Alejandro Russo Of Candela Mamajuana: 5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand
As part of our series called “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Alejandro Russo.
Alejandro Russo is the Founder & CEO of Candela Mamajuana. Candela Mamajuana, meaning “on fire” in Spanish slang, is the finest expression of the Dominican Republic’s native spiced rum. Known for its smooth, sweet taste of the finest rum, exotic spices, and honey, this spirit is made with all-natural ingredients and distilled from fresh-pressed sugarcane in its native country. The approachable spirit can be enjoyed neat, on the rocks or mixed in a speciality cocktail. Candela was created in 2016 and is distributed throughout Florida, California, New York and the Dominican Republic. Russo has utilized his background in entrepreneurship and leadership to create this brand that is well-recognized for making the Dominican Republic’s legendary native drink a household name.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?
I’ve wanted to be a business man since I was a kid. I have drawing pads filled with architectural drawings of my “Russo Resort” hotels, complete with over the edge pools and helipads.
At 6 years old I moved from Chile to Miami and I realized I couldn’t buy my favorite chocolate bar, Super8. So next time I went to Chile, I bought 2 cases of Super8 and brought them back to Miami and started selling them outside Publix supermarket. After being in the hot Miami sun for a while, I asked my mom “So, how many chocolate bars do I need to sell to buy a Rolls-Royce?”
Can you share with us the story of the “ah ha” moment that led to the creation of the food brand you are leading?
Candela, meaning “on fire” in Spanish slang, was created in 2016 after I was fascinated by the drink served to me at a hotel bar in the Dominican Republic. It was called “mamajuana”. Intrigued by its smooth taste and exotic spice flavors, I was surprised to find out that I could not buy this and take it home with me. Millions of people were drinking mamajuana every year, yet there wasn’t a brand making it. It was only made artisanally. That’s how the idea to bring the finest expression of this iconic Dominican drink to the rest of the world was born.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Oh man, I’ve made so many mistakes along the way. One of the funniest was when a really big potential client wanted to tour our distillery before placing the order. I couldn’t leave the US because my green card was still processing. I was really eager to close the deal so instead of keeping it on standby, my wife went instead. She flew to the Dominican Republic for the day and showed these folks around our production facility.
She did as good of a job as she could’ve! I was listening through the phone during the entire meeting while she tried to explain to a group of six Chinese businessmen and our translator terms of a deal she was very unfamiliar with. The deal completely flopped and on top of that, my wife almost had a panic attack in the process! She came back to Miami that night and we had a good dinner and laughed it off.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen people make when they start a food line? What can be done to avoid those errors?
The biggest mistake I watch new founders make is investing too much time and money doing focus groups, surveys, consulting sessions, and all these textbook ways to see if their product will stick or not. I’m a big believer that the only way to know if a product works is to bring it into the market, see if people are actually willing to pull out their wallets and spend their hard-earned money on it.
It all starts with the right idea, a burning need either in yourself as a consumer or in other people that you can clearly see. Starting from real needs is so much more effective than trying to come up with the million-dollar idea on the whiteboard of your co-working space. If you read Candela’s reviews, you’ll see that we created a product people really enjoyed when they were traveling, but couldn’t find in the US. Customers get an emotional response from Candela. Our product satisfies a real desire that existed in millions of people, but no one else saw.
Let’s imagine that someone reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to produce. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?
Start with the idea: something based on a need that’s visible to you. Then, try to create the version of your idea that you can actually sell. This is the most difficult stage because it’s difficult to know where you draw the line from prototype to ideal product exactly like your dream vision. There’s a massive gap between those two places. I developed a methodology to help know where exactly you draw the line to say “okay, this is good enough for me to hit the market and test my hypothesis”.
Then, test your product in the market with your eyes and ears wide open. Turn off your ego for a minute and become an external, clinically objective observer. See what works and what needs to be changed.
Then go into version 2. Keep repeating this process until your product/service develops at least 10–20 super fans. Then, expand.
Many people have good ideas all the time. But some people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How would you encourage someone to overcome this hurdle?
Have a bias for action. You’ll make mistakes. It’ll be messy. That’s okay. But the worst thing you can do as an entrepreneur is to have analysis-paralysis. Overthinking killed more great ideas than the market ever did.
I’m not saying to just go ahead and put an unfinished concept into the market and pray for it to work. What I’m saying is to just get started. The first step is always the hardest.
There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?
Ultimately what matters most is that you know yourself well. Being self-aware is one of the most important superpowers you can have as an entrepreneur. Know your strengths and weaknesses.
If you have a great idea for a bakery, but struggle to make fried eggs, then you should probably find a partner or hire someone. The same thing applies to any business idea.
What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?
I think it depends on your ambition and the type of business you’re trying to build. Not all businesses are suitable to be venture backed. Sometimes it’s better to grow organically by bootstrapping. Sometimes it’s better to scale quickly and fuel your growth with venture capital.
Can you share thoughts from your experience about how to file a patent, how to source good raw ingredients, how to source a good manufacturer, and how to find a retailer or distributor?
All these things you will learn by getting out there and being in the market. Trademarks, you can do online if you can’t afford a good IP lawyer. Patents are a bit trickier and require more expertise. To source the right ingredients and manufacturer, I recommend getting out there, talking to fellow entrepreneurs, and getting recommendations from the inside.
Finding retailers or distributors is best done by being on the street and wearing out your shoes. It’s hard to bypass this process, at least in the first days of your business. Yes, there are sales agencies, brokers, etc. but I always recommend that the founder does the initial selling themselves to learn how every aspect of their business works.
Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 Things You Need To Create a Successful Food or Beverage Brand” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)
- An idea based on a powerful insight — “Why does your product exist? Who wants it and why?”
- A clear unique selling proposition or key differentiator — “Why should people buy your brand and not what they’re currently buying?”
- The highest quality product possible, given the resources available — This is non-negotiable. You can have the best idea in the world, the sexiest packaging and design, the loudest marketing, but if the product sucks, no one will purchase it again. You’ll get a lot of initial purchases, but no repeat customers. This is why your product’s quality is non-negotiable.
- Tenacity — You’ll be an underdog for a while before it takes off. You’ll be fighting brands that are more established and have way more resources than you. How do you get things done when you have all the odds stacked against you? How do you win a gunfight with your hands?
- Persistence — This is the most important one. The road to success is paved with “no’s”. Most people’s default setting is to say “no”. How do you overcome this? How do you keep going when everything seems to be going downhill? We see a lot of the successes, but rarely see the unsexy, painful struggle that happens behind the scenes. When investors don’t believe in you, your costs end up being twice as high, when your shipment gets delayed, when your product is recalled, when your retailers reject your submission, when you’re running out of cash — do you have what it takes to keep going? You need to be insanely persistent to make it.
Can you share your ideas about how to create a product that people really love and are ‘crazy about’?
It’s a combination of addressing the right consumer insight, with the right product, at the right price, at the right time — and doing it all in style.
Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?
I’ve barely scratched the surface on all the things I’m going to do. I have exciting things in the works — but the overarching theme is that I believe you should always leave the house better than you found it. That applies to business as well. Candela will be a force of progress for the Dominican Republic and its amazing people. We’re working on programs around social empowerment, as well as environmental initiatives. More details to come soon!
You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I always try to be helpful to fellow entrepreneurs. Starting a business is hard, so I always try to help in any way I can. I feel everyone that’s had some success should do the same. Make introductions, become a customer, offer honest feedback, dedicate some time to answer questions and to share your experience. It will all be paid forward.
And again, always leave the house better than you found it.
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.
Reference link: Authority Magazine