'Taste With Jase' is here. Cultisan used to be here. This blog post tells that story.
This is a completely open, and very personal, reflection of the last 18 months leading up to this point. It's a tale of moving to a new country and creating a business in a pandemic - being locked down for 7 months in two countries - and also with Brexit also doing its thing. I don't pull any punches so it's not really content for social media and its 'perma-positive' vibe so I've hidden it here in a blog post. It's cathartic for me to write and for anyone out there interested it tells the honest truth of trying and failing, and getting up and trying again. If this isn't your thing then feel free to stop here and move on.
It's been a tough 18 months.
When I kicked off Cultisan I committed to being a better person and manager than in my first two businesses when passion often turned into tyranny! I honestly can look back on the last 18 months proud that whilst I was far from perfect, as leaders go I did a pretty bloody good job.
Despite this, I can objectively say I have never been let down by as many people as I have in the last 18 months. People who looked me in the eye and said one thing, and then behaved in a way that was completely at odds with that. As someone who prides himself on not feeling sorry for himself that statement feels loaded with self-pity, but it really is just a simple statement of fact.
It hurt. A lot. I've never had a period in my career with as little tangible success, despite the hard work and commitment. It has taken me months to process and come back from. Having been away from the UK for 19 months far from old friends and family you question yourself, you look for reasons and answers, you feel paralysed at times and you wonder if in fact, you do need to be more of an asshole to succeed in this world (spoiler alert: you don’t).
Cultisan was born of an idea I had when I first moved to Slovenia back in 2015. A simple thought of creating a new direct-to-consumer global food economy harnessing the power of as many of the world's 500 million individual and family-run farms as possible. I’d been visiting Slovenia since 2003 and wanted to find a way to live and work here and, having met a number of amazing farmers and makers this seemed the perfect place to start bringing the idea to life.
The simplest ideas are always the most complex to implement and let’s remember 2015 was an idealised time before Brexit, Trump, and populism. Since then it’s become an ever more complicated idea to realise.
Back in 2015 I really didn’t know, as an individual with limited resources, how to bring the idea to life. I tried a subscription box of products but it just felt niche and expensive. I didn’t and still don’t, believe in expensive curated boxes as anything other than an occasional treat. Whilst the subscription box would make a return seven years later it would be in a very different - and cheaper - form. 2015 was a pre-Shopify and pre-tech era that now lets people easily bring ideas to life - so it just sat there and in early 2016 I returned to London as the bank account was dry. By means of a footnote, one recurring theme in this journey is my inaction to simply create an audience around an idea rather than always running off looking for a business model. I did this perfectly when I became a cook so no idea why this has seemed like a mental block on this journey, maybe I’m just getting old!
I moved to Slovenia again in October 2019. London has never been a place I felt comfortable living, to visit it is wonderful but it takes too much and gives too little to me in life with my value system. An old friend came to visit in September not long after I lost my dear beagle Henry who had been my buddy by my side for fourteen years. I needed a change and felt it was time to go again. It feels so long ago in a pre-pandemic world I can’t even remember what the plan was.
I was settling into Slovenia nicely and looked forward to a brief return to London in February 2020 for a friend's birthday party… but then as we know the viral shit hit the fan. I found myself stuck, unable to get back to Slovenia. I was at the mercy of charity, people taking me in like some Balkan refugee. I lived with friends in Brighton for three months and in that time spoke to an old colleague in tech who liked the Cultisan idea and we conceived a way to bring a simple app to life to support Cultisan’s proposition of retail and content. To be honest it was more to have something to focus on in lockdown, if nothing else it was a crutch for mental health.
I was the first person off the first EasyJet flight back to Slovenia on August 1st, 2020. At this point, I was in touch with an old French friend from Amsterdam, someone I hadn’t seen in a number of years and who lived in the US but someone I was always close to. He was really excited about the project and to cut an even longer story short he agreed to be my remote business partner. Coming from a finance background he was able to get a friend to be our initial investor, the managing director of one of the leading investment banks in London. I wasn’t convinced an investment banker would marry with the purpose that drove the Cultisan idea but to be honest, like many an entrepreneur, when the money is there to have a chance to realise a dream you are willing to convince yourself of things you really shouldn’t.
Despite having five years to think about it I managed to make a number of poor decisions to kick off the business. There were reasons and pressures but the buck stopped with the founder and that was me. As in 2015, I hunted business models, not audiences. I was encouraged to do this by my partners, as bankers the pressure was on me to deliver numbers, so I decided to launch a pilot in the UK, mistake one. I decided to partner with a fulfillment company, mistake two, I invested significant money in shipping products to the aforementioned fulfillment center, mistake three, and I chose to invest in PR to launch the business, mistake four. All of this just before Brexit kicked in, whilst being stuck in Slovenia in another lockdown. Absolute shocker. These decisions were made in the space of a month at the end of 2020. I have to say after this the decisions were solid, but these early howlers really dented the project, but Cultisan wasn’t the first and won’t be the last, startup to make mistakes on launch and then pivot to a more successful model. It is one of the rare ones to experience what happened after that, however.
I learn quickly, and I reworked the business model and proposition to launch in the EU in April 2021, a monthly adventure unearthing Europe's greatest food and wine producers one region at a time. We’d share a tasting pack of the rare products I’d find and produce content for subscribers so for one hour a month they can kick back, watch and taste something new. An online marketplace would allow people to buy more of whatever they loved. It's a proposition I still passionately believe in. The customers believed in it too. We soft-launched had 50 subscribers in the first month, and nothing but 5-star reviews. Of course, you need hundreds of subscribers to be a viable business but I felt, this is it, we need our next phase of investment, and then we are really onto something.
It was at that, most unexpected of moments, things fell apart. My business partner, a friend of sixteen years, although one I hadn't seen in person in eight of them vanished. He was based in Colorado so it was a remote relationship. The time difference was challenging and I know he'd stepped away from his previous career in finance because of the unsocial working hours. What I didn't expect is him to vanish. Speaking almost every day suddenly became silence. Three weeks later a one-line email "I've had a mental health issue and had to step away from the project sorry", and that was that, to this day. I’m sad for him as I am sure it was a genuine issue. I’m sad for us because he is a good man and was a good friend so that loss hurts. The fact remains though that the action threw me under a bus. Our lead investor was a close friend of my business partner. COVID meant I wasn't able to travel to London to meet him in person so couldn't build a relationship. We were very different personalities and there wasn't a great dynamic on Zoom and so when my partner left it wasn't a surprise to have him walk as well - although constantly rescheduling a phone call for three weeks at a point I was in shock and on my arse only for it to be three minutes of him saying "I'm not staying involved, bye" wasn't very cool. I'll forever be thankful for their initial backing of the project but their lack of experience in start-up culture meant they were ill-prepared to ride the inevitable roller coaster of the first year of life - especially in times of global pandemics and political upheavals - and their actions belied their expressions of support with Cultisan’s long term purpose-led ambitions.
And that was that. I tried to find ways to move forward. I spoke to other investment parties in Slovenia who loved the idea but quite rightly wanted to invest in a business of partners, not just one man. Finding a business partner is like finding a life partner, it takes time and energy, you can’t just click your fingers and make it happen, and after what I’d been through my trust levels were low and so I decided to step back from those chats.
Mentally I had my own struggles. I really felt I had things coming together for Cultisan, and it was ready to fly, but there you go. The bruises go deeper as you get older and they take longer to heal, and with all the other stuff we’ve all had to deal with in the pandemic I just burned out a little and had to take time out.
In that time I started talking to a Slovenian friend about the original idea of Cultisan to be a physical business as well, a place of hospitality, inspiration and learning as well as commerce and fulfilment and that began several months of discussions around the prospect of pivoting Cultisan to a physical led offering. Again to cut a long story short we approached several properties in the wonderful part of Slovenia I now live but each time received a decisive no - despite many of these properties standing abandoned or empty (it’s a Slovenian thing to discuss another time). So Cultisan is now sleeping, waiting to see if it can find a home to wake up in.
But. On a personal level I am recharged, reenergised and I go again.
I made one very good decision which was to move to Goriška Brda, a wine region on the West of Slovenia that creeps over the Italian border. The nature, and people, of this region have been a tonic and allowed me to recharge and come back stronger. In the background a customer turned friend from Ljubljana has become a potential partner for an evolved Cultisan with a physical base but we've not had luck trying to acquire property so that will quietly run in the background and until it's something it's nothing.
I want to stay in Southern Europe and the Balkans, lord knows the weather, wine, and food alone make this a no-brainer!
So welcome to Taste With Jase, all the values of Cultisan but with a more personal touch.
The only failure in life is not getting up, learning, and keeping on keeping on.