Starting with the problem, and understanding the roots of it, helps you determine HOW to solve it or if a solution is even necessary.
Danny Lafuente, co-founder and CEO of Simple Vodka, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania with a B.A. in International Relations. He began his career working policy in US-Cuba relations and supporting human rights activists on the island. His passion for entrepreneurship led him to take on the role of Assistant Director at NYU’s Berkley Innovation Lab, where he worked with hundreds of entrepreneurs on business modeling and fundraising. Danny is the co-founder of The LAB Miami, a co-working space in Miami, FL, as well as Mano Americas and 01, a maker-focused education and events company. He also leads the SciTech Scity initiative, a 16-acre science and technology campus in Jersey City. He currently resides in New York City.
Dan Maslow, co-founder and President of Simple Vodka, graduated from the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business in 2009 with a B.S. in Real Estate Finance. Growing up in an industry family, Dan knows his way around a restaurant and has worked every position from a dishwasher to the General Manager. He began his career working as a Miami-based account executive for Sunquest Information Systems, a laboratory focused Healthcare IT Corporation. He currently resides in Miami.
Where did the idea for Simple Vodka come from?
We didn’t start with a product in mind but rather with a seemingly unrelated problem. Before Simple Vodka, I started a co-working space in Miami called The LAB. We had multiple catered events every week and so we’d regularly take left over, untouched food to the local food bank, the Miami Rescue Mission. My co-founder in Simple, Dan Maslow, was a member of The LAB and would routinely help me with delivery. What started as just the right thing to do became an immense source of interest for us. We were appalled by the pervasiveness of hunger in America and wanted to create a product that would not only draw awareness to the issue but take a bite out of the problem with each purchase. We also sought products that were ubiquitous, but with lower than normal brand preference – so we could capture people where they already were but give consumers more purpose in their choice. Moreover, we wanted to create a product that would fit our 3-S checklist: superior quality, sustainably produced, and socially impactful. While we researched dozens of different product verticals, a chance happy hour with my co-founder following one of our food deliveries led us to our “AHA” moment while sipping on a couple of Moscow mules.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
As a small team, everyone wears multiple hats so the typical day involves a little bit of everything from deliveries and paperwork to sales pitches and strategy meetings. With a mostly distributed/remote team, it’s hard to get stuff done “by committee.” So to be productive, we need to divide and conquer effectively and that means obsessive communication with the rest of the team – on slack, by text, by email, Skype, or whatever tool it may be. Individually, we can all be productive with our phones off and laptops open, but the company only moves forward when everyone is on the same page and working at the same rate.
How do you bring ideas to life?
The best ideas are ones rooted in actual problems and then evolve into novel and disruptive solutions to those problems. Of course, ideas don’t simply come to life in the presence of a problem. It takes rigorous research, testing, iteration, and execution. But when a problem is at the core of an idea, key decisions and pivots become obstacles rather than choices. Personally, I prefer obstacles – they may be difficult to overcome but choices invariably create uncertainty.
What’s one trend that excites you?
The trend I am most excited about is the rise of e-commerce in the spirits industry. While e-commerce is obviously far from new, there are still certain product verticals that lag behind and spirits is no exception. In the US, there is a mandatory three-tier system for alcohol: producers sell to distributors, distributors sell to retailers, and then retailers sell to consumers. That means we have limited control over where we’d be available for retail and thus difficult to market to the appropriate audiences. It is also a highly complex legal environment, which makes each market different from the next. Altogether, it’s hard for a young brand to grow without millions of dollars in the coffers or stretching ourselves too thin from an inventory standpoint. But the rise of e-commerce retailers for spirits is making it easier for companies like ours by navigating the system for us and allowing consumers to find us (and buy us) in a way that is increasingly becoming the standard. In turn, we can focus on building the brand and capturing consumers in markets that we don’t have a physical presence in.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
I pick one day a week, typically over a weekend, where I try to run my inbox down to zero. Falling behind can be major source of anxiety and makes it difficult to prioritize. Its not about busting through everything in one day but rather a time to reflect on my own bandwidth – doing what I can, passing off what I can’t, and passing on opportunities that aren’t realistic to take on. The important thing is to start each week fresh and not let the previous week weigh you down.
What advice would you give your younger self?
Start with the problem not the solution. I’ve always been an ideator – always listening and watching for opportunities to make someone’s life better, easier, or more fulfilling. But jumping to a solution can often lead to unnecessary widgets and in some cases just create new problems. Starting with the problem, and understanding the roots of it, helps you determine HOW to solve it or if a solution is even necessary.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
Big problems require small solutions. When faced with a big problem, most people think only a solution of similar size can be an effective “magic-bullet”. But more often than not, big problems aren’t a result of one singular malfunction but rather a chorus of conflicting forces working together and appearing as an insurmountable obstacle. Similarly, tiny solutions can have a disproportionate impact when used effectively and in unison. Why build a dam to stop a flood when a series of small canals might suffice? Ending hunger won’t be solved by one policy or program, it’ll be solved by a series of smaller “canals” that make it easier for people to have food and/or avoid being hungry to begin with.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
Ask for help! I struggled with this in many of my early ventures, but can’t stress enough how important it is to do, regardless of how much or how little help you need. Entrepreneurs are often proud and headstrong but even the greatest inventors of all time had teams or support networks behind them. Asking for help doesn’t always mean you’ll get it…but not asking for it, almost assuredly means you won’t.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Leading with the bad and finishing with the good. There are lots of reasons why we may not be the most attractive to one of our retail accounts – we can’t come in with huge marketing budgets, we have a small product portfolio, we don’t have the scale to offer major discounts, and we’re relatively young and unknown. I like to start my pitches with those problems and hope I’m not kicked right out the door. In most cases, I’m left sitting across from a bar manager and his or her blank, befuddled look. But that’s when I can seize the opportunity to juxtapose why we’re the best choice – award-winning taste, industry leading sustainable practices, and a mission that’s unlike any other in the industry. Being upfront about your shortcomings and then finishing on a high note has been instrumental in boosting sales. Our customers want to give us a chance by the end of the pitch versus feeling like they’re taking a risk.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
My first startup idea was in 2006 as a sophomore in college. “Miami Waiter” was a food delivery service, much like seamless or postmates, aimed at the South Florida market. Having used services like it in Philadelphia, and seeing their presence in other cities like NYC, I was convinced it was only a matter of time and wanted to beat companies to the punch. I took a semester off from school (at the University of Pennsylvania) to go home and start the business. Unfortunately, I had yet to learn about starting with the problem and the importance of customer interviews/research. What I discovered was that my “solution” wasn’t much of one at all – people actually ENJOYED going out for food (thanks to Miami’s good year-round weather) and it actually created MORE problems since most retailers weren’t equipped (technologically or labor wise) to handle an increase in delivery orders. While I chose to close the business and return to school, the importance of research and the critical value of addressing (not creating) problems were invaluable lessons to learn.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
A roundup and loyalty point conversion tool that allows users to pay for insurance premiums. Health, home, or car insurance can be expensive for a lot of working Americans and often difficult to work into end of month bills. Now that most people use cashless payments (cards, apps, etc…), a roundup tool could significantly offset monthly premiums in a way that is hardly noticeable for the end user. Moreover, if you could convert points from other programs, you might be able to offset it entirely. Regardless of the platform, each point does hold some amount of monetary value so its not impossible to facilitate conversion. I should also mention that some estimate there to be more than $100 billion in unclaimed points in the US and Canada (not that the program creators are complaining).
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
The most rugged phone case I could buy. I always rushing around and have dropped my phone more times than I care to admit. I’m paralyzed without my phone so keeping it safe from my clumsy hands is the best investment I can make.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive? How do you use it?
I’m a big fan of project management software, especially with a very distributed team like we are. While there are many online tools (mostly free), Trello is by far my favorite. The simple card/tile interface keeps it simple for even the most basic users while still providing a robust set of tools for the more advanced user. Whether a simple reminder, or a complicated multi-party project, Trello keeps me organized and on top of my daily To Dos.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
“Originals” by Adam Grant. I took his class while at Penn and the book reads a lot like his lectures. He has an innate ability to seamlessly surface important lessons from complicated businesses cases in a highly accessible way. The book in particular covers several highly innovative products and techniques that developed in highly unlikely ways (or from unlikely sources). For anyone looking to disrupt, not just replicate, Originals is a great source of inspiration and insight.
What is your favorite quote?
“Done is better than perfect”. Not sure who coined it (or if even coinable) or where I picked it up from but its one my main mantras. Again, as an entrepreneur, I want things to perfect but need to avoid that desire setting me back in other ways. You can’t get feedback on something that is still in your head…get it down on paper, test it, post it, launch it, team up, do whatever you have to do to get something done. Iterate or pivot if you have to but you won’t move forward if you’re constantly tinkering towards perfection.
• Don’t move forward with an idea without first identifying the underlying problem you’re solving for.
• Don’t work in isolation; engage, collaborate, and get feedback. Even if you’re a solopreneur, talk to anyone that will listen.
• Don’t strive for perfection; focus on adequate completion and thoughtful iteration.
• Constantly improve what makes you different and stick to it at all costs – replicating or imitating your competitors will at best start you just behind them.
• If you’re not asking for help, you aren’t working hard enough.
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Carlyn runs the day-to-day publishing operation here at ideamensch and interacts with our awesome customers and entrepreneurs. She is likely editing this with a cat on her lap.