Eric Prum is on road somewhere in rural North Carolina, between Nags Head and Charlotte. His best friend and business partner, Josh Williams, is at the wheel of the pickup truck, pointing them towards their next destination. Two computer monitors are rattling around in the truck bed protected by not much more than a drop cloth and a prayer. This is just another 18-hour day at the office for the two founders of Brooklyn-based W&P Design.
How Josh and Eric came together to form one of the most innovative companies in the cocktail and spirits space is, in a way, the story of how a company can turn an innovative idea into a thriving business.
It all started when the pair met as freshmen roommates at University of Virginia. After that first year together, Josh took time off to attend culinary school in Italy. Meanwhile, Eric refined his skills in product design and manufacturing. When they reunited, they formed a business that soon took the form of a cocktail catering company. But during their daily work of making cocktails, they were reminded of an idea they had as college roommates: creating a Mason jar cocktail shaker.
Being southern gentlemen, they were already enamored with the form of mason jars. But, the simple beauty of the jar was not the only draw to the idea. “A Mason jar makes sense to people,” explains Eric. “It’s heavyweight glassware. It has both metric and standard measurements. It’s highly visual. You can see the ingredients that are going into your drink.”
Eric and Josh saw how the physical transparency of a Mason jar cocktail shaker would transform the mysterious craft of mixology into a visual performance of fresh ingredients and spirits blending together before your eyes. Josh had previously jerry-rigged a Mason jar cocktail shaker together to test the idea, but this time they set out to formally design, prototype and sell their creation – called the Mason Shaker – to the public.
In the summer of 2012, they debuted a Kickstarter campaign for funding, while simultaneously entering into a product agreement with West Elm. Then, everything started happening at once.
“The Kickstarter was blowing up. The West Elm line was growing. We were in over our heads,” says Eric. “We built a warehouse out in Long Island and I was practically sleeping there. We had all our friends come out on the weekend ... It was totally crazy.”
Working around the clock for over three months, the makeshift crew was barely able to produce enough Mason Shakers to fulfill the orders promised. They squeaked into West Elm stores ahead of the Holiday season.
Their line sold out within a week.
It was at that moment that they realized the success of their business was going to require them to be more inventive and find an alternate way of manufacturing to fulfill orders at scale. Josh and Eric stopped Mason Shaker production for several months to establish a larger warehouse in Virginia. However, this solution created a new challenge: now their manufacturing center, warehouse and design studio were in various locations, across several states. How could they remain involved in a design and production process that demanded geographical omnipresence in several places, daily? They found the answer in a tool Eric had used to talk internationally with his family for years: Skype.
Skype, Eric explains, provides them with “a hands-on ability to watch over everything.” Speaking with distributors, opening up new markets – all of this was possible with Skype. Most importantly, it allows Eric and Josh to do business the way they see best. “We’re very involved with all of our customers, no matter how big or small they are,” says Eric. “I’ve personally had a conversation with, quite literally, every person at every store that carries our product.”
Eric takes a personal, face-to-face approach for good reason. Both partners at W&P Design see the story of the product to be just as important as the product itself. Having a conversation allows their distributors to fully understand what they are really buying: an experience. “[Through Skype,] I’m able, even though it’s midnight or 3am, to sit in a meeting with our distributors and truly articulate to them, as if I’m right in front of them, our perspective on design and how we think about cocktail products,” says Eric.
Those late night calls do happen, sometimes unexpectedly. And, the ones that come late at night are usually the most important ones to answer. For these reasons, Eric describes Skype’s call forwarding feature as a “savior” to his company. If he gets a call at 3am and is not on his computer or Skype, the call is automatically forwarded to his cell phone for him to take.
For many of the challenges that Eric and Josh have come across in their business, they’ve soon found a Skype feature that makes them more effective and efficient. Screen sharing, instant messaging and sending files have all become a part of their business communication repertoire. When speaking with a distributor, Eric says, “I can send them a PDF overview of the product we’re talking about, chat with them and send over a shipping rate card … [all within Skype].”
As Mason Shaker’s growth began taking their products, as well as Eric and Josh, across continents and into international markets, having a single, central place to conduct business conversations became increasingly important. While traveling, Skype “allows us to be in Germany at a trade show or at a design conference seeing the latest and greatest, and also be able to call in to our manufacturing center to make sure that the tags are hanging on the product the correct way,” says Eric. “It has been an absolutely integral tool to building this company the way we wanted to build it.”
Building the business came soon after the breakaway success of Mason Shaker. Josh and Eric began expanding their cocktail empire under their company name of W&P Design. Muddlers, jiggers, cocktail straws and stones have all been released to the adoring applause of their customers. This summer will see the debut of a tonic, created in collaboration with Boylan Bottling Company – W&P’s first foray into a consumable product.
As Eric and Josh look towards the future of their company, they have also taken time to look back and reflect on how they’ve become the company they always wanted to be. Eric knows from starting W&P Design that when it comes to small business, especially one with an innovative bent, there’s no guidebook. Sharing their business experiences is how they know best to “pay-it-forward” to other small businesses searching for ways to succeed and grow.
Eric advises seeking other free and low cost resources to make running your business easier and more profitable. “When it comes to the technology space, we try to stay aware of all the apps and tools that help small businesses and then weigh whether or not they’d be helpful for our business,” says Eric.
Eric also recommends finding people who can motivate you – those working in similar fields or other small business owners – and connecting with them for support and advice. At crucial moments when inspiration is key, Eric says, “We [look] at other innovators from the space we’re in. There’s tons of artists, designers, business people; there’s a real community you can feed on.” One such place this community exists for them is within Punch, an online magazine about wine, spirits and cocktails.
Above all else, Eric advocates doing what you love with the people you love and enjoying the process. The 18-hour days on the road wouldn’t be worth it otherwise. “We have a lot of fun doing what we’re doing,” says Eric. “It’s kind of been our life goal to do it. I get to create and invent things with my best friend. I find a lot of satisfaction in that.”