Whatever you do needs to be something that speaks to you.
A lot of people probably dream of one day opening a bar. But JJ Goodman isn’t most people and the London Cocktail Club isn’t just a bar. JJ is a world champion mixologist and the London Cocktail Club is a collection of bars that stands out as exceptional – even in a nightlight scene as crowded and storied as that in London. We asked him about his experience starting up his own business and what advice he might have for others thinking of doing the same.
Tell us a bit about your business – what’s it about? When did you launch?
We opened the first location of the London Cocktail Club in 2008, in the basement of a theatre and with a much tighter budget than we intended. The day we were supposed to get our bank loan was the day the banks crashed and that meeting got cancelled. But this was what we wanted to do so we weren’t about to give up.
I’d worked my way up through the bartending business, won some big mixology competitions and I’d been in a lot of bars. There were a lot of theme or concept bars around and every time the fashion or trend changed new bars sprang up to replace the previous ones. And by focusing on a ‘trend of the moment’ they were missing the point. I just knew there was space for a place like the one we wanted – a sort of speakeasy vibe; relaxed, interesting spaces but always focused on great service, great drinks, and great music. A place where yes, you could dance on the tables – but while holding a really amazing cocktail, not just a splash of vodka and cranberry in a plastic cup.’
So, we got together what funds we could from family and friends, laid our hands on whatever equipment we could, made do without a lot of what turned out to be extras – and people came. And they kept coming so we kept opening. And we’re still doing so. We’ll be expanding quite soon into several more locations.
Is it exactly the business you planned to build? How is it different and why the change?
We knew we wanted it to eventually be more than one bar – but we also knew it wasn’t going to start that way so yes, it’s changed but it’s a change we knew we wanted to make. Your first business, on opening day, isn’t going to be the one you saw in the movies or the exact business you’ve been dreaming about. But you have to actually start something before you can grow it into the thing you want it to become.
Was there a moment you realised you’re really onto something?
Opening day of that first bar wasn’t the doves and fireworks I thought it would be. But about a year later, after I’d paid back everyone who had trusted in us and invested in the business, then I thought, ‘Yes, this is working. We’ve got something.’
How reliant is your business on technology? What software or app has proved invaluable?
Like all businesses, there are all sorts of 3rd party vendors we have and managing those relationships takes time but the two most important things for us would be digital marketing and education.
Digital marketing is a big thing for us – knowing what platforms to use and how best to use them. But it’s how we know who our audience is and how we stay connected to them. We simply wouldn’t be as successful as we are without it.
Our e-learning platform is also absolutely central to our business. It’s how we ensure consistency of service and drinks across all our locations We wanted the best bartenders and wanted to give staff the opportunities and incentives that go along with ongoing improvement, so we provide a series of learning modules – some spirit specific like the gin module and some on topics such as the history of cocktails. It’s something we’ve thought about making available externally as well as a path towards a government accredited qualification in cocktail bartending.
What do you wish technology could help with?
Ugh! Point of sale systems. They’re just so expensive which wouldn’t be as much of an issue if they weren’t also so difficult to integrate into existing systems. And so inflexible when it comes to hardware! Why can’t they make it all work with the systems tracking inventory, loyalty, or discount code programs? At the moment, you end up with a pile of tablets at the end of the bar so you can see all the information but there are so many – one bings and you can’t find that specific tablet.
Sorry, bit of a rant. But it is frustrating.
What advice would you give to someone toying with the idea of starting their own business?
There are two things, I think. First, whatever you do should be an extension of yourself. It needs to be something that speaks to you not something you do because it’s trendy at the moment. Something else will be trendy next week, or next season and you’ll be stuck doing something for an audience that has moved on. Starting a business takes a lot of hard work and even more time – so you spend the time and effort on something that makes you happy.
There’s also something else that rarely gets mentioned in conversations about entrepreneurship – the value of flexibility. Yes, working for yourself involves long hours and there’s lots of times I am at work when I’d rather be home. But since I work for myself, I can make that executive decision, to take time out for other things. So, my other piece of advice would be that when making those calculations about whether you’d make enough working for yourself vs working for someone else – make sure to add in the value of that flexibility.
What do you want to learn in the next year?
Well, we’ve just moved out of London at the same time as the business is expanding. So, the lesson to learn in the next year is going to be finding the right work-life balance – one that works for the new phase in both family and work life.
Thanks to JJ for giving us so much to think about. We’re definitely believers in doing something that speaks to you as opposed to just following trends. Maybe that, in and of itself, will become a new trend?
We love finding out what motivates and inspires people to start their own businesses. It’s one of the reasons start-ups have always been a big part of our client list. If you’ve got an idea you want to develop, get in touch. Let’s see how we can help you startup your start-up.
For more advice on how to tackle start-up challenges, pop over to our blog where we dispense advice gained, not only by our own experience, but also by working with startups in a wide range of sectors.