When I took my family to Chicago

Memories from a business kick off in The US.

On May 10, 2018 we had a one-way ticket to Chicago for the whole family. Obviously, I was excited. This meant a long-awaited challenge after one year of intense preparations. My job was to kick off Kyrö in the US. Naturally, we would move to the US together as a family. My fiancé Jenna and I have two kids: at the time Stella was three and Ida had just turned one. 

It became clear from the AY 9 takeoff that there was no time for daydreaming. Imagine a plane full of people and us with two toddlers, constantly trying to escape from their assigned seats. It was exhausting, but the worst was yet to come. After an eight hour flight we were instructed to line up. There were no exceptions for disabled, elderly, families with kids or anything else. I now understand why so many older people order wheelchair service upon arrival to the US. Looking back, we can joke about it being American interpretation of equality. Nevertheless, we spent over three hours at O’Hare airport, lining up for the immigration and with the kids shouting and crying.  

Bagels and check books make a difference

But it was all worth it. After a good night sleep on the floor of our new apartment and a breakfast bagel with a fresh cup of American coffee, I was again feeling very positive about the move. Practicalities took some time but, step by step we figured it out. And for those of you wondering what is needed for a year in the US in practical terms: we were able to open a bank account (needed for cheques), get a lease contract, get electricity and even open a cell phone account with AT&T services. All without a working visa or an American social security number. It goes without saying, but cash is king and check book remains king as well. You cannot live without one in the States.

Before the physical move I had spent a lot of time working on the fact that Kyrö’s product complied with US authorities. It took about nine months in total, which included not only paper work but also sample deliveries, label registration and much more. Federal compliance is a mandatory step before you can even think about the business itself. After getting it done it was already easier to make state compliance and file required price postings for spirits products. Additionally, during the previous year, we spent time choosing our import/back office services, presented our case in front of multiple distributors, searched for street sales force, and most importantly, made up our minds on where to start and how. In the States alcohol importing, distribution, and sales are separated by law since prohibition (a three tier system). Try and think about any other industry where the rules have remained the same for over a century. No innovation. Yes, hard to imagine but the consequences are clear: big distributors get bigger and gain purchasing power, big brands owners support big distributors and so forth. It’s a never ending story which doesn’t leave much room for innovation or efficiency.  

Having a viable market entry strategy to the US is very important. It all starts from understanding market conditions, the supply chain, trade requirements (restaurants, bars, hotels, and retail) and consumer behaviour. I don’t claim that we had the best knowledge, but it was absolutely necessary for us to move to Chicago to support the launch and learn the rest as we went along. The American market provides a huge opportunity, but the country is huge in itself. Each state is different and I often liken them to independent countries in Europe. We chose Chicago over LA or NYC because of its vibrant food and drinks scene, down to earth people, less competitive landscape, and distributor fit. Most of these arguments were proven right. Still today I would pick Chicago as the first place to start.

When having a meeting means having a half a cocktail

Honestly, in my previous role I was little fed up communicating with our distributors around the world and needed a change. As a person I am super target oriented and I was certainly given an ambitious one: to get our brand flying in Chicago. From the beginning I knew I had to understand how the whole value chain works: I ran around the bars, restaurants and spirit shops in Chicago, had thousands of friendly chats, gave hundreds of sales pitches, sampled the product whenever and wherever possible. It was super interesting. I was able to see the results online: how many cases did I sell? Did our distributor sell anything? How did the outsourced street sales team perform? Depletions in US are easy to get and 100% transparent. Numbers don’t lie and sales people are motivated and awarded accordingly. My daily schedule was to communicate with our distribution partner and street sales team in the morning, had a short break with the kids and my fiancé in the afternoon, and head out for a sales tour in the evening. A lot of work, but when you don’t have many other things going in your life, it’s all possible. 

We obtained the results and were quickly occupying the coolest bars and restaurants in the city. I got support from our distributor, who set up sales incentives programming and slowly but steadily Kyrö was known by the industry folks around the city. What remained tough was fact that many people didn’t know Kyrö by name. Instead, they recognised our bottle design. This ended up being one of the most important lessons. We didn’t have a clear brand name and I knew we needed to make a change. Now, two years later, we have gone through a brand renewal process which wasn’t easy but it was mandatory. Getting rid of Napue was the hardest thing, both practically and emotionally. The early results show that Finnish people will forgive us. And anywhere else in the world, Kyrö doesn’t exist yet.

As a family we spent a lot of time exploring Chicago and its surroundings. It was all new and exciting for everyone. Almost every day we picked a new restaurant, doughnut bar, park, zoo, amusement park, neighbourhood street festival, sporting event, you name it. I was naturally interested in sports offering, especially in the NFL. Before living in the US, I could not have cared less about football, but understanding the basics was mind blowing. I wasn’t brave enough to tailgate and spend a whole day on the experience but I did see many Bears games and loved it. The kids also started daycare and learned English. We were amazed to see them grow with the language. Afternoons after daycare we took an elevator down to the mezzanine from our 23rd floor and went swimming. During those hot summer days Chicago seemed like the best place on earth. All in all, we enjoyed our new life. Most importantly we were there as a family, and nothing else was really needed.

Gin boom in the states is still to come

Once time went by, I wanted to try Kyrö in other part of the States. I successfully pitched three separate distributors in New England (CT, RI, and MA) and negotiated to share a sales rep with Kings County Distillery to sell us in the trade segment. Laura Graham is a wonderful personality and works seamlessly with our distribution partners in all three states. Another great thing about New England from Kyrö’s perspective is that it’s geographically small, still densely populated, and everyone loves G&Ts. In Chicago there is really only one restaurant that serves G&Ts with paired tonic waters and matching garnish. My conclusion is that there is an opportunity for a gin boom in America. Realistically speaking, Kyrö  will need to ride that wave once it happens — not to make the boom happen as we did in Finland back in 2015.  In May 2019 we returned to Finland. A year felt short by all means and we could have easily stayed. I guess we were busy by establishing our new lives and when all started to settle it was time to go back. We had no choice, one year was an absolute max without a working visa. Now, two years later we’re still holding our positions in the Midwest and Northeast of the States. Kyrö’s 3.0 strategy targets consumers in addition to creating availability through trade channels. We believe that by establishing a meaningful interaction with our target consumers we’re able to convert our consumers to Kyrö family members. This has to happen by being present locally and, considering Kyrö resources, this would also mean digital data gathering and online interaction. As a company we’ll be back to the US when the world returns to its new normal. I am sure that by then, the game will be played by slightly better rules for all the challengers.