Solovey: the spirit brand supporting refugees

Yasha Estraikh shares how he launched a social-impact business selling Ukrainian vodka in less than three months.
Solovey 16x9 hero

Starting a business can take years of preparation, from product development and setting up a supply chain to testing designs and building up the courage to launch the thing. But for social impact founders, time is of the essence. When a product isn't selling, it means less money going toward a cause – but, on the flip side, a brand that isn't fully fleshed out won't have staying power to make a difference in the long term.

Urgency was top of mind for Yasha Estraikh when the war in Ukraine broke out. He's of Ukrainian heritage, with family living in eastern Ukraine, and he wanted to use his skills to help relief efforts. As an associate partner at Piper, a private equity firm focused on consumer brands, he decided to launch a social impact vodka brand – inspired by Ukraine's roots with the spirit, due to the country's plentiful wheat supply. His goal is to raise £1 million for War Child, a charity supporting child refugees.

Three months from inception, Solovey (the Ukrainian word for nightingale, the country's national bird) hit shelves, and it'll soon be on the menu at London cocktail bars and restaurants such as Hawksmoor, Pergola and Mr Fogg's. Here's how he got the brand off the ground in record time.

Know what to outsource

Yasha had plenty of experience launching and advising consumer brands, but less experience with developing ingredients, managing a supply chain and dealing with product regulations. So, instead of setting up a distillery himself, he entered into a partnership agreement with alcohol brand East London Liquor Co. It produces, stores and distributes the vodka, while Yasha pays for the labeling. A licensing fee from each bottle is donated to War Child –  this was a special arrangement due to Solovey's mission. For Yasha, this meant he could focus on other parts of the business, while ensuring he'd have a quality product and access to warehouses and distributors.

‘Creating partnerships with people who are really good at what they do is really important –don't try to do everything yourself,’ he says. ‘I stuck with doing what I know best, which is the sales and marketing bit.’

Know your creative vision

Coming up with the design of the brand is crucial to catching customers' eyes, as well as portraying the mission of the company – but the back and forth with an agency can eat up time when a product could be selling. When Yasha approached branding agency Ragged Edge, who he'd worked with on previous projects, he'd already put together a brief and approached a Ukrainian illustrator.

‘My brief wasn't: “let's create this brand.” It was: “I've already got the brand name. I wrote the brand deck,”’ he says. ‘I said to them: “Look, I've written this little fable for you. This is your brand world.” That really sped it up.’

Having a mission also helped keep the launch at pace – Ragged Edge agreed to do the work for free, working it into its busy schedule.

Know your end customer

While Yasha has long-term plans to stock Solovey in grocery stores and other retailers, he realized that it's difficult to differentiate a vodka brand compared with other alcohols – in the UK, where the brand is based, vodka is more of a base spirit than one that people sip straight. So, he decided to start selling to hospitality, asking bartenders to create cocktails using his vodka, and honed a pitch that would make sense for their businesses.

‘It's a purpose-led cocktail that has a really nice story behind it and makes a real difference,’ he says. ‘All you have to do is add around 30 pence to the cost of the cocktail and you still make the same cash margin.’

A version of this article was published in the Courier Weekly newsletter. For more useful stories, tips, tricks and simply good advice, sign up here.

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