Lyre’s is a booming non-alcoholic company, driven by CEO Mark Livings’ vow to let Australians enjoy their drink, their way.
Good afternoon, Mark. First question: can you make a good Negroni without alcohol, and if so, how?
You sure can, or more accurately, now you can. To make the great cocktail classic without alcohol, simply combine three non-alcoholic spirits from our range; Lyre’s Dry London, Italian Orange and Aperitif Rosso, stir over ice and you’re done.
Given we’re delivering a Negroni without the usual 25% alcohol after mixing and dilution, it’ll taste a little lighter than the original, but it’s unmistakably a Negroni and you can enjoy it just as much…and be hangover-free the next day!
What was the driving force behind your co-founding of Lyre’s?
I saw an opportunity to help people have their drink, their way – with or without alcohol. The challenge of getting a non-alcoholic spirit indistinguishably close to the original first was a curiosity, then a challenge, then an obsession.
It took me three years to get the products right and I recruited a friend of mine, respected Australian Sommelier David ‘Murph’ Murphy to help me along the way and perfect them.
Once we had Murph on board and perfected our products, we formed the business. I tapped in my long-term friend and fellow entrepreneur, Carl Hartmann (as Co-Founder) and Lyre’s Spirit Co. was born.
Could you share a bit of your career background with us?
I guess ‘serial entrepreneur’ would probably sum it up, but very briefly, I started my marketing career with Coca-Cola. I then moved to the agency side of the industry, co-founding my own agency over 10 years ago, and together we grew it to be one of the largest independent marketing agencies in Australia.
We then built businesses down the vertical – we moved into printing and production, for example, merchandise and speciality packaging, logistics and fulfilment, product fulfilment, and software.
The group of companies has been featured as one of Australia’s fastest-growing businesses for the last four years in a row in the AFR Fast100, which has led to some great individual recognition, including an EY Entrepreneur of the Year Finalist for Australia.
What’s the key for a non-alcoholic spirit brand to make an imprint in a fiercely competitive beverages market?
Our biggest challenge right now is awareness. Based on our research, there’s four-times lower consumer awareness of non-alcoholic spirits, than non-alcoholic beer in the marketplace.
So we’ve got a long way to go, and increasing awareness is definitely the fastest way to more sales for us. From that point onwards, we need to build a compelling brand, keep our product at the highest quality and continue to innovate to stay ahead.
We’ve already been recognised as the most awarded non-alcoholic spirits in the world, which is a great start, but we certainly can’t rest on our laurels. As you say, it’s fiercely competitive out there.
What has been your company’s biggest hurdle so far, and how did you overcome it?
We had a really dark time when the pandemic struck and we were almost wiped out. We had just secured a term sheet that would provide the business with the runway we needed to keep to our ‘everywhere at once’ objective as a business for product availability.
Then, despite it being signed, we lost it and the fund refused to complete the transaction. It’s easily the most unethical thing I’ve ever witnessed in business – the fund knew full well they were signing our death warrant as we would not have enough cash to continue what we were doing and trying to secure additional capital in that environment was impossible. Despite the fact it would obliterate years of work, they did it anyway.
Overcoming this was insanely difficult. We were dangerously low on cash, I was trapped in Australia, unable to travel with borders closed. So we put our shoulder to the wheel and took more than a hundred meetings with investors and funds via Zoom. For many months there, we hung over the abyss. It was awful. But we were blessed with existing investors who continued to believe in the brand we were building and dug deep and invested further capital, for which I’ll be eternally grateful.
Miraculously, the wheels really started to turn during this time and our eCommerce exploded in multiple geographies. We were seeing 400% sales growth month on month. We went from fighting to survive to fighting to keep up. Eventually, we broke through and secured the most material investment globally in our industry last year with a $16 million contribution from a number of venture funds.
How did Lyre’s adapt to the fast-changing landscape following the outbreak of COVID-19?
Fortunately, we have always been a ‘digital-first’ business. We set about building a best-in-class, global, multi-currency, multi-lingual, cross-border eCommerce capability from day one and that served us during the pandemic beautifully.
We were recognised last year with the Australia Post ORIA award for ‘International Conquerors’. We built a direct-to-consumer capability in more than 20 countries in the space of 12 months. I’m pretty sure we’re the only Australian business to ever accomplish something like this.
The eCommerce capability coupled with our pivot to enable our brand ambassador staff to visit customers’ homes via video conferencing was really something novel and I’m proud of how we iterated the business at speed in order to adapt to the changing environment we found ourselves operating within.
My Co-Founder and I have always loved computer games, so we like to think of the pandemic as ‘Company leadership on hard mode’. It gives us context that it’s a difficult challenge, but it can be overcome.
What characteristics do you think makes a great CEO?
This is a really interesting question, and I won’t give you some fashionable corporate platitudes as I don’t think it’s a ‘one size fits all’ answer. Some qualities such as empathy, great communication, empowerment, and trust are universally important, but CEOs should be different, just as the scope of businesses working away out there and the teams that work within them are different also.
I think leadership styles can and should vary to match the requirement of the team to achieve two fundamental things – optimal performance in pursuit of the organisation’s objectives and maximising humanity by helping find joy in work and the workplace for all team members.
What’s your personal leadership style?
I try to over-communicate and lead businesses with transparency. I find empowerment is incredibly important, and accountability living where execution happens is critical to growing a team that can move at speed and accomplish great things.
That said, you need to recruit well, and find self-starting people that respond well to this leadership framework. I then do my best to coach (rather than get on) the field, always doing my best to clear roadblocks. I’m not always successful but do make a persistent effort to continue to learn from missteps and deeply and empathetically listen wherever possible to evolve.
How is technology helping the business (and/or the solutions you offer customers) evolve?
We were very lucky in the fact that we accidentally built a pandemic-proof business. We were 100% virtual from day one and also 100% global – we saw this as important to staying lean and be able to move quickly. So video conferencing and online collaboration tools like Monday.com and Slack have been our modus operandi since we formed.
We don’t have a single executive team member working from the same city anywhere in the world. When lockdowns were adopted as policy responses, it was really ‘business as usual’ for us operationally and we didn’t break stride.
On the customer-facing side, video conferencing technology like Zoom and calendar management software like Calendly enabled our brand ambassadors (typically former senior bar staff and mixologists that leapt over the bar to represent a brand) to stop calling on bars and restaurants and instead start talking to consumers directly in their living rooms, offering them mixology classes with Lyre’s products purchased from our website.
It’s been brilliantly received and built incredible brand loyalty. We’ve even had one customer come back four times to get four training sessions with one of our team members. Some of our team have also delivered close to 200 masterclasses! At an hour each, that’s a whole lot of at-home mixologists we’ve trained, which I think is brilliant.
Vital Addition presents this ‘Meet a CEO’ series.
Vital Addition is a fast-growing Australian tax and accounting company providing fresh, honest, and reliable accounting, financial, and tax advice. CEO Lachlan Grant believes in ‘strength in numbers’, empowering SMEs to make business decisions with confidence, and face the challenges associated with growth with informed optimism.