Founders Interview | Duncan O'Brien & Dan Broughton @ Dalston's Soda Co
Briefly tell us about yourself and your brand
DUNCAN: I don’t really think of Dalston’s as a brand but I suppose we are one - we’re first and foremost a drinks company made up of excellent individuals.
Dalston’s began with a group of chefs making great drinks from real ingredients in an East London nightclub, and we went on from there.
I was trained as a chef to scour the best small farms to find the best fresh ingredients, and then present them simply.
We’re pioneering better quality in soft drinks and there has recently been a lot of focus on calorie reduction. In our journey we’ve built two factories in London, and gone from making 200 bottles an hour to selling millions of cans a year.
We like to focus on strong single ingredient led flavours and find the best example of their type to use in blending our recipes.
We've been all about the lower-sugar thing since before it was a thing. We were awarded a £5000 innovation voucher to explore sugar reduction about 5 years ago, and we think we've got the tastiest no-added-sugar drinks on the market.
Why did you become interested in the world of snacks & drinks?
DUNCAN: I’ve been working in the food & drink industry for about 15 years, but I really got interested in the world of drinks when my old restaurant owner boss took me to visit the first Kernel Brewery and I was shocked in a good way at seeing primary production in London.
While working in food sustainability a couple of years later I saw that most areas of food & drink had been or were being dramatically improved…..15 years ago food & drink in the UK was in a bad spot, with the good stuff generally reserved for the wealthier classes.
Now we as a country are bursting with excellence and a global leader in food & drink - especially in London where Dalston's was born.
What inspired you to do what you do?
DAN: I believe we should have healthier, cleaner fizzy drink options for all of the family to enjoy.
Pop that actually tastes of what it’s made from, without strange, unrecognizable chemicals in them and not containing the boat load of sugar so common in mainstream options.
Also building a successful brand that can give back to the people it’s involved with and the planet that we live on, can make a real positive impact. Whether that be our team where we can create an amazing ‘no Monday-blues’ culture, our suppliers where we can work closely with them on long term sustainability projects or with our links to Pilot Lite mental health charity that support troubled chefs battling all sorts of depression or anxiety.
Being a force for good is a rewarding place to be.
What was your Eureka Moment when you knew you had a product which you could take to market?
DAN: We’ve iterated and experimented a lot over these past few years, but in 2018 we had to back what we believed would be the winning products.
This came in the form of cans, in rebranded packs that widened our flavour varieties.
These drinks were instantly a hit and helped us to grow sales 4-fold that year. With the growth continuing through 2019, selling a staggering 7 million cans. So I guess that was the moment we started to appreciate that we’d hit the sacred PMF (product market fit).
What current & future trends does your product meet?
DAN: Globally it’s well documented that the bigger trend now is towards health within soft drinks as refined sugar continues to be castigated.
Consumers are actively seeking out new brands that can fulfil their refreshment needs without the associated high sugar, high calories and dubious chemicals.
Our range of no-added sugar Seltzers are what we believe solve the problem for those looking for a great tasting, all natural, low calorie fizzy option.
Our 2020 launch into this emerging no/low alc space got stunted before it got started due to the Covid-19 storm.
We however believe that the future of adult soft drinks will be in this more sophisticated craft space, where flavours are very similar to their alcoholic cousins, and don’t offer the same stinking hangovers the next day.
What did you do before starting your company & what made you take the leap into entrepreneurship?
DUNCAN: I ended up in the food & drink industry accidentally after running away from London the first time - when my very brief career in the city didn't work out.
I was 22 years old and 2 years out of a fascinating degree in anthropology, and I could imagine the coffin lid slamming shut to the eulogy 'Duncan was a Pensions Investment Consultant' and it didn't feel right.
Running back to Scotland I got a job on the Orient Express hotels train 'The Royal Scotsman' where I trained as a chef, then in the Caribbean island of St Martin for a year before sailing back to the UK as a deckhand onboard the megayacht Audacia.
I've often wandered off in search of adventure, I’ve been a journalist in Cambodia, a welder in Uganda, but more often than not a pot-washer in a restaurant somewhere.
I started Dalston’s simply because the 2008 recession had made ‘normal’ opportunities that much harder to come by and I didn’t have a whole lot to lose.
What has been the hardest part of starting your business?
Dan: Gaining distribution takes time and doesn’t come overnight.
Building profitable sales is tricky in the early stages without scale as cost of goods are invariably higher.
Building your loyal fans is an ongoing process and absolutely critical to success.
So all in all, lots of challenges to overcome, but the obstacle is the way!
Duncan: Raising investment in the early years.
What has been the BEST mistake you’ve made & why?
Duncan: Doing things the hard way and producing/manufacturing drinks ourselves for years. This gave us a profound appreciation for what our suppliers and all the people throughout the supply chain do and how important it is.
Dan: Launching products too quickly without rigorously testing, learning and critiquing enough. This has taught me to not always be too optimistic but to look for the pitfalls, the downsides and negatives to, hopefully, land a much better product launch.
What keeps you motivated?
Dan: Seeing consumers enjoy your products, hearing from our team that they’re super happy and motivated and disrupting a category that’s dominated by the big guys.
Duncan: Thoughts of bankruptcy.
What do you do in your spare time outside of business life?
Dan: Well I used to play roller hockey until I dislocated my shoulder two years ago in the European championships! (illegal back check, ouch!). Now I like to ride my mountain bike, run, swim and chase after my 2 little ones who are 5 and 2.
Duncan: Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, reading, and talking to old & new friends seems to be all I have time for these days!
What do you think are the key skills required to make yourself & your business a success in the world of snacks & drinks?
Dan: Humbleness to learn, listen and adapt (ego is your enemy). Tenacity to push through 101 issues, challenges and complexities every single day (the obstacle is the way). Passion to enjoy the journey. Have an attitude of gratitude to appreciate all of the small things.
And finally a real eye for detail, whether that be in finances, marketing, sales or ops, you really can’t afford to drop the ball in these critical areas.
What would you say is your biggest strength?
Duncan: I genuinely like meeting and listening to people from all walks of life.
Dan: Passion & enthusiasm to push through challenges and encourage those around me .
What would you say is your biggest weakness & how do you look to overcome this?
Dan: Patience is a weakness of mine. I like to get going and make things happen quickly.
I’ve learnt though, that great work takes time and that magic is in the process.
So I’ve started to enjoy wrestling with ideas, bringing in key stakeholders so that we all go on the journey together and appreciating the fact that we may need to go through a few options first before getting to the final outcome.
Duncan: That’s far too personal - we’ve never even met! Honestly.
If you could sit down with yourself for a pint/glass of wine/coffee this time last year…..what would be the 3 most important tips you would give yourself knowing what you know now?
Dan: Continue to diversify your channel mix and focus on building B2C and D2C channels in a bigger way.
Duncan: In 7 months time there’s going to be a pandemic the likes of which hasn’t been seen in living memory. Short airline stocks. Invest in PPE manufacturers. Prepare the team.
Any plans or predictions you can share with us for the rest of 2020?
DAN: We’re taking quite a bold move this year – consolidating our range of soft drinks to become a more focussed seltzer business and launching into the exploding hard seltzer market!
As the health wave has hit every single food and drink category, we’re now starting to witness this growing trend start to infiltrate the booze arena.
Coming over very fast from the USA where this Hard Seltzer category has already been a rip-roaring success (over $2billion in sales), we’ve seen the light and understand that there’s a huge unmet need for a tasty, fruity, light and healthy alcoholic option that doesn’t pile on the calories.
We already produce award winning seltzers and have found that by adding a fermented fruit alcoholic base to them, that we can make an absolutely delicious, low calorie, no added sugar, vegan friendly, booze option for our consumers to enjoy whilst in a week-end mode – a no brainer to give a go!!
From September this year we’ll have two flavours available with Rhubarb, Grapefruit Hard Seltzers launching.
Our point of difference in what is already quite a crowded space will be:
1. Great Taste (way tastier than the mass market brands)
2. Craft (independent brand that puts care and attention into every detail of the drinks).
We’d love to hear from you if you’d like to taste or hear more.