In Conversation with Danielle Zighelboim of Coconut Cartel

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Describe Coconut Cartel in a few words?

We’re a Rum Brand, and our first expression is Coconut Cartel ‘Special,’ a tropical take on a classic Guatemalan sipping rum made with up to 12 year aged Añejo rum and fresh coconut water.

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

After re-settling in Miami after college, my brother and I wanted to build a business celebrating Latin-American culture and its exports. Our grandmother had always told us that we should get into the “food” business, because people will always need food. She’s pretty much always right. Our first endeavor – smuggling coconuts in our suitcases from the coastline of El Salvador to the hottest hotels and restaurants in Miami Beach­ – launched a phenomenon. If you wanted to drink fresh coconut water, poolside, in Miami… it was definitely smuggled to you in our suitcases earlier that week 😉 That business grew to weekly container loads. After a few years of selling our coconuts spiked with a shot of our favorite Central American rums we saw an opportunity to launch a “coconut rum” of our own!

What was your background prior to starting your own business?

Coconut Cartel was my first real venture. Prior to that I was still in college, Babson College, which is the #1 ranking school for Entrepreneurship, so when I graduated I was eager to put my new learned skills to work. However, my love for entrepreneurship started at a very young age. I was always coming up with some kind of business plan and hustling everything from lemonade to t-shirts, chocolates, soups, and backpacks. I also grew up in a household of entrepreneurs starting with my grandparents who emigrated to Latin America pre and post war, and my dad who also started a manufacturing business that he still runs today. So, I’d say, prior to starting my business, I was watching entrepreneurs at work and learning as much as I could.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

Yes, but I didn’t know there was a word that described what I wanted to be. I learned the word “entrepreneurship” when I was researching colleges to go to. The definition of the word resonated with me and described the possibility of being my own boss. Everyone in my family was pretty much doing their own thing too, so I also didn’t know any better, to be honest. I suppose that’s a good thing, because being an entrepreneur is really hard.

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

It’s 2013, there was no strategy, but we have our first experience in “marketing” with a booth we set up at Cabana Swim Show on Miami Beach. We got some pallets from our warehouse and built out a bar that said “FRESH COCONUTS” and we labeled each coconut with our logo and the logo for the show on it. There were probably 2000 people at this show, and I think every single one of them had a coconut or two. We didn’t have a refrigerated truck yet, so we were literally driving back and forth from our warehouse, which was a good 30 minutes away at least 10 times each day to refill the booth. Our cars never shook the smell of coconut husk from that day forward. But it ended up being really good because there were hundreds of gorgeous women walking back to their hotels with coconuts in hand. From that day forward orders came flooding in from hotel bars asking us where they could get some of those cocos! No plan. Totally winged that.

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

Oh wow, so true and so many times. But there is a very memorable one…

The biggest mistake I have ever made was making an equity transaction, meaning selling a piece of my business for investment, without the proper legal counsel. As a young business owner,  I didn’t realize how important investing in good lawyers was and I learned the hard way. And I also realized it’s really important to vet the people you bring around your business. Partnerships are a marriage… make sure you “date” and you get to know people before you tie the knot. You want to make sure you’re aligned and on the same page with the people you bring into your business along the way. Have a clear understanding on governance of the business, responsibilities and ultimately, a clean way to break up if the relationship doesn’t work out.

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

This year I was named within Forbes’ 30 Under 30 List which was a huge goal of mine. Since I was in college, that list became a summit many young entrepreneurs I admired made it up to. I thought I might miss the cut because I’m 29, but luckily I made it just in time. When you’re head down working for so long and building is an uphill battle, it’s just nice to be recognized. It reminded me to step back and look at what I’ve (we’ve… because I’m not alone in this) accomplished.

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

Oooh, that’s a good one. We’ve had our fair share of miss-hires, which is always painful. Money and time down the drain… two things a young business has little of to spare. So now, when I’m hiring, I want to know why you’re valuable. What’s that thing that you’re really good at? I hire to fill holes in my team, so what skill sets do you have that will help our team grow and become more dynamic? Why can the team lean on you?

I also want to know more about your communication style. Depending on what you’re going to be working on, I don’t want to micromanage, but I need to know where you’re at, so how will you be communicating your progress with the team?

Are you gritty? Tell me about that time you did some crazy s*** to get the order placed or about the time you snuck into the MIT library to find a science genius to help you complete an assignment the night before it’s due. This entrepreneurship thing is about grit. Doesn’t really matter how you get it done, as long as it’s done (and you don’t break the law, of course). 

Lastly, not a question but a behavioural observation. At what time do you show up to your interview? If you’re late, you’re out for me. It’s purely a sign of respect for the other person’s time to show up to your meetings at the scheduled time. I plan my day to make time for you, please do the same for me. 

How has your business or industry been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Our business has been impacted in a HUGE way. In March, when it all started, 95% of our customers were bars and restaurants. So at that point in time, I’m thinking… ok well that’s it for us. We’re not a big liquor brand with thousands of points of distribution, nor are we a household name liquor that people are stocking up on at the liquor store during the panic buying phase. We’re a nichey, speciality item. However, the silver lining for us in this was in e-commerce. We had the foresight years ago to partner with a company that was offering a three tier compliant solution for brands to be able to offer their product for sale almost nationwide. We built out our webstore with them in 2019, but we never really put much money or marketing efforts to exploit its capabilities… so it sat dormant for years. Come March, when we had no one to sell to and nowhere else to market, we learned how to use Facebook ads to advertise our product and we started to quickly see some sales. That changed our game forever. We are now heavily focused on all digital opportunities to market and sell our product and that opportunity was really born out of times of crisis. It forced us to try something new. We feel very blessed that it has worked out. 

And as an industry, I don’t think there is an industry that has been hit harder than the hospitality industry, and yet it gets absolutely no help! I am pained to see so many of our hospitality partners suffering. As much as they can try, e-commerce is not a solution for them, so I’m hoping they can get back up and running as soon as possible, so we can visit them once again very soon. In the meantime, we have to do what we can to support those businesses. Pick up take out, buy bottles of wine, buy gift cards. The hospitality industry employs millions of people… we need to keep it going!!! The world will not be the same without them. 

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

This is really just the beginning for us. We have so many people and places to visit and introduce to our brand. You can expect to see a lot of hustle, a lot of innovation, some unconventional ideas and a lot of tasty beverages (and maybe some other treats too) come out of the house of Cartel. We’re here to reinvigorate the rum category as a whole, and we’re going to do that by way of many unexpected surprises! So watch out, and be on the lookout for the Cartel.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

Crisis is a hotbed for innovation! Pivot or die.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

Nothing. Less is more. Just do it!

How have you managed to stay grounded this year?

Tennis. Lots of tennis. 

Not having to travel for work has allowed me to pick up my racquet again and focus on my game. Tennis is so mental, and you can tell a lot about my mental health just in the way I’m playing that day. When I’m off, I’m reminded to focus on the small things. My swing, my breath, my knees, my stance, etc. Once I start improving those little things, my whole day and mindset starts to shift. Baby steps on the court!

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

I think it really depends on your timeline and your goals. Where do you want to be in the short term and in the long term. There are entrepreneurs who are building businesses to sell them. A lot of times these businesses take on investment and have goals and timelines to manage to get investors returns back. This kind of business is insanely stressful and puts you on the clock. So you’re more pressured to prioritize work over life here. Granted, in this case scenario, maybe you win big in the short term which will grant you more freedom in the long run! 

My business is here, so for me, right now, the balance is in favor of work and I don’t see how it could be balanced the other way. However, I will say that it is important to manage your mental health and make sure you can make it to the end. It’s very easy to get lost in the sauce, which could end up hurting your business, so I do prioritize things that help me keep my mental state in check. These things are exercising, eating healthy and taking mini weekend vacations every 8-10 weeks to recalibrate. 

There are other entrepreneurs who are building legacy businesses… the kind they want to hold on to for their careers and perhap pass on to their kids. This kind of business is a marathon, so I think in this case, it’s really important to prioritize building systems and reliable teams in your business to grant you freedom and time to build your life! If you’re in it for the long haul, the business should improve your life, not the other way around. 

I’d try to be clear about the kind of business you want to build before starting, and look at the next 5 – 10 years of your life… how would you like to spend it?

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

I’m a cultural mutt! My name is Danielle Zighelboim, and I’m a Latin Jew. I was born in Miami to a Guatemalan mother and Venezuelan father. My mother’s grandfather emigrated to Guatemala from Poland before the war and married my great grandmother who was of Spanish descent. Her father then emigrated to Guatemala after surviving the Holocaust and married my grandma who was raised Jewish in Guatemala in the 1940’s.My father’s side of the family has a similar story, they emigrated to Venezuela before the war. I grew up in El Salvador and in Guatemala, and came back to the US for college in 2009. My first language is English, despite having been raised in Central America. And I love 70’s rock.

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

  • Start your day off with a “schvitz”. Do something active to break a sweat! I’m always doing my best when I’ve built up some body heat in the morning. 
  • Write down a to – do list before you hit the shower so you’re already prepping your mind to start organizing the day, but you still have a yummy shower to procrastinate with a little longer! The list helps me never go idle. There’s always something to work on and it feels so good to cross an item off!
  • Don’t eat too much during the work day. Eating makes me feel lethargic. I find that I’m sharpest when I’m approaching “ketosis” and I don’t have any sugar crashes throughout the day. I feel my best when I start the day off with an oat milk matcha latte and my first snack around 2pm. (obviously do what feels right for you… this just happens to work for me!)

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