Jazz Shaper: Alex Carlton

Posted on 03 April 2021

Alex Carlton is Co-Founder and CEO of STRYYK, the distilled non-alcoholic spirits company.

Elliot Moss

Welcome to the Jazz Shapers Podcast from Mishcon de Reya.  What you are about to hear was originally broadcast on Jazz FM however the music has been cut due to rights issues.

Good morning and welcome to Jazz Shapers with me, Elliot Moss.  It’s where the Shapers of Business join the Shapers of Jazz, Soul and Blues.  My guest today is Alex Carlton, Founder of Funkin cocktails, the fruit puree and cocktail mixer brand and, more recently, he’s the Co-Founder and CEO of STRYYK, the non-alcoholic spirit company.  After leaving school at 17, Alex moved to Los Angeles where, while acting, writing and working for TV commercial directors, he developed a love for smoothies.  “They were the new thing” he says and after returning to the UK, unable to find smoothies like those in LA, Alex decided to use a second-hand fruit machine to produce and deliver fresh drinks in London, under the name Funkin.  “I always loved the idea of building a brand” he says, “I never had any experience of doing it but I realised the power and potential.”  The business diversifying to sell purees and cocktail mixers, was soon a global success.  Within a year of selling the company back in 2015, Alex was drinking an alcohol-free spirit and tonic drink with a friend when they realised they could create a better product and capitalise on an increasingly popular sector.  I think you can see a pattern developing here.  “STRYYK.  All the Spirit, None of the Alcohol”, it says here, was launched in 2018 with its first two drinks Not Gin and Not Rum, followed by Not Vodka in 2019.  Hello, how are you?

Alex Carlton

Good morning Elliot.  I’m very well thank you and thanks for having me on your show. 

Elliot Moss

Absolute pleasure, I’m really happy to have you.  I always do research on people –  a great fun part of the job that I do – you are one of those people that falls into the category of ‘He left school at 17 and he’s gone out and he’s not set up one successful business but he's set up two”, hopefully the second one is going to be as successful as the first.  Do you think today that you wouldn’t be where you were if you’d have gone on to University and done the things that most people do?

Alex Carlton

That’s a really good question.  I always had an entrepreneurial tendency and flair at school growing up.  I was never an academic.  I was interested in learning but I was more interested in business and making money and always, always fascinated by brands.  I remember playing a lot of tennis as a kid and 11, 12, 13 years of age, loving Adidas as a brand, I just always wanted the latest Adidas gear and it sort of resonated and stuck with me for, as it does for life, and many people now, you buy any sort of fashion label, a food brand, a coffee brand, brands are so powerful and they have such emotional connect to people and I think I probably would have succeeded better in the path I have taken than had I decided to sort of pursue an academic course in University.

Elliot Moss

I read also that you were in the recruitment world briefly by the sounds of it although I didn’t check the number of days or weeks or months or years, and then I looked at the fact that you were also involved in commercials and you were doing a bit of this and a bit of that.  Where does this creativity, this desire for freedom come from, do you think in your life because again, just looking at your life over the last 25 years, it’s been… you’ve told the story in your way, where’s that desire come from?

Alex Carlton

I think part of is due to my late father who was an entrepreneur, always designing new products, ideas, looking to bring products in from the Far East back in the sort of 80s and early 90s and, you know, being exposed to what is possible with design and technology and innovation.  I’ve always liked and loved innovation and been fascinated by design and I think maybe it’s partly I’m a left-hander, I think you always hear left-handers have this sort of creative part of the brain so I think it’s probably part of my DNA as well. 

Elliot Moss

I know that your father, as you said your late father, he was an entrepreneur and he would, you know, look left, look right, look east, look west, wherever it was that there was action.  How much of an influence did that have on you as a kid?  Did he talk about what he did a lot?  Because, you know, often now, you know, we’re parents and I don’t know how much we change the course of our children’s lives, it’s certainly not intentional but what do you think was going on in your own childhood with him?

Alex Carlton

I think one thing to share, I’m an only child and so I had a lot of attention and spent a lot of time with my father and he was really in his own head, he was a fantastic guy and, you know, all my friends loved him and he was really entertaining but I suppose I was watching and learning and listening.  What I picked up, he always had the latest innovational trend coming in from the Far East and there would be an importer and then sort of rebrand, remarket and then have a team of sales people but it all felt very stressful and almost archaic even though it was a different time of life, we are talking of the sort of 70s and 80s and I recognise if he wasn’t on the ball, he couldn’t relax and the reason being, he didn’t have a brand, he had products, it was very product led and sort of latest ideas and I recognised, you know, if you want to be able to put your feet up for 5 minutes and have a business that is still working, a brand will always deliver as long as you’re invested behind that brand and building it.  Now, I say that, when you build a business, you never put your feet up for 5 minutes, you are on it 24/7 but that’s the passion that comes from building a brand, you fall in love with your brand and when you see the reaction your brand has to people, it’s a deep affiliation you have and the passion is driven harder so, I think there was definitely influence from him but in a very different way and a different channel for sure.

Elliot Moss

Yes, it sort of it was in and amongst, it was almost by osmosis, it sounds like you took it all on.  Your first business, Funkin cocktails, and it’s the short story I said about spotting the smoothie thing and then making it happen.  What was the hardest part of that journey?  Was it the initial bit of actually getting it off the ground, taking your idea and making it happen?  Or was it as it scaled, if you look back?  Which bit did you actually find the most gruelling?

Alex Carlton

The most gruelling part of that journey was probably the first six to eight weeks of running that business.  It was a grassroot business so basically I had a small investment from a good friend of mine at the time, and this guy was in real estate and had the old C&A department store in Wembley and this was now vacant because he used to rent these shops to the sort of Pound stores you see around the country now and we ended up taking the catering kitchen on the top floor where I installed a second-hand juice machine and I’d make six flavours of smoothies, and that was quite gruelling work.  We’d have the fruit and veg delivered through the night, I’d have a young guy help me juice these blends and then I had a Smart car, it was the first Smart car in London which are obviously common cars now and I had it logo’d up and branded with Funkin juices and I would literally be driving to Soho on a daily basis, like a milkman but a Juiceman, dressed in juice gear, I had the Carhart shirt and the Carhart trousers with Funkin juice logos on and be delivering to Vogue House to all the Conde Nast girls.  I’d be driving through Soho to the production companies, knocking on doors at 9.00 o’clock, 10.00 o’clock, 11.00am and by midday I would have sold maybe 200 smoothies at £2 and this was exhausting, you know, it’s five days a week then back to Wembley, getting the next production ready for tomorrow, it was the freshest juices so the first six weeks were the most gruelling but equally the most rewarding because what that did is unearth an opportunity, whilst I was in Soho, I started knocking on the doors of restaurants and restaurants were saying they have a requirement and a need for freshly squeezed juices for their cocktails, apple juice for their customers, you know standard drinking and so very quickly I’ve pivoted that business from making smoothies in 250ml single serve plastic bottles, to 3 litre cartons of apple juice, lime juice, lemon juice and started serving to like Marco Pierre White’s Titanic restaurant at the time, the Atlantic bars and little bar groups and very quickly after six, seven, eight weeks, pivoted the whole business, took on a route to market, a distributor would actually deliver the product into the bars so I could just focus on bottling the juices and looking at new recipes and I suppose, to answer your question, the hardest part was early days, the first six/seven weeks, you know, scrambling around town, driving in the rush hour, up and down stairs in offices for three/four hours in the mornings but you know, it teaches you a lot about people, dealing with customers, getting honest feedback to your product and then unearthing other opportunities and pivoting slightly from dealing with the consumer, some were happy with B2C and straight into a B2B. 

Elliot Moss

Keep your eyes and ears open is the message if you are thinking about setting up your business beyond the exhaustion of the first in Alex Carlton’s case, the first few weeks.  The pivot has paid off somewhat.  Stay with me for much more from my Business Shaper, it’s Alex Carlton, CEO and Co-Founder of STRYYK, he’ll be back in a couple of minutes.  Right now though, we’re going to hear a taster from the Mishcon Academy Digital Sessions, they can be found on all of the major podcast platforms.  Mishcon de Reya’s Suzi Sendama and Emily Dorotheou talk about how fashion brands can be more sustainable while maintaining profitability and what consumers should be doing to support sustainable fashion. 

You can hear all our former Jazz Shapers and hear this very programme again by popping Jazz Shapers into your podcast platform of choice or if you’ve got a smart speaker you can ask it to play Jazz Shapers and there you will find many of our recent shows.  But back to today’s guest, it’s Alex Carlton, the Founder of Funkin cocktails, they are a cocktail and mixer brand, and he’s also the Co-Founder and CEO of STRYYK, the non-alcoholic spirit company.  Alex, you talked about those first few weeks, you talked about the pivot, probably before people called it a pivot, it was just good common business sense.  When you realised this was the gap and you needed to exploit it, how fast did you build up the resources required, i.e. people and any other infrastructural things, and doing it for the first time, was it fun not having a clue what you were doing or was it actually quite stressful?

Alex Carlton

Once I made the pivot, I really quickly got a grasp, intuitively, of what I was trying to do.  So, I knew immediately I had to get a distributor on to do the hard, the last mile, into the restaurants and bars.  That freed up my time to start doing more selling because ultimately you are selling a product, early days.  Then, I recognised some of my new competitors that I’ve stepped into this space, were selling purees which in bars were using to make the fancy cocktails so really quickly I found a fantastic company in the EU that manufactured these fruit purees in the silver foil pouches.  I ordered a pallet in with my own labels on and this product sold out overnight, I mean literally immediately, you know, a couple of hundred cases of each flavour so I doubled the order and then started a mail order system with the rest of the UK, bars in Manchester, Edinburgh, Scotland and so on, and the orders just kept coming in, people wanted the fruit purees to make cocktails.  At this point I realised I was onto quite an interesting business so I moved into one of my distributors, in Elstree actually, a company that specialised in delivering dairy to the sort of 5-star hotels and high end restaurants in central London, they were the route to market and the owner there kindly offered me a desk in the offices, I thought this is perfect to work from my wholesaler and at the same time, I spoke to somebody I know for a high level of investment to act as my sort of Chairman, somebody with experience so, you know, I got an investment of about £100,000 at the time which was, you know, used more for cashflow than anything so it’s quite expensive equity to give away at the time but it was the right thing to do and then accelerated forward, we took offices in Queens Park in Lonsdale Road in these lovely little mews houses which is sort of a funky street now you have all these young fruit and drinks…

Elliot Moss

Yeah, cobblestones.

Alex Carlton

Yes.

Elliot Moss

Are there cobblestones in that street?  There was a lovely Italian restaurant there if I recall, I think, I can’t remember the name.

Alex Carlton

Ostuni.

Elliot Moss

That’s the one.  Amazing.  Food from Puglia.  Yes. 

Alex Carlton

Absolutely.  So, it’s a lovely little street and they’ve got these beautiful mews houses and I built my first team in there so there was sort of five of us initially, a branding person, a person in sales, and then I recognised the need to bring on a proper CEO, you know, so I’m sort of three or four years into this business, things are happening, we’ve got a couple of countries importing Funkin and have a couple of products in Waitrose, we had this lovely peach puree and Waitrose was the first customer and then Tesco’s started ordering the same product and I’ve done this with no experience and I’m like this is fantastic but hold on, there’s something here, I need some help.  So, one of my suppliers, I kept in touch with the sales director, a guy called Andrew King.  I said to Andrew, “when the time is right, would you come and be CEO of Funkin and let’s run this ship together?”  He said “Absolutely.”  Low and behold he made contact with me, came on as CEO and that was like a massive learning curve, it was just like ‘puff’ an explosion of information, I’d never seen things being done the way the way they were and I always say it’s like I did my MBA by working next to Andrew King and Andrew and I built this business over, you know, 2015 into a global business, multi product, multi retail points and grocery points and distribution points and exited it in 2015 to the Scottish drinks company, AG Barr, the guys that own obviously Irn Bru and Rubicon and so on.  Great team, fantastic people to do business with and I suppose the rest was history. 

Elliot Moss

The learning from other people bit of it, did it all make perfect sense at the time or was it, and was it like ‘oh right, I’m wrong’ or was it a bit more collaborative than that, where actually your instinct and your hunger and your creativity, changed the way that, was it Andrew you mentioned I think it was, Andrew King?  Yes.  Was it a bit more of a kind of coming together or was it genuinely you at the foot of the mast though as it were?

Alex Carlton

I think it was a combination of the both.  I think my eyes were open to the way business could be done in the drinks industry.  A, how the drinks industry operates, what it takes to build relationships, unlock opportunities and most importantly, bringing the structure into a company when you have a head count, the number of staff that you are relying on to do a job and ensuring you are getting the most out of them in a way that everybody feels valued, comfortable and equitable. 

Elliot Moss

But also you still want those people to be hungry and creative and how much of a contradiction is the structure in there or did you find a really cool balance where you were able to take on more people, more scale, more complexity and yet each individual was still in the mould of Alex Carlton saying come on, what’s up next, what are we going to do? 

Alex Carlton

Brilliant question.  Andrew and I work so well together and we are still partners in STRYYK.  Andrew is the Chairman of STRYYK and as you mentioned earlier, I am running the business as CEO and we, in twenty years of working together, we have never had a bad word, I mean it’s just mutual respect, we discuss things through and when we speak to our team and people that we have both worked with, I think there is real balance, people respect Andrew’s opinion and the sort of governance and structure he would bring to the business which I tend to do now but that has taken, you know, a number of years of learning and finding my own discipline and the sort of more maybe laid back approach or familial approach that I bring to the company and enabling people and ensuring people feel the freedom to explore, express, have that entrepreneurial spirit.  There’s no bad idea, let’s share ideas, let’s talk about what we can do to make this thing better as a team and have a sort of a flat structure as opposed to ‘I’m the boss and you’re not’ and I think that works so much better collaboratively and you get the best out of people, not because you want to get the best out of people for you, but for them, for the company, for the greater good of the shareholders and you can see, and I’m seeing it now with STRYYK, we have a really small team but everybody is fired up, everybody is really excited by the opportunity, the brand, the market that we’re in.  You see it come back in on email, on phone calls, when you meet and talk to people, the compliments to the brand, the product, the liquid, what we’re doing and you can just see, you know, your team glow and I think that is the biggest reward about being an entrepreneur and starting these businesses, when you can start seeing people thrive and flourish within your business.  There’s no better payback. 

Elliot Moss

He’s smiling, very widely just so you know.  We’ll have our final chat with my guest today, that’s Alex Carlton, and be playing a track from Muddy Waters, that’s in just a moment, don’t go anywhere.

Alex Carlton is my Business Shaper and we’ve been talking about all sorts of things and the journey that you have been on as well.  You said very sweetly there’s no ideas are bad ideas and of course both of us know that’s not true, there’s plenty of bad ideas out there, Alex and I have many of them and I’m sure you have quite a few as well.  It made me think about how, you know, relaxed you are.  Here’s a guy who set up a business, sold it, you are into business number two and it’s growing and you’ve got backing and you’ve got a track record.  All these years where you’ve gone from doing your own thing until this point, you seem very calm.  Are you just really good at hiding the fact that you are, you know, you are flapping furiously inside or is this, have you reached a state of a much calmer feeling in your life because you’ve achieved so much already?

Alex Carlton

I think having exited one business obviously brings a level of luxury to one’s life which, you know, I am very appreciative of and I understand, you know, it’s not a given when you start a business that you are going to see an exit.  But also, I think it’s experience.  I’m determined on the second time round to really enjoy this journey and clearly, as you mentioned, I have the experience, after fifteen years of building Funkin cocktails into the sort of household brand it is today, there’s loads of learning there and having some time out to decompress just a couple of years post the acquisition by AG Barr, it’s time that sort of releases that pressure valve and decisions are kind of easier to make and now that I’m running the business and building the team, I have more responsibility, my business partner Andrew King is Chairman, he’s still Chairman over at Funkin so he’s busy on two businesses which means more lands on my lap than it probably did before and it’s about stepping up to the mark and calmly sailing into the wind, if that makes sense. 

Elliot Moss

It makes perfect sense and these last couple of years obviously, the last 12 months, has been overshadowed by the pandemic and all of us spending more time at home.  Have you come to understand what drives you and what your values are outside of work?  And if so, how has that influenced the way you are in your business?

Alex Carlton

That’s a big question.  I think I’m way more appreciative of time.  Utilising every minute of every day which actually can be quite detrimental so, my head doesn’t stop working, I mean weekends, evenings, I’ve got ideas with STRYYK and I drop a couple of the team members a WhatsApp and they’ll get back and you know people are stuck at home at the moment, right, there’s not a lot going on.  So, when I’m not thinking and working on STRYYK, I’m trying to maybe learn a little bit of Spanish on Duolingo, an app, or I’m doing an extra round of yoga or I’ll go for another jog or try and learn how to make a Turkey pot pie on YouTube, you know Jamie Oliver recipe, I’m really conscious of utilising every minute of every day, not for any reason I don’t think, you know, my time’s up, I just love to do stuff and keep feeding the brain and learning and pushing forward, I think it’s more interesting than sitting back and just watching a Netflix and by the way, I do that too.  I think time is valuable and there’s so much we can achieve and a good friend of mine, you know, is the CEO and Co-Founder of The Office Group, both Charlie and Olly who I know you’ve had on before, and we talk about this a lot, Olly and I, there’s so much we want to do, you can’t help how your brain, as entrepreneurs, as human beings, the way we are cut.  You just want to do more and achieve more and like I said earlier, no idea is a bad idea, of course there are bad ideas but ideas come to me like non-stop, Andrew always jokes, you know, Alex will come into the office and with another five ideas this morning but I love talking about the ideas and if you get some stickiness from one or two ideas then you can make that happen and an idea is born and developed in the way Funkin was, in the way STRYYK is, the rewards are fantastic and you can’t take that away.

Elliot Moss

It’s been brilliant talking to you, keep coming up with those ideas, it sounds like whatever I say it wouldn’t stop you anyway.  I’m sure your team appreciate it and I’m sure you will have a fabulous journey on STRYYK as well.  Thank you for your time, it is precious, you are absolutely right, great words of wisdom and advice there too.  Just before I let you go, what’s your song choice and why have you chosen it?

Alex Carlton

I have chosen Martha and the Vandellas, Dancing in the Street.  It’s such an upbeat tune and I remember the first time I heard it, I was I think about 13 and it was Live Aid and David Bowie and Mick Jagger did a cover and that was the first time I think I recognise I heard this song and I just absolutely loved those two doing it, it was priceless and I felt for Jazz FM I thought that was a good upbeat Saturday tune. 

Elliot Moss

That was Dancing in the Street from Martha and the Vandellas, the song choice of my Business Shaper today, Alex Carlton, a left-hander, very important to note for you out there if you are a left-hander, definitely are creative people.  He loved innovation, that’s what he talked about, it was in his jeans, in his blood.  He loved brands and he understood the power of brands at a very young age and as he has grown into his role and into his life, really interesting take on the notion of time and how he is super appreciative and more appreciative of the power of time.  Really good stuff.   That’s it from me today though, have a lovely, safe weekend. 

We hope you enjoyed that edition of Jazz Shapers.  You will find hundreds of more guests available to listen to in our archive, just search Jazz Shapers in iTunes or your favourite podcast platform or head over to mishcon.com/jazzshapers.

Alex previously founded Funkin Cocktails in 1999 after identifying the growing trend for natural and fresh products in the cocktail market place. Funkin became a market leader in cocktail purees and mixers before expanding globally. Alex sold Funkin in 2015 to AG Barr, owners of Irn Bru, Rubicon, Ka and Rock Star Energy Drink.

Within a year of selling Funkin, Alex was drinking an alcohol-free spirit and tonic drink with a friend when they realised they could create a better product and capitalise on an increasingly popular sector.

With a passion for innovation and building brands, Alex prides himself in being a forward thinker, a natural networker and a strategic consultant, helping bring brands to life.

Highlights

I always had an entrepreneurial tendency and flair at school growing up.

I’ve always loved innovation and been fascinated by design.

When you build a business, you never put your feet up for five minutes, you are on it 24/7 but that’s the passion that comes from building a brand.

You fall in love with your brand and when you see the reaction your brand has with people, it’s a deep affiliation and the passion is driven harder.

Think about the idea first and execute that as brilliantly as you can, [rather than] how you can make money out of it, because it can immediately put you in a conflict of interest with your customer.

I think [a flat, collaborative structure] works so much better and you get the best out of people… for them, for the company, for the greater good of the shareholders.

It’s not a given when you start a business that you are going to see an exit.

I’m really conscious of utilising every minute of every day… I just love keep feeding the brain and learning and pushing forward.

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