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An at-home drinking experience: Founders of Craft Gin Club, Jon Hulme and John Burke

Written by Latifa Yedroudj on Monday, 01 March 2021. Posted in Fresh faces, Interviews

Jon and John wanted to bring the best top-quality gins to the public that would have otherwise been undiscovered, as craft producers often did not have the budget to reach the general public.

An at-home drinking experience: Founders of Craft Gin Club, Jon Hulme and John Burke

Craft Gin Club is selling the equivalent of one G&T every 2.5 seconds

“Elevating the at-home drinking experience has been one of our founding goals throughout the business so we do feel very fortunate to be one of the businesses which have come out of 2020 stronger,” Jon Hulme, Co-founder and Managing Director of Craft Gin Club tells me. Craft Gin Club is now selling the equivalent of one G&T ever 2.5 seconds. Their subscription box delivery business has skyrocketed as millions of Brits have swapped nights out for at-home drinking since lockdown. It all started when Jon and John met while studying at IE Business School in Madrid and instantly became friends over their shared passion for food and drink. Years later, the two pals rekindled their friendship over a drink at a swanky London bar, reminiscing on their favourite gin and tonics as they chatted the evening away. It was then that the two friends decided to start a business together – and the idea for Craft Gin was born.

Jon and John wanted to bring the best top-quality gins to the public that would have otherwise been undiscovered, as craft producers often did not have the budget to reach the general public. Every year, Jon and John sample over 200 gins and select 12 various types to feature in a monthly subscription box. Jon and John also came up with the idea to bring an at-home experience for their customers, adding in a well-selected range of tonics, mixers, garnishers, snacks and a recipe book so subscribers can make their own tasty and quality drinks at home.

“We’d been following the craft gin boom, and swapping notes about all of the gins we’d been trying — not just delicious drinks, but spirits with really interesting stories and very talented people behind them,” Jon said. “However, it was also apparent that many of these craft producers did not have the marketing budgets to reach the consumers they were worthy of, so some were remaining largely undiscovered.”

“We were noticing that consumers were underwhelmed by the options available in the supermarkets, despite the number of gins available,” John added. “There was a gap for us to come in and actually curate the market, selecting the best of the best for consumers and also introducing them to new and exciting brands they’d previously never heard of. Every year we sample over 200 different gins, but only 12 are selected to feature in our monthly subscription boxes.”

However, the pair were faced with several challenges along the way – and one of their biggest obstacles was gaining a social media following, which took them several years to build. With sheer perseverance and determination, Jon and John continued putting content out on their social media platforms and after four months of consistent posting, one of their posts went viral – and their subscriptions service took off.

“We were noticing that consumers were underwhelmed by the options available in the supermarkets, despite the number of gins available,” John said. “There was a gap for us to come in and actually curate the market, selecting the best of the best for consumers and also introducing them to new and exciting brands they’d previously never heard of. Every year we sample over 200 different gins, but only 12 are selected to feature in our monthly subscription boxes.”

Jon and John went on Dragon’s Den and in 2016, and were offered investment from four out of five of the Dragons, walking away with £75,000 investment from London Cocktail Club co-founder Sarah Willingham – who was already a long-time Craft Gin Club member.

Speaking about their experience on Dragon’s Den, John said: “Going into the Dragon’s Den we were nervous, but very curious; we hadn’t pitched to any investors at that point so we had no idea how they were going to react to our business. We actually received offers from an almost-unheard-of four out of five Dragons! We were delighted to secure a £75,000 investment from London Cocktail Club co-founder, and Craft Gin Club member herself, Sarah Willingham. We were definitely very keen to have a Dragon with experience in the drinks industry, so it worked out very well. The fact that she was a member of Craft Gin Club was of course an added bonus, but also felt like we already had a vote of confidence in our brand from Sarah. As a board member, Sarah has helped us propel the business forward with both her business expertise and also her passion for a quality gin and tonic!”

He added: “Appearing on the show massively raised the profile of Craft Gin Club and the following publicity really helped to kickstart things for us as a business. Also, on a personal level it gave us a massive boost of confidence to really push things forward and continue with our vision. We knew if we could survive that stressful environment and level of scrutiny, while also securing such a great investment, then the only way was up.”

In their first year of launch, Craft Gin Club gained over 3000 members and their subscription service accelerated at a rapid rate, growing by 46% in 2018, 63% in 2019 and a whopping 71% in 2020. When the pandemic hit, Jon and John faced several struggles as some suppliers they were forced to close and could no longer deliver their products, and they also faced delays on importing some of their gins from overseas. However, the pandemic brought some light at the end of the tunnel. Thousands of bars and pubs across the UK have shut down their doors amid a nationwide lockdown. Without access to happy hour, many Brits have resorted to making their own signature drinks and cocktails at home. Since then, Craft Gin Club has seen massive success, generating over 125,000 active members and continue to build their brand and reach even greater heights.

“I think, like so many other businesses, one of the biggest struggles has been the uncertainty,” Jon explained. “We’ve always been very careful and realistic to prepare for problems along the way, but this was something that we could never have imagined. We did see a few hiccups as we went into lockdown with a few suppliers who had been forced to close and were no longer able to produce or deliver snack products for the boxes, as well as plenty of delays on importing some of our gins from overseas. Our September Gin of the Month, which was arriving from India, went on quite a voyage to get to our warehouse in the Midlands and we were nervously checking for updates at every stage of the process as we got closer and closer to our packing deadlines. 

“On the whole, however, I have to say I think we’ve been very lucky during the pandemic. There are whole industries which have struggled over the past year, whereas our business has really thrived, so we feel incredibly grateful to be doing as well as we have been. With so many people looking for nice ways to make the most of being stuck at home, subscription boxes and food and drink kits like ours have really had a chance to shine. Elevating the at-home drinking experience has been one of our founding goals throughout the business so we do feel very fortunate to be one of the businesses which have come out of 2020 stronger. We’ve also really doubled down our efforts in the past year to improve our ecommerce offering, launching an online shop which is open to non-members, as well as our subscribers, and continuing to invest in new product development.”

Craft Gin Club have since hired 15 new members to the team and have adapted their marketing and content messaging to encourage members to “stay at home” with nights in, treating themselves to a monthly subscription box and various other gin products from their online shop. “Luckily, we managed to get through the year largely unscathed,” Jon said. “For snack products that weren’t able to be delivered to us we were able to find replacement items from our partners quite quickly, which is a testament to our fabulous Commercial team who work hard to build close relationships with all of the brands we work with. We did start putting some contingency plans in place, in case any of our gins didn’t arrive in time for the boxes they were due to be featured in, but thankfully everything went to plan in the end.”

“Although we’d always rather be together as a team in the office, we’re lucky that the move to working from home was painless for the business. We tested our working from home capacity in early March when it looked like we may soon be placed in lockdown, asking all employees to work from home for a week to make sure that the business could function remotely, which it did. The following week Boris called for national lockdown and the rest is history! Uncertain of how things would play out, we did initially implement a freeze on hiring plans in 2020, but this was quickly lifted after Summer following a very successful few months. As we were rapidly approaching 100,000 members and needed a bigger team to assist with this growth. We’ve actually hired 15 new members of the team since then, so it feels really great to be creating jobs in the current economy.”

In a few words of advice to businesses struggling during the pandemic, John said: “Manage your cash flow as best you can. If you don't have any investment and sales have gone down, try to focus on your core activities for a while. Alternatively, if you're sitting on some investment and you spot opportunities that may have opened up due to competitors being cautious during lockdown, now is a good time to test things and stand apart from your peers - consumers will notice. It’s a careful balance of caution and risk, but it definitely helps to know your audience as well as possible.”

Jon explained how expanding Craft Gin Club’s e-commerce has helped grow the business and brand for months to come. “For us, expanding our e-commerce offering in the past year has really allowed us to grow and establish our brand further,” he said. “Even before the coronavirus pandemic and national lockdown, consumers were turning more and more to online shopping. Following the launch of our online shop, and after the lockdowns last year, we saw a 100% increase in monthly subscriptions with a 500% growth in our year-on-year revenue. Aside from generating actual sales, e-commerce is also important in terms of creating a sense of community. In the last six months of 2020 we saw a huge increase in the engagement over on the Craft Gin Club blog and social media channels, with over 2.9 million visitors and 4.7 million page views. Our weekly Facebook Live Cocktail Hours are attended by hundreds of club members – it’s fantastic to see so many enjoying these online events. Building this online community has been vital for us in terms of staying connected with our loyal members and reaching new audiences and consumers so that we can continue to grow our customer base. They’re at the heart of what we do and they’re kept in mind for every decision we make.”

About the Author

Latifa Yedroudj

Latifa Yedroudj

Latifa Yedroudj has joined the Elite team to fully immerse herself in the business side of journalism, a strong passion of hers cultivated from young having co-run her mother's start up business since she was 18. Her interests lie in a wide range of subjects, including start ups, business, travel, and anything entrepreneurial she can get her hands on. She has worked for some of the biggest names in journalism including The Guardian and The Mirror. Follow her on @latifayed on Twitter for her latest journo rants.

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