September 13

Leah Caplanis, CEO Social Sparkling Wine


Diagnosed with Thyroid Cancer at 26, Leah Caplanis chose to heal holistically. When she couldn’t find an alcoholic drink that aligned with her new diet and lifestyle, she decided to create it with the help of expert brewmaster Ray Klimovitz – a 50-year veteran who co-founded Izze Sparkling Soda – and SOCIAL was born!

Launched in 2014, SOCIAL is a delicious organic, low-calorie (only 88 per serving!), gluten-free sparkling sake wine. It is the first alcoholic beverage EVER to include full nutritional content on its label.

While SOCIAL offers a lower calorie, refreshing drink alternative, the brand also encourages people to live healthy, have fun and make the world a better place. SOCIAL gives 1% of proceeds back to charities and Leah’s mission is to empower people to enjoy the fun, social aspects of drinking alcohol while still pursuing their health and wellness goals.

Prior to launching SOCIAL, Leah worked for Nestle USA for eight years in sales & marketing. She received her MBA from University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business and her bachelor’s degree from Western Michigan University. She currently resides in Chicago, Illinois. More information on SOCIAL can be found at www.socialsparklingwine.com.

Podcast Highlights:

  • Survey the marketplace before you pull the trigger
  • Make your suppliers and customers your team members
  • When things get too tough we dance it out. It changes the mood instantly.

Contact Leah:

[Podcast Transcript Using Artificial Intelligence]

Umar Hameed 0:06
Are you ready to become awesomer? Hello everyone, this is Umar Hameed, your host and welcome to the No Limits Selling Podcast, where industry leaders share their tips, strategies and advice on how to make you better, stronger, faster, get ready for another episode.

Umar Hameed 0:37
Today I'm privileged to have Leah Caplinis is the CEO of SOCIAL Sparkling Wines. Leah, welcome to the program.

Leah Caplinis 0:44
Thank you so much for having me.

Umar Hameed 0:46
So brilliant. We met at a Tony Robbins event in Chicago, maybe two, three months ago. What made you decide to go to a Tony Robbins event? Was that your first or had you been before?

Leah Caplinis 0:57
You know, that was actually my first and I really haven't hadn't been exposed to him that much, except by a lot of people that I respect, had been exposed to him and told me that it was life changing. So when he came to town, I thought, This is my time.

Umar Hameed 1:13
Brilliant. And so how did it match up with your expectations? And what was the main thing you took away from that three or four day experience?

Leah Caplinis 1:20
Yeah. So it completely exceeded my expectations. And I, you know, I just had never imagined that I was going to be standing up, you know, 12 hours a day, shouting and dancing at the top of my lungs, and that I would walk away feeling so completely energized from doing that, you know, for three plus days straight.

Umar Hameed 1:43
Yeah, what's crazy, I should have got a sports injury on my ankle, and I did it anyway. And the best way I can describe it is it was like a Library of Alexandria meets a Nazi rally. It was like great information and total enthusiasm. The reason I wanted to have this conversation with you is just at that moment, you had gotten some funding for your company, and we'll kind of go into that. But tell me what made you start your company and how long ago did you start?

Leah Caplinis 2:08
Yeah, so we began selling social about four years ago. And the reason why I started the company was because really, I, I really was looking for a alcohol that fit into my healthy lifestyle. And I really had kind of upgraded my lifestyle quite a bit, because when I was 26, I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. And I went on this journey to actually heal it holistically without surgery. And so I didn't drink alcohol for over two years, I was vegan. I tried lots of different diets, macrobiotic raw veganism, and just went super healthy and learned a ton. But I, I missed the drinking element of life. And I again, but you know, I was getting the hangovers and gaining weight and artificial ingredients and getting too drunk. And I just thought, and there's, there's got to be a way to have a lot of the pros, without many of the cons.

Umar Hameed 3:07
How did you come across the initial product to get this thing going?

Leah Caplinis 3:11
So I was getting my MBA part time at University of Chicago. And there was a business competition. And I put a team together with some business girlfriends who knew some industry contacts. And what we did actually was we went out and did surveys, we did online surveys, we also walked around festivals and had surveys on our phone and, and we did surveys as to what people were looking for, you know, if they were health conscious, what do they like about the alcohol options today? What they don't like. And from that research, we discovered this new concept, which was a lower alcohol product that tasted like sparkling wine. That was you know, gluten free and sulfite free and really low calorie and organic, and that sort of thing. So from there, we got, you know, we had the idea of what we want to create. And we got in touch with a Brewmaster, who is known for inventing new products.

Umar Hameed 4:03

Leah Caplinis 4:03
When. Yeah.

Umar Hameed 4:05
When you started the company, how many people were involved? And what was the first six months starting from ground zero and making this happen?

Leah Caplinis 4:12
Yeah, so Ground Zero was really me plus three people, grad school friends and some industry, industry friends. So there's four of us. And within the next six months, we added another three people that also had different industry experience. And so the first year I actually ended up quitting my job about six months in before we even had finished product samples. We didn't even have our name actually. We ended up changing our name. And so it took about a year and a half. With me working on it full time for a year before we actually had product and launched for sale. What year are you in right now? Well, I've been working on for six. We've been selling before.

Umar Hameed 5:00
Selling before. So we met like maybe three months ago, and you had just gotten, was that your first round on investment? Or was that a second round?

Leah Caplinis 5:08
Well, that was technically our third round. Our first round was, you know, friends and family about $300,000, back in 2014. And then we took another million dollars really over, you know, until recently, we took our series A, which was 1.3 million.

Umar Hameed 5:26
Nice. So tell me about your journey as as a leader, because, you know, starting with four friends, that's, you know, one level of leadership, but as you start adding employees, and processes and structure, what's that journey been like?

Leah Caplinis 5:39
It was actually a lot easier working with younger people, and sort of me being the declared leader, than it was at the beginning at the beginning with the four of us. Because what I am, what I tend to find is that, you know, one person is really all in and is really putting in, kind of most of the time and energy and so I would, at the beginning, I was being a little bit slowed down, by waiting on people who had full time jobs who weren't, you know, who were just had different priorities in life, after, within really the first six months, we kind of we ended up telling one person, hey, you can stay on as an investor, but you know, we're not gonna you're not gonna be working on it, because it's slowing us down. And so I really had to assert my leadership and, and, you know, become, become, you know, a much larger player, even though I was technically the CEO, we were sort of splitting everything 20, you know, 25/25, 25/25. And that really wasn't fair. And so fortunately, everyone pretty much agreed, and they were very reasonable. And so we're all still friends. We all you know, and we're still working with the other two people today. And so then after that, I started, I started recruiting interns. And in Chicago, there's so many undergrads that have interns, so I actually had 17, interns was my first group, and they they only work 10 hours a week. They were international students. But I basically spent the day going one to the next giving them tasks. And that's kind of how we built the infrastructure of the company.

Umar Hameed 7:17
Brilliant. Is there one intern that really stood out?

Leah Caplinis 7:20
Yeah, well, you since then, we've had over 200, because basically, every semester we, we have another flock of interns, three of them, we've hired full time. So right now we're going to be at eight, eight people full time. And three of them were interns. But yeah, but you know, there's been so many great people, and a lot of them, you know, stay on for six months or eight months, or go off and get really great jobs. So we've had, we've had so many that have been great.

Umar Hameed 7:48
Here's a guy that you probably have never heard of, because he's before your time, there was a guy called Chuck Barris. And he had more TV shows on TV at one point than any of the network's. He had the Gong Show, I think they've tried to reprise it recently. And the reason I mentioned it is his entire staff were high school students, whereas the rest of the network's you know, had professionals college grads and older. And it was something about that young spirit that they were to, quote unquote, dumb to know, it wasn't possible. So they went in and made things happen that shouldn't have been possible all because they have the enthusiasm and, and the trust to do so.

Leah Caplinis 8:27
Yeah, living without fear, because they haven't been told how hard it is or how competitive or this that or the other, they just, just simply do it, you know, and that's what business is kind of just getting a lot of tasks done. checking things off your list. And before you know it, you have a processes and a business and product and everything.

Umar Hameed 8:47
Tell me about the first few customers that you brought on board? And what was that conversation like to get them to try something new?

Leah Caplinis 8:55
Yeah. So I think one of the keys to our success was that I tried to make it as tangible as possible, from as early on as possible. So at first, that meant just getting pictures like a grab, you know, graphic design of our brand of the cans that we were going to create, and took many more months before we actually printed cans and did the production run. But I was able to show, you know, like Mariano's and Whole Foods in Chicago. You know, here's here's an image of what these products will look like. Here's a photo collage of kind of our customers and our brand personality. And yes samples of the product even though they were an unmarked, unmarked plastic bottles, just showing them that it brought it to life.

Umar Hameed 9:47
Isn't that brilliant? I mean, just getting them to see the picture fuel the picture is just a brilliant way of getting them to come on board. There's this concert hall here in near the DC area is called the Stradmore. And I met the executive director. And they had the architects drawings of what this thing was going to look like. They got to have the theater chairs. And remember, they used to have these plastic cones in record stores when they had such an animal that would just beam the music down to the person underneath the cone. I think so. So they got two seats, so couples could sit there, they had an artist's rendering of what the concert hall would look like. And they piped in classical music. So that gave them the full experience of this is what we're building. And they raised 100 million dollars by getting them to have the experience before it was ever a reality. And it sounds like you did a similar version of that.

Leah Caplinis 10:42
Absolutely. Yeah. And then I think the other thing about it is also social proof is a very large kind of concept with, you know, humans, they always want to know that. They're not, you know, unless they are truly the innovators, and that's what they pride themselves on. And they're used to taking risks that then typically, people like to know that other people that they respect, have also bought in.

Umar Hameed 11:05
But how did you accomplish that?

Leah Caplinis 11:07
Yeah, so you know, it's something at the beginning, I remember thinking, gosh, am I I don't, you know, you don't want to lie. You don't want to lie, is it anytime, right? I'm just small industry anyway. And it's just, it's just not good business or good life practice, I think, but you can definitely say things like, you know, I had a conversation with so and so and they seemed really interested. Or, you know, we're gonna, you know, we're moving to the next step on this, or, you know, something to kind of illustrate that you are at least in conversations with successful competitors or colleagues, to it's kind of like, name dropping, you know, it works.

Umar Hameed 11:47
Brilliant. And, you know, you've had to make probably some significant decisions, probably thousands of decisions since you started, can you tell me about one of those decisions that perhaps you know, you weren't spot on, you're wrong, and you know, how you figured it out, and how you learn from it. Because, you know, as a leader, a lot of leaders are afraid to make mistakes. So how do you kind of learn from a mistake and grow your organization?

Leah Caplinis 12:11
I think one of the biggest mistakes I've made, was with hiring, I hired someone who just, you know, wasn't a great fit. And, you know, it's like, the least fun thing to let someone go or to, you know, to fire some definitely. So, you know, what I learned from that was, you know, I have my sort of minimum requirement for what I do when I hire someone now, and, and that's if, you know, we're hiring people pretty quickly. So you only have so much time and energy to put into it. But my minimum requirement is that I do follow up on all the references, the references don't come back glowing, then I don't move forward. Because that one person, literally, I think, maybe I tried to call a couple references, but didn't hear back from any of them sign. And I found that a couple other employees that we have hired, gosh, I got the most, like, got responses on the references the same day, set up the conversations for like that day or the next day, and they were just so good, um, with people that were clearly, you know, accomplished, that it just just makes all the difference.

Umar Hameed 13:28
I was talking to the CEO of a tech company, and they hire, you know, program developers and leaders. And one of the things that they would do is they would use the resume to filter out all the candidates that didn't have the qualifications. And when they had the candidate come in, they actually had them code, live in front of them and explain their thought process on the coding. And once they got that done, the last part of the interview was they asked them about their accomplishments. You know, in the previous team, they would check the number of times they said AI versus we, and the people that said AI a lot. They didn't hire them. And the people that said we a lot, they hired those guys. And I thought that was kind of a brilliant strategy to get people that were all about the team, and how do we make the team better? Yeah, it's a good idea. Leah, as you look out into the future, two, three years out, how do you establish the culture of your company? I'm not sure if you've done that already. And if you have, how do you kind of maintain that culture as you bring new people in? Kind of what are your thoughts on culture? What are you looking to do? And how are you looking to maintain that level of culture as your company grows?

Leah Caplinis 14:33
I really believe that culture is sort of a way of beings, a way of behaving, a way of treating other people a way of treating yourself and for us, you know, as we sell a product and properly, probably most businesses, relationships are everything. Our relationships with our suppliers, our customers, it's all related. friendships because there's thousands of alcohol companies out there. And before, you know, in time, there will be probably, you know, companies with products that are somewhat similar. But what we have that is different is we have relationships with people that make us successful on a daily basis. So suppliers who, you know, go out of their way to get us ingredients, or to produce for us when they've got, you know, 10 different companies that want them to produce. And so because of those good relationships, we then deliver to our customers on time to make their lives better. And then we have good relationships with our customers. And you know, it just, it all, it all stems from relationships. So our culture, you know, it's it's built, it's been built over time, by my behavior is the example as the leader of the organization is to, you know, how we behave. And one of our key elements in our culture is that we don't talk negatively about people brilliant about each other, specifically, and, and not even about people outside of our organization. So if someone starts saying, oh, man, this supplier is late on this, you know, what an idiot? say, No, these are teammates, how can we communicate, you know, give them what they need, so they can do a better job for us. And so we just, you know, if things are getting a little too tense inside out, I'll do things, I'll turn on music, we'll dance it out, I'll light sage, and walk around the office, we'll go for a walk, we really try to keep it positive and light. And, you know, if we can tell someone's angry or feeling stressed, we dress it and we try to make a joke. You know that that kind of thing. So,

Umar Hameed 16:51
So going back to Tony Robbins, what you're really doing is kind of impacting their state, this gets you back in the state that you need to be in to find a solution.

Leah Caplinis 16:58
Exactly. Changing your physiology, changing your body, moving your body, putting on music, it's exactly what we're trying to do.

Umar Hameed 17:07
And I really do like that, in a lot of companies that I work with, we have a rule of no third party compensation. So if I've got a problem if one of your employees has a problem with with Leah, and I'm working there, and they come to me and say, Can you believe what he is doing is had no I can't Let's get her in the room and have a conversation about it. We need those conversations pretty quickly, people start having a direct conversation with the person that they've got an issue with. And most of the time, it's a misunderstanding, or not clarity on what needs to be done. And if you can kind of stop that dead in its tracks. It allows you to build a healthy growing organization. And when you don't, and you allow those conversations to happen. That's when you get that cancer, that toxins that come into the company that sabotage things. Yes, I agree. But yeah, as you move forward, what's the next level of growth for you as a leader? Like what are you looking to improve at, that'll allow you to kind of be the leader that your company needs.

Leah Caplinis 18:04
Right now, we are focused heavily on building our systems and databases, so that we can process related, you know, communication relationships with so many more people, because, you know, we've got more suppliers, you know, out, you know, 10s of thousands of more customers, you know, our distributor, our distributors have hundreds of sales reps in each state, we've got 40 and 45 states, and now we're expanding internationally. So there's just so many relationships to manage. So building that infrastructure so that everyone can, can stay on top of, you know, communicating with their key contacts, easily. And then once those systems are in place, then my next step is really for me to become more and more of a, you know, a spokesperson for the brand. So to be out in the world, doing public speaking, doing media events, meeting with key retailers, can signings with retailers, stuff like that, just to sort of gain more awareness for the brand and doing less sort of operational. Thanks.

Leah Caplinis 19:15
Leah, thanks so much for sitting down with me. I really enjoyed our conversation.

Leah Caplinis 19:19
Thank you so much, have a great night.

Umar Hameed 19:26
If you enjoyed this episode, please go to iTunes and leave a five-star rating. And if you're looking for more tools, go to my website at nolimitsselling.com. I've got a free mind training course there, that's going to teach you some insights from the world of neuro-linguistic programming and that is the fastest way to get better results.


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