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From corporate to small business: Gin brand founders discuss chasing a dream

After quitting their corporate jobs and relocating to New Zealand, Sarah and Ben Bonoma took their passion for business and put it into creating their own gin brand, Dancing Sands.

The brand was launched in early 2016, with Sarah as CEO looking after the distillery and operations, and Ben leading the marketing efforts as well as conjuring his distillers magic developing all the products. Perfecters of taste, the duo ensure quality is at the forefront of everything they do.

“We’re on a mission to create the perfect bottle of gin using what we like to drink as our north star and gin flavours that can take people on a journey of adventure and discovery.”

Through market research on the craft beer industry, the duo discovered that craft spirits were only just beginning to emerge in New Zealand. Around the same time, they found a still for sale in Golden Bay, an area they loved due to its beauty and isolation. From the outset, innovation has been at the center of Dancing Sands, from the latest release Sauvignon Blanc Gin, which combines distilled New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc wine with the brand’s Dry Gin to the Wasabi Gin, which uses Wasabi root grown locally in Golden Bay.

“While we do look at trends and what’s happening in Europe, the US, and Australia, ultimately we make what we like to drink at the distillery.”

Up against many contenders within the New Zealand alcohol industry, Dancing Sands’ advantage is its water. The clearest springs in the world, Dancing Sands Spring and Te Waikoropupu Springs are measured to be 81 meters clear. Every bottle of the brand’s gin is blended with water from the aquifer that feeds Dancing Sands Spring and allows Sarah and Ben to make the best possible gin and perfect its taste.

“The spring pumps water at an amazing 14,000 litres per second at a crisp 11 degrees C. It’s a simply amazing piece of nature. The purity of the spring serves as inspiration for everything we do.”

While Sarah and Ben try their best to keep work and home life seperate, running a business as a couple with two young children at home can be difficult to balance at times. Adapting from the corporate world to a small business has also been an obstacle for the pair, as when things go wrong there has been no one to turn to and they have had fix it themselves.

On the business side, running a bricks and mortar distillery creates a lot of challenges that companies who outsource their production don’t have. The alcohol industry is heavily regulated and there is no end of compliance and paperwork. On the flip side, Sarah and Ben are in control of their products’ every step.

“Not coming from a manufacturing industry originally we’ve learnt the hard way a number of times on the production side of the business, the first time we made our Sun Kissed Gin we chucked the strawberries and rhubarb straight in the tank to infuse. It was a huge mess and took days to filter.”

Dancing Sands is now in its ‘growing up’ phase. It is no longer a start up and has experienced solid growth in the last couple of years. Output from the distillery is increasing every month and while NZ is the core focus, the brand has made good traction abroad and has distribution in several Asian countries, the UK and the US (launching 2021).

“It’s most important that we get New Zealand 100 percent correct. This includes continuing to grow our direct-to-consumer business, expanding retail distribution and increasing our presence in bars and restaurants across the country.

“We’re confident that the Sauvignon Blanc Gin is not only going to accelerate expansion in New Zealand, but also have a strong appeal internationally as we’ve packaged up two of New Zealand’s great liquids.”

As a small business owner, the reality is you need to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in. For Sarah, the last four years of running Dancing Sands has felt like a rollercoaster.

“When things go well, you are on top of the world because you are directly responsible for the company’s successes. When things don’t go well, you feel pretty small because you are directly responsible for the company’s failures.”

Sarah says you need something other than money to drive you to build a business. The first one to two years can be survived through adrenaline but beyond that, there needs to be a bigger drive. Life is busy and sometimes chaotic for Sarah, but when her two girls are done with school at 3:30 pm, she can put her tools down for the afternoon and play with them and her husband. After their bedtime, she can then carry on and get her work done.

“Running a business is the ultimate freedom for me and my family.”

For other Kiwis looking to start a small business, Sarah says it comes at a cost and you need to want to take a gamble. She compares her business to a third child, rather than something to just put down and pick back up again in the morning or after the weekend.

“In short yes. Build a business if that’s what you think you should be doing.”

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