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Why overnight success usually takes twenty years
Myths about success obscure the length of the path to it
The food and beverage world loves a good “30 under 30” or “40 under 40” list. Our collective obsession with quick success betrays the reality that experience bestows wisdom that can be more valuable than knowledge alone.
As Christopher Reiss, developer for hire and Quora superstar, has written:
Knowledge is measuring that a desert path is 12.4 miles long.
Wisdom is packing enough water for the hike.
Insight is building a lemonade stand at mile 6.
Brilliance is worthless without insight. This is why you don’t usually encounter lists of the top 30 doctors under 30.1 When our health is at stake, we’d prefer to be at the hands of a veteran attending physician, rather than an enthusiastic resident.
When it comes to taste, we discount age, but when execution matters, our bias is for proficiency.2
This strange paradox can blind us when it comes to trying to unpack the triumph of brands that seemingly popped up overnight. All too often we assign success to some plucky entrepreneur or celebrity who apparently struck upon the right idea at the right time. This is rarely the case. It’s more romantic to envision the garage founder of a tech start-up than it is the debunk the myth altogether.3
It’s no different when it comes to booze. For every Tito—who himself struggled for the better part of a decade—there’s ten Tomas Estes. Only after having run restaurants for decades did Estes launch Tequila Ocho at the age of sixty-two.
Here are some of the stories behind the stories of some of the greatest successes in spirits.4
Grey Goose Vodka
The usual story: Sydney Frank introduced Grey Goose to the market in 1997. The company was eventually sold to Bacardi for over $2 billion USD in 2004—not bad for seven year’s work.
The reality: In 1945, Frank married the daughter of Lewis Rosenstiel, chief of Schenley Industries, a powerhouse US spirit producer in the mid-20th Century. In 1973, Frank started his own importing company where over the next 20+ years he grew Jägermeister from nothing to into a juggernaut. During this time, he absorbed many lessons about brand-building while forging relationships that would serve him well once he got Grey Goose off the ground.
The usual story: George Clooney and some friends started this brand in 2013 and sold it to Diageo only four years later for $700 million USD plus a bonus based on the brand’s performance.
The reality: Clooney started acting in 1978 and didn’t achieve full-on fame until he starred in the television show ER in 1993. From there, it would be another 20 years before he launched Casamigos. Clooney doggedly grew his celebrity for more than 30 years before entering the booze business and leveraging his fame.5
And about those friends of George’s. Rande Gerber opened his first bar 22 years prior to going in on Casamigos, while Michael Meldman developed his first private golf club 19 years before the Tequila brand got its start.
The usual story: In 2007, Sean Combs became the brand ambassador for Cîroc in exchange for a 50 percent share of its profits. Both Combs and the brand have been minting money ever since.
The reality: Cîroc existed a few years before Combs ever entered the booze biz. It was founded by Jean-Sébastien Robicquet whose family’s roots in the Bordeaux wine business go back a few hundred years. Prior to partnering with Diageo to launch Cîroc, Robicquet cut his teeth working for Hennessy for a decade. Cîroc’s first few (pre-Combs’) years were relative failures; the brand sold a disappointing 40,000 cases per annum. Now Cîroc routinely sells more than 1.5 million cases per year; it just didn’t happen overnight.
I was able to locate a list of the top 20 spinal surgeons under 40, but caveat emptor. Note that the authors capped their list at 20.
These heuristics, mental shortcuts, aren’t entirely useless. They just aren’t always correct.
As Dan and Chip Heath wrote in Fast Company in 2007, “Tales of groundbreaking innovation sound a lot alike. Like action-adventure movies, they have a predictable structure. You know how Die Hard 4 is going to end and you know how YouTube began: Some ordinary guys, without money or power, triumphed via a brilliant insight and scrappy groundwork, just like Hewlett and Packard, who started in a garage. Or Jobs and Woz, who founded Apple in a (different) garage. Or Michael Dell, who lived the same tale but upgraded to a dorm room… But what if those stories mislead us about what it takes to generate great ideas?”
I recognize the limitations of my examples regarding women, BIPOC, and other minority groups. Unfortunately, these people have historically been under-represented in the industry, particularly on the supplier side of things. This makes it difficult to find these types of success stories for anyone other than white men.