From Beauty Exec to Founder of Hard-Cider Marketplace, This Entrepreneur Shares How She Transitioned Into a Highly Regulated Industry
In the Women Entrepreneur series My First Moves, we talk to founders about that pivotal moment when they decided to turn their business idea into a reality—and the first steps they took to make it happen.
Annie Bystryn is no stranger to success. The beauty industry veteran has held leadership positions at brands including Laura Geller Beauty and, most recently, Becca, which was ultimately acquired by Estée Lauder in 2016. At the end of her tenure -- and while she was participating in the transition, waiting for the Estée Lauder transaction to be completed -- Bystryn started laying the groundwork to follow another passion: cider. The bubbly alcoholic beverage made from the fermented juice of apples was something the executive loved, but she had trouble finding high-quality offerings at her local stores. So she set out to bring the drink to consumers everywhere, and this past June, she introduced Cider in Love, a curated marketplace of high-end ciders -- and the young company's sales are currently doubling month-over-month.
Here’s how she did it.
1. Find the white space.
Bystryn had long been a fan of ciders -- she spent time traveling throughout the United Kingdom and Ireland in her early 20s and developed a taste for the beverage that hadn’t yet infiltrated the United States. Years later, a weekend trip to New York's Hudson Valley reignited that passion.
“I was there with my husband. We had had a fabulous dinner at a farm-to-table restaurant, and tried a very high-end heritage cider,” she says. “It was dry, nuanced, sparkling. I was like, ‘I must have it.’”
But outside of ordering it by the glass at dinner, she couldn’t find it. “We tried to track it down, but local shops didn’t have it, the cidery that produced it was closed and didn’t have a tasting room,” she recalls. “It was a real moment of consumer rage. I come from an industry where digital is so important -- if I can’t get it on my phone, it doesn’t exist.”
She had her idea: make this product widely (and easily) available.
2. Dive deep into research.
Bystryn envisioned a platform that would curate cideries and connect them with consumers, but she knew that was more easily said than done.
“This was a regulated market, and I needed to do my research,” she says. She spent nine months talking to people who ran cideries, people in the wine business and government employees who could talk her through red tape.
“I have a great appetite for mind-bogglingly boring details,” she admits. “I spent a full week of 12-hour days poring over every state’s regulations.” She looked at everything from shipping regulations to alcohol content requirements to how cider’s definition differed from that of wine. “I created the most geeky spreadsheets.”
3. Put your name out there -- and build a new network of support.
Despite her love of cider, Bystryn was still an outsider in the industry. She started visiting cideries, introducing herself and sharing her story. Eventually she was connected to an industry group, which started making recommendations and introductions for her.
“I took amazing road trips up and down the East Coast and the West Coast visiting these cideries and their farms and orchards,” she says. “I spent time at their kitchen tables, with their kids and pets.”
The interest from those producers gave her the confidence that this could work. “I resigned from my job in May 2017 and left in June.”
4. Solidify your business plan.
Bystryn says her first order of business was figuring out shipping and payment. “We are an online curator, but we work like Etsy,” she says. “So, you’re buying directly from the cidery.”
From there, she firmed up her business plan -- “I busted out the MBA!” -- and pulled together startup expenses, anticipated first-year expenses and projected sales. “Once I figured out that the numbers could work, I looked at finding partners within my budget,” she says. She needed help in e-commerce development and design, people who could help her perfect the functionality of the Cider in Love website.
“I’m lucky because I felt confident because of my prior experience,” she says. “I had a very rich network of people to get references from, and having held the CMO role, I know how to brief agencies and make the experience more efficient.”
5. Decide whether or not to raise capital.
Having worked for various companies that had been backed by private equity, Bystryn wanted to maintain complete control of her burgeoning startup.
“I know exactly what strings look like,” she says. She bootstrapped the company, thanks to money she had made when beauty brand Becca, where she served as VP of marketing, was sold to Estée Lauder.
“Bootstrapping is terrifying -- there’s no one who can tell you that spending your own money isn’t petrifying,” she says. “But thanks to that transaction with Estée Lauder, I was able to do it. If I had my aha moment three years earlier, it would have been a lot harder, financially.”
6. Build your team.
Cider in Love currently works with 10 cideries and is in talks to grow that number to 20.
“We believe in organic growth and working with only the best of the best,” Bystryn says. That applies to her (slowly) growing team. “Part of the way you bootstrap is with a virtual workforce,” she says. “A virtual network includes my publicity team, my design team and my dev team. I have one part-time employee who is permanent and assists me with cidery relationships and customer service.”
Lining up these resources, Bystryn says, has not been a significant challenge because she is intentionally taking her time to grow the business. And she’s celebrating every win as it comes along.
“The first time I got an order from someone who wasn’t just someone I knew, it was the most exciting moment of my life,” she says. “We popped open a big bottle that night.”