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'I used to be motivated by a fear of failure. I kind of got over that'

Gary Lavin, the founder of VitHit, talks fear of failure, managing growth and why he’s not pursuing kombucha.

Image: Lorraine O'Sullivan

IT IS A few years now since Gary Lavin set off in his Jeep, stopping into local shops around Ireland to sell a new vitamin drink called VitHit.  

Spotting a gap between sugary drinks and water, Lavin’s low-calorie, low-sugar drinks hit the spot and the company has expanded to sell in more than 18 international markets. VitHit, which employs 22 people internationally, is set to sell 25 million bottles of the drink this year and Lavin has more growth on the agenda. 

In our weekly question-and-answer series, we spoke to Lavin about travel, failure and why his family is his biggest motivator. 

Here’s what he had to say: 

How often do you take a day off?

Regularly. I’d say that I work to live, I don’t live to work. I take as many trips as I possibly can with my family.

I’m always on the phone as well – so I’m always on emails. So, do I ever 100% switch off? No. But do I take a lot of trips? Yes.

What’s the next big thing in your industry? 

There are two things at the moment that a lot of people are getting into. One is CBD oil and the other is kombucha.

We’re not getting involved in it because any industry that a lot of people are getting involved in, I don’t really want to be part of that.

Someone will make it in one or both of those industries, I’m just not sure how sustainable either of those two businesses are. 

What’s the biggest problem you’ve had to deal with in your business so far and how did you overcome it?

For a business like ours it’s always been cash flow. What most people do is, they don’t turn a profit, they run out of money and they go and raise more money. We’ve never done that. 

I’m of the opinion that if you’re not profitable, you shouldn’t really be in a business. 

We just hired a lot of very good people in our company who watch our cash 24/7 and then we grow at a sustainable rate. We grow at 30% a year. If we were to grow at 40-50% a year we probably wouldn’t be able to fund it ourselves.

What ambitions do you still have?

We are now the market leader in Ireland, UK, Iceland and we’re going to become the market leader in Belgium probably this time next year.

Even though we’re in probably 10 territories properly, we’re market leader in only four of them. My ambition is to become market leader in 30 territories around the globe.

There are probably 15 that we can target now and we’ll do that for the next two to three years. It’s a never-ending thing for us – I don’t think we’ll ever become so big that we’ll run out of countries.

What was a big turning point in your life?

I sat down with an accountant years ago when we were losing money – in 2005 – and she basically said you need to get out and sell.

I got in my Jeep and I drove around the country and I think I sold into, I think it was, every Spar and Centra shop in the country.

That was a turning point for me. I understood what our customers wanted – and I knew that if I called into every shop I could control the sales myself and control the future of the company – and things have really turned around from that point. 

Who have you learned the most from in your career/life?

Failure. Day to day, you don’t have people on your shoulder mentoring you, so you really make your own mistakes.

I’ve failed a hundred times – but I never put a tag on it – if I didn’t get an account I didn’t say that’s a failure, it’s just something I haven’t got yet. 

Aside from your own, what industry do you find most interesting and why?

Anything that you can take an existing industry that hasn’t really changed – and shake it up.

When we first created VitHit, we were doing something that hadn’t been done – we were creating a tasty, really low-sugar, low-calorie drink in an industry that was either water or sugar. 

What’s your main motivator?

My family. I have a wife and a young daughter. It used to be fear of failure. I kind of got over that because we stopped failing. Everybody works harder when they’ve got dependents. 

If you could invest in any Irish company (other than your own), which one would it be and why?

There are two companies that interest me in terms of doing things differently and doing things well. One of them is Sprout – I eat there every day. 

The other one is dairy-free ice cream brand Nobó – they’re doing something similar to what we did by taking a traditional sugar industry – and their product is 50% less sugar. I think they have a real shot at making a success of what they’re doing. 

What’s the one piece of advice you would give an entrepreneur who’s just starting out?

Sales are everything. Before I got in my Jeep, I used to try and sit in my office and design products and make sure the accounts were right and just do everything except for sales.

You could have the greatest staff in the world but you can’t pay for them if people aren’t out actually selling your product.

When I was sitting in my office and my company was going down the tubes, all I had to do was get in my car and sell. If you don’t have revenue, you have absolutely nothing; no one else is worth anything to you.

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Written by Zuzia Whelan and posted on Fora.ie

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