ARTICLE / THE MAKING OF... SERIES
The making of...
What happens if you’re someone who worked hard throughout University to graduate with first-class honours and a scholarship... surely this would pave the way to a successful career in your chosen field? Yes. Umm no. Life isn’t always so straightforward. Instead, it can throw you a curveball and if you’re someone like Monique Sutevski, Co-Founder of DNA Distillery, you don’t let this moment hold you back.
The making of... Series
Welcome to The making of... blog series. To start, can you give us a bit of a background into who you are and where you’ve come from?
Hello, I’m Monique Sutevski, Co-Founder of DNA Distillery. Back in 2020, I graduated from school with a Bachelor of Law degree (first-class honours) along with a Bachelor of Commerce degree, majoring in Finance.
At the time, I was stood down from my job in law. As I was working under a scholarship, I didn’t qualify for JobKeeper. This is what led to DNA. My cousin and business partner, James Projcevski was working as a mortgage broker in the financial services industry.
We completely understand. It’s critical moments in life (like losing a job) that entrepreneurs take charge of their lives and start something themselves. So how did you come up with the idea for DNA?
James had taken me out to celebrate my admission as a solicitor and turned to ask me what was next. Expecting me to say "I'm going to be a judge’s associate" or something to that effect, I stopped him in his tracks with the words “I want to make rakija”. It was actually the first time I had said it aloud and was something I had been thinking about for a couple of months. After being stood down, I was given some advice to think about doing something I know to be true of who I am and my interests. And what's more important to me than my family, my culture? DNA is a dedication to our history.
That celebration was on a Saturday. The following Monday, James called me and said, ‘this can't just be something we talk about. We have to act’. That evening he picked me up, we went to our local McDonald's for our first business meeting and DNA was born.
Monique Sutevski, Co-Founder of DNA Distillery
That’s a brilliant story… and well done for walking the talk. So after committing to do your own thing, what research did you do to arrive at what you've got now? How did you go about testing your product-market fit?
With no prior experience in the alcohol industry, we began calling every distillery we could for advice and information. The industry as a whole is extremely supportive, open and enthusiastic. People were excited that we were doing something different and they wanted to be involved. By showcasing our vision and passion for rakija, we were able to build relationships, get help, education and mentorship. We created multiple competitor matrices with gin and tequila companies.
However, being the first ever traditional rakija company on a commercial scale in Australia, there’s plenty of opportunity to grow the market. In saying that, we began with a small batch to test the waters. Once the first couple of batches were ready, we launched and in less than three months, we’d sold out entirely as well as winning Double Gold at the World Spirits Competition for both our Classic and Gold Rakija. Our Gold Rakija then went on to win ‘Best of Class’. We had proved the concept!
Selling out in three months definitely sounds like you nailed your product-market fit. Winning Double Gold and Best of Class is the icing on the cake. How did you come up with the recipe in the first place?
We meticulously followed our grandfather's recipe, yet on a much larger scale. It's exciting!
With a couple of international trophies in the cabinet and the product flying out the door, how did you go about funding everything?
We bootstrapped everything ourselves. We drained our savings and still to this day, haven’t taken a wage. Everything is reinvested.
With product and funding out of the way, the next question is about branding. Can you tell us about the process and how you arrived at where you are today?
Branding is something that has come so naturally to us. From the very first meeting at McDonald's, we had a clear vision for the brand we were creating. We wanted to pay tribute to our heritage and culture but with a modern twist. Using old family photos, videos and family stories has given our brand a warm, nostalgic edge. Our branding has always been instinctual. We have a story to tell.
And what about awareness? How are you getting the word out there? How are you scaling the brand?
To date, we have only used organic marketing. We haven’t spent a dollar. We’ve done PR campaigns, cold emailing and collaborated with venues that we believe align with our brand. Our focus this year is on growth. We've proved the concept now it's time to scale.
Future challenges? What's the biggest challenge or challenges you think you'll face moving forward?
Our biggest challenge currently surrounds educating the market on what rakija is. While everyone has some affinity with it and understanding, there is a massive education piece that follows. How to drink rakija, what it tastes like, how to make it accessible to the masses... how it fits into cocktail culture. All of that. Needless to say, our future challenge will be around scaling the business!
Ok, here's our final question. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give another entrepreneur who is embarking on their own startup journey?
Support is everything. You are never going to feel 100% all of the time. Having family, friends, a business partner and support is all you could ever ask for. Get good at distancing your identity from the problem. It's not personal, you have to be able to process your emotions quickly and find a solution. All business, work and life is about problem-solving. If you are passionate about what you are doing. You'll be fine. Just keep going!