As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Mike Milyavsky and Anna Gorovoy.
Shaker & Spoon was founded in 2015 in Brooklyn, NY, by two designers with an overfilled liquor cabinet. They got tired of buying bottles of apricot brandy and cream sherry and never using them again, of trying out that complicated cocktail recipe only to be disappointed once it didn’t turn out quite as expected, of realizing that they needed specific hard-to-find ingredients and it was already ten o’clock at night.
Mike Milyavsky started his career as an animator, working on everything from music videos featuring Kanye West, to films such as Countdown to Zero, and even directing a segment for Sesame Street. He started dabbling in cocktail-making as a hobby, but realized that buying bottles you end up using just once and needing those unusual ingredients that you don’t always know the best place to get can get pretty frustrating. Anna Gorovoy’s background is in publishing and print design; she’s worked on best-selling books by authors such as Rainbow Rowell and Liane Moriarty. Anna discovered the world of subscription boxes after signing up for a few of her own. She loved the anticipation each passing month, knowing there was a surprise in the mail to look forward to! Shaker & Spoon was born from these two passions coming together.
Now, with the monthly cocktail club, you just pick up the bottle and Shaker & Spoon takes care of the rest. So the next time you want to impress your date, host your friends, or just hang out at home watching Netflix while drinking the perfect old fashioned, Shaker & Spoon will be there to give you the knowledge and confidence to go beyond just pouring a glass of wine or opening a beer. With their help, you’ll be able to mix that drink perfectly — and always be the tastemaker in your circle.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
We were people with drive and some sense but who otherwise didn’t really know what they were doing. Our backstory, at its most basic, is that we liked cocktails and subscription boxes and were naive enough to think it would be pretty easy to start one. We’re always doing our best to lean on the skills we do have — it certainly helped a lot at the beginning that as designers we knew how to make things both beautiful and functional — while acknowledging and developing the skills we don’t. Most importantly, we’re continuously trying to figure out ways to do things better because we know that we can’t possibly be doing it in the best way quite yet!
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
We do laugh often when thinking back to our early production methods and how rudimentary the tools and processes we used were. Some processes we’ve iterated four or five times already, and the first two or three just feel ridiculous now. I’m thinking particularly about how we used to fill our tiny vials: with pipette droppers made for feeding fish, because they could hold the precise amount of liquid needed. We do have to remind ourselves, though, that that method was still a huge improvement over the previous one and did make the process faster. It’s only ridiculous compared to our present methods, which thankfully improved again and again in small ways. It goes to show that you can be proud of the upgrades in the moment but know that there are always new and improved ways of doing things to discover.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
It’s so hard to pinpoint one person to lay that massive responsibility onto — so many people helped and gave (and continue to give) free advice along the way! Maybe the single biggest help came from local nonprofits such as SCORE and Evergreen. Without their guidance and advice, we don’t know where we’d be!
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Honestly our purpose or vision wasn’t the clearest at launch and definitely developed over time. But we did have a few clear points of importance (quality being a big one) and we knew we wanted to build the product around using as many sustainable materials as possible. We wanted that product to provide something valuable to a demographic just like us: a delightful education in mixology where they would “learn by doing,” just like meal kits were teaching people how to cook by using the kits to prepare dinner. The education aspect was important from the start, and the rest of the vision really got built as the company did. Another thing that became important almost immediately was our drive to give back. In the beginning, we donated a lot of product to fundraisers and various charity auctions; then as the company and its influence grew, we started designing specific offerings around charitable projects. We’ve seen so much engagement around that from our community and our team that we’ve worked to push that concept further each year. As our resources grow, our responsibility to give back grows along with them, and it’s now ingrained in how we run our business. That’s something we’re incredibly proud of and we know is hugely important to every member of our team.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
When everything shut down in NYC last March, that was the most difficult leadership moment we have had by far. In the early days of the pandemic, no one knew what was happening or what was going to happen, and everyone was looking to us for what to do and how to feel. We decided to prioritize safety over everything else, both because it was such a dangerous time but also to help people feel better and more secure. We had mask mandates before the city did; we took temperature checks, had extremely stringent cleaning protocols, and even rented vans and coordinated nightly driving routes for our team to help them avoid public transit. Altogether, these were very costly measures but they allowed our on-site team to feel okay about what they needed to do. Furthermore, we made sure that at least one person from the company’s leadership was on-site every day: if our team was going to put themselves in danger, we needed to be right there with them. Thankfully, all of these measures allowed us to avoid any outbreaks at our facility, even though we kept operating throughout the entire pandemic, but, maybe more importantly, it kept the team together and allowed them to focus on the task at hand rather than the dangers around them.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
Oh, absolutely. Keeping Shaker & Spoon functioning and healthy has been a Herculean task. To be honest, at first the biggest motivator was all of our subscribers. Since they pay ahead for the service, we have thousands of people at any given time who have purchased boxes that we’re obligated to ship them many months into the future. I still remember when we first started offering 12-month prepaid subscriptions in early 2016 (before we were even a year old) and people bought them, and we looked at those orders and realized that we had committed to doing this for at least another year! Now, the bigger motivator has become the team we’ve built and all the people counting on us for their livelihoods. It’s been an honor bringing these wonderful people together as a collaborative unit, and keeping them feeling safe and secure is a huge reason we wake up every morning. Lastly, while it’s the hardest thing we have ever done, it’s also the most satisfying. There are new challenges every day and always something to learn. If we tried to do anything else at this point, we’d be bored to tears!
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
Particularly during challenging times, a leader needs to lead by example: not just by telling people to do what you say, but by showing them what to do. Moreover, it’s important not to mislead or give people a false sense of understanding, because that will catch up with you. Better to own that you can’t know everything and to do your best to control what you can. Push forward and make it clear that you’re in it with your team.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
Again, I think it comes back to leading by example and keeping your team’s wellbeing and safety front and center, in a very genuine way. Be (tactfully) honest about what you do and don’t know, then tell them what you’re willing to do and why, which’ll allow them to understand why a project is taking place and then give input on how to improve things. And remember that we’re all people — a little empathy can go a long way.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
Genuinely, but with tact. As a leader, no matter what, the buck stops with you. When delivering bad news, no matter the contributing factors, own the blame and the responsibility for fixing whatever is needed. Mind your phrasing but don’t sugarcoat; tell them how things really are, then tell them what you’ll all do to fix them. And be sure to have a solution to propose when speaking to the team or your customers; that solution can always be improved and built upon, but you can’t just present problems!
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
That’s really the issue. Plans are so hard to make at any time, but particularly during such instability and uncertainty all around. The only thing you can do is your best. We try to really look at the data and weigh it over time based on what we know and how we imagine things might change. It’s also imperative to collaborate and talk things out with various trusted parties. And then most importantly, once plans are made, everyone has to work to make them come to fruition. You also have to be ready to scrap them and pivot if need be, but you can’t sabotage your own plans by second-guessing them constantly. Push forward unless it absolutely doesn’t make sense, and, if so, work hard to come up with a new plan given what you’ve learned; don’t just stop!
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
I’m not sure that there’s a number one principle that works for everyone. It’s imperative that you find your own principles and don’t waver from them, particularly during turbulent times. It’s what will give both your team and your customers the confidence to stick with you when you need them most and will allow you to come out of those times stronger.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Once a business grows to a certain point, it becomes like a slow-moving ship that takes time to steer, making it too easy to overcorrect problems and end up creating new ones. This may be through overexpansion of the company’s expenses (often by adding physical space or inventory), because when that catches up to you, you end up out of liquid cash. Other mistakes we’ve seen are having too many SKUs that are too difficult to support with a small team or expanding into sales channels that require more bandwidth than the team has.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
We’d say to look for opportunities you might not have entertained before, especially if they feel really small because you aren’t putting many resources to them. Try to be flexible so you can move with the changing times but strike that balance of not overcorrecting too much!
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Listen to experts, but with caution. You can always find people who know more than you do on any given subject, and they can be an invaluable resource that you should definitely learn what you can from, but in the end, no one is going to understand your business better than you do and you need to use what you know to reason out when something isn’t making sense. When we first started out, we met a consultant who had spent over 20 years working in CPG food businesses and we decided we absolutely had to work with her. We learned a lot from her after bringing her onboard, but she also steered us towards things we didn’t actually need based on her experience elsewhere and, given the cost, we definitely would rather have learned those lessons on our own.
- Learn to say no when you need to. Opportunities come and go and if you don’t have the bandwidth to fully support an opportunity, you’re likely better off not pursuing it at all and instead focusing where you can have more impact. In our first year, we got the opportunity to be in a very large retailer for the holidays. We were very excited and bent over backwards to make the project work. We rushed our retail packaging and the training of our demo team. When we demoed the product ourselves, everything sold very well, but when we weren’t there for the demos, the team wasn’t able to replicate our results and the product didn’t sell itself either. In the end, though we thankfully didn’t lose money, we could have had a stronger holiday season if we had just focused our limited attention on the sales channel that was really working.
- Choose whom you bring onto your team like your life depends on it! It’s better to wait for the right employee to come along and not have the help you need right away than to end up with an employee you’d rather not have. When unexpected growth hits, it can be so tempting to hire the first person that seems good enough so you can move on and do everything else that you need to do. As painful as it can be, being ruthless with whom you hire can save you a lot of headaches and heartache down the line. During the height of our boom, we had to hire up rapidly and ended up bringing on a few folks we wouldn’t have, had we been thinking clearly or had we followed the negative gut feelings we chose to ignore. And those employees ended up causing a lot of issues, disrupting the team dynamic and productivity levels, messing with our data and ability to run operations smoothly, and making life at S&S difficult on a variety of levels. Once they were let go, we still had to fill those roles anyway and we’d had to deal with a lot of negativity to boot. There’s nothing that makes this worthwhile. But finding great collaborators, that’ll really help you to thrive!
- Study your numbers. As creative as you want to be, your business is always going to be about how to bring more money in and less out. If you can keep your ratio positive, you’ll have more resources for the things you really want to do. Once your company and offerings grow, losing track of your costs will mean you won’t know how to make a profitable product and might even start selling your inventory off at a loss. On the flip side, if you know your costs and what your customers are worth to you, it’ll help you find creative ways to keep your company healthy. We found our metric was the cost to acquire a subscriber — since we have a good grasp of the value of a subscriber over time, we work to shape our advertising to a max cost number to ensure we don’t lose money on our ads.
- Lastly, remember that you’re usually going to move a bit more slowly than you want to, so try not to make too many radical decisions at once and have the patience to allow your plans to work or fail before trying something new. Too many plans all at once, while tempting, can stretch your team’s bandwidth to the point where nothing can succeed due to lack of focus. When things boomed for us, we quickly started running out of things to sell and our customers were thirsty for more. We sat down and made plans for new SKUs and kept adding more of them at every opportunity. A few months later we had overwhelmed our resources and built more SKUs than our customers wanted! We had to get creative to get rid of excess inventory and whittle down our offerings. In the moment as decisions were getting made, it was too hard to see that we needed to stop until we’d gone way too far — though thankfully not past the point of no return.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“None of us are smarter than all of us.” No idea who said that, but it reminds us that we never know the absolute best answer. It’s always worth listening to other people’s input, and then riffing on it together. That’ll always lead to something better than what you had thought of on your own.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Check us out at shakerandspoon.com or @shakerandspoon on social!