Gin is the buzzword on Mzansi’s thirsty lips these days, maybe even more so now we can’t buy it legally because of the alcohol lockdown. But while the buzz drives the demand for this trendy drink, it also makes it really hard for individual distillers and brands to stand out for consumers.
But how do you stand out in a world full of terrified citizens? For “gin-preneur” Nzeka Biyela (32) the answer was to disrupt the norm and create MOOD Gin, a gin made to mix equally well with tonic, soda water or sparkling water.
Inspired by the needs of the newly health-conscious consumer, Biyela and partners Matt Schaal and Rob Heyns founded MOOD Gin in 2020, aiming to create more options for gin-lovers who prefer to mix their spirits with lowcalorie and sugar-free mixers.
Disruptor in the making
She may be a disruptor in the alcohol industry today, but Biyela had never imagined she would call herself an entrepreneur.
Growing up she had a pretty normal childhood in eSikhaweni, a small town between Richards Bay and Empangeni in KwaZulu-Natal.
‘Sometimes things do not go according to plan and that is okay, you just need to know when and how you will move on.’
After matriculating from the Durban Girls High School in 2006, like many teens, Biyela was at a loss and did not know what career path to take.
“I ended up going to Stellenbosch University where I studied a BSc Agric in viticulture and oenology. It was just something different that piqued my interest,” she says.
However, she had a change of heart a year into the programme, admitting that she may have romanticised a career in wine making. “I am from KZN, there are no wine farms, this was a completely different idea, really,” she says.
The dream did not match the reality, and she later set her sights towards a degree in human resources, which she completed in 2010.
The feeling that something was missing lingered. In 2011 Biyela enrolled to the University of Cape Town (UCT) where she pursued a postgraduate diploma in entrepreneurship. Here she would meet Rob Heyns, MOOD gin co-founder.
“I think that’s where everything clicked for me, it was the best learning experience because you get to immediately apply what you learn in the classroom to the real world.”
Forging ironclad partnerships
After completing her diploma in 2012, Biyela and Heyns would put their studies into action founding the League of Beers (LoB).
LoB was an online store offering a range of craft beers, tasting notes and background on the breweries, delivered to the doors of monthly subscribers.
“At the time, craft beer was becoming a thing and becoming more and more popular. We started off with the business while working (other jobs) and treated it as a side hustle.”
In 2014, Heyns and Biyela sold the business to online retail company Yuppiechef.
Biyela took a two-year hiatus, returning as a founder of Sugarbird Gin, which raised a record-breaking R1 million in crowdfunding. Unfortunately, things did not work out for her with the Sugarbird project, due to “differences in opinion and management styles”, she says.
“Sometimes things do not go according to plan and that is okay, you just need to know when and how you will move on,” she says.
The MOODy way forward
Biyela and her two MOOD Gin founders describe the brand as their lockdown baby.
“It has been the most exhilarating and refreshing brand I’ve had the pleasure of working on and bringing to life. It does not conform to the norms; it is about disruption.”
Selling alcohol in a country in crisis has been challenging. “2020 was difficult for all entrepreneurs, more so in our industry. When there is complete ban on alcohol, which is essentially our bread and butter, how do we navigate that?
“We’ve had to almost pivot and see what it is that we can do during this time to ensure that we have steady revenue coming into the business,” says Biyela.
Her advice to other entrepreneurs is to remember that business deals are not always sealed with a handshake. It is important to engage in ironclad partnerships, she cautions.
“Do not overlook governance, working with people you can trust is a big thing, but over and above the trust, you need an ironclad agreement in place.
“Trust and happiness will be there in the beginning, but as you evolve on the business side things can change. The relationship can change and things may go south, you never know. Protect yourself from the very beginning with an ironclad agreement.”
Always remember, “Cash flow management is key. You must know your goals, what you are trying to achieve and use that as your true north,” she adds.