Twin sisters of university start-up Double Dutch and speak about starting a business young and female: “We had a lot of doors slammed in our face”

“When we started out with our samples, we didn’t know anyone," Raissa de Hass, one half of Double Dutch tells me.

Twin sisters of university start-up Double Dutch and speak about starting a business young and female: “We had a lot of doors slammed in our face”

“When we started out with our samples, we didn’t know anyone, Raissa de Hass, one half of Double Dutch tells me. “We just knocked on the doors of London’s top hotels and restaurants and asked the bar managers to taste them. We had a lot of doors slammed in our face and rejection, but when we did get our product in people’s hands, they loved the look, concept and taste of these more exciting flavours.” Raissa and Joyce de Hass are the co-founders of Double Dutch, a brand that aims to provide a premium selection of flavourful and high-quality spirits and mixers. The co-founders are not only best friends, but also identical twin sisters. “It really helps to work with your twin sister as you can share the highs and the lows as well as the workload,” she adds. The sisters, originally from the Netherlands, were exposed to the food and beverage businesses from a young age as their parents had a licence to import spirits and soon became budding connoisseurs, developing a skilled passion for tastes and flavours. “When you work with your twin, you don’t worry about stepping on one another’s toes – you say what you feel! And if you don’t agree, you know in 10 minutes that you’ll either make up or find a solution. It’s nice to celebrate good times together and at difficult times, we lift each.” she adds.

Their idea for Double Dutch started at university where Raissa and Joyce realised there was a gap in the alcohol market – and they knew exactly what they needed to bring to the table. The sisters attended the University of Antwerp in Belgium and threw regular parties for their friends, showing off their mixing skills with ingredients they sourced themselves.

Raissa and Joyce realised that even though the choice of spirits on the market were heavily abundant, there were limited options when it came to mixers. “We regularly threw parties and always encouraged friends to bring different spirits for which we would create our own mixers with ingredients we could easily source,” Raissa explains. “We started making our own mixers after becoming more and more frustrated by the fact that while the choice and quality in spirits kept growing, the mixers designed to accompany the spirits remained bland and unexciting.”

Their passion for food and beverage combined with their growing frustration for lack of quality mixers in the market led them to create kickstart their own brand, Double Dutch, which pride themselves in creating innovative flavour combinations using only natural ingredients with no artificial flavouring, colouring or preservatives.

“We were frustrated by the lack of innovation and range of choice for high-quality mixers currently on the market,” Raissa said. “We saw a gap for mixers using premium organic ingredients that were tasty and low in calories and sugar. There was also a growing demand for more non-alcoholic beverages, as more and more people are drinking less. We are passionate about flavour pairings and have developed unique recipes that present unexpected and creative combinations.”

“We are currently the only brand to use molecular gastronomy when creating our flavours,” she added. “Each bottle of Double Dutch has no artificial flavouring, colouring or preservatives. We only use natural ingredients and sweeteners, blending them with the highest quality spring water to create crisp and delicious mixers that are easily enjoyed drunk straight up.”

Starting their business did not come easy. As first-time entrepreneurs and university students, it took a lot of trial and error before the sisters were taken seriously with their brand. Starting their company far from home, it was also difficult for them to build an established network of clients and investors in a new country with no connections.

“We started our business straight out of university in a city that’s not our hometown,” Raissa said. “This meant that it was often difficult to get any meetings scheduled in because we didn’t have an established network, and people often would just not take us seriously.”

“We both believe that people buy from brands who they trust and have a connection with, she adds. “If you have been in the industry for a while it is much easier to draw on contacts. However, as young entrepreneurs, we have needed to grow our business relationships, so we have always spent a lot of time networking at events, reaching out to potential customers and actually talking to people. The majority of our social life is through Double Dutch!”

The twin sisters didn’t let their age stop them, but instead chose to see it in a positive light. They decided that even if they didn’t have the skills and contacts as their older peers, they would use a strength most young people have under their belt – the digital world and social media.

“I think that one of the perks of starting our company young is that when we meet customers, it shows our genuine passion for our product, the brand and market,” Raissa said. “Being young we’re also lucky that we are more digitally connected thanks to growing up as digital natives. We’re also more open to experimentation, as we are aware of flavours from around the world, which has helped in developing our product range. And, of course, we are relentlessly optimistic and prepared to take risks, to try but also to learn quickly!”

Raissa and Joyce began to connect with contacts and investors via social media portals such as Linkedin and Instagram, and soon began to grow their network like wild fire. The pair have managed to establish meeting with some of the world’s top influencers business moguls through a simple hello message and follow-up coffee meeting.

“We live in a time where it is so much easier to reach out to influencers, advisers, investors or just anyone you look up to. We approached all of our customers in the first months via LinkedIn or Instagram,” Raissa explained. “When we decided to raise our first investment round, we really had no clue where to start and how to find the right investors. To overcome this, we decided to make a list of the top 20 people we’d love to have on board, basically anyone we thought could add value to Double Dutch.”

“We approached them via LinkedIn and found that a lot of them were open to grab a coffee. In fact, our first round of investors all came from LinkedIn, and it is really a great mix of people who all have different assets to bring to the table. Building the right network is probably one of the most crucial things when starting your business.”

Being a young entrepreneur comes with its challenges. Raissa and Joyce found that with every step brought along a blanket of doubt and uncertainty over whether they made the right decision. However, they received a lot of support and help along the way through university mentors and training, which gave them the confidence to dive straight in with their brand.

“As a first-time entrepreneur, every step is a new step – every problem we face is new for us so each time we need to come up with a new solution,” Raissa explained. “We can’t really use any benchmarks or former experiences, so with every decision there is always a little hint of doubt, thinking we didn’t make the right decision.”

“On the positive side, there is actually more support out there for young budding entrepreneurs and start-ups than ever before, especially for female-owned businesses,” she added. “At university, we received first prize for our dissertation, which included mentoring advice, free office space and an investment grant to start our business. Four months later our first batch of bottles was produced. Starting a business while we are young afforded us the opportunity to have the support of our school and mentors convincing us to take the plunge and just go for it!”

Despite the downsides, starting a business at a young age does come with its perks. Launching a company at university means you are not obliged to give up a job or sacrifice a career for the sake of your business, Raissa said. There is also very little financial risk that comes along with it and you are bound to have more freedom when it comes to choosing a career path, as well as the opportunity to learn from mistakes along the way with greater leeway.

“The great thing about starting a business at university is that you can just go for it,” Raissa said. “You have nothing to lose yet and so there is very little financial risk. Starting a company after university, on the other hand, can be complicated by having to commit full time to your idea and giving up a secure job. There is none, or very little, of this risk while you are studying so you have more freedom.”

At university, budding entrepreneurs also have the ability to use various resources provided to them and seek help from professors and experts available who are always happy to give free advice.

“It is also well worth taking advantage of all the resources available to you while at university,” Raissa says. “They are free while you are studying and so it’s a great time to capitalise on all the research papers and industry market data that you can get your hands on. Your professors are also a great resource, and most will be willing to help and offer advice. While at UCL in particular, we found that the university was really supportive with helping us to find focus groups to test ideas and helping us find funding through government grants and start-up competitions.”

As two bright young women entering a male-dominated market, the pair often faced prejudice and felt they had to work harder to overcome certain obstacles. Through sheer perseverance, determination and having each other’s backs, the two sisters were able to scale their brand to greater heights and eventually beat the stigma.

“When we started Double Dutch, it quickly became clear that the food and beverage industry is a very male-dominated industry,” Raissa said. “We had to deal with failure and work around it by working extra hard. Eventually, people started actually appreciating our passion for the brand, and now I think it works more as an advantage that we are one of the few women in the industry.”

What they thought was their weakness became their biggest strength. It’s not every day you see two young women starting an alcohol brand – and this inevitably attracted the interest of investors.

“People became curious to meet up, and we used this opportunity to pitch our story as much as we could,” Raissa added. “We didn’t give up despite the prejudice. Eventually, you will meet someone who can give you that much-needed break. It’s all about the learning process, and it’s good to know what plays into your advantage and what can separate you from the crowd.”

“Women are increasingly empowered in business because they are fighting for what they believe in, supporting each other, and proving that they have every much a right to operate in any given industry as any man,” she added. “We are also lucky in that we are finding many male advocates for women in business – this is not a one-way conversation.

However, Raissa and Joyce believe female entrepreneurs should be given more support and a platform to air their doubts and concerns advising the need for mentorship programmes and networks.

“Having said that there is always more that can be done,” she said. “We need to encourage a new generation of entrepreneurs and offer them mentors, as well as vocal male advocates for women in business and vocal female role models that can share how they have taken ideas to grow their own brands. We look forward to seeing the next batch of young female entrepreneurs growing their own businesses.”

Raissa and Joyce gave a final word of advice to budding entrepreneurs out there: “We always find that passion for your start-up will shine through everything you do. Whether it’s pitching for investment or negotiating, it’s important that you believe in your brand and convey that to whoever you are talking to.

“It’s also important that you keep evolving your start-up until you solve a problem for a customer. When we launched our first product, we saw it as an experiment which meant that we were open to change and ready to take feedback on board to match our customers’ needs. It can be discouraging to get criticism or bad feedback, but it’s important that you don’t take it personally. Customer feedback is the most valuable feedback, so if your product doesn’t work listen to your customers and make the necessary adjustments – it’s a win-win situation for all.”

Latifa Yedroudj
Latifa Yedroudj

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