Let me start by wishing you a happy new year! Last year was full of surprises. Most of them were negative and correlated to the Covid-19 pandemic. I pray that 2021 will be a year full of positive surprises, with a recovering economy, and businesses opening up again.
As weird as it is, from now onwards, the only way is up, isn’t it? And even weirder: 2020 wasn’t a bad year for iStill and for many of our customers. Are our innovations finally becoming mainstream? Are our customers more innovative and therefore more resilient to the crisis? Not sure, but iStill grew with well over 25%, last year, and the feedback we are getting from many customers is that they are doing relatively okay. And that in a market that nose-dived 35% globally …
In a nutshell, here’s what I think is happening: nothing accelerates innovation like a crisis. A crises means decision makers have to reevaluate their positions, their decisions. Choosing innovative technology that allows for the production of better quality spirits at lower manufacturing costs makes sense in any situation, but especially in times of crisis. Saving a buck on a bottle’s manufacturing costs can make the difference between making a profit, even in today’s challenging economy, versus selling at a loss. Our innovative approach to distilling helps our customers stay in business. The economic advantages of choosing iStill are such that more and more distillers purchase our equipment.
But as our market share has (again) grown dramatically over the past year, and the iStill brand is establishing itself as the world’s leading manufacturer of distillation equipment, distillation education, and recipe development … where does that leave us? As we have rapidly grown into the role of market leader, instead of contender, what does that mean for our plans and strategies moving forward? What should we focus on in 2021 and beyond? Please join me as I dive in deeper.
There is a contrast between innovation and the customer. A company introducing an innovation does so by not listening to its existing customer base. Henry Ford, when confronted with the Ford Model-T only being available in the color black, answered that, had he done what his customers had asked, he would have produced faster horses. Any innovation starts with zero customers. And as organizations grow and customer orientation becomes more important, this usually means that this once innovative company now becomes less of an innovator. In any industry, it’s the challengers that innovate, while the market leaders focus om improvements.
With us now claiming market leadership for the second year in a row, where does that leave iStill? Does it mean that we should focus less on disruptive innovations and more on gradual, incremental improvements? Does it mean we shouldn’t just focus on the early adopters in the craft distilling industry, but also on the late majority? Are the iStill Potstills and Plated Stills a foreboding of that trend? And what’s next? Copper iStills?
I think innovation comes in many guises. Some innovations are disruptive. Other innovations are simply improvements. Introducing the first stainless steel stills was disruptive. Introducing the first packed columns was disruptive. The iStill Liquid Management Technology and our square boilers were disruptive innovations. A still that can strip and finish? For sure a huge technological breakthrough. Insulation? Idem. A machine that can mash, ferment, distill, and age? Don’t get me started. Our introduction of automation, software, WiFi, and robotization to the craft distilling industry have also been huge disruptors.
Looking at the iStill Potstill, can a case be made that it is more of an improvement than an innovation? Yes, for sure. Potstills have been around for many centuries. But further investigation shows that an iStill Potstill offers 10x the accuracy. Maybe that isn’t a game-changer for an existing iStill customer, familiar with our hybrid technology, but it certainly is a disruptive innovation from the viewpoint of someone that has used a traditional potstill without our control systems in place!
Innovation, as we can learn from the above paragraph, is in the eye of the beholder. And if it is, and if our goal is to empower the craft distilling industry, could a wider focus on that craft distilling industry open our eyes to new opportunities? The plated still has been around for 150 years. The iStill Plated Still offers 10x more accuracy and 4x more performance. From the perspective of the innovative craft distiller, that owns an iStill 500 Hybrid and an iStill 2000 Hybrid, the performance of the iStill Plated Still does not add much. But what if your company has used traditional plated stills for decades and you feel you want to keep on using plated stills? From that perspective, again, the iStill Plated Still is a huge break-through.
Thinking out loud, may 2021 be a year where we give our technology a broader reach? And what if we don’t? What if we stay where we are right now, where “Mr. Right” meets “Mr. Knows-it-all”, and don’t change a thing? With our global market share of around 30% on new still sales, aren’t we reaching the limits of our growth? I mean, we have pushed the percentage of stainless steel stills, of insulated stills, of liquid management stills, of square boilers, of packed columns, and of single-vessel distilleries … from 0% to 30% in under a decade. Do we cater to the remaining 70% by sticking to our guns? Or do we accept that not everyone out there is an innovator, and do we cater to their more traditional needs as well?
If our goal is to empower the craft distilling industry, how do we reach the remaining 70%? If our current policies do not appeal to the remaining 70%, are we really empowering the craft distilling industry as a whole?
I don’t see us make wood, gas, or steam-fired round copper stripping and finishing stills. Innovation runs in our blood, and in order to empower, we need to help craft distillers make a difference. But how about our amazing control systems on a traditional still, even when that still is manufactured somewhere else? Or how about we design a copper square plated iStill? It’ll offer 10x the accuracy and 4x the performance. It will help us cross over into the remaining 70% of more traditional craft distilleries …
Not to confuse the regular readers of the iStill Blog, it is important to make clear that we killed the copper iStill project half a year ago, because copper is toxic. Copper particle contamination contributes to non-alcohol induced fatty liver disease and – via the formation of ethyl carbamate – to cancer. Intoxication is one thing, poisoning is something else. Not a step we are willing to take.
But as we take a fresh look at where we can make a difference, and if we assess correctly that innovation runs deep in iStill’s DNA and culture, shouldn’t we focus on solutions that rid the industry of copper particle contamination, since it affects over 70% of the craft distilled products out there? Not just by delivering stainless steel stills, but maybe by finding a solution that helps fix the problem for so many owners of copper distilling equipment? And with that question comes another one: if we were to invent such a solution, should we provide that to our stills only, if we were to revive the copper iStill project, or should it be a tool we provide others with as well?
I hope to get this across: as we grow into a mainstream position, we need to do a lot of soul-searching on what kind of market-leader we want to be. Do we want to be exclusive? For the few? Or do we want to be inclusive, as we have always been, inviting others in, rather than pushing them out? Sharing information rather than monopolizing what we learned? I feel that being inclusive and inviting is as much part of our DNA as is our focus on innovation.
The future will be interesting, so much is sure. 2021 will be a heck of a year. Please know you are invited to the ride.
Drs. H.E.J. (Odin) van Eijk, MScBA, etc.
CEO of iStill.