Wouldn’t you just jump and down with joy if your business idea had a review as fantastic as this one from a leading British broadsheet newspaper: “The basic bitch drink of summer 2016 - you know you want in, so don’t even try to pretend you’re too cool.” I know I would!
This is exactly what happened earlier this year to Amanda Thomson, CEO and Founder of Thomson & Scott Skinny Champagne and Skinny Prosecco, marking just how far she has come in creating an entirely new and exciting sector of the drinks business. Her idea to launch a no sugar / low-sugar champagne that was both alcoholic and top quality was seen as slightly bonkers when she first began trailing the idea to exporters and wine merchants.
She very much views herself as a “disrupter”, an entrepreneur who has taken on an industry known for its tradition and the technical language it uses, often impenetrable to most people. This year she’s added Skinny Prosecco to her drinks portfolio and plans to make this into a great export success. As a vegan I’m happy to report that it’s not only low sugar but also vegan and organic. As Amanda says, “Clean food and drink is most definitely the future.”
Her background is not one you would normally associate with entrepreneurship. Until 2009 she was working as an Arts Broadcaster for the BBC on a comfortable salary of £50,000. Life changed dramatically when she moved to Paris with her husband Ian and their two children aged seven and two, to study for a Diploma in Wine at the world-famous Le Corden Bleu School. “I threw myself into studying wine, all on a credit card, armed simply with passion and a resolute belief that I was going to find my niche with champagne.”
It was while on the course she attended a wine tasting where she met Alexandre Penet, a fifth generation Champagne maker who had studied engineering at the University of Chicago and whose fizz was “utterly delicious”. It also had no added sugar. Penet achieved this by adding reserve wines from the cellars of his family’s vineyard rather than the usual sweetened mixture. “Most people have no idea that sugar is added to champagne”, says Amanda, “The French say it ‘tricks it up’. You can take a dis-appointing base product and put a lot of sugar in, and it balances it.”
It was this introduction to Penet’s method that was the “light bulb” moment for Amanda because the more she thought about the idea the more she realised that if “zero dosage” became “Skinny” it would reach a market familiar with this concept. When faced with wine trade sceptics who questioned the viability of no sugar / low sugar champagne she would point to young health conscious consumers who understood Skinny – and bought these products in big numbers. She also wanted to create a “fun, relaxed conversation” with another market that she had identified, that of the female-dominated, 30- to 50-year-old demographic.
Being raised by a vegetarian health conscious mother in the 1970s also played a part in Amanda’s unfolding story of Skinny Champagne. Growing up, sugar was something that she only ever saw at other people’s houses; she remembers watching her friend’s parents heaping spoonfuls of white sugar into their cups of tea, eating cereals that “set your teeth on edge” and buying every new fizzy drink that “literally buzzed on the supermarket shelves”.
Such is her ongoing conviction about her brainchild she launched Skinny Prosecco into a £350 mil-lion market closing the first round of funding single-handedly. From day one it has sold like billy-o and been the most searched for item on the Thomson and Scott online store. Further Skinny drinks are poised to be launched soon - Skinny Cava, Skinny Franciacorta, and Skinny Sparkling Wine.
The aspect of Amanda’s success story that struck me as being truly inspirational is the sheer determination and single-mindedness that kept her moving towards her goal.
She has learnt above all in else in business that you have to “stick like glue to your idea and never waver.” I identify with her on this one hundred percent because bringing a business idea to commercial reality is a test of resilience and staying power.
If your belief in something is so solid that you’re prepared to gamble almost everything then the very least you deserve is a fair shot.
You have to have grit and not just passion to take on naysayers and prove them wrong
...especially in the case of Amanda who’s operating in a male-dominated sector that places huge value on vast wine knowledge before any other area of expertise.
She admits that she had to learn how to run a business from the bottom up, a common and familiar experience shared by women starting out in business. Will it work? Have I got it wrong? What do I do next? Am I crazy to be doing this? What if it all goes wrong? Can I make it pay? What should I charge? How do I complete a tax return? Should I use an accountant? On and on it goes until you have made it through the first year of trading and come out the other side.
No-one said it would be easy.
I was fortunate in this respect as I was able to draw on 25 years of experience as an hotelier when starting out in 2009, with what was originally The Langtry Manor Business Women Awards, now rebranded as the Venus Awards. While I had good connections in my home town of Bournemouth where my family had run their hotel business since 1978 and was able to pull on these when launching the Awards, I certainly didn’t have this advantage when we launched in Southampton in 2012. It was the first real test of whether the Venus concept of recognising and rewarding local business women could be successful in regions other than Dorset. Fortunately it exceeded even my wildest expectations and paved the way for expansion into other regions.
What you do need when starting out in business is bags of confidence
This is something that Amanda has admitted to “faking” at times when she was negotiating with buyers in the tradition-soaked world of wine. I know from personal experience why confidence it so essential because if you don’t personify and communicate it when asking others to buy in to what you are “selling” then you’re handicapping yourself from the get-go. This doesn’t mean that you have to be on full throttle all the time, besides
an astute person will know when you are not being authentic, when something is forced.
Confidence is also being able to say “No” as well as “Yes”
An approach that women starting up in business can get into a bit of a quandary about on occasion. For example, the times when you take on things you don’t want to either because you don’t want to appear 1) unhelpful, 2) unsympathetic or worse still 3) unreliable; or when you end up working with people you’re uncomfortable with or even dislike because it has cost implications. And what about the times when you’ve compromised on something it would’ve been better not to.
Making the right call at the right time for the right reasons is not something that comes easily when setting out as an entrepreneur but when you do make the right call your confidence grows big time.
You begin to trust your own counsel. And the self-belief that it brings then seeps into your non-business life too.
It can be a win-win to say “No”.
Amanda has been an entrepreneurial disrupter in another way too. Launching a new wine generally takes a great deal of money but by using an e-commerce model to sell Skinny Champagne allowed her to take money at the point of sale rather than relying on stockists to pay later and on terms that would be punitive for a start-up business. This meant that her business started “pretty much without a penny”.
The one big take away from Amanda’s trailblazing is that you have to stay strong in your belief that you can make it. There will be tough times but these come almost always as learning opportunities in disguise.
As someone once said, “Stay the course, light a star, change the world, wherever you are”.
If you enjoyed reading about Amanda Thomson’s success as an entrepreneurial “disrupter”, please let me know by leaving your comments. It would be great to hear from you.