Meet the CEO and Co-founder of Garçon Wines

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Such a pleasure Santiago, really looking forward to finding out more about yourself and Garçon Wines. So, tell me a little bit about the man behind the business and how it all came together?

Hi Nadine, I’m Santiago Navarro, a serial entrepreneur passionate about wine and travel, both industries which I’m fortunate enough to run businesses in and industries in which my start-ups are innovating. My latest venture is multi award-winning Garçon Wines – the London-based inventors and granted multinational intellectual property owners of innovative, eco-friendly, flat wine bottles.

Recognised as a game-changer in wine thanks to prestigious business customers, national and international awards, and press coverage in business and consumer media, Garçon Wines aims to improve convenience and functionality for consumers, cut logistics costs and slash carbon emissions from the supply chain of wine, while prioritising sustainability to protect the health of our planet. 

Manufactured in the UK using 100% post-consumer recycled PET and fully recyclable after, the bottles conform to traditional wine bottle shapes but are 40% spatially smaller and 87% lighter than round, glass bottles of the same volume, meaning they require less space and energy at all points across the wine industry supply chain. The business commercialises these unique bottles operating as a B2B drinks packaging provider and wine wholesale supplier.

My first venture in the wine industry and a result of my passion for the way consumers shop for wine, was with my first start-up business Vinopic Wines – the world’s first retailer to use scientific analyses to judge and score wines for their intrinsic quality. 

After Vinopic and before launching Garçon, I also co-founded Nightly.travel, introducing ‘hotel switching’ to savvy travellers. This hotel booking website is the first in the world to offer a smarter way to stay – two hotels for cheaper than one. 

I’m now focused on Garçon Wines, as CEO and co-founder, targeting the 35 billion bottles used annually in wine and aiming to make flat, innovative and sustainable bottles the dominant primary packaging.

What do you think sparked the inspiration to launch Garçon Wines?

I believe that motivation is more important than inspiration when launching a business. The difference between inspiration and motivation, and the importance of this difference when launching a business, is the same as the difference between idea and action. Ideas and inspirations are great – but they won’t get you anywhere without actions and motivations. Many of us have great ideas and feel inspired. Few of us convert those thoughts into actions – actually doing stuff – and motivation – fuelling an internal drive to do this stuff. Therefore, from my perspective motivation is the key. 

Furthermore, in my view, you launch a business because you have a clear vision to achieve something. This may be improving a product or service, making the world a better place, commercial success, or some other core motivating factor. Once you understand that motivating factor, then an objective plan for execution will ensure you can convert the motivation into the best chances of achieving success – however you may define success. 

In addition, I believe it is drive, determination and doing the work that gets the business launched and scaling. You need a fire inside you which will fuel you through the massive struggle to build a serious, scalable business. As an entrepreneur you do have inspirational moments, but in my view, they come from brief instances of meeting great entrepreneurs with a remarkable story to tell and they offer that burst of inspiration. 

I launched my business to change wine bottles in the way that screw caps changed wine closures. I launched my business to change the way wine is sold, delivered, handled and more. I launched my business to make tomorrow better than today, and to ensure we could use a change in wine packaging to inspire, and then motivate, others to create sustainable businesses which would help mitigate against a climate change catastrophe. Inspiration played just a little part in my driving force; self-belief and the determination to make flat, sustainable wine bottles more commonplace in the industry than the 19thcentury status quo, got me started and motivates me every single day. 

 

What’s the best decision you’ve made for the business so far?

The single most important decision at Garçon Wines was getting our bottles prototyped. If your business proposes or offers something novel, and moreover if it’s a product, then you need to have something to show. In my view, the importance of getting samples produced to have something to show can make or break you. 

As a founder or visionary, your idea is well developed in your own head and you understand it. However, that internal vision is not going to get your business to flourish. You need to communicate the product and you should do all you can to create prototypes or samples to show. 

In the case of Garçon Wines, producing prototypes of our bottles was game-changing. It allowed our vision to be understood by others. When showing our innovative, flat bottle on paper as line drawings, few people got it, some were sceptical. The moment we had actual bottles and could display these, the world fell in love with our invention and the business started accelerating forward. The samples also allowed us to create still life photography of our wine bottles in a home. This was fundamental in communicating our vision for a 21stcentury wine bottle. There’s one specific picture of our prototype bottle, filled with red wine and on a dining table with a pizza that was fundamental to us launching with a bang.

 

How did you fund the launch and what creative strategies did you use to execute a minimal cash flow?

In the very early days, before incorporating Delivering Happiness Ltd, the company behind Garçon Wines, and when we were still investigating the opportunity for our invention, we were funded by gifts from the co-founders. During this period, I personally did consultancy work on the side to have the income to be able to sustain my cost of living and the money needed for the business expenses. 

We were then part of a TV show broadcast on CNBC International and backed by ecommerce titan Alibaba, where we received some early stage funding as prize money.  This got us through a few more months and we went on to raise a small round of external investment from a company mentor.

More recently, the company has been funded through debt – a combination of convertible debt and director’s loans from my mum and me. I owe my mum a massive debt of gratitude for the help she has provided me. There’s probably nobody who knows me better and who knows how hard & smart I will work to turn this into a success. I do, however, recognise how fortunate I am to have the support of my mum which allows me to take considerable risk, something that increases chances that my success, if it happens, will be greater.

All these investment amounts have been relatively small. In my view, as long as you remain lean and frugal, then there’s no real need to burn through large amounts of cash. There are many stories of start-ups raising millions and burning through them before even releasing an MVP (minimum viable product). Most of these end badly and for good reason. In my view, it’s about being disciplined and as my Scottish grandmother would always say, “take care of the pennies and the pounds will take care of themselves.” This is an attitude we will observe for a long time to come. It doesn’t only benefit us, but importantly it benefits our clients and their customers. Being wasteful with any resource, cash included, is not sustainable. Sustainability guarantees longevity.

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 We all experience doubt at one time or another, how do you look past them?

I’m a very pragmatic, positive and objective person and am fortunate enough not to waste much time doubting. Doubt is about existing in grey; getting stuck in indecision or uncertainty. I try to break decisions down into binary choices and then I make a decision. It may not always be the right one, but I make a decision quickly, and in as informed a way as possible, and then take action. 

I monitor important decisions closely and if they’re wrong, I stop take stock and then take another decision. In my view, doubt is a waste of time and energy. Making a decision and taking action creates movement and even in a worst-case scenario, you’ve always got at least a 50% chance of being right even if you make random choices. It’s important to increase your odds of being right by making the best choices possible. I try and make the best-informed decisions using my gut and as many resources available to me at that time. The longer you’ve been in business, the more decisions you’ve taken, the better you become at it. 

Most people never take their great ideas to fruition. They’re just not cut out for entrepreneurship and they’re most likely uncomfortable with the uncertainty and risk. You could summarise it as doubt, but I think it’s more helpful to understand how individuals deal with uncertainty and are able to manage and cope with risk. That’s more likely to be holding them back from turning great ideas into successful companies.

What would be your top tip for young entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurship is not for all. The current hype around start-ups has the risk of misrepresenting the immense challenge it is to start and scale a business. 9 in 10 new businesses fail and whilst a very small percent of the 10% that survive get amazing publicity of success, there’s a distinct toll on an entrepreneur. Unless you’ve got a phenomenal amount of grit, drive, determination, patience, persistence and discipline, then you’re unlikely to succeed. 

As Seth Godin puts it very clearly, “entrepreneurs: [1] make decisions; [2] invest in activities and assets that aren’t a sure thing; [3] persuade others to support a mission with a non-guaranteed outcome; and [4] embrace (instead of run from) the work of doing things that might not work.” This quote from one of the leading business strategists of our generation is immensely important for any entrepreneur considering launching their own business. If you don’t connect with these four items, you’re better off working in/for an established business rather than trying to start your own business.

What’s the most important question entrepreneurs should be asking themselves?

Elon Musk embodies the ultimate entrepreneur with superhuman drive, commitment and comfort with phenomenal amounts of risk. As he puts it, “a well thought out critique of whatever you’re doing is as valuable as gold”. 

Therefore, as an entrepreneur you should be giving regular, considerable thought to your business plans and actions, looking at them as objectively and differently as possible to try and spot the weaknesses. This critique of what you’re doing is vital for success and is arguably the most important question that entrepreneurs should be asking themselves. 

In addition, and more than ever, it’s now fundamental for entrepreneurs to be understanding the sustainability of their business; how it contributes to a better tomorrow and ensuring it creates a better society and healthier planet after the business than before it. Garçon Wines is a good example of this. We’re well known for seamless delivery of wine through the letterbox. Many see this as a convenience driven innovation and that is partly correct. But there’s also a very important element to successful first-time deliveries in that they cut carbon emissions. Furthermore, our flat, light bottles also cut the carbon footprint of wine, right across the complex supply chain. This is the core of what we do. We offer a 21stcentury wine bottle which saves the industry money whilst slashing the greenhouse gas emissions from it. This supports the wealth of our industry and the health of our planet – the ultimate in sustainability and nowadays probably the most important question entrepreneurs should be asking themselves.

How do you recharge when you’re feeling burnt out?

I’m fortunate enough to have very supportive parents who understand why I’m not the best of sons and I’m only ever working on my start-ups rather than spending time with them. I hope they enjoy seeing my achievements and that makes up for my absence. 

Otherwise, I’m surrounded by a very close group of friends, the closest thing I could have to brothers, who are entrepreneurs or successful corporate professionals and we help each other destress and recharge. They help me unwind and switch off for a few hours a week, enough to recharge and be ready for the next sprint. They’re also a great sounding board for the ups and downs of starting and building new businesses. Having close entrepreneur friends when you’re an entrepreneur is highly recommended – they motivate as well as support. 

Eating well, keeping fit, having fun at work and not using an alarm clock, I believe are all fundamental to ensure there’s no risk of me burning out. Also loving what you do is essential to ensure that the 7-day work weeks and long hours do not take their toll. 

Finally, having the best team I could wish for makes work nothing like the traditional view of work – instead for me it’s an enjoyable execution of my professional passion. This makes matters all the better. We’re military in our execution, in the demand for quality and in the drive for success in everything we do, but we have a really good laugh along the way, and this is as important for me as it is for them. People in our industry know the Garçon Wines team as a happy bunch of start-up professionals – a culture we hold dear. 

 

What habits do you think helped you to become successful?

Discipline not habits helped, and continue to help, me achieve success. When most people would quit, I continue. When the metaphorical rug gets pulled from under my feet, I stand back up right away, smile, and make sure to avoid standing on the same metaphorical rug again. Being educated for the formative years of my life by disciplinarian Jesuit priests, drilled discipline in to me. In addition, my parents gave me the values to be a happy, nice, well-mannered gentleman, and this combined with discipline gives me, in my view, a great recipe for success.

Still, I believe that the single most important factor in my success is that if I believe in something and know it’s right, then I never, ever give up. This never give up attitude comes from and provides for discipline, patience and persistence. 

 

What are your thoughts on networking to build your business?

Networking with the right people is fundamentally important. It’s as much about who you know and what you can access easily, as it is about what you know and what you’re capable of doing. 

Don’t get me wrong, an incapable person with the best network still has less chance to achieve genuine, self-made success than a super strong person with a poor network. However, the best is to be great at your work and also have a strong, relevant network at your disposal. 

The point about relevancy is an important one. You need to understand who the people are who can help you grow bigger and faster. There’s many people out there who may be fun to talk with or may be well-known in business circles but have no connection to what you’re doing. You need to be selective with the right opportunities for networking to connect with the right people. 

When I attend a networking event, I’m usually looking to meet specific people I don’t know yet, but I know I want to meet with. In advance of attending, I make sure to know what they look like and I make a direct approach to meet them at the right opportunity. It’s like a meeting without an appointment. They’re in the same room as you and it’s a matter of strolling over to them, putting your hand out and saying with a smile on your face, “Hi, [insert name] I’m Santiago. Great to meet…” and take it from there. Fundamental to successful networking is good manners and respect. A smile, being genuine, listening and not just talking are also vitally important. Basically, do to others what you want done to yourself.

Failure has become synonymous with being an entrepreneur. What are your thoughts around failure?

As an entrepreneur, you’ve got a considerably greater chance of failure than success, in fact you’ve got 9 times more chance of failure than success. Therefore, as an entrepreneur you’ve got to be very comfortable with failure. You’ve got to be sure you’re ready and able to take failure from a personal, professional, emotional and financial perspective. And if you’ve got a strong character, as many entrepreneurs do, then plan for the financial downside as this is probably the only one which can genuinely wipe you out.

Last year, they launched an interesting campaign in the UK called ‘Business Stay-Up’ which looks at the topic of embracing failure and instead tries to minimise failure by focusing on the personal development of entrepreneurs. There are also some great podcasts which look at the failure side of entrepreneurship. There are more stories of start-up success that make the news and this risks distorting reality. We need to embrace failure as well as success, as there would be no successes if entrepreneurs did not take risks to try and make a better tomorrow. 

In the UK, we’re still far off from the acceptance of failure that they have in the US and that may not be a bad thing. Failure shouldn’t be too easy as otherwise we may allow failure when that extra effort, that grit would have got you over the bump in the road and continuing on the journey to success. I’ve failed and learnt, and I sure will do all humanly possible to minimise the chances I fail again. But if I do, I’ll learn more and power on. I never, ever give up.