Adam von Gootkin | Crain's Connecticut

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Adam von Gootkin


Co-founded in 2010 by Adam von Gootkin and Peter Kowalczyk, Onyx Spirits Company makes American moonshine with corn, malted grains and Connecticut spring water.

The Mistake:

I’ve made a lot of mistakes. Making mistakes is inevitable, but for entrepreneurs it can be important to make them and recognize that they are more valuable as a learning tool versus sliding by with nothing but successes.

One key mistake that I made involved hiring. It is important to remember the people that work with your company are your primary asset. It can be difficult finding people with the right personality or skill set. When we started, we hired too quickly, but we’ve gotten much better with that. We also learned to realize the importance of having a structure to support those people that come to work with us.

Another early mistake was realizing that not everyone understood what we were trying to do. I remember when we brought our moonshine into a restaurant for the first time. The bartender said, “I don’t see any room for moonshine at our bar—and I don’t care if it is local or tastes good.”

Our problem was that he was not connecting the history behind New England region moonshine. So we had to sit down and create a booklet that told the story of moonshine in New England and why Onyx was the first premium moonshine here. We also included cocktail recipes that used moonshine, including the Viennese Cocktail created during Prohibition.

At the next restaurant, we took that booklet with us—and the rest is history. But thanks to that first failure, it allowed us to go back and think about our messaging. That problem never happened again.

Our problem was that he was not connecting the history behind New England region moonshine.

The Lesson:

In founding a company, it is crucial to identify your future for the business. Is your goal to run it as a small business only for the next 10 years? Or is your goal to grow it and then give it to your grandchildren when you retire? Or is your goal to grow it and then sell it?

Our mistakes involved our mission. When we started Onyx, our idea was to grow it at a pre-planned trajectory. Originally, we didn’t plan for needing a lot of money. But we had to raise significant amounts of money to accomplish our goals, and that led to much soul searching and planning for different futures. If we were tied to investors, was our goal to become acquisitive of other companies or to later exit out of the business? Neither of those options was in our game plan.

We ultimately realized that we needed to focus on our goals. We made the decision for Onyx to stay here in Connecticut and focus on product quality, and not to sell it to another company someday.

Follow Adam von Gootkin on Twitter at @AdamvonGootkin.

Photo courtesy of Adam von Gootkin.

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