"No man is an island," says Chris Gillan, founder of Heroes Vodka. After nine years in the military, support he received inspired him to start a drinks brand with good at its heart.
What did you do before you started this business?
I had recently finished serving nine years in the military, which was followed by a brief period of unemployment.
What inspired you to start up?
An injury from service and a recent house flood left me facing financial difficulties. I turned to the armed forces charities for support, during which I was exposed to the overwhelming demand on our military charities and the fact they were still serving veterans as far back as WW2.
The charities helped me back on my feet and their support led to an inner calling to put to use skills learnt in the military to find a way to create residual income for the charities, but also create employment opportunities for fellow veterans who found themselves in similar circumstances to me.
Tell us about your business in 100 words
Heroes Drinks is the world’s first not-for-profit organisation within the alcohol sector, with its core ethos anchored in benevolence. We have launched our first product, Heroes Vodka, which is available nationally in over 350 Asda stores; the largest distribution of its kind for a social enterprise.
We pledge a minimum of 20% of all profits to our partnering charities; the Royal Navy and Royal Marine Charity, ABF The Soldiers Charity and the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund. The remaining profits are used for business development, to create jobs for military veterans, and work placement programmes.
How would you describe your business to your grandma?
We make exceptionally high quality products at an affordable price, and use the profits from the sale of these products to support our chosen charities and create employment for our military veterans.
Where do you get advice, support or help?
Depending on the issue in hand, I try to seek advice from someone with expert knowledge or experience within the area of concern. We are fortunate to have a broad network of support, which includes several directors, each with their own expertise, Business Gateway, and sector specialists such as Resilient Scotland and Social Investment Scotland.
Finance is one of the most common barriers to starting up. How did you access the finance you needed?
As with any business looking for finance, you have to demonstrate you have a strong business model that has a strong chance of success in generating a return.
We started with a small investment of £7,500. This was used to develop our product Heroes Vodka, which enabled us to test the market and gauge interest. Year on year, we built brand awareness to demonstrate interest in the product. As the interest grew, we were able to secure larger financial support over a period of four years.
What has been your biggest achievement so far?
Securing the largest deal of its kind with Asda. This provided us with significant growth and has enabled us to create full-time employment for another veteran.
How do you differentiate your business from others?
Our business was the first of its kind within this sector, although several individuals have followed in our path. So I guess what makes it truly different is the fact that I have built Heroes Drinks to support other individuals who may suffer similar misfortune to myself, which makes it personal. For this reason, I have built this business with genuine interest to support others and not for financial gain.
What’s it like to be your own boss?
In some ways it is good to be, to a certain extent, a master of your own destiny. However, unlike normal employment, you are unable to switch off from work and unless you have self-discipline, your business can easily consume you. It is like a rollercoaster ride with so many ups and downs that not only affect you but also your family. However, when we provide a work placement for a veteran or donate money to the charities, it makes the huge personal sacrifice worthwhile.
Where do you see your business in 5 years time?
I’m confident that we will expand our product range to support a variety of charities within the community and create multiple employment opportunities for disadvantaged individuals but also expand our distribution reach to a global level.
What advice would you give to aspiring entrepreneurs?
No man is an island. Find others who understand and share your vision to help grow your business. A term used within the military is “adapt and overcome”. Whilst it is great to have a clear vision and sense of direction (something a good business plan will provide) it is important to be flexible as no road in business is straight or without bumps.
Look after your health and try to exercise where possible; this will help deal with stress but also sharpen your decision making. Most importantly of all, be persistent!