The Telegraph | Press Clippings | Smith & Sinclair
Smith & Sinclair started by accident, admits co-founder, Melanie Goldsmith, whose gummies was born out of another venture – a board game dating night that she and fellow co-founder, Emile Bernard, hosted in east London.
"This was pre-Tinder, but around the time that dating started to go online," explains Goldsmith, whose laid-back happenings were for those who didn't want to talk (and flirt) via text.
"We were rebelling, in a sense, against this new, awkward form of socialising, by putting on nights where adult daters played like kids." The duo's thinking was that conversation would come more naturally over a spirited game of Battleship or Guess Who?
More so than at a tightly-controlled speed dating event.
Hosted in cocktail bars, these nights matched free-flowing conversation with flowing drinks. "But having one in your hand always made things quite tricky," says Goldsmith; a glass always in one
hand meant that people couldn't properly play the games. The two matchmakers tried to think of an alternative ice-breaker, and Bernard, a chef, cooked up some edible cocktails.
"He has always experimented with jelly," says Goldsmith, who loved the idea of serving grown-up pick 'n' mix.
"We didn't want to make something that had been done before, like an adult macaroon, so Emile created a gin and cucumber Haribo sweet, basically."
These edible cocktail sweets – which aren't filled with liquid, but do contain half a shot of alcohol – proved to be a bigger draw than the date nights, with many of the event companies that Goldsmith was freelancing for at the time ordering batches for catering.
At one event, the co-founders met the organiser of London's Berwick Street market. She encouraged the founders to set up a stall in the run up to Christmas. "We got one sandwiched between a fruit vendor and sausage roll stand, and sold about £3,000 worth of sweets," remembers Goldsmith.
They also launched the company online in early 2014, calling on a friend to build the Smith & Sinclair website.
Two days later, the business received an order from Imbibe
Live, one of Europe's largest alcohol trading events, for 20,000 sweets. Its head of marketing had seen the duo's Berwick Street stall and planned to stick a pastille to every event invite that went out that year (beside each pastille were the words "suck it and see").
"I assumed that it was a typo," remembers Goldsmith, who called back to inform Imbibe of its mistake. It replied that it was anything but.
"We hadn't even considered our product as a B2B marketing tool; we had seen it very much as a gift."
Turning branded drinks into pastilles was a welcome new revenue stream for the brand, which sells vodka, whisky, gin and rum pastilles at pop-ups and business events, via its website, and through John Lewis and notonthehighstreet.com.
"Suddenly, we were a genuine solution for alcohol companies to get their products to people," says Goldsmith, alluding to the various legal and practical issues that come with sending miniatures.
Another early order came via M&C Saatchi, which ordered a bespoke range for Ballantine's Whisky. "That was one of our first invoices.
I had to Google what one looked like, because I had never invoiced anyone in my life," says Goldsmith, who took an evening accountancy course to brush up on her financial management.
Another challenge was cash flow. "We didn't raise any investment
for the first two-and-a-half years, so had to turn a profit to keep growing," she says. "Not many small firms achieve that straight away."
The co-founders used business finance company, MarketInvoice, to take out a loan earlier this year, which helped to fulfil mounting orders.
Innovation is key for a company with such an innovative core product – and the founders have made deliberate steps to carve out time and space for it.
"Emile is the innovation and at the beginning, he would invent the product and then make them," explains Goldsmith, who employed a full production team to enable her co-founder to spend more time inventing, and less time making.
It's important that production doesn't involve him too much, she adds, with the business looking to expand its range in 2018. It currently employs 12 staff and registered turnover of £500,000 last year. It's on course to hit £1.2m this year.
"Emile and I have quite a unique relationship in that we don't co-run the business," says Goldsmith. "We made the decision early on that he would head up innovation and not look at our development and strategic growth," she adds.
"We wanted to avoid any potential tension – those 'I want sign off; no, I want sign off' moments."
Innovation extends beyond just the product, with Smith & Sinclair having just launched an experiential retail concession at John Lewis's flagship Oxford Street store. Like an adult pick 'n' mix station, it features thermal reactive surfaces and scent-diffusing walls, with customers able to smell a berry daiquiri before adding the pastille to their box.
"We're a completely new category," says Goldsmith. "We don't want people to think of us as a chocolate liqueur; we're a pre-batched cocktail, so how do we explain that to people?" Yes, you can use words to colourfully describe how something looks and tastes, she says,
but it's when someone physically touches, feels and eats the product that they truly get it.
And it's no coincidence that this new concession will be about play, as it was with those early east London date nights.
"The concession brief was: what would it be like if Nespresso and the Science Museum met," explains Goldsmith. "It's really sleek and premium, but people have permission to play.
It's not contrived, where you have: Step 1, do this; Step 2, do this. Instead, we've got push me, pull me and smell me."
It's about piquing people's curiosity and providing an environment in which they shed their inhibitions, she says: "We want to grow these concessions, so that we become known for these playful, physical spaces within retail."