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Secrets of Success: Adam von Gootkin

There are some “rules” of business success most entrepreneurs abide by. But many also have their own “secrets”—things they do or believe that helped them achieve success. In “Secrets of Success,” a weekly interview series here at’s Small Business Forum, I ask some of today’s smartest, most innovative, most successful business owners to share their insights and success secrets with you.

Meet: Adam von Gootkin, the cofounder of the Onyx Spirits Company. Several months ago I reviewed Adam’s book, Living Proof: Onyx Moonshine’s Journey to Revive the American Spirit, Business Principles From the Mind of a Moonshiner, and was fascinated with his story. Adam flunked out of college after only one semester and decided to embark on an entrepreneurial adventure that has encompassed ecommerce, muscle cars and the music industry. Today, at the age of 31, he and his business partner have resurrected his family’s moonshine legacy—78 years after its inception, successfully introducing the world to the first ultra-premium American moonshine.

He has appeared on numerous national and regional media outlets, and is the co-chairman of the Viscogliosi Entrepreneurship Center.

You can reach him on Twitter @AdamvonGootkin.

Rieva Lesonsky: What did you want to be when you grew up?

Adam von Gootkin: I had no idea for the longest time that I have always been an entrepreneur. From a young age I was selling my pet mouse’s babies back to the pet store or selling candy in school—doing whatever I had to do for a bit of spending money or to afford to buy lunch at school. I certainly didn’t think I’d be in business, and still don’t care much for numbers! After failing out of college and meeting my current business partner, I realized I wanted to be a creator. The word we use now of course is entrepreneur.

Lesonsky: Why did you start your own business?

Von Gootkin: Frustration. My business partner and I were frustrated we could not buy a spirit that was produced in Connecticut, our home state—100 percent of what consumers in the state bought was imported, burning hundreds of thousands of gallons of fossil fuels to bring in spirits from all corners of the world. We knew there was an opportunity to sustainably produce a spirit that was authentic to the New England region. We knew that pre-Prohibition, there were over 75 distilleries in the central Connecticut area alone. It’s an art that’s been lost and largely forgotten in New England.

We were also frustrated by the idea that American moonshine has been marketed and perceived as such a low-quality product for so long. Why? Vodka has been enjoyed by Russians and Eastern Europeans for ages—it’s their version of moonshine. The French are prized throughout the world for their cognac, essentially moonshine distilled from grapes [and] barrel aged. The number-one liquor consumed in the world is Baijiu, Chinese moonshine made from rice or grains.

Every culture has its own “moonshine” that they’ve positioned and evolved into something representing premium quality. It becomes a valuable export for that country, a revenue generator, an employer, and something to be proud of. We felt that’s the legacy American moonshine is and should be. So we made America’s first premium moonshine. I believe many of the best businesses are born from frustration.

Lesonsky: Did you experience a pivotal moment on your way to success?

Von Gootkin: I think success is not a finite place, but rather a journey and a mindset. In my book Living Proof, I talk about the “insatiable horizon.” The moment a goal is reached, the hungry entrepreneur is not satisfied, but instead is off to the next challenge. I’d say the failures we’ve had have been far more valuable in teaching us the principles of success, and in driving our growth as entrepreneurs. Every single time we’ve heard the word “no,” it has taken us to the next level of success.

The most critical moment that helped put me on my success path was failing out of college and being forced to create the life trajectory I wanted without having an official structure around me. Those “invisible walls of structure” can certainly be helpful for some, but for me, they were limiting and boring.

For me, success means allowing our business and ventures to continue growing and allow us the resources to continue creating. Success means spending time with family and friends. Success means good health, and the peace of mind to slow down and value sitting in the garden with a book, a glass of Onyx and a cigar while appreciating the beauty of life. Success is having the wisdom to keep your mind right once you’ve achieved significant financial wealth, and being sure you use those tools and influence to impact the world in a positive way. Success is a journey in self-improvement and creation.

Lesonsky: What’s the best small business advice you ever gave and/or received?

Von Gootkin: One of our advisors asked me an incredibly valuable question about our business: “What kind of business are you trying to create in the context of your life?” He was prompting us to think about whether we’re trying to create a small business that stays small, or grow it into something large. This is a big, incredibly important question because it will define your activities every day. Are you raising money, bringing on investors, or recycling profits to grow much slower and not giving the company away?

These aren’t just business questions, they’re lifestyle questions. There is a very different reality between running a small shop on Main Street and launching a company that you hope to grow globally. Both can make you happy depending on what you want from your life. Defining this as soon as possible will guide you through the storms.

I would follow that up with the critical importance of having the right people around you. A company is just a group of people working towards the same goal. Employees and team members are the most important part of a business engine. Pick ‘em right, obsess over them, inspire them, give them the tools to succeed, and all will be well.

Lesonsky: What’s one “best practice” more entrepreneurs should be embracing?

Von Gootkin: We call it “responsible entrepreneurship.” This means maintaining a mindset from the creation of a venture that your efforts and those of your company need to make the world a better place. Revenue and profits are incredibly important—without them you can’t reach your goals. But having an overarching philosophy that is rooted in the genuine love and well-being of your customers, being as sustainable and caring for the planet as you can be, and doing everything in your power to keep your team happy and healthy, is responsible entrepreneurship.

In a world where too many companies and CEOs exude unprecedented corporate greed, this is the business of the future. It is today’s entrepreneurs that must force a change in how business is done. Entrepreneurship leads global growth. It is the one primary tool in capitalism that creates change, quickly.

Lesonsky: Do you have a prediction for small business?

Von Gootkin: In a word…authenticity. It’s difficult for consumers these days to buy a shirt that wasn’t mass-produced in a gargantuan factory far away and disintegrates after a year. It’s hard to buy liquor that isn’t made in 500,000-gallon batches at a time by a computer!

The “fast food” age in business is dying on the vine. More than ever, customers want to buy experience, and that experience has to be authentic. They want to know who the people are that make stuff; they want to hear the story and experience the product. They don’t want chemicals, mass production and low quality. I predict authenticity will more and more drive new business creation, and a sink-or-swim evolution for existing ones.

Lesonsky: What’s your favorite book?

Von Gootkin: This is a tough one. One of the main reasons we bought our historic house was because it has a library! After failing out of college I began reading and studying on my own. There are enough business geniuses out here who have written brilliant books sharing their secrets. Do what they did. It’s that simple. If I was stuck on an island with an infinite supply of Onyx Moonshine and could bring one book with me, it would probably be Dante’s Divine Comedy or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations—although I’m always re-reading some adventure from Anne Rice or Dickens.

Lesonsky: Is there a quote you find particularly inspiring?

Von Gootkin: “If I can’t find a way, I’ll make one.”

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Rieva Lesonsky

Rieva Lesonsky is CEO of GrowBiz Media, a media and custom content company focusing on small business and entrepreneurship. Email Rieva at [email protected], follow her on Google+ and, and visit her website,, to get the scoop on business trends and sign up for Rieva’s free TrendCast reports.