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An entrepreneur’s journey

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Mark Coburn of Station Lane Distillery is a classic serial entrepreneur. He may be the Founder of a successful business now, but he knows all too well the ups and downs of business and has learnt many of his skills, knowledge and lessons the hard way.

Being a largely self-educated entrepreneur, he is an avid reader. If Mark needs to know something for a project, he reads everything he can find until he feels confident in his grasp of the subject. Whether he is building a dam, learning how to build a still or creating a marketing campaign, he reads. And then he reads some more.

Mark is a great believer in mentors. Finding someone or even several someones who know more than him on a subject is a key part of his learning process. The ability to throw ideas around and get quality feedback is a crucial part of the learning process.

Starting with $20,000 and building a distillery from scratch is no small task to set yourself. In 2016 Mark set about doing just that. The complexity of the project and the sheer range of skills required would be overwhelming to most. As time went on, Mark regularly commented how all his experiences to that point had prepared him for the tasks he faced.

The first issue that confronted him was how to fund the project. Whisky is a long game. It takes around 5 years before it is ready for bottling. But first, you have to fill the barrels. This involves buying the wood and making or buying the spirit, neither of which comes cheap.

Mark’s solution: Crowdfunding. He had read about distilleries in Scotland and the US that funded their operations this way and he set about building his own model. It was from here that the highly successful Barrel Ownership Program emerged. It has been so successful that Mark has decided to continue the program even after the distillery is self-funding through whisky sales.

Mark often jokes that he built his distillery on Facebook. He used Facebook to attract buyers of whisky barrels which funded the building of the distillery. These days the program relies more on Google Ads to draw customers, but the principle is the same.

Growing up with a father who worked for New Zealand railways and was a fitter and turner by trade gave Mark a love of all things railway and in particular steam. He also developed a healthy obsession with wanting to know how everything worked and could often be found pulling things apart and puzzling over the internal workings. These early experiences laid the foundation for a way of learning that has stayed with Mark for life. A highly technical way of looking at the world has been invaluable in the project of building a distillery.

Straight out of school Mark completed a 4-year (9000 hour) Master Jeweller apprenticeship. This phase and the years he spent working as a jeweller were crucial in honing his technical skills, developing his natural creativity and giving him a lasting love of working with metal. All attributes which he has used extensively in building the distillery.

When Mark moved to Australia in 1987 with just $1000 in his pocket, his jewellery skills stood him in good stead. He secured work easily and within 3 years had purchased his own shop in Wynyard Arcade in Sydney. Not long afterwards Paul Keating’s ‘recession that we had to have come along and Mark had his first experience of a failing business. At the age of just 23, he was learning how vulnerable business is and the importance of dusting yourself off and trying again.

Taking a good look at his skills and where he felt he could best succeed, Mark started a painting and renovation business, Paris Painting, in the Eastern suburbs of Sydney. He oversaw painting jobs, renovations, shop fit-outs and also ran a retail business at the same time. On average he was running 4 painting jobs at any one time. Managing teams of tradesmen. directing building works and managing multiple projects are all things Mark has done a lot in building a distillery from scratch. As so often happens, Paris Painting served him well. He eventually sold the business and moved back to New Zealand but took all his learnings with him.

Two years later he was back in Australia and looking for a new gig. He was busy building up a business buying, renovating and reselling properties in Sydney’s east when the Global Financial Crisis hit. He was again forced to learn a myriad of lessons around business security and personal resilience.

Later on Mark spent several years growing a business in real estate. He worked as a Buyer’s Agent, buying investment properties for his clients. The knowledge he gathered in this period was invaluable when it came to securing the property for the distillery. Unconventional as always, Mark found the spot where his ideal distillery would be (on the edge of Australia’s oldest peat bog and in an area with an ideal climate for whisky ageing) and went straight to the owner to find out if they were open to selling. As it happens they were and the sale went ahead without any involvement of an agent.

Not having the funds to buy the distillery himself, Mark again took an unconventional path. He wrote a pitch seeking an investor to buy the property with an option to buy it back in 5 years. he read it out loud onto Facebook Live and pressed send. Ten minutes later he had an investor.
Once again, The Department of Unusual Solutions, as Mark calls it, had delivered the necessary solution.

Entrepreneurship is something that can be learned to an extent but there are definitely some individuals who are simply born wired for it. Mark Coburn is one of those individuals. He has an innate drive to create and gets bored doing the same thing for long. He is driven to try new things and explore new ideas.

The experiences that life has provided along the way have prepared him well for building a business as diverse and complex as the distillery. With all the side projects associated with building a distillery such as a cellar door, barrel store facilities and product development, to name just a few, it is unlikely Mark will be getting bored any time soon.

Mark Coburn is the Founder of Station Lane Distillery in the Southern Highlands of NSW.