Part 2: ÖselBirch 2018 in review – The learnings

What a year in beverage start-up has taught us.

In the first 2018 review post we brought out our highlights of the year. In this one, we will dwell more into the challenges we had and what has happened after the German TV show.

Die Höhle der Löwen – how things have changed after the airing?

5 minutes into the show and our email, Instagram and Facebook went nuts. Not to mention our website, which crashed during the first 10-15 minutes. Although we did our best to strengthen it, it wasn’t enough. Funnily enough, our server provider laughed out loud when we said that we expect about 10.000 hits during the few hours of the show. Reality was about 3 times this much in a MINUTE!

We had thousands of emails and messages in Facebook and Instagram. And having only one person speaking German and answering all of them was quite a challenge. Not only did we receive questions about when will ÖselBirch be available in our online store again but also hundreds of requests from resellers and distributors amongst which we had to find the best possible cooperation partner. And so we did – our distribution partner for Germany, Austria and Switzerland is LMG Handel.

Where have all the glass bottles gone?

The interest that ÖselBirch had gathered in the show was way bigger than we had expected. This brought us new challenges: The expected problem of not having enough birch water was not the issue but the lack of glass bottles on the market was. The glass bottle industry had an exceptional year due to the hot summer. The production capacity is simply not big enough, which is why small and new companies are the first to get a “No bottles available until 2020”. After a week-long search and calls we finally found diekleinehalbe, a new and innovative returnable bottle which is produced CO2 free and has won the Mehrweg-Innovationspreis 2018 der Deutschen Umwelthilfe.

But this was not the end of it

Do you know how a returnable bottle works? New bottle is delivered to our production facilities, drinks are prepared and sent to distributor and eventually to stores, until it finally ends up in your hands. You drink it and ideally bring it back to the deposit machines where the bottles are sorted, collected and returned to the producer, that is us.

We hope you pictured that travel. And we hope you didn’t forget that our production facilities are in Estonia. Quite a ride to Germany and back. Pointless ride? Yes, very much so.

Which is why we are eager to find a producer in Germany who would fill up the bottles close by. It would save time, gas, money and the environment. But turns out, our recipes are a little too difficult for a large portion of beverage producers in Germany. Difficult why? Well, it’s not the industry standard “take-syrup-add-water” recipe. Another challenger seems to be the honey that is used in two of our flavors…

But no mountain is too high to climb and there will be a solution also for this. Until then, we will keep the production in Estonia and find a reasonable way to collect the reusable bottles until we have found a suitable production partner in Germany, Austria or Switzerland.

What are the biggest lessons of 2018 and how you are going to use the knowledge next year?

Getting consumers involved to donate for tree-planting is easier than finding a land to plant.

We totally underestimated this part, especially the bureaucracy and difficulty of planting into city conditions. For example, trees that are planted in cities have to comply to certain measurements, like the tree trunk has to be thicker than 10cm and some require a height of 1.8 meters.

Learning outcome: we are likely to no longer plant the trees ourselves in the upcoming years but support initiatives and groups who wish to plant new trees into public or private places, e.g. planting new trees into your school yard or park.

Transparency is the best policy.

Right after the airing of DHDL we have had supply problems. We did also receive couple of angry messages. Thankfully, there were just few of those. However, had we not been honest about the challenges that we faced, the amount of angry mails would have gotten bigger. Also, our open and honest communication brought us a lovely message from the bottle producer. Diekleinehalbe promised to us that we do not have to worry about the bottles in the future by guaranteeing the availability of bottles for us. As we received this message, we jumped from joy and were confirmed yet again, that honesty is the best policy.

Process is more important than outcome.

If you do it for the very first time, you have to do it again. If you rush it, you have to do it again. Big businesses come with structures in place. Startups do not. We are still exploring and defining our processes.

Learning outcome: we have to accept the fact that we are in the process of learning and making our own way. There is no doubt that we will make mistakes but in order to avoid big blunders, we have to double-check, double-check, double-check!

Communication is the key!

As we are a team that lives distances apart from each other – in Estonia, Germany and in UK – it is so important to make sure that everybody is informed about the changes and the news. Whenever our meetings got a little irregular, we were faced with misunderstandings and problems.

Learning outcome: in order to move forward as a team, we cannot allow any irregularity in Skype conferences and meetings in 2019!

When buying a service, the results have to be measurable.

This is one of the mistakes that you do once and never again. Although with some services it is more difficult to measure the results you have to ensure that you get the work worth the value you pay. One way to do so is to simply hire experiences professionals, who might charge you more but who would get the stuff done. Fresh out of college with no track record is risky-business.

Learning outcome: do pay more for experience, contacts and references. This will certainly still be a challenge for us also in the new year. Because as a startup our cashflow is not yet stable and we have to manage our costs very carefully in order to survive. It is also still very complicated to evaluate the quality of a service beforehand and to decide who will most likely perform the best service.

Stand up for yourself and hold your ground!

We are constantly challenged to our core product values (healthy, environment friendly and offering a natural product). Especially when looking for investors – naturally, investors are interested in making money out of their investments. That is the point of investing and no blame there. However, when making money is the one and only goal it often crosses with our values.

Also, the client is not always right. Just because we are a small business, doesn’t mean that we have to bow and bend for every reseller who demands special discounts. Thank goodness we have a lawyer in team! That has saved us quite some terrible deals, which would have been a highway to bankruptcy. Some of which we have declined and some of which we have been able to negotiate into reasonable terms for both sides.

Learning outcome: Even as a startup you have the power to say no, you have the position to negotiate and turn down contracts which do not serve you. It is scary to walk into big corporation offices and demand better conditions because you could lose it all. But then again, if the original contract was going to strangle you in the long term anyway – what’s the use of that? “Fortune favours the brave,” they say. We promise to stay brave also in 2019!

Reliable and flexible beverage producers are hard to find.

Although, we knew that most of the beverage industry works with syrups/concentrates that are diluted with water to create the drinks, we did not expect it to be so difficult to find another producer abroad. We also did not think that our recipes would be so complicated! E.g. as we now have learned, making a fresh ginger-birch water extract is not worth the work for many. Also, honey as a sweetener seems to be quite a turn-off for the German producers.

Learning outcome: Maybe we have been looking for all the wrong places but as it turns out, our birch water drinks recipes are quite a challenge for a lot of producers. This will be one of the biggest challenges to overcome in year 2019. Keep your fingers crossed and wish us luck with that!

Work/life balance.

A topic that everybody talks about and everybody has a different opinion in. Looking back, there have been several periods in the last year, where we undoubtedly worked ourselves to a sick-bed. Although, we love what we do, too much of one thing is never good. Challenges and problems bring stress and our natural response to that has been: work more, work harder! But longer working hours doesn’t make you more productive. You get more tired, lose concentration and end up making mistakes.

Learning outcome: We have to learn to plan our time better. Plan in free-time where we enjoy ourselves just as siblings and do not talk about work. Plan more time for husband/wife and kids, friends, sports and self-improvement. And we, too, deserve a vacation without feeling guilty.


Thank you all for your support throughout the year! We are eternally grateful for each and every message we have received from you! We will give our best to improve all these points in 2019 and make another year to remember!

LOVE and blessed New Year,

Your Börch family!

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