With entrepreneurship comes rejection and Carlos knew it well. When asked how he knew he’d succeed in the midst of serial failure he said, “I’ll be honest, I didn’t. I didn’t know what the hell I was doing.”
In 2015, during his senior year at Loyola Marymount University, Carlos Soto knew exactly two things about tequila. First, it tasted like liquid gold and, second, that he wanted to create a business selling it in the US. Now, he’s the owner of Nosotros Tequila, a small-batch, artisan and socially responsible tequila.
His professor, Paul Orfalea, gave Carlos and his classmates a key nugget of entrepreneurial advice. It was to act as if they knew what they were doing, even when they didn’t – especially when they didn’t.
Carlos took this advice to heart. Upon graduation, he flew to Guadalajara, Mexico, the birthplace of tequila, with the intention of convincing generations-old tequila families to make tequila with him for export in the US.
Each time a distillery turned down his offer, Carlos would thank them for their consideration and leave. “There was some laughter followed by a lot of no’s,” Soto said, “But the next morning, I would get up and do it again.”
Finally, one distillery, the Destiladora del Valle de Tequila, took a chance on the newcomer. All heroes need a spirit guide, and Carlos found his in the form of Augustine Sanchez. Sanchez, the Master Distiller at Destiladora, had once worked with the Tequila Siete Leguas distillery, known for producing the ‘original’ Patron Tequila brand.
When asked if it was typical for distilleries to provide their business partners with a mentor, Carlos replied, “No, but they said, this young buck could use some help, and they were right.” Sanchez shared his decades old trade secrets which inspired Carlos to break away from the traditional process by creating something unheard of in the tequila market: a blend. It would ultimately become his Tequila Blanco.
The Destiladora asked for the manufacturing costs up front. Now he needed to sell enough to earn back the costs and keep the lights on in his office. Yes, his office. “I didn’t have an apartment, I slept on a couch in my office,” Carlos said.
He pitched his new product to American buyers, but nobody knew who Nosotros Tequila was and callbacks were infrequent. He consulted with a marketing specialist, held late night brainstorming sessions with his small team and even brought in a sales manager, but none of these things gained much traction. To say it’s hard for a first time entrepreneur to make it in a pay to play industry is an understatement. With a failure rate above 90%, it’s nearly impossible.
“We were facing all these walls. I would wake up at night and wonder, am I doing the right thing here?” Carlos consulted with his CFO and Co-Founder, Michael Arbanas. They decided to submit their renegade blend in the 2017 San Francisco World Spirit Competition. “We barely covered the costs to ship the tequila. I was so broke, I couldn’t go myself.”
But it didn’t matter, his Blanco was good enough to stand on its own. Beating the odds, it scored higher than some of the biggest names in the industry and ended up taking the double gold award. “[Receiving the double gold] was like winning an Oscar. Buyers began returning our calls after that.”
In true Cinderella fashion, Nosotros Tequila grew from a single client, Bacari PDR, to more than seventy in the span of a year. You can now find Nosotros Tequilas, both their Blanco and Reposado blends, on the shelves of every BevMo and Trader Joe’s across California. It’s also served table-side at Wine Cask, Test Pilot, Sama Sama Kitchen, Casa Blanca, Good Lion and other Santa Barbara local favorites.
There’s one more thing Carlos won in that contest, an American visa. “I’m a native Costa Rican. I knew my time in the US would be limited. I wanted to stay, so I had to figure something out.” The E2 visa allows foreign entrepreneurs a chance to stay in the United States as long as their business creates jobs for Americans.
“Nosotros has been in business for just under two years and we already have four full time employees,” he said as his good-natured grin lit up the room. Carlos left with, “If you’re going to work hard, you might as well work for yourself – who knows, you could just make it.”
Nosotros is releasing their signature take on Mezcal this summer and their Seed B round will open this September.