IIBN caught up with busy entrepreneur Gary Lavin, Founder of VITHIT an Irish company who have been making drinks healthy since 2000. Low sugar, low calories and full of vitamins.
You can visit the VITHIT website here
We asked Gary how did he get the idea for the VITHIT business?
I couldn’t understand how people thought sports drinks were healthy with 28gms of sugar per bottle. I knew that the human body can only process 25gms of sugar a day, the rest turns to fat. I knew there was a gap in the market, I just had to force my way in.
Give a brief account of your education background.
Went to school in St Marys Rathmines. I was only interested in Rugby and focused most of my energy on that. I tried but wasn’t good at the national memory quiz (leaving cert). I just don’t believe that exams system is suited to everyone, and we definitely lose students who, like me don’t have a detailed memory. Through a lot of studying, I got enough points to go to college, but didn’t take it up as I knew it wasn’t for me.
Did you always know/ever think you would become an entrepreneur when you were younger? Always! Both my parents are entrepreneurs, so the mental barrier to entry wasn’t there. In fact, it always seemed like a more logical route for me vs working for someone.
Is entrepreneurship a common trait in your family?
As mentioned above, it certainly is. I believe entrepreneurship is nurture and not nature. If your parents tell you, that you can achieve anything (which mine did), it doesn’t seem like such a high wall to climb.
Did you have prior knowledge of the industry before setting up your company?
Zero. That was a help and also a hindrance. It helped, that I didn’t have any of the traditional barriers that you get from working in an industry following others. The downside was that I made a lot of basic mistakes that I could have learned on someone else’s dollar!
What was your previous work experience (if any)? Do you think this gave you an advantage when setting up your business?
I tried to work for other people, but it just never felt comfortable for me. I left school in 89 when there were very few jobs available. I even attended an interview for a job as a combine harvester salesman. When they asked me to describe a tractor engine, my cover was blown. I didn’t get the gig funnily enough!
How did you initially fund your business? (self-funded, government funding, etc)
Self, Family & friends. I think, even today you can get a first production trial done for very little. The issue was, I had no research, just blind faith. The first 8 years I was trying and failing with product and packaging, but I was really just finding the products sweet spot.
Looking back, would you have changed the method of funding you chose?
At the time there was no other funding, so I didn’t have a choice. Banks were deaf, crowdfunding didn’t exist, it was pretty bleak. I think with a good creative business plan you can get crowdfunding now quite easily which is great.
What difficulties, if any, did you encounter when securing funding?
It was impossible. Thankfully, I had bought and sold 2 apartments, so funded with the proceeds of that. Banks wouldn’t let me darken their door, so that was a dead end.
Did you encounter any financial difficulties in the first year of operation? If yes, what did you do to surpass them?
I had financial difficulties for the first 8-9 years. Building a brand with zero backing is not easy. However, what I found is that 1. nobody sells like the owner and 2. you can keep your costs low if you do most things yourself at the early stage.
What characteristics do you feel benefited you most when starting your business?
Determination. My moderate success at rugby gave me the self-belief to keep going when others would have given up. I genuinely believe that team sports give kids an incredible education in losing regularly, fighting back and teamwork. I read an amazing stat which says 85% of women on boards of corporate America played a high level of competitive team sports. Sports give self-belief and a competitive nature when you need it most.
To what do you attribute your company’s success/growth to?
Looks good, tastes good, does good. It’s a simple recipe, but very hard to get right. If your product doesn’t look good, you will not get the first sale. If your product doesn’t taste good you don’t get a second sale and if your product doesn’t have great ingredients, you will not build a lasting business in food or beverage.
What is your opinion on the importance of a professional network for an entrepreneur?
I didn’t have a network when I was building the business and I regret that. It’s great to see what your peers are achieving to set a bar higher for you (a rising tide lifts all boats). I also think that an entrepreneur’s journey can be very lonely and it’s good to share challenges. Also, if you have a network who are already in a space you want to be, they can sometimes give you that leg up you need to move to the next level.
Do you think entrepreneurship has changed in recent years?
Yes, there is distinct air of ‘build and burn’ cash. I have felt in recent years that building up a business without profits is a dangerous game as funding will run out. You learn more by having to survive on a profit and loss sheet than you do by getting a loan. Loans have to be paid back!
Would you ever consider starting another company or involving yourself in new start-ups again?
Absolutely, I have lots more ideas which I would someday like to start. When you have been in a business for 20 years, you start to see buying patterns which are not being fulfilled. The reason I don’t pursue them is I want to stay focused. I would rather be a shark in a pool than a school of fish in an ocean 🙂
If you had one piece of advice for a new entrepreneur, what would it be?
Sell, sell sell! If you are reading this now and you don’t have enough sales, you should be in a shop telling someone how great your product is. Nothing else matters.