Business as Unusual: Lifting spirits during COVID-19

Founders of Roundwood Gin smile and hold up their glasses of gin
Image from Roundwood Gin
Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
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As part of our Business as Unusual series, we’ve been reaching out to different Virgin StartUp funded companies, to see how they’re responding to COVID-19. It’s been fascinating to see how entrepreneurs have quickly shifted gears and continue to do what entrepreneurs do best – solve problems and create opportunities.

A perfect case study here belongs to Emily and Rupert Robertson who founded Roundwood Gin. When COVID-19 began to impact the UK, they quickly switched from making gin to producing hand sanitiser and donating the profits to support key workers. I reached out to Emily to hear more about their journey and was filled with inspiration. Here’s what she had to say…

Founders of Roundwood Gin, Emily and Rupert smile with their gin and hand sanitisers
Image from Roundwood Gin

Can you tell us a little bit about Roundwood Gin and how your entrepreneurial journey began?

After graduating from university, I started my career as a software engineer for a huge international company. Pretty soon, the desk-life, long commute and feeling like a tiny piece of the puzzle left me craving variety and the need to do something for myself. After many, many months of planning, Rupert and I sat on the sofa (G&T in hand) and registered Roundwood Gin. This was the first step towards setting up the distillery!

We wanted to build a brand that reflected our rural Cambridgeshire surroundings. We incorporated beautiful woodland illustrations into our label design - including hares, butterflies, birds and dragonflies. While developing the recipe for our London Dry Gin, I experimented with hundreds of botanicals inspired from our surroundings. Our final blend included elderberries - for a fruity lift on the classic dry style.

It was 18 months before we launched our gin in May 2018 and it was a very steep learning curve. During that time, we renovated a crumbly barn into our distillery, started building our brand, and crafted our botanical blend. We then took delivery of our beautiful copper still from Germany and sold out of our first two batches on pre-sale!

Image from the Roundwood Gin distillery with blue gin bottles
Image from Roundwood Gin

How has Virgin StartUp been involved along the way?

Our Virgin StartUp Loan enabled us to purchase some of the equipment we needed to setup the distillery. This included our bespoke, 100-litre copper still, which was designed and made in Germany and allows us a produce a super-smooth spirit. It’s arrival and installation was a little rocky, with two feet of snow and frozen pipes during the ‘Beast from the East’ storm, but it’s been fantastic since then!

A huge benefit to the Virgin Startup loan was the support we received from our mentor during the first year. Although we were not yet trading, he really guided me through a lot of the ‘business-y’ bits. From helping navigate the setup of duty, licensing and VAT, to recommending website hosting platforms and delivery contracts - it was really valuable for a first-time business owner. 

We have also been lucky enough to have been featured on the Virgin Red App through a range of promotions and giveaways which has helped us gain exposure all across the UK.

How has COVID-19 impacted your business - from distillation through to demand and distribution?

Initially, our business operations took a pretty big hit. Around 80 per cent of our annual revenue is made from trade sales (pubs, bars, wine merchants and shops) combined with events throughout the year. After a couple of days of panic, we sat down to seriously evaluate our options. We worked to immediately reduce our outgoings and cut running costs wherever possible, which included furloughing staff. 

One evening, we received around 15 emails enquiring about hand sanitiser. I started investigating this possibility and as we had access to the high-strength alcohol required, it seemed like a no-brainer. Since launching the hand sanitiser on the website, things really took off and it hasn’t stopped since. It soon became clear that people I had assumed would have easy-access to the stuff, didn’t. We decided to start supplying the product in bulk and free of charge, to essential workers in our community. The sales of hand sanitiser bottles on our website enabled us to do this while also sourcing the ingredients to make more.

It was definitely not a product we’d planned to launch in 2020, but while the demand is still there and we’re able to, we’ll keep going. Producing hand sanitiser has probably saved our potentially fragile business at this time, and has also enabled us to supply hundreds of litres to those who need it. So far, this has included GP surgeries, care homes, local councils, care workers, nurses, charities, prisons and schools.

Founder of Roundwood Gin, Rupert, stands with COVID-19 hand sanitizer deliveries
Image from Roundwood Gin

What have you learnt from this experience and do you think it will change Roundwood Gin in the long-term?

This experience has taught me that plans are certainly not set in stone and things can change surprisingly quickly. I’m usually such a ‘plan-type’ person, and having to adapt to an evolving situation really took me outside my comfort zone. However, it also reminded me of the benefit of being a small business with the ability to move quickly in different directions. We’ve re-arranged plans and re-ordered our priorities. All in all, being forced to take a step back and reassess every spend and every decision has probably been a good thing. A product launch would usually take months and months, but we’ve proven we can do things in just days now - so there’s no excuses!

How have you and Rupert managed to balance your work with your relationship during such a busy and turbulent time?

To be honest, we’ve always had a lot to juggle between us, so that aspect hasn’t been too bad. The biggest challenge has been getting used to sharing our home office! I’m used to singing to the radio all day, but Rupert has phone call after phone call. We’ve also had to postpone our wedding this summer, so that’s added a fair amount of stress too. At least we’ve got gin! 

Founders of Roundwood Gin smile and hold up their glasses of gin
Image from Roundwood Gin

What do you think (or hope) the hospitality and craft spirits industries will look like on the other side?

We can’t wait for pubs to re-open, but know it will likely be a little while before it all feels ‘normal’. It’s such an uncertain time for businesses across all industries, so it is really difficult to make predictions about where things will be in a few months or even a year. All I know is that during this time, we have felt so much love from people wanting to support our small business and our endeavours to help the community. We have always focused on supplying independent stockists with our gin and I hope people will continue to shop with small and local businesses going forward.

Along with other small distilleries, we’ve had to get more creative with our offerings, which might spark another level of ingenuity and interesting products in the craft spirits sector… Who knows? I’m reluctant to say it, as I’m normally the person with the plan, but perhaps the uncertainty is just a little bit exciting. I feel extremely grateful that our business has been able to survive the past few months so for now, we’re taking each day as it comes.

Thank you for sharing your journey with us Emily and for lifting our spirits… literally!

For more insight, take a closer look at entrepreneurship during COVID-19 with the wonderful Andy Fishburn – managing director of Virgin StartUp.