In the first edition of Park Street University’s Startup Spotlight, Kat Hantas of 21 Seeds sits down to discuss how she, along with her sister Nicole Hantas-Emanuel and friend Sarika Singh, created 21 Seeds, a tequila designed to service a previously underserved consumer in the market: women.

Tell us about 21 Seeds.

Kat Hantas: About nine years ago, I started experiencing night sweats and general health issues, so I went to my doctor. He suggested we take a look at my diet, which included a couple of glasses of wine each night. He smiled like the cat that swallowed the canary and proceeded to explain that as we get older, our bodies have more difficulty metabolizing fermented spirits, and proposed a switch to distilled spirits (thank goodness he didn’t ask me to stop drinking entirely!). He suggested I switch to Blanco tequila since it’s plant-based, gluten-free, and one of the cleanest spirits and sent me home. As soon as I stopped drinking wine, I felt 100% better, but I wasn’t sure what to do with this harsh Blanco tequila to make it light and easy to drink every night like my wine. I like to cook so I thought heck I’ll infuse it and see what happens. It completely changed it for the better, from how it smelled, to what it tasted like: smooth, not sweet, and refreshing…not the usual adjectives that come to mind when you think about tequila.

As the years rolled by, I noticed a lot of my girlfriends were also moving over to tequila specifically from wine and champagne because they too wanted to drink cleaner and have fewer carbs and lower sugar. They began asking me to make bottles of my infused Blanco for their home use. One bottle turned into many over the years and finally, I thought perhaps there was a business in this. Enter Nicole and Sarika, my two co-founders.

What sets your brand apart in the marketplace?

KH: We believe our early success is contributed to two things: our commitment to quality of product and our commitment to #girlscalltheshots – which is our loyal 80% female customer and solving all her pain points! We like to say that we have created a product for Her, by Her and the men who support Her!

We set out to create a product that was as easy to drink as a glass of wine, all-natural, exceptionally smooth with a hint of flavor, and not overly sweet, which we found most flavored spirits on the market to be. We also wanted to create infusions that compliment the Blanco tequila and enhance the overall experience of drinking it, while keeping it simple. Our infused tequilas have won numerous Gold Awards across all 3 infusions, this is truly flavor done right.

With respect to addressing the needs of our core consumer, women, we believe our authentic origin story, and what our brand stands for has resonated with Her because we know Her well, we can speak to Her unlike any other tequila brand on the market. She wants it smooth, but not sweet. She wants quality, all-natural ingredients. She wants a product that is easy to use and versatile. Most importantly, it’s not just about the liquid in the bottle, but what opening a bottle of 21Seeds represents. It’s about the experience ahead that she will have with her girlfriends – celebrating a girl’s night in, a girl’s night out, a girl’s trip or even celebrating with herself with an easy 21Seeds Spritz at the end of a long day. That’s the piece that really sets us apart and that truly makes us a brand.

Does your business have any causes it supports?

KH: Each October, 21Seeds, participates in Drink Pink and donates a portion of our proceeds to the National Breast Cancer Foundation. This cause is close to our hearts as Nicole, my sister, and co-founder, and I have lost both our grandmother and aunt to breast cancer. Outside of this, we love supporting our allies in the LGBTQ+ community. From partnering with San Francisco Drag Queen JuanitaMore on her Pride party and commissioning a mural in SF to promote inclusivity to recently partnering with Andrew Warren on his Pride Party this year, we love supporting communities that foster inclusivity and diversity.

What’s the one lesson you learned during the pandemic that will stick with you?

KH: Prior to the pandemic, it was unclear whether or not teams could be productive if not under one roof. We found that our employees were MORE efficient, as their time was their own and they knew how to manage it best. Because there’s no requirement or peer pressure to stay in the office for any given amount of time, we found that our employees were not only more productive but happier and we are taking those learnings with us as we go back to “normal.”

What is your best business finance tip for other brand owners?

KH: Don’t spend money on things that do not move the needle. Part of figuring out what those things are is taking the time to really understand who your customer is. Don’t rely on others in your industry to know the best ways to reach your customer. You must have conviction in your game plan and hold the line.

What is your best advice for a mutually beneficial relationship with your distributors?

KH: Try to always put yourselves in their shoes, think about every ask, from their perspective. Understand that they are getting whatever your request is from a thousand other people that are more important than you.

What has been your most successful strategy for pitching a new retail partner?

KH: Present with passion, tell a great story that you can back with good data, and make sure your product is great. Know who your customer is and why that retail account is where that customer shops. If you connect all those dots – and most importantly your product tastes great – you’ve got a good shot. Our messaging clearly speaks to female consumers. 80% of our consumer base is women, so we focus on why 21Seeds is what she wants to drink, an award-winning, clean, all-natural, lower ABV, gluten-free tequila that makes easy, better for you cocktails that taste great. We focus on accounts where She shops and tells our story and that has worked well for us.

What are the resources you can’t run your business without?

KH: Our team. We are lucky to have built the most talented team – from the three founders down. The synergy we all share is something that you can’t automate and the key to why we have been so successful.

Do you have a go-to book on business or leadership you recommend?

KH: I love authentic stories, so naturally, I find a lot of inspiration reading about CEOs who’ve built great companies. There are so many lessons to learn through these real-life accounts. Three of my favorites are, “The Ride of a Lifetime: Lessons Learned from 15 Years as CEO of the Walt Disney Company” by Robert Iger, “Steve Jobs” by Walter Issacson, and “Working Backwards: Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon” by Colin Bryar.

If you were starting a new venture today, what’s the first thing you would do?

KH: Thoroughly understand who your target customer is. Chances are if you solve 99% of your target customer’s problems, you are also addressing the needs of a broader customer base, and eventually, others will find and enjoy your product. Initially, though, at the beginning of a company, when you only have so many marketing dollars to go around, it is really important to hone in on your power user. Knowing everything about that power user is the most important first step.

My first career was in the entertainment industry as a film producer. We used to do this step with our writers, where they would create full backstories about each lead character before they wrote one word of the actual story. These were detailed biographies of each character that encompassed everything that happened to that character before we meet them in the movie. Where they were born, was it an easy birth or were there complications, were their parents divorced, was it ugly, did they have many friends in elementary school, their favorite color, did they break a bone or have a fear of heights, and so on. It was with this background knowledge of each character, that allowed the writer to create actions and dialogue in the story that ring authentic. A great way to fully understand your customer is to sit down and write a character brief like the example above.