[Morning everyone! HAPPY FRIDAY!!!
What I love most about Alise’s story is the combination of GRIT + trial and error. If you’re interested in starting an online business or want to jump on a growing trend, check out how it’s done below. ]
Remember in-person parties? Well, that is where this story begins.
Way back in 2014, my pal Carrie brought her own homemade infused alcohol to a New Year’s Eve party I attended. It was a total hit! I immediately fell in love with her crazy and exotic flavors, like beet vodka and carrot tequila.
As a health conscious person with a savory tooth, I was enthralled with a drink mixer that wouldn’t leave me with a sugar hangover the next day. And sure enough, I was able to start January 1 feeling more refreshed than I would have with a sugary champagne crash.
After that party, the idea of liquor infusion kits was always circling in my brain. But it would take many years and a few months in isolation before the concept began to blossom.
Fast Forward to Covid and 2020
Like millions of others, the pandemic left me jobless and with just a little bit of free time on my hands.
Suddenly everyone I knew had a serious case of cabin fever (at best), or were completely panicking with stress (at worst). I wanted to find a way to reconnect from afar and cheer people up.
I decided to put together some care packages for friends, family, and first responders to send my loved ones a smile.
In them, I included a ‘Quarantini Kit’ of dried fruits and spices that could be enjoyed as tea or as a liquor infusion.
My first infusion experiment was a hot toddy mix called Great Balls of Fire. I knew everyone would do well with an extra splash of power foods and vitamins in their nightcap or tea. That is why my ‘Quarantini’ starred a lineup of immunity-boosting ingredients that also happened to taste great, like cinnamon, lemon, and ginger.
The gift packages to first responders and close family were a huge hit across the board. Everyone who received a Quarantini kit responded with requests for more. The response was unanimous: This was a fantastic gesture to light up an otherwise dark moment.
That Was When I Suspected I Was on to Something
Instead of diving head first into a futile and competitive job search, why not make 2020 the year I would finally bootstrap my own e-commerce business?
I’d read The Four Hour Work Week in college and had been attempting to start a business from scratch for nearly a decade. I can say from first-hand experience that starting a business is a lot trickier than those Tai Lopez’ “get rich quick” YouTube ads would like you to believe.
On the side of my day job, I’d dabbled in everything from fitness apps and wall tapestries to (more successfully) eBooks and party costumes.
As an always aspiring entrepreneur, I know how invaluable customer input is. To make sure I was on the right track, I texted every friend in my phone to ask if they would actually purchase a ‘Quarantini kit’ for themselves.
The answer was a resounding ‘No’. Instead of getting discouraged, I listened to my gut. I had a feeling their disinterest was only because I hadn’t properly conveyed my vision.
Instead, I dug deeper into the data of demand. Sure enough, Google trends for ‘tea’ and ‘liquor’ were spiking during the pandemic.
The data was undeniable. Stay-at-home orders had sent liquor sales skyrocketing. Clearly people were looking for ways to relax and stay calm.
That is why the second flavor I invented was Lavender Lemonade, known for its soothing aromatherapeutic scent and flavor. It is also just fun and exotic to drink lavender.
Making Prototypes During a Pandemic
For the first batches, all of the materials — from the jars to the fruit — came from my local Trader’s Joes and Walmart.
This was during some of the strictest ‘shelter in place’ phases. Waiting in line for materials took me hours, and I was limited to the stores that were allowed to be open because they were selling necessities.
I dried all of the fruit and vegetables in my oven myself. This resulted in lots of burned fruit and even more painful arm burns.
Fortunately, my husband and I were also responsible for the flavor testing and creation. Shots of lavender flavored vodka became a welcome distraction from the burn wounds.
I spent a day on my couch crafting up the label and packaging for my ‘Quarantinis’. The original design was inspired by old fashioned apothecary labeling from the 1800s.
(StirCrazi’s original label prototype)
I put the photoshopped prototype on Etsy, and sent the link to all my friends again to see if they would purchase it.
This time the answer was a resounding ‘Yes.’ Everyone responded with texts and voicemails of enthusiasm and excitement. To my surprise and delight, one of my friends even made a purchase – on his own free will!
My test subjects also responded with a rainbow of useful feedback in everything from what flavors they wanted to what a reasonable price range might be. I knew I was really on to something when people even wanted to pay more than I was asking.
This Was the Match That Lit the Dynamite
There is nothing like the feeling of the first sale on your online store to make you swell with joy, pride, and endless excitement for the opportunity of what’s coming next. I might as well have just gotten a double deal from Mark Cuban and Lori Greiner on Shark Tank.
But it wouldn’t be long before my elation would transform into … panic.
The Quarantini Craze
Somehow the Etsy algorithm overlords decided to shine their luck on me. Or I was featured in a newsletter or magazine somewhere. I’m still not certain of how or where this happened.
I went from ecstatic to have two sales … to my entire store blowing up overnight. I used to love the ‘Cha-ching’ cash register noise my phone made when I had an Etsy order. That cha-ching sound was starting to induce panic.
As my husband and I arrived at Target to pick up more mason jars, my phone was buzzing with one order, then two, then five, then 10. My operation was barely a month old and I had to get to work fast.
The Challenge of Scaling My Start-Up Business
The sudden demand meant I had to put a fulfillment process in place, get business insurance, file for an LLC, apply for my cottage license, and find a way to outsource production to a white label or co-manufacturer who could handle a higher level of demand (a challenge I am still navigating).
And meanwhile, I had orders to fulfill.
I managed to outsource the actual production of my teas quickly enough to a local tea supplier at a commercial kitchen, but I was still responsible for the assembling, packaging, and shipping of every single order.
That is how my tiny apartment turned into a StirCrazi pick-and-pack headquarters. Every day in a sweltering heat wave I would pack and ship hundreds of boxes, slathering everything in industrial grade disinfectant.
Thankfully, Etsy has a feature where you can request a post office pickup, so our mail delivery person and I got to know each other really well. I eventually had to bake him a batch of cookies as a thank you for the hundreds of packages he was hauling back and forth from our door to his truck daily.
As Mother’s Day and Cinco de Mayo approached, I invented new seasonal flavors including Rose All May (rose hibiscus orange) and Cinco de Drinko (spicy margarita). Soon after, my bouquet inspired liquor infusion gift pack for Mother’s Day was blowing up.
A Bulk Order: My Next Big Break
I remember driving to the post office higher than cloud nine — strangely over the moon to be delivering 20 packages to the post office. I had dreamed of starting an e-commerce business all my life. Now here it was becoming reality.
That is when the big call came in. An event planner in Seattle had spotted my Etsy store and wanted to place a party order of 40 to arrive in time for Cinco de Mayo (in four days). A company team offsite event that she was planning had been cancelled because of COVID-19, and she was brainstorming an alternative Zoom party for the staff ‘pick me up’ instead.
This was it! I had really made it to the big leagues now. We worked together to create a custom order. She was the best customer any new business owner could ask for, even talking me into charging more than I had originally quoted and requesting extra refill packs and flavored sugars.
That is what prompted me to expand into new product lines.
This was only the beginning of many bulk rush corporate orders. Each one often involved pulling late nights to package and ship. (All in the unbearable heat of my second-story unit with no air conditioning.)
We began providing large orders for everything from Zoom bachelorette parties to corporate client mailings for sales teams.
My first customers were my most incredible cheerleaders and advocates. Their enthusiastic reviews were the rocket fuel I needed to launch and keep going.
As a partnerships manager in a past life, my corporate experience came in handy when it came time to assemble a team of influencers who were true champions for the brand.
And finally, my product photos all shot on my iPhone were in desperate need of an upgrade, so I purchased a light box to give them a clean, crisp background.
Because I was bootstrapping, it was up to me to design everything myself, from the website to the product labels. Meanwhile, I excavated the deepest depths of Google to find allies and advisors in the form of packaging designers, food lawyers, suppliers and more.
Then there was the great mason jar shortage of 2020. The pandemic spawned a mass food-canning frenzy and I found myself scouring the empty aisles of every convenience store at 9 pm in desperate search for a mason jar 12-pack.
And the Challenges of E-Commerce Didn’t Stop There
E-commerce is a mighty mountain to climb, full of beautiful views and treacherous obstacles, such as finding a reliable supplier, building out the supply chain, and the headache from hell that is Facebook ads.
Speaking of mountains, the excessive shipping demands caused me to start obsessively hoarding a pile of packing materials and boxes in a corner of my apartment. My spouse and I lovingly called it ‘Trash Mountain.’
Despite everything, we launched our store in September 2020 to sales and rave reviews.
StirCrazi is born!
As much as I would love to claim my glory for the whole sha-bang, the true credit goes to a dream team of pals who weren’t even on payroll.
Somehow, I talked a brilliant videographer friend of mine from college into making the world’s best promo video for a price exceedingly beneath his talents. For this, I will be forever indebted and grateful.
And of course I owe it all to my first customer, who even came back again and again to order quarantinis for his entire family.
What’s Next for StirCrazi?
Due to a series of fortunate events, my husband and I reached our financial independence goal early and plan to spend a solid year travelling the second this madness is all over!
Now I’m looking for investors and partnerships to scale StirCrazi operations out of house. This experience has been a wonderful and wild ride, but StirCrazi has grown as far as I can take it.
If you know anyone who might be interested, please reach out! ;)
How to Start Your Own e-Commerce Business
Do you also dream of Four Hour Work Weeks and Shark Tank pitches?
Be warned: Outliers like Suzy Batiz of PooPourri and Moiz Ali of Native Deodorant make e-commerce look glamorous and lucrative. Personally, I have found the online store business model to be one of the more labor-intensive adventures you can choose.
If you are looking to start an e-commerce business yourself, I wrote a handy dandy guide about the exact process I followed. You can read it here.
If you want to become the world’s greatest eCom entrepreneur, get ready to also become the world’s greatest package shipper.
Nevertheless, starting StirCrazi was the experience of a lifetime. The most magical part (aside from writing off my vodka and wine tab as a business expense) was the opportunity to act as a conduit of love in a time of unrest.
My customers entrusted me with the most important task of connecting with their loved ones when fear and social isolation was at its peak. Reading the notes of hope and encouragement my customers sent to one another is still enough to give me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside.
Afterall, what more important job can one ask for than ‘Pandemic Gift Fairy’?
Alise also blogs about FIRE-related topics over at MoneySelfMade.
Have a great weekend!