy to admit that he isn’t able to depend on his startup financially just yet, however, he appears confident in his gradual expansion plans that, one day, this will change.

Given that we’re discussing expansion plans, it seems a good time to ask Craig about his growing list of stockists. After his launch in late May, Craig appears to have found numerous supporters for his startup, recently taking on stockists in Glasgow and with a trip to St. Andrew’s planned for the following week. “Yeah, it’s cool,” he says modestly. “I’ve got fourteen places in total now, thirteen in Edinburgh and one in Glasgow.” He explains that getting your product through the door has been challenging, however, once people try it and see it, it often results in them getting in touch about stocking some. “It’s just a case of getting out there and seeing,” Craig concludes.

Nevertheless, Craig is picky about where he’ll distribute his product. He highlights Starbucks as somewhere he wouldn’t sell his product as a result of his natural and ethical stance; “it has to be somewhere where there is a fit in some way. It’s not that we won’t expand, it just needs to be in the right places and there needs to be a value match. We can’t be the only thing that’s in there that’s natural or true to our ethics.”

“It’s not that we won’t expand, it just needs to be in the right places and there needs to be a value match. We can’t be the only thing that’s in there that’s natural or true to our ethics.”

“So what has influenced you to instil this ethical stance in your business?” I ask. There are, he notes, a few influences. He begins by telling me about businesses which he admires; “the business that I like are the ones that have a very fair purpose and that look to leave things better than they found them.” He highlights Patagonia, an American clothing manufacturer, who’s advertising stresses that one shouldn’t ‘buy this jacket if you don’t need it.’ He also discusses Ben & Jerry’s before its acquisition by Unilever. “These are businesses that do amazing things and then think about the money afterwards,” Craig exclaims. “The money should always come second.” He continues by highlighting Barclays — with whom he conducted an internship in the years following the LIBOR scandal which pushed him toward entrepreneurship; “they got a new chief executive who was pushing values but it clearly didn’t work out right because they put in those values two years ago and it’s clearly still about pure money.” Finally, he moves on to talking about Power of Youth — an organisation who bring together entrepreneurs to discuss the people behind businesses and their passions. “I went away on their weekends called ‘the naked entrepreneur’,” Craig tells me. “They bring together people who are starting a business, have just started a business or have had one for years and discuss things like ‘what do you care about?’ I’ve never heard anyone mention their turnover of their profit, no one cares about this stuff. It’s all about ‘how can we make what we’re doing better and more true for ourselves?‘”

I ask Craig what he studied — he graduated more than a year ago now — and whether it has played any part in his business. “I’ve got an economics degree,” he tells me, before adding, “has Economics helped me in any way? Absolutely not!” In fact, he attributes most of his learning at the University of St Andrews to his extra-curricular activities which included roles as a society treasurer, a student mentor, etc. “Actually, that’s possibly untrue,” Craig says. He explains that, for his dissertation, he focused on the environmental catastrophe found in meat production. “I was more aware of the impact of the way we produce food, not specifically soft drinks, but that kind of came out of it from a broad angle,” he says.

“Would you call yourself an entrepreneur?” I ask, changing the direction of our conversation. “No,” Craig responds firmly. “I think it would feel a bit self-indulgent to call me that now. In the grand scheme of things, I’ve got a micro-business.” He explains that he’s running Kitsch Drinks for a living — well, he hopes to anyway — and, given the early stage, he sees himself more as ‘just a guy, making some drinks that people are buying.’ “That’s fine with me,” he concludes. Perhaps then, this partly explains the thoughts behind the piece of advice Craig offers to others. “Do what you love, and then make it happen. That’s the right way round to do things,” he says with a smile. Clearly passionate about this way of thinking, he reiterates, “do something that is true to your purpose, that’s true to you, and then make it happen afterwards, because then, it’s going to be the best that it can be.”

With that, I turn off my recording and, finish the last centimetre of soda in my glass before we get up to leave. On the way out, I overhear Craig chatting to the man stood behind the coffee bar in Brew Lab. In what, perhaps, is the best feedback Craig could receive just two months after launching, the man says, “it’s better selling than any other drink we have in stock.” Now there’s something to aspire for.