Four years ago, Heather Manley was struck with inspiration. Sipping on a beautiful local craft spirit, she realized there was a significant difference between micro vs macro spirits. Comparing this difference to a tomato out of the garden vs out of the store, she realized there was a market for innovative craft spirits. Thus, in 2013 Crooked Water Spirits (CWS) was born.
It wasn’t the first time Manley started a business. Raised by entrepreneurial parents, and driven by her passion for family, food, and exceptional alcohol, Manley owns and operates two other companies. The first is an IT consulting firm her and her brother bought from their father in 2008 – On-Demand Group (ODG). The second, spurred by needing flavorful low-sodium spices for her family, is Heather’s Dirty Goodness, a specialty seasoning company started in 2011.
While Manley is certainly passionate about each of her companies, Crooked Water Spirits holds a special place in her mind – and her liver. She recently sat down with us to discuss CWS, running a business, her experience as a woman CEO, and her advice on how to succeed in the modern business world.
When you started making the bourbon, how did you develop your business plan?
MANLEY: I did some research and, really, outside of one small company, no one was making cask finished bourbon. We ended up selling out all our barrels in the first year. It made me realize that we’re creating a product that isn’t out there and that people were craving to experience. I worked for the next 2 years implementing a barrel program so that we had bourbon more readily available. We also developed 7 other products within CWS… 2 gins, 2 vodkas, 2 bourbons, an apple brandy and ready-to-pour old fashioned. Since then, it’s taken off.
What are the pillars of Crooked Water Spirits?
MANLEY: Innovation, quality, and the experience.
Innovation…everything’s very different and out-of-the-box.
Quality means starting high level and staying high level-can be hard to do while committing to expanding. Staying true to your core is how you differentiate.
And the experience: high-proofing. Everything is over 86 proof in our spirits selection, proofed to highlight the beauty of the spirit. It’s up to the consumer to water it down, not us.
The Crooked Water Spirits Logo
What’s the biggest obstacles you’ve faced since opening in 2014?
MANLEY: Scalability. We don’t have a traditional company that a bank understands how to back. That’s why many distillers and breweries have investors. I’m 100% self-financed, 100% owner. I think that’s been the most difficult thing: financing everything and having the patience...the discipline to have a million ideas but only stick to staple products, and then get more experimental down the road.
How did you differentiate yourself from existing competitors?
MANLEY: I’ve put nominal marketing dollars behind this company, and I just hired my first full-time sales rep. We’ve been supported by companies like Walmart, Albertsons, Target and 200+ local stores, including Sun Country Airline as the local designated spirit. To me that just means that we have a product that resonates with people. We’re not throwing marketing dollars out there to gain traction. People are liking it and evangelizing it to other people. That’s what any product owner could hope for.
Hiring your first salesperson. At what point do you decide, 'okay, I need to hire someone else to help me'?
MANLEY: We’re starting to launch with Walmart, so that brought in a big purchase order, and that’s really one of the driving forces around our expansion. Once the funds were there, it was a no brainer. I haven’t taken a cent out of the company since I started it 4 years ago. The second I knew I had enough to cover a sale rep’s salary, I hired one. That was better than a quick gain in my pocketbook.
What does a typical day look like for you?
MANLEY: I’m very unstructured with my days. I’ve been working every day 8:30am – 10:30pm for the last year. Really, it’s On Demand Group during the day…and then afterward it’s Crooked Water Spirits in the evening…There’s just so much to do. That’s part of owning a business: the blood, sweat, and tears. I absolutely love what I do, so even when it’s consistently 12+ hour days, it never feels like work. I’m really excited about every hour I can put into each of my companies and how that time pay off.
What tools have helped you succeed?
MANLEY: A great CRM to keep track of your clients, your follow ups, and organized data so nothing gets dropped. I love throwing balls up into the air and coming back to it in a day or two to see how they are playing out.
Another early factor of our success was signing with a client that believed in our product. Sun Country and Target were some enterprise level supporters but equally important is all the locally owned shops – they have really embraced us.
I’m a big fan of “What if?” “Can we?”; I have no shame in asking for what I want – the worst I can get is a no.
What/who have been your influences throughout your life?
MANLEY: I have dozens of people in my life that all contribute to my success…I think it’s about always having a fantastic authentic network around you that is always contributing and you’re always contributing back to.
How has being certified as a Woman Business Enterprise (WBE) helped your business?
MANLEY: All my businesses are certified. ODG got one of our biggest projects because of our certification. It put us over the edge for winning the business. With CWS, the certification got us to the table with several Fortune 500’s, because we’re one of the only woman-owned spirit companies in the country. I think getting certified is a no-brainer and a quick way to navigate a seat at the table. Your service and your product must earn you the business, but the certification can definitely help get you in front of the right person.
What are common mistakes you see Small Business Enterprises (SBE) make when trying to earn business?
MANLEY: You need a 2-pronged approached. Unless you have a really, really niche and unique product, big businesses don’t move fast. Be careful, because once you land them, do you really want them? Does it really align with how you’d do business? Can you deliver? Is it going to be too much strain on your business? Just be careful what you wish for.
You also need to really understand what you’re going after. Instead of going after those bigger businesses, I’d focus on trying to run with the midsized and smaller businesses that can have more agility and move quickly, and probably have less competitors…That way you can build your foundation, reputation, and portfolio with that mid- to small-size business before going after Fortune 500-type companies.
What trends do you see in supplier diversity, from your perspective?
MANLEY: Some company mandates have phenomenal programs, like Target and Walmart. But a trend I see is that when times are tough, supplier diversity is a role that can be forgotten about by some companies. If you don’t have the right leader at the top that’s passionate about it, it never truly gets enforced throughout the company.
It’s a top-down passion to support diverse businesses, local businesses, small businesses. I think when you can put a campaign around supplier diversity, such as “buy local”, it can become a movement. It not only benefits the corporations, but also benefits the entire economy when you’re supporting small and diverse businesses. You can’t fake that. It’s really up to leadership to decide whether it’s important to be that champion internally and make everyone accountable.
Some companies say they have a supplier diversity program, but are never visible. They just assign someone supplier diversity responsibilities, but often times that person is already swamped with regular responsibilities. How do you expect a program to be fruitful when leadership doesn’t believe or invest in it? You can see where its supported at the top and where it’s not. It’s clear by the results.
What unexpected pleasures/outcomes has owning a business brought you?
MANLEY: My network of friends. I’ve traveled to some really fun places with people I otherwise never would have met. I’m blessed for the supporting network that I have, and I know it’s not common.
Also, I get such a sense of happiness when I see On Demand Group grow 20% in such a commoditized environment. It gives a sense of pride that we’re providing real value; we’re delivering the talent that our clients want to hire.
With CWS and HDG, people bring me into their home. It’s such a personal decision. It’s like Christmas morning…I feel very privileged that people love the product and evangelize it to their family and friends.
Heather Manley with her spirits
What are the key differentiators for On Demand Group?
MANLEY: ODG has been around for 22 years. We differentiate with our morals and ethics. We run our business along the Rotary 4-way test:
- Is it the truth?
- Is it fair to everyone involved?
- Does it build better friendships and communities?
- Will it be beneficial to all involved?
We have an amazing team that knows how to deliver within very specific parameters. We have the right clients that know they need to move fast to solidify the talent that we find. I think that just comes down to phenomenal relationships.
Any closing comments, remarks, advice or key takeaways for our readers?
MANLEY: I always say: find what gives you goosebumps and try to live in that world, because you’re never going to feel like you’re working. That passion transcends, and people want to be a part of it and support it.
I tend to have something on my calendar that makes me uncomfortable, that makes me nervous. Something in the next 30-60 days that pushes me out of my comfort zone and towards growth as a person and business owner. I enjoy that rush of nervousness that keeps me on my toes and would recommend it to everyone!
For more information about Heather Manley or Crooked Water Spirits, click here to visit their website.