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Blake Wittman – The Experience Economy of Lime & Tonic

Lime&Tonic is about taking something you want to celebrate, a significant moment, and making it remarkable. Blake Wittman, the company’s COO, says he always enjoyed finding new ideas for business and doing things that he enjoyed. At the age of eight his first business was selling lemonade in the streets of California. Today, after more than 13 years in Europe and 3 and half years at Lime & Tonic, he came to Wayra to talk about the perks and troubles of doing business in Prague, the ups and downs of his own career and the art of selling unique experiences to people.

In 2011, along with his co-founder, Stefan Cordiner, Blake started Lime & Tonic with a PowerPoint presentation website and almost no money. The company has since opened offices in 7 cities all over the world and a further 10+ are coming soon. Despite the promising future and a clear vision, they still consider themselves a startup.

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The idea and unique promise of value

Lime&Tonic promises to “cut through the noise and enrich lives through unforgettable experiences”. It took a few years and a handful of pivots to develop the current business that previously started as a premium deal site. Unlike other similar websites (Slevomat, Vykupto, Groupon), it wasn’t working exactly as the co-founders expected. “We started working with top Michelin restaurants and prestigious 5 star hotels. We had to look at our target audience and begin to design the website and our offers around that. Most recently took another deep look into what we were doing and why. We realized that our mission wasn’t complete. We had a lot of experiences on the website, but they weren’t unforgettable, and many weren’t truly experiences. People are not coming for a normal dinner. When they want to thank an important person with a gift, celebrate a special occasion or pop the big question, they want to experience something unique,” comments Blake.

Today, Lime&Tonic focuses more on social and individual experiences designed exclusively for their members. Offers vary from custom culinary, private events, wellness weekends to adrenaline sports. At this moment, the company is not playing with the price, but rather with special benefits and remarkable ideas. Time has proven it is important to focus on delivering action and experience. The current target group are affluent people in the 35-55 age segment and the service appeals to both local and tourist markets, although the locals are the main focus. “Our very first merchant was the Kempinski whose typical customer is not a 21-year old student. So we immediately established our market based on the merchant choice and priced it well, especially in the beginning. We haven’t done mass marketing. Now, after 3 and a half years, we are expecting to have a real marketing budget for the first time,” he points out.

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Four elements of experience according to Blake Wittman

To create a true Lime&Tonic experience, each offer that goes on the site has to satisfy at least two of the following:

  1. Personalization: the ability of a merchant to use the profile data that the members add to their profiles. It is not private data (address or payment details) but rather food and drink preferences –  whether you prefer vodka or gin, sparkling water or still, coffee or tea… All this information comes with each booking so that the merchants can personalize your evening according to your taste, without you having to say anything before. It is great particularly when experiencing this in a restaurant you’ve never been to before.

  2. Engagement: the ability for a member to provide input during the experience and influence the outcome of the evening. It could be something as simple as getting into the makings of the dinner or giving suggestions on how they want certain parts of the evening to go. Anything where the members can actually influence the evening and get engaged.

  3. Access: giving members access to something they couldn’t normally get access to – it could be a VIP area, a private dining or it could be accessing people.

  4. Extraordinary add-ons: something you could not normally get like an off-menu item. Recently Lime&Tonic provided an experience where desserts served were experiments by the chef and not on the menu. It can also be transport, flowers etc.

On selling experiences

The term Experience Economy was first described in an article published in 1998 by Joseph Pine (for his TED talk on What Customers Want see here). He also wrote a book called “The Experience Economy” which later inspired the co-Founders  when starting the company. Joseph has become one of Lime&Tonic’s advisory board members.

“Sometimes all you have to do is ask – and you will get what you want.”

The first step of the Experience Economy was the Industrial Revolution, which ended in an era of identical mass-production. The consumer no longer shaped the product but only adjusted his tastes. The industrial economy died in the 1950s when it was replaced by the service economy that brought a whole new range of products and services that hadn’t existed before. In an experience economy, consumers look for unique experiences beyond merely consuming products and services. A typical customer in the Western world is getting more sophisticated and a great example is the phenomenon of coffee.

“If you look at how much you would pay for a coffee bean, it is about 10 cents. If you look at how much you would pay for a normal cup of coffee, it could be two dollars. If you look at how much you would pay for a beautiful espresso or a frappucino from Starbucks, around five or six dollars. And if you look at how much you would pay for a wonderful freshly made espresso in Venice served by a Venetian guy while look at the Rialto bridge, it would be probably ten dollars. All the others before are either services or products. But the last one, that’s the experience. It is not about the coffee, it is about the whole thing. And that’s what we try to bring to everything we create. We make sure the experience element is there. It is about the chef being engaged, you being involved, a limousine taking you home or a special present. We want you to say it was AMAZING,” explains Blake. With regards to pricing, Lime&Tonic strives for a fair price of all their products, which doesn’t mean it is always cheaper than it would otherwise be.  One of their main propositions is to come up with unforgettable experiences that an average consumer wouldn’t be able to organize alone.

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Making money and providing excellent customer service

Blake says he has always been very focused on creating unforgettable moments for the members rather than just getting big commissions. “I would go 0% commission, completely free for a certain period of time, if I feel it is the best way to give our members something amazing. And I think it is the right thing to do.”

The team only went for funding after they saw the idea was really working. They got over 1.2 million euros in the angel round that lasted for over a year. He confirms that Czech investors want to know more details about the business, while investors in the UK or US are more about the dream, vision and future. “We did crowdfunding as the first Czech company. We added 50 or 60 small investors that invested between 500-1500 CZK.” They used equity crowdfunding platform called Seedrs.

The customer service of Lime&Tonic is based on the model of Zappos, a Vegas e-commerce company that sells “happiness”. Their customer service team is encouraged to stay on the phone as long as they want (and need) in order to make the customer happy. “It has been tough in the Czech market because even our customers got suspicious of why we were being so amazing, they felt that it might be a trick. Once we pro-actively, fully refunded customers who had bought an experience at a higher price a few days before the price dropped. We basically blew their minds, because they had never experienced that before. We are building a company that proactively gives back, something I think is right. I am sure one of our members have probably said to a friend that we were dumb or that they tricked us into getting money back. But if they say it to five people, at least one of those is going to visit the website to see what these guys are all about if they really refund money proactively. And I am happy with that,” Blake explains.

He started his career in HR management but he still hire people the simple way. “I hire with my gut. I sit in front of somebody, I ask and I listen. I don’t hire just people, but I hire their attitude because you can’t teach them to be positive with a good attitude. They have to know it and believe in it. If they don’t believe, there is no reason to take them on board.”

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Blake says he is driven by the Golden Circle Theory by Simon Synek. “I crafted parts of  Lime&Tonic in the same way I live my life. I believe that being happy is more important than having more money. If we failed, I would still be really proud of the amazing business we made and lives we affected. Not many people outside feel the same way. And that’s a pity.”

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Questions:

How do you choose service providers and how do you approach them?

I go through a list of venues, finding the style I want – it has to be unique and premium – and then I approach the hotel or restaurant. We need to look at what’s best for our members and then we ask the merchants if they are able to deliver it. Most of the time we brainstorm together about the concept, food, drinks… everything.

Can you describe the pivots – why did you change the initial idea?

The last changes were based on our customer data which was eye-opening. All the previous pivots were kind of accidental. With the last one, we saw what our customers were buying and how frequently. Many consumer goods companies consider four purchases per year to be a successful, high-frequency buyer. We’ve accepted that it’s the same, or especially, for Lime&Tonic – the customer that buys from us at least three to four times per year relies on us with the important moments of their life.

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How do you see the future of Lime&Tonic?

I feel more positive and confident than I felt in the last three years. I feel very strongly that it is going to work. We are doing it with the right setup and we believe in it. I believe that in the next months we are going to increase our KPIs by quite a lot, and I feel so good about it. A friend of mine has been trying to start businesses for a long time. He has not been successful so far and I believe it is because none of the businesses are his true passion, doing something he loves. Rather they’re focused on finding a gap in the market to make money, and that is driving him, but clearly not enough. I asked him a few months ago, what business would he choose if he had to do it for the rest of his life. That’s the right way to think about it. Otherwise you are just extending your misery and getting some money in the process. I was happy about the things I did but I didn’t realize my purpose until I started with Lime&Tonic. It brought clarity and deepness into my life and I can’t imagine doing anything else that doesn’t fulfil my why.

Listen to the whole talk here: http://bit.ly/XeRWyL

Follow Blake on Twitter or LinkedIn.

This great talk was brought to Wayra CEE by the Prague Entrepreneurs Meetup.

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