5 mins with…Ellie Webb, founder of Caleño

We chat with Ellie Webb, founder of Caleño, a non-alcoholic spirit. A spirit designed to bring moments of joy to people who do not want to drink alcohol.

Ellie Webb, founded Caleño in 2017 after doing Dry January and finding that there are not many options for non-drinkers. She has drawn from her Columbian heritage to create a non-alcoholic distilled spirit featuring a lively zesty blend of tropical, citrus and spice botanicals.

Ellie Webb CaleñoPlease explain who you are, what your business is, and what it does/aims to achieve?

I’m Ellie Webb, founder of the non-alcoholic spirit Caleño. When I was young my Colombian mum would take my sisters and me for long summer holidays to Colombia to visit family. While there I would get the chance to really immerse myself in the local culture: speak Spanish, dance to Latin music and eat delicious food! That’s what inspired my idea for Caleño Light & Zesty, the first flavour I launched, non-alcoholic distilled spirit which features a zesty blend of tropical, citrus and spice botanicals. The word ‘Caleño’ means ‘of Cali’, the Colombian city my mum is from. My mission with Caleño is simple: to create more moments of joy and change people’s perceptions of what it means to not drink. I feel passionately that just because you’re not drinking alcohol, that doesn’t mean you can’t have a great time and enjoy a delicious drink!

What time does your day usually start and end?

My morning usually starts at 7am with a big cup of Colombian coffee and then walking my dog, Hardy, an energetic German Pointer who often joins me in the office. It’s great to start the morning outdoors, although I definitely prefer the summer months to a windy, rainy day!

A day in the life of a founder like me is a hard to describe, because no one day is the same and can involve many different things. One day I might be out in London or Bristol, where we are based, visiting bars and restaurants and speaking to our customers now that things are opening up again, and another day might see me catching up with my team and talking about our marketing plans for the months ahead, or chatting to my sister who heads up operations about how many bottles we should be producing over the next couple of month.

My working day usually ends at 6pm, after a Caleño cocktail, ready to fire up the BBQ!

What is your favourite part of your job and what is your least favourite part?

The best part of my job is when I can get creative, and come up with ideas for new products and campaigns. That gives me a lot of energy! Last year for example we spotted a gap in the market for a non-alcoholic dark spirit, so our second flavour, Caleño Dark & Spicy, was born. This spring we felt that people would benefit from having a ready-mixed version of Caleño available to them, as people started meeting outdoors again, so we launched Caleño Light & Zesty cans. Being a small business we can be nimble and react to new consumer trends and needs, which is fantastic!

The worst part of my job is my obsession with having as few emails in my inbox as possible, so I seem to spend a lot of unnecessary time in my inbox, typing away! I much prefer getting out there and speaking to people face to face, and I am so glad it’s finally possible to get out there again, following lockdown.

What inspired you to start your business? (And what made you want to be your own boss?)

My whole business journey began in January 2017. I was working in the drinks business and looking to cut back on my drinking after Christmas so I decided to try Dry January for the first time. One night during Dry January I went out dancing in Bristol with friends, who ordered the usual gin and tonics and craft beers at the bar, while I was left drinking a soda and then water all, which was very boring on an otherwise fun night out. That’s when I had my lightbulb moment – why was there so much choice in the world of spirits and alcohol, but nothing when it came to grown-up alcohol-free drinks? My idea for Caleño was born on that night out.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

A few months after my lightbulb moment in Dry January, I took a trip back to Colombia where I spent a lot of time with family and travelled around the country, visiting different cities, the coffee region and coastal towns. Whilst I was there I experienced the warm, happy, upbeat and sunny nature of the Colombian people, who are incredibly optimistic, open-minded and are always finding an excuse to celebrate and party!! It was there that it dawned on me what the non-alcoholic space was lacking. When you don’t drink alcohol, people often accuse you of being boring, and I think it’s the non-alcoholic drinks that can be dull. It felt like that whole space needed a massive injection of joy and excitement, and that’s when I decided that was what my drink was going to do and my vision and mission for Caleño became clear.

How did you fund your business?

The original cash injection was whatever I had in the bank, and I also won a small grant, which allowed me to pay for branding and start the development of the liquid (which I did at home, in my kitchen, to begin with). I then did a fund-raise just before launching in 2019.

What has been the biggest challenge for your business?

Finding the right people for the job, and accepting the things you’re not good at! Finance and operations are two things that don’t come naturally to me, I’m more of a creative ideas person. Either way, as a business woman, I’ve had to get to know both of those functions , understand their importance and make sure I have the right people in charge of those areas. My biggest challenge is finding and getting great people on board, but as the brand has grown and become better known, that challenge has lessened. Plus working from home during the pandemic has meant that I can now cast the net wider when it comes to recruitment.

What do you feel are the biggest obstacles to growth for SMEs in the UK?

Getting access to great resources and expertise. Most business owners are launching products in industries they know nothing about, or have no contacts in, so connecting business owners to the right people, and tapping into the right knowledge is fundamental to avoiding failure.

Have you made any mistakes along the way and how did you overcome them/learn from them?

The day I received my very first batch of Caleño bottles, I discovered that hundreds of the bottles had been terribly labelled. I was devasted because I’d worked so hard to get to that point and then had to spend most of Christmas, with my sisters, relabelling the first 1,000 bottles by hand! The lesson I learned right then is that some things are out of your control and will go wrong, but you just have to find a way to resolve the issue and always learn from your mistakes.

What previous experiences have helped you in starting your business?

I worked in the drinks industry before starting Caleño and loved it, as the company I worked for was very social and fun and I learned a lot about the process of distillation and the restaurant and bar industry. I knew that with my own business I didn’t want to move out of the drinks industry but I wanted to find my own space within it, something that was right for me. This experience was instrumental with my initial plans, and the industry contacts I gained have been there for me as the business has scaled.

What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to anyone looking to start their own business?

Find something you are truly passionate about, because if you’re not passionate the tough times may prove too hard. Also, make sure you hire brilliant people who understand and share in your vision.

Would you do anything differently if you could start again from scratch?

Being a solo female entrepreneur in the drinks industry, I’ve normally found myself in the minority. That can be a challenge and sometimes is quite a lonely place. If I had my time again, I think I’d team up with a couple of other brilliant female entrepreneurs to really take the world by storm!

What do you do to relax away from the hustle and bustle of work?

When we’re not in lockdown I like to get away for the weekend with my boyfriend and my dog Hardy We usually find a place to rent for the weekend somewhere interesting in the UK and explore the area for a few days. This helps me reset and feel energised and ready for Monday morning!

What would you be doing if you weren’t running your own business?

I was always really into secret service books, so I’d like to think I’d be a secret agent in MI5! Failing that a creative designer, because I find I’m happiest when I’m being creative.

Do you manage to achieve a good work/life balance?

I like to wake up early, and deal with the important stuff whilst I have the most energy in the day, and then I usually make sure I finish work at a decent time, and take a break and go out for a run with my dog. Unless I’m at an event, weekends are my time to switch off and relax – it’s really important to get that balance right.