LIC was dreamt up in January 2013 by Harry’s mum, Maureen. Sitting on the scorching beach in Miami, desperate for a Piña Colada, she uttered the now immortal statement: “I wish I had a Piña Colada on a stick”.
Harry and I have known each other for over ten years and have always bounced ideas between one another. When he mentioned the idea to me in January, it was a no brainer, “I want to get involved”. We quickly dropped the use of a stick; it is a nightmare for distribution. What we needed was something that could hold the liquid if it melted. Luckily for us this already existed in the form of the “Calippo” tube.
Unfortunately alcohol is a pretty tough thing to freeze properly. We needed a lab and some scientists. I was in my final year of Uni in London and Harry had just finished in Nottingham so the job was left to him to pitch to all the various government bodies and start up committees he could find to get us funding to develop our formulation. We met with Nottingham University in February and started straight away:
• Frozen at up to 15% alcohol by volume (ABV)
• Stable as a liquid
These were the two aims for the project. We were told that it was impossible to freeze at that ABV. “Be more realistic,” they said, “we can definitely do 2%”. 2 months later and we had a choice between a wobbly alcoholic gummy bear and a sticky alcoholic paste. We went back to the drawing board and, 4 months later, had something we were happy with – enough ‘crunch’ that it was a solid freeze but not hard enough that you couldn’t bite into it. By this point we hadn’t added any flavours in – it was essentially just diluted vodka. On a side note, I’m convinced that all these taste tests are why I can no longer taste the alcoholic kick from a strong drink!
As much as I’d love to remember this period as us cruising for taste tests between London and Nottingham in flash cars with the roofs down, it was quite far removed from this. Harry had been sleeping on my floor in my tiny apartment down in London whilst I was working for an estate agent to get some cash through the door.
Unfortunately estate agents don’t pay their grunts too well so it was highly unlikely that Harry and I were going to build a global company off the back of £400 a month. Luckily for us, summer is the period when all the business plan competitions throw open their doors and invite companies to apply. Even luckier for us was that we discovered one of them, the RBS EnterprisingU, on it’s final application date. We sent off a quick application and thought nothing of it.
A couple of weeks later we received an invite to pitch to a company called Find Invest Grow (FIG) who was running the competition. There were two other people in the room, a guy called James, who runs FIG and a guy called Arthur who has a company called BioBean. At this point Harry and I had never pitched for anything and safe to say, we were crap. We didn’t fully understand how to ‘pitch’, which resulted in us taking the literal approach:
N: “So Harry, what makes our product different?”
H: “Well Noah, we can freeze alcohol at up to 15% ABV”
This sent James into a fit of hysterics. We learnt a lot that day, including that if you have multiple revenue streams, James will tell you to “go f*ck yourself”. Somehow, we made it through to the final round.
Joining us in a giant room overlooking St. Pauls for the final were four other companies: Stat.io, The Tab, GradTouch and PetShopBowl. All were companies being run by young founders and, with the exception of Stat.io and us, proven revenues. We’d spent the last week practicing our pitch: We’d run through it whilst out on a run and was even at the point where my housemates could recite it back to us. We were presenting to Nick Wheeler (founder of Charles Tyrwhitt), Karen Hanton (founder of Toptable) and Peter Ibbetson (RBS Small Business Chairman).
We came first and clinched the £25,000 first prize. While on paper the reward may have been monetary, to Harry and myself it was invaluable. It gave us credibility as a business and the confidence to approach investors. For those wondering what actually happened with the cash, we put it to good use: bringing on Vault49 as our design agency, filing the patent on our formulation and spending some more time in the lab working on scale-up.
We made the decision to go full-time.
Testing the product was critical and given that we didn’t have any events we decided to partner with someone who did: Mahiki. We called the co-brand “Mahiki LIC” and took our tiki-trikes to all their summer events, from Polo in the Park to Henley Regatta. We sold over 12,000 over the course of four months and learnt a similar number of lessons along the way:
- No product will sell itself – unless you put it in the face of people, they won’t know about it
- Be open to who your target consumer is, you may be surprised at who turns up at the counter
- Some phrases work better than others – ‘alcoholic lolly’ doesn’t quite cut it
There were two lessons that lead to fundamental changes in how we ran the business: our high repeat sales at events meant we had to position ourselves stronger as a spirits brand to avoid being typecast as an ice cream; LIC has a target demographic that largely fits the question “do you like frozen cocktails?” and needed a separate brand identity and set of values to reflect this. LIC was reborn.
Behind the scenes we started work on two changes to the product for Summer ’15. We changed the rum to make the taste more subtle and began work on ambient packaging. Whilst those two words don’t sound remarkable, the Calippo packaging is completely unsuitable for distributing the product as a liquid without separating, something we’d specifically developed it to do. There was no suitable replacement so we decided to create one, from scratch.
Over the course of six months we met with plastics manufacturers across the country and sank the majority of our remaining cash into developing something that would allow us to sell our LICs as a liquid on the alcohol aisle. We poured everything into getting this to work and by early-May, had some samples to trial. We froze some down but they wouldn’t push up. They were of more use as hammer than as a frozen cocktail. This kicked off a week of Harry dashing around the country visiting the best guys in the plastics industry and two more weeks of visiting various manufacturers. In the meantime we went back to the cardboard Calippo packaging.
We were determined not to let this setback ruin the summer for us. Whilst it ruined our ability to get into retailers for the summer months, we pushed ahead with positioning LIC as a spirits brand.
We mounted our counter freezers on the bar and saw immediate results, tripling our sales at Polo in the Park and doubling our sales at Henley Regatta. We also brought on a diverse range of stockists, from outdoor venues in Brixton, Shoreditch and Brighton to nightclubs in Derby, Manchester and Mayfair. We took LIC to a more diverse set of events too: selling close to 6,000 at V Festival and running our first LIC pop-up at Notting Hill Carnival, selling out over the two days.
The decision to push ahead despite the setback was worthwhile. We were rewarded with recognition from IBM and London Innovator’s as one of the top 5 Products of the Year as well as interviews from both London Live and Monocle. Which leads me on to why we’re only just releasing a newsletter now…
The final product is nearly done!
We’ve re-engineered the packaging and now have something that works. Imagine being a bartender on the beach in Brazil, storing your LICs as a liquid below your counter freezer and freezing them down as and when needed. That’s always been our vision and we’re nearly there. When it is, we’ll release Issue #1. Please keep an eye out for it in a couple of week’s time!