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Gary Leigh, founder and owner of GO! Kombucha

Gary Leigh, founder and owner of GO! Kombucha

Published by Leonardo Calcagno

Who are you and what is your background?

My name is Gary Leigh and I am the founder and owner of GO! Kombucha, Europe’s longest-established authentic kombucha tea brand (since 2003!).

Your current job:

It’s not really a job in the true sense of the word; more of a passion to continue be the best possible kombucha available on a commercial scale and to raising awareness of its myriad benefits compared to standard soft drinks, its contribution to gut health and as a great alternative to alcoholic drinks.

In which city:

I am based in London but we brew near the south coast in the heart of the beautiful East Sussex countryside near Hastings.

Where does your interest in Kombucha come from?

Friends living on a houseboat moored by the Thames introduced me to their home/boat-made kombucha back in 2003, at a time when I was finding myself. Peter was a spiritual pendulum dowser who claimed to have been celestially-gifted what he called the ‘Soul Path Program’, so I was making frequent visits to the boat to discover through this program how many past lives I had had, the age of my soul, and indeed what my purpose on earth was all about..

I was selling my flat in London’s trendy Brick Lane at the same time, they were looking for a backer to turn their galley-kitchen hobby into a fully-fledged kombucha business, and I was the ‘fool’ they saw approaching over the horizon. The irony was I was visiting them to find my new purpose having sold my publishing business in 2001 and kombucha was the elephant in the room, or rather on the boat!

What prompted you to start your company?

I didn’t start it; I inherited the husk of what was left of the company that had been set up by Peter and his girlfriend with my cash in order to get their kombucha brand off the ground. 

I didn’t see kombucha in my stars and lent the money solely to help them believe that if they were being spiritually guided then it was my duty in a way to try to help them having come into money on the selling of my apartment. I then went off traveling the world for six months still trying to find myself, and fully expecting on my return to see that my investment had been spent wisely and that it would be on the shelves of health food stores across the UK. I only ever wanted the loan repaid with a small return as a thank you, but they dumped the business on me when they failed to get it to work and bailed out. This was in March 2004. A year later they sold their houseboat for half a million pounds and bought a vast chateau in France leaving me to pick up the pieces, basically. Naturally, I was devastated that despite their good fortune they refused to help me pick up the pieces. Nevertheless I was determined to make the business work, somehow, in order to recoup my investment, so I had to learn about the craft of kombucha making from the ground-up with scant funds by this time and living in the warehouse in which the first batch of kombucha made (6000 x 750ml bottles) was rapidly gathering dust.

What makes your product unique?

After 16 years our kombucha has stayed true to the small batch method and is 100% handcrafted, and we use only different tea leaves to flavor and contrast as opposed to adding fruit syrups to yield a more pop soda-like beverage. So our kombucha is more akin to the mouthfeel and taste of an alcoholic beverage. We have carved a niche in the UK as the premium authentic booch brand which all the other brewers respect and thankfully tend to say nice things about. I have never had the desire to follow the money and fruit soda-ise our kombucha; real, pure kombucha without adulteration of any kind is a sophisticated beverage aligned to a mature palate. Why make gingerade when you can make convincing alternatives to prosecco?

What do you want to convey through your brand image? Design: how was it designed? By who?

Above all else authenticity, integrity and passion for what we do; any money we make is secondary to our intent to remain real and stay true to our ethics and principles. At a time when there is so much engineered/’dumbed down’ ‘Frankenbooch’ flooding our shelves from the multinationals, you either attempt to compete on their level and wither and die due to lack of funds, or you innovate by being authentic. Ironic that to innovate in the kombucha world today means to go back to the original Ancient Chinese method because so many today are filtering and carbonating for longer shelf life and stability, and you can tell that right away in the blandness of the taste and the artificial fizz.

What are the main challenges in your company?

Thankfully we are at a time now when the only challenges that present themselves are things like deciding what trade shows to do each year. We are 16 years old, we grew organically and made every mistake and learned everything we know about kombucha along the way, and these are the mistakes and challenges being faced by newbies piling into the market today who think the craft of kombucha making is basically scaling up what you do in your mum’s kitchen. It isn’t. We have paid off all our debt and can now afford to brew for the pure pleasure of brewing without the constant worry of the next bill arriving.

What tools are essential for your work(app, software)?

iPhone and MacBook with MSW and good wifi connectivity; that’s my office right there!

A word to define what type of worker you are:

I have always been self-employed and done my own thing. I couldn’t think of anything I’d like least than to be answerable to others or working in an office environment with a bickering committee of people politicizing and back-stabbing one another. We see that on the TV each day in the live transmissions from our UK Parliament of self-serving and deceitful scoundrels. I have always worked best on my own, following my own gut instinct and staying true to my own vision and intent in whatever I am creating. I can imagine even having shareholders would be a challenge for me. I am best working to my own agenda, basically, which I like to think is near enough always one of pure intent that will ultimately benefit others. I do believe when we die it is important to leave a net benefit behind, not just materially but in every smile and positive resonance you project outward to the world; did that person give more than they took? How you will be remembered and the legacy you leave behind is important for the onward growth of one’s soul, I believe. The word that best defines what type of worker I am? Tenacious would be a good one, I guess!

What does your office space look like?

Squarish and metallic silver. I call in my Macbook!

Do you have a way to organize your days to optimize your work?

To bed early and I wake up early. I get most of my work done between 8-11am, as though on auto-pilot. Probably what many people would consider 8 hours worth of work I do in 3. Then I have a midday slump for lunch, then to Costa for a triple espresso where I continue to check emails and create content for our social media – and see what other booch brewers are up to and send some encouraging messages of support! – then off to the gym to let off steam. I like to laze and relax in the evening as my mind cannot contemplate anything work-related after 6 pm!

What tips would you give to improve productivity?

Without passion and motivation, you can wave goodbye to productivity. The only times I feel neither of these is on the rare occasion I am run down or unwell. If you employ others then it goes without saying treat them well, make them feel valued and ensure they share in any gains they have contributed to enabling your business to prosper and grow and by turn giving you an easier life. Good karma is a wonderful thing, and when you use it well in business it will ensure loyalty from those you are most dependent on. Also, don’t see competitors as adversaries to beat and overcome but as friends to encourage and nurture where you can without compromising your own brand. It can pay dividends in the long run!

What is the best advice you have been given?

Believe in yourself, keep the faith and never, ever give up.

Can you give us a tour of your local Kombucha scene?

In our small part of the world close to the south coast seaside resort of Hastings, we ARE the local kombucha scene. We were put on the map recently when a film crew for BBC South East came to our kombuchery in Westfield for a 90-second insert into their evening news programme. A week later we were on Channel 4 Music being taste tested with other tea-based drinks and was voted best overall. That was a mad week in the TV spotlight!

How do you control the growth of your company?

Organically. For 16 years we have grown the business within our own means, reinvesting most of the income over and over in order to grow. Last November we paid off the last installment of a ten-year bank loan so now our business is self-owned and, more importantly, self-determined. I couldn’t imagine anything worse for me personally than to be beholden to other directors and shareholders and endless pressure to cut corners and cheapen what we do in order to maximize profit. In our business our passion for what we do – make the best quality authentic kombucha tea possible – overrides all other considerations; any profit is a welcome bonus!

What is your strategy for making your beer known? (tastings, festival, etc.) Why this strategy?

In tandem with our organic growth, our policy has always been to not advertise but let the quality of the product sell itself. We are lucky that the growth that has resulted in this unconventional approach has been more or less within our production capacity and capabilities. Had we gone large from the offset – like all of the incoming brands are having to do in order to make an instant impression and grab a share of what market they can – we may have been in the position of not being able to meet our orders, which is almost as dangerous a situation as running out of cash flow. Because we have had 16 years to establish ourselves gradually we have a guaranteed market and have established our niche as the best quality and most authentic commercial kombucha tea brand on the UK market.

What are your end-of-day and early-day routine?

I am a morning person and can get a whole day’s work for a normal person done in 2-3 hours. It literally feels like I go on auto-pilot and let my sub-conscious work through me to get the work done, much in the same way your sub-conscious takes over the controls of a car leaving you free to listen to music or chat to passengers. Sometimes it amazes me what I achieve in such a short amount of time, and each time I do I have a reassuring buzz in my gut that all is just as it should be. That has been a constant guiding principle in my work; that I am being guided in some way and never to worry because there will always be enough cash coming in to pay your bills, and there always has been overall 16 years, even down to the last pennies at times. Nevertheless, I sweated buckets at times wondering how the latest bill would be paid, and then another order would appear in my email to cover it!

What advice would you give someone who wants to start a Kombucha company?

Quite simply, don’t. I’m being totally honest here, but you’ve missed the boat by a long shot. Now the corporates have muscled in with millions of pounds backing them up it is an over-crowded market for a drink that is still not properly established in the UK; I can’t even see all of them surviving to be honest. I had the benefit of coming in years before kombucha started becoming more commonplace, and that’s why we tanked at the beginning as even the word “probiotic” was largely unheard of. Anyone coming in today will need well into a six-figure investment to get even the most basically run kombucha brand off the ground devoid of the knowledge of how to make it on a vast scale. It will take years of learning to even break even and that’s if you’re lucky.

A new brand just listed with London whole food chain Planet Organic is a small 240ml bottle selling at £4.15, which is just insane no matter how clever their branding or social media presence; it just is not sustainable, yet that is the price they have to sell theirs at to cover their start-up costs. It’s utter madness. The bodies are already starting to pile up, of good folk who thought they could scale up a hobby that began in their kitchen into a national drinks brand. It just isn’t that simple. It took us years of learning to get the product right and even today we’re still learning new things. Ultimately the market will decide who succeeds and who fails, but does the market need more newbies right now? In a word, no. Don’t waste your money!

Apart from your computer and your phone, what gadget cannot you do without?

My Casio calculator. Trying to do your quarterly VAT on your iPhone calculator is all kinds of wrong!

Upcoming products or projects?

Exciting times. We have been white labeling for one of the UK’s biggest and best-loved health food labels since September and are now looking to expand that part of the operation into a new customized facility. On the GO! Kombucha front we are working with a top London design agency to take our branding to the next level and will roll our new look out from late summer in synch with a new look and platform for our web site.

And most exciting of all is we are now using our own on-site spring well water to brew our kombucha tea, the pure, ultra-filtered spring water literally pumped from a good yard from our kombuchery into our brewing vessels. We believe this is a worldwide first for any type of soft drink product; to actually use the water that runs under our feet deep underground in our own product is a gift from nature itself! | |