"I want to change the way people think about alcohol. I want people to see there is a choice to be made to have a non-alcoholic alternative. My dream is that my work helps to stop alcohol-related issues."
It's certainly a grand ambition. But those who spend time with Moa would not bet against her — she is a woman on a mission. Her launch of Oddbird created a new category of premium non-alcoholic wines in Sweden — such products are now a must-have listing for all bars and off-licenses across the country.
Moa's drive to change norms around drinking stems from her 20 years of social work in Gothenburg.
"I saw many families suffering. The parents couldn't handle their drinking, and the children were neglected because of it."
Thinking through the issue
Moa became increasingly motivated to treat the cause of these issues rather than deal with the symptoms she had helped to manage in her social work.
She was clear from the outset that this wasn't about banning alcohol. It was to encourage a reduction in alcohol consumption by providing a credible alternative that was free from alcohol but still tasted great.
She felt it was time that a restaurant's non-alcoholic offering was more than simply fizzy drinks or carbonated water. And she believed offering something non-alcoholic but still special for at-home consumption would be great. People felt strange arriving at a house party with a bottle of Cola, but Moa believed a premium non-alcoholic wine would be different.
"I knew we needed to think outside the box to get everyone not only to see the problem but also to provide choice and alternatives."
Despite discussing her ideas for non-alcoholic alternatives with prospective customers, most people she encountered could not see her vision for premium adult drinks liberated from alcohol. She realised it was only by making such a liquid reality that people would start to see a genuine choice. Friends supported her passion and encouraged her to stop thinking and start product development, testing, and learning.
Getting clear on 'What' before 'How'
The first reassuring advice for aspiring entrepreneurs is that Moa believes you don't need to know how to get things done at the beginning of building a business. You simply need a clear what. For Moa, wine liberated from alcohol was the answer to creating a healthier relationship with drinking.
Moa believes that part of the bravery of starting a business is facing your fears but going ahead anyway. She admits to knowing very little about branding, sales, liquid development, packaging, or finance when she first came up with her idea. Still, she didn't allow the practical barriers to stop her.
"I was so naïve. No banks would give me a loan. The only person who believed in me was my hairdresser, and she loaned me 100,000 Krone (equivalent to $14k) to get the project off the ground. Like me, she believed the only way to reduce alcohol consumption was to provide a great-tasting alternative."
Moa's perseverance in steadily working out the 'how' is astonishing, building her business expertise slowly over time. More immediately challenging was developing this unique liquid.
Moa and her son, a trained chemist, worked hard with other chemists and oenologists for over a year to determine how you could de-alcoholise wine but maintain flavour. She knew her product had to taste really good to stand any chance of success. Starting in Languedoc, famed for its fruity wines, she engaged a research centre in Alsace and experts in Universities in Bourgogne, Sweden, and Spain. Gradually her brainchild of Oddbird took shape.
Effortless naming; difficulty scaling
"I suppose I am the Oddbird. I'm a woman in a male-[dominated] industry. I have no wine experience. I've been unable to get any 'official' bank or corporate funding — I just got loans from friends and family. I also want to challenge some really fundamental behaviours."
Her pride in being just such an Oddbird is now reaping its rewards — Systembolaget (the Swedish monopoly drinks retailer) has seen 500% growth in demand for non-alcoholic wine in recent years. But it wasn't without its challenges.
As Moa got clear on her business idea, she also realised there were material issues to overcome:
- She was a threat. How would she get a male-dominated, closed-off wine industry to help produce products at scale which taste as good as wine but do not include alcohol?
- She had no commercial network. How would she make these products broadly available at the right time — when people often turn to wine?
Despite these challenges, the project quickly gained momentum. People who shared her passion and understood her mission were increasingly prepared to work with her for free.
"We shared an interest in making [a] change in society. So, for me, this became a social movement. I guess it's another form of my social work!"
Testing, learning, persevering
By 2013, Moa had developed 4 batches of the Oddbird product, which she truly believed in. After a huge tasting event, she learnt 2 things. Firstly, the price point (approximately double that of wine) would not be an issue. Secondly, one of the 4 batches was a clear winner with consumers. The hugely positive feedback on the liquid itself and the concept of wine liberated from alcohol gave her the boost she needed to move to production.
Moa produced 25,000 bottles of that chosen batch. But again, she laughs at her naivety regarding how she would get it into consumers' hands and homes.
"I'd secured a listing for 2,000 bottles in the monopoly alcohol retailer in Sweden, but I didn't know what to do with the rest. I was still working and lecturing. But I had to sell them, so I just cold-called, went to events, held tastings, and didn't give up."
She sold out in no time.
King Carl XVI of Sweden — the ultimate PR coup
The major turning point in Moa's Oddbird journey came in 2016 when the King of Sweden gave her an entrepreneurship award. The award recognised 3 specific traits which the judges believed had made her business a success:
- Her bravery in tackling a tricky societal problem
- Her skill in blending scientific breakthroughs with hand-crafted wine techniques
- Her entrepreneurial spirit in seizing the business opportunity
Since winning, Moa says her life has changed phenomenally, partly because the King of Sweden, Carl XVI Gustaf, presented her with the award boosting the public's confidence.
"It changed a lot of things. Having photos receiving the award from the King was something special and gave us increased status for international markets."
Oddbird is now available in Scandinavia, Canada, the US, and the UK. The brand's launch at the Oscar gala in the US recently was a huge success.
Staying true to the vision
There is much to learn from Moa's story. Not least, the clarity of vision has guided every decision she's made since launch.
Moa is proud only to work with companies and people who share her values and want to join her social movement.
She recalls working with a huge distributor doing a good job for the business but was clearly more focused on the numbers than her campaign.
"I said to them, it doesn't matter how big you are; perhaps that is the problem. You don't understand that the first goal of my business is behavioural change. If you sell it but don't share my vision, I won't work with you."
True to her word, in Oddbird's first 2 years, Moa worked with and moved on from 5 different distributors. However, her current (predominantly coffee) distributor in Sweden has been with her for 8 years and has delivered stunning commercial results.
Oddbird is still the market leader in Sweden despite over 20 copycat products launched since its inception. Having learnt from these early distributor hiccups, she has similarly strong, deep relationships established with commercial partners in all her expansion markets.
"My advice to others would be to guard passionately the values you hold dear as the leader of your business. Nothing should change your direction once you are clear on where you want to head."
The positive reviews her brand has received from even the toughest of audiences is a testament to her laser focus and passion. As one expert from Mitchell's Wines recently wrote:
Oddbird's alcohol-free and deeply complex sparkling Blanc de Blancs is the perfect way to make sure no guest ever feels excluded from the celebration. The sense that 'alcohol-free' means missing out has been dispelled forever.
She may call herself the original "Oddbird," but Moa Gürbüzer really is creating choice and change in drinking culture, one glass at a time.