This Is What A Founder Looks Like: Sipful

Darius and Emily Darwell holding cans of Sipful
Natalie Clarkson
by Natalie Clarkson
21 April 2021

For some couples, they could think of nothing worse than starting a business with their partner. Others manage to thrive both in their relationships and their businesses.

Darius Darwell and his wife Emily took a Start Up Loan from Virgin StartUp to fund their premium canned cocktail business Sipful. We caught up with Darius as part of the Virgin StartUp This Is What A Founder Looks Like series to find out more about running a business with your spouse.

Why did you start Sipful?

I was a brewer for over 10 years and in the drinks industry for about 18 years – and I absolutely loved it. With the beer industry over the last 10 years, it's been an incredible ride with lots of different changes throughout that time.

One of those changes was cans. I really embraced the can – they hold the quality better, they don't let light in, they're lighter so use less CO2 in transportation and they are 100% infinitely recyclable where glass is not. You can also chuck them in your bag when you go camping or to festivals, you can take them into venues where you're not allowed glass. I could shout about cans all day, I love them. They're the best packaging format for drinks. 

Cans of Sipful in an ice bucket

But then my wife decided beer was no longer for her. We tried looking around for other drinks that she could drink. Back in 2019 there was very little out there that wasn't beer or cider – and most of the ciders out there are sickly sweet anyway. So we were trying to look for something that was well-balanced and drinkable, but also something that had that same narrative and provenance that craft beer has. That story of the founders, of the start-up, of what they're doing, that real character of a brand. 

Seeing as there was a gap in the market, we looked around to see what was available and we looked over to the US. In the US they had really started experimenting in its drinks market from 2014. It's a huge multi-million dollar market over there. Some commentators in the US are actually predicting that canned wine will take up 10% of the global wine market in five years time. So with that insight we confidently started Sipful. 

When it came to developing our products we went for a mimosa, as Emily spent a bit of time in California as a nanny. The bellini was inspired by Emily's sister who was in Italy. We had come up with an organic wine base anyway so it all made sense.

Sipful organic bubbles

Why did you take the loan from Virgin StartUp?

Funding at the beginning is always a tricky thing and having to shop around for it can be difficult. All roads seem to lead to the Start Up Loan. and Virgin StartUp was one of our options. 

Richard Branson is a little bit of a hero of mine. I've read his books and I think it's an incredible journey. So I've always had a close eye on what Virgin Group is doing and then the Virgin StartUp loan came along, so it all made sense.

How has working with your wife been?

It's been great. Sipful wouldn't be here without Emily. She absolutely smashed her career and achieved everything that she could possibly achieve in it, but then we wanted to start our own family so she couldn't work as a nanny anymore. I was a brewer so I was never going to make huge amounts of cash, so she managed to create a little nest egg to invest into it. That's been supporting the business and we wouldn't be here without it. 

In January last year we had our first child and I gave up full-time employment and we kicked off Sipful so when our kid was two months old, she was packing boxes with him in a bouncer. It's been a crazy ride. She does a lot of the shipping and boxing up. I don't think the start-up culture is really her cup of tea anymore, and she's expressed that. But she's fully supportive and we talk about everything. I think it's been an eye-opener for her to find out where she wants to be with it.

Sipful mimosa

It must be challenging to balance a brand new start-up with looking after a newborn.

To be honest it was a lot easier when he was smaller and he wasn't charging around the place. Now he wants to help with everything! 

It's been quite an experience this past year, because we've never had a business without lockdown, we've never had a business without a baby and we've never had a baby in lockdown without a business. So it's been a bizarre year. We've been surfing the wave the best we can.

You started Sipful just before the pandemic started. How has that experience been?

We launched to the public on 1 May 2020. May was great as everyone was in lockdown and purchasing like crazy to support small businesses. Then when everything started opening up again it became harder to access the free market because everyone was worrying about pubs and bars. 

Things picked up again at Christmas time as lockdown hit again. We're taking a lot more of a strategic approach now though, and talking to some big supermarkets and other suppliers.

With lockdown I do try to keep my glass half full and look at the positives. I think it's given us a real opportunity to sort our systems out and work out who we are as a business. Now we feel really ready to go in 2021. In 2020 we might have been a bit on the back foot and stumbling over ourselves.”

Interested in starting a business (with or without your partner!)? Head over to Virgin StartUp for advice and support.