'You always have to put the business first – I've had to make sacrifices'

After six years at Kerry Group, the founder of Black Twist left his job to launch a coffee spirit drink.

By Conor Coughlan Founder, Black Twist

I WASN’T ONE of those people who always knew they would set up a business. I never ruled it out, but it wasn’t a certainty.

My degree was in the chemistry of pharmaceutical compounds, but after doing a work placement I realised quite quickly it wasn’t for me.

So I did a one-year taught masters in food science because food always interested me. Even when I was an outsider to the industry, I was interested in what made it tick.

For instance, whenever I was going on holidays, one of the first things I would always check out is interesting places to eat or drink.

Food has always been kind of like a hobby for me and I thought if I can work on something I enjoy doing, that’s where I want to be.

So after I finished my masters, I got onto Kerry Group’s graduate programme and didn’t look back after that. I realised food and beverages was where I wanted to be and I set about building my career in that industry.

4 Conor Coughlan
Source: Conor McCabe Photography Ltd

The bug

I worked in several different wings of Kerry Group, starting off in new product development with Cheestrings before working on the natural cheese brands. Then I moved into a technical manager role in the dairy spreads plant for a while.

I also got a taste of working with Kerry Group’s clients through that job and enjoyed it, so I asked if I could move into a commercial role that was more customer-focused.

Even though it was a corporate job, I definitely got the entrepreneurial bug while working for Kerry Group because, in its own right, what I was doing was very entrepreneurial.

The company would always encourage you to think on your feet and come up with your own ideas to bring forward.

So it was a very good training ground for me and implanted a lot of ways of thinking that were useful for when I decided to go and set up my own business after over six years.

For me, my business idea – a coffee spirit drink – wasn’t so much a light-bulb moment, it was more like a light bulb with a dimmer switch.

My initial feeling was that an opportunity existed to offer the modern coffee drinker a more authentic coffee experience in an alcoholic beverage, and the actual concept developed over time from that point.

I was working in the food service area so drinking lots of coffee with clients came with the role, and I just started getting more and more into the artisan coffee world.

It was clear that this new culture wasn’t a fad or a trend, and this desire for better quality coffee isn’t going away.

Personally I love the espresso martini cocktail because it brings my love of coffee into a bar setting in a modern way. And I could see a lot of other people felt the same, but there weren’t many other options, except for traditional offerings like Irish coffee.

The bar shelf was dominated by highly sweetened liqueurs, whereas the coffee and spirits trends were moving towards more authentic flavours and away from overpowering sweetness.

Source: Black Twist

Corporate to startup

Originally the idea was to bring on the idea for Black Twist to a certain stage before leaving Kerry Group, but free time wasn’t something that existed at my job.

However, it came to a stage when I had to decide to jump ship. I was still at quite an early stage when I did that, but I knew I needed to work on it full-time if was going to go anywhere.

So that’s what I did. I left without much of a plan, just an idea and a bit of money saved up. I got a mixed reaction from my friends and family around me. Some people were a bit sceptical about leaving a good job and told me, “What are you doing?”

A lot of people didn’t understand what I was doing, but at the same time a lot would say to do what makes you happy.

I’ve always been confident that I have a good idea, but of course I needed to put a good bit of money and time into it.

Of course there are risks, I have put all my money towards this venture and I have obviously walked away from the corporate career I had been building. But I knew there would be sacrifices.

People might not think that about entrepreneurship, but people who set up businesses put aspects of their lives, like their careers, on hold.

People like myself, who leave their job to set up a business, take a risk, because it’s very hard to jump back in at the same point on the ladder.

I don’t have any kids so that made the decision easier. If I had other people dependent on me, it would have been a much tougher decision to leave my job – I really admire people who do that.


Getting going

At the beginning, it was very tough to be in the business on my own. You can feel isolated and kind of grasping around in the dark.

And because I’m in this company on my own, I’ve had to make sacrifices to make sure I can put the business first. I had to move back home for financial reasons, which was a big sacrifice since I was used to being in the thick of things in Dublin city.

Fortunately, my parents have been very supportive. They welcomed me back with open arms and I moved back to west Waterford to work from the kitchen table.

After that, Enterprise Ireland’s New Frontiers programme and Waterford Local Enterprise Office opened up so many doors for me.

Through New Frontiers I moved into a shared office space, and it has definitely been helpful to be in an environment with like-minded people.

It means I now have a network of people – other entrepreneurs – around me going through the same growing pains. Even though I was putting in the same amount of hours at the kitchen table, it was in a much more unstructured way because I was in my own bubble.

But it’s still all down to me at the end of the day. That has its pros and cons, but I do like being in sole charge of myself.

Bord Bia Picture Conor McCabe photography
Source: Conor McCabe Photography Ltd


It’s now two and a half years since I left Kerry Group and it feels like an age ago. It’s more like a different lifetime to be honest, because the ways of working when you’re trying to set up your own thing are so different.

I’ve always had faith in the idea and the vision of the company, and the real high moments so far have been when that belief is validated by someone else.

That could be getting funding or, let’s say, being accepted onto programmes like New Frontiers and Food Works. But, to be honest, more important is the validation from consumers and bartenders who taste the product.

Right now, I’m still the only person working on the idea full-time, but I have also built an advisory board to help guide me along a bit.

I’m looking at the next three to five years and plan to launch in Ireland within the next two months, but now I’m already laying down the plans to launch in the US as well and certain European countries from 2018.

I’m already looking at new innovations that might add to the brand in future.

Conor Coughlan is the founder of Black Twist. This article was written in conversation with Killian Woods as part of a series on unlikely entrepreneurs.

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