If you’re like me, you probably don’t have the resources you need to make a cocktail lying around at home. In a big break from his degree in Medical Sciences, graduate Sonny Charles is looking to help those of us with such a predicament with Tipple Box, a monthly subscription of cocktail ingredients, delivered to your door. We met at the University of Edinburgh’s Business School for a chat about cocktails, technology startups and why ‘entrepreneur’ isn’t the right term for him.
“In my final years of school, me and a few of my friends participated in Young Enterprise, a school’s competition for business,” Sonny launches straight in. “We essentially came up with a concept called Pursuit which was a website that allowed students to sell their past exam papers to juniors. We got to the UK final, thought it was a great idea and took it forward to university but, with the team spread around the UK and with no tech experience, it never worked out.” Sonny describes to me how this experience spurred him on to become an entrepreneur. “I went into my studies with the aspiration of becoming a doctor but I realised, after two or three years that it definitely wasn’t for me. At the end of the day, however, I decided that Young Enterprise and others had inspired me — that’s what I want to do.”
In just a matter of minutes, Sonny has struck me as someone who isn’t afraid to talk about the flaws in his ideas; “I think we were quite naive about things,” he says, referring to the lack of experience and skills he had when running Pursuit. But Sonny isn’t afraid to try out new ideas either. “The second idea that I had with a friend was to make t-shirts which were worn in clubs. We took photos of people wearing them and then branded them and uploaded them to our Facebook page. When people were tagged in our photos, they were linked to our Facebook page and we got thousands of likes within a couple of weeks.” There was, however, a flaw in this plan. “It seemed like a good idea but it wasn’t making any money. I think we’d put around £600 into it so thought it was time to call it a day,” he says.
“So how did Tipple Box come about?” I ask him. “When I finished University, I tried to get a job in advertising but it didn’t really work out. I couldn’t find any jobs and basically came up with an idea for a loyalty app,” he says. Again, he was challenged by his lack of technical background and, with an estimated cost of £1,500 to develop, he opted not to pursue it. “As I was going around Edinburgh researching, however, I realised this fluctuation of cocktail bars and wondered where they were all coming from. After a bit of digging, I noticed a rise in the craft spirits industry, growth in cocktail bars and in subscription markets. In Edinburgh, we have companies like Beer52, and Flavourly (both subscription food and drink companies) but I wondered why nobody was doing this for cocktails.” Not impressed by what he found, he decided to give things a go and Tipple Box was born.
“Tipple Box itself is a box of cocktail ingredients. We offer everything you need to make cocktails at home,” Sonny tells me. “All you need to do is add ice.” Although it may sound like a premium product — and many would argue that it is — Sonny is clear that it is about the experience and trying different flavour combinations and ingredients which you might not consider or find in your everyday supermarket. Recently, he’s featured Hendrick’s Gin, Chase Vodka, Fever-Tree tonic water and many others, alongside the Tipple Box jam jar which he includes to give the product that authentic contemporary cocktail bar aesthetic.
“So, being an Edinburgh-based company, have you featured any Whisky?” I ask. “You know, I haven’t. I did a lot of customer research before hand and found that whisky was a huge turnoff for consumers. Only 10% of the female market actually liked the idea,” Sonny tells me with confidence in his decision. “So who is your target market?” I continue. “It’s mainly females, aged thirty to fifty. We do have a few men buying them but it’s mainly amateur mixologists, etcetera.” Men, we really need to move away from the pint and be a little more adventurous.
Sonny seems like a really grounded entrepreneur; he’s clearly done his research and knows who he’s targeting with his product and what they like (apparently Gin and Vodka).
I ask him about his subscription model. Does it work? “We’ve been a bit cheeky here. We offer it as a subscription but you can also buy it as a one off as well,” Sonny says. That doesn’t sound cheeky to me — that sounds like clever business. “If you subscribe, it’s a bit cheaper and I think that’s fantastic for the budding cocktail fan.”
“I really hate the term entrepreneurship nowadays. I think everybody throws it around so liberally. Maybe one day, when I feel like I’ve earned it.”
“So do you think of yourself as an entrepreneur?” This is, as any regular reader will know, a question which seems to produce very mixed opinions in Edinburgh’s startup community. “I really hate the term entrepreneurship nowadays. I think everybody throws it around so liberally. Maybe one day, when I feel like I’ve earned it,” Sonny says. Many people seem to see the term entrepreneur as restricting them to only business-creation related activities, Sonny argues but he knows that ideas can fail and doesn’t appear worried about taking up a regular job if that were the case.
“So how would you define yourself?” I ask. “Someone who tries really hard,” Sonny replies before commenting, “that sounds really arrogant doesn’t it?” He sees himself as a risk taker. “Maybe it’ll be over in five years time but it’s been a really interesting journey at the end of the day.” Although Sonny’s description of an entrepreneur as “someone who successfully follows through on an opportunity” would appear fitting, he’s clearly taking a more long-term perspective and is hesitant to describe himself as a success quite yet.
We return to discussing Tipple Box and Sonny’s aspirations for the future. “One day, I’d really like to create my own spirit,” he says but his primary focus today is on upgrading his boxes for retail (until recently, they’d only been sold online) and bottling their own spirits to allow the company to feature smaller producers who are limited in their capabilities to produce miniatures. “And maybe five or ten years down the line, I’ll sell Tipple Box for a nice hefty profit,” he says, his smile broadening ever so slightly.
“The alcohol industry is really exciting but I’ve just come back from San Francisco and the tech-industry…it just blows my mind.”
“So this isn’t something you plan on continuing indefinitely then?” I note. “Probably not. Maybe until my early thirties (he’s currently twenty-three). The alcohol industry is really exciting but I’ve just come back from San Francisco and the tech-industry,” he pauses, “it just blows my mind.” He’s been teaching himself to code and hopes to capitalise on his interest in the area by moving to San Francisco at some point. “I don’t think a lack of coding experience should prevent people from entering this exciting market but it definitely does.”
Based on this example, I’m interested in whether Sonny believes entrepreneurship should be taught in a similar way to how computer science is entering the British curriculum. “Um, I think that what we did in our final year of school is a really good example — we learnt by doing — but trying to force it on people isn’t right. Maybe introduce it to some extent, by bringing entrepreneurs to talk to students for example,” he says, his voice fading away slightly hesitantly.
“Who inspires you?” I ask. “One person who’s always inspired me is Mohammed Ali. I’ve always seen him as this great inspirational figure who overcame so many boundaries. My mum and dad have always supported me as well.” No entrepreneurs then? “I think Richard Branson as well.”
“Let’s talk about crowdfunding,” I say, taking the conversation in a completely different direction. Sonny launched Tipple Box with an IndieGoGo campaign last year. He raised a total of £10,669 of his £25,000 goal but, due to its flexible funding option, was still able to produce the product for those who bid during the campaign. “So why did you use crowdfunding?” I ask him. “Um, well, basically we chose crowdfunding because, I saw it almost as a way to make a quick buck,” he says, brutally honest with me. “It turned into more than that. Everybody does crowdfunding just now — there’s money to be made there — but we saw it as a way to launch our product much faster than had we just introduced it to market.” The campaign offered bidders an opportunity to subscribe to their product and they paid upfront, allowing the company to benefit from greater startup capital. “So would you do it again?” I ask. “Definitely. It’s worked out really well for us. If I’d tried to do what I did and go to spirit companies to start with a run of 10 boxes, they’d have thought ‘what are you talking about’ whereas the crowdfunding campaign allowed us to pitch 200 boxes.” Sonny tells me, however, that if he were to launch Tipple Box again, he’d lower his campaign goal — “it was far too ambitious,” he says — and look for some initial investment.
We’re running out of time — I’ve scheduled another interview after this one but we’ve spent a lot longer talking than I expected — so I ask my final question: “If there was one thing you wanted to leave my readers with, what would it be?” I’m expecting a product pitch but I receive quite the opposite. “If you’ve got a great idea, just go out an do it,” he says. He might not like the term but I’m convinced that Sonny is an entrepreneur at heart.