Published in Business Because on Tuesday 27th September 2016 by Christian Robinson
Bruno Balbás and his co-founders have already produced two million bottles of Sangría Lolea
Bruno and three colleagues launched Sangría Lolea during their Executive MBAs at ESADE
Alcohol and business school don’t usually mix well, but for Bruno Balbás, things were a little different.
His Executive MBA from ESADE Business School brought with it a massive career change. Having previously worked in hospitality management, in 2011 Bruno and three friends founded Sangría Lolea, the world’s first gourmet sangría.
Consisting of red wine, chopped fruit and brandy, sangría is an immensely popular drink in Spain and Portugal, with an increasing worldwide presence.
In the midst of the global economic crisis and overshadowed by the inexpensive and omnipresent Don Simón brand, Bruno originally found it tough to convince retailers that Sangría Lolea was worth spending the extra money on.
With over two million bottles sold and a presence in more than 40 countries, it’s safe to say that Bruno has overcome those teething problems. On the horizon is a restaurant chain, although Bruno’s primary aim is to consolidate Lolea’s position in the market.
Where did the idea for Sangría Lolea come from?
I started Sangría Lolea with three of my good friends – Nieves, Cheles and Javier. It came from our collective need to recover from a global economic crisis.
In 2011, we began to think about what we could do to push our careers outside the company we all worked for. The company in question, like so many others at the time, had to drastically cut its budget.
As a consequence, we suddenly became unable to implement our many ideas, because there was little support available.
We wanted to continue creating new experiences and projects for clients, but the message we received continuously from our bosses was that people didn’t want new things, that people were too sad.
It was at that point we started to dream about creating our own business.
What are the main challenges you’ve faced so far?
In 2012, when we were contacting retailers about our new gourmet sangría, their only point of reference was Don Simón, the low-cost boxed sangría.
Once we had bottled Sangría Lolea, it had a price similar to that of a premium wine. We therefore had to convince traditional retailers that we had invented a new category, that of gourmet sangría.
Our last challenge was to try to explain our history and the values of this new product to the market.
We overcame these problems through use of the Internet, social media and doses of originality in our communication campaigns, but also because we were convinced of the eventual success of the high-quality product we were offering.
Why did you decide to pursue an Executive MBA?
When you’ve been working in the same job for ten years, you start to feel that your career might be becoming too specialized, and you begin to feel the need to open up to new opportunities.
That’s exactly what happened to me, and an Executive MBA was the logical response.
Why was ESADE the right school for you?
Of all the business schools that were accessible to me, ESADE was the most open-minded in terms of education, as it placed a high value on people both individually and as part of a community.
From the very beginning, I felt like I was part of a team of people characterized by mutual support.
The origins of the company Made of Genes date back to 2013, when Oscar Flores (Calella, Barcelona, 1985) and Miquel Bru (Barcelona, 1978) (then both unknown) decided to take the ESADE Executive MBA. It was in the Business Development Project course, taught by Prof. Jordi Vinaixa, that they met and they got the idea for what would become their company several years later and take up a big part of their lives. Miquel came from the business development field in a technology consulting firm focusing on the Health Sector. Oscar had just finished his PhD and Bio-Medicine in a joint programme between IRB Barcelona and the Barcelona Supercomputing Centre.
We spoke to Oscar and Miquel, two of our ‘changers’ to find out about the project that they started in ESADE’s classrooms and which has ended up as a firm with a bright future.
How did Made of Genes come about?
Oscar Flores [OF]: Made of Genes is a firm focusing on personal genetics. Here, one should remember that genetics is involved in 9 out of 10 of the main causes of death in developed countries. Nevertheless, personalised genetic medicine still needs to overcome several hurdles: the high cost of gene sequencing, the technological complexity of managing the resulting data, and the lack of knowledge of the field by both health professionals and by society in general. In Made of Genes, we try to find answers to these problems, providing technical tools and a legal framework so that experts’ knowledge reaches the man in the street. There are now eleven of us in the company, we have secured over €600,000 in funding and we are laying the ground for the firm’s internationalisation.
Miquel Bru [MB]: The truth is, the whole thing started as just another assignment in the Master’s programme but Oscar’s vision hooked me from the outset. It was not just a question of solving technical problems — that was the easy bit. The hard part lay coming up with a package that: both fostered tailor-made care for each patient and put the patient’s health and illness first. Moreover, this had to be based on knowledge of the patient’s genome and the testing had to be responsible, efficient, protect users and be sustainable in system terms.
In broad terms, how does Made of Genes work at the technical level?
MB: There are studies suggesting that less than 30% of prescription medicines are effective due to individual variations. This makes one realise that we are not all the same and that the differences between individuals should be taken into account. This is the idea that led us to develop the technological part of our product: a high-performance computing system that allows one to obtain, analyse and store genetic data from a saliva or blood sample. We use the system to provide medical specialists, researchers and customised health services with this genetic data as and when each user wishes. We offer preventive solutions and diagnostic support, and personalised services/products created specifically for each user depending on his genotype. Each person decides what should be done with his genetic data and we do our utmost to carry those wishes out while ensuring complete security and privacy. This ensures that our customers can receive medical care that is both personalised and precise.
On your web site, you argue that “Everyone should be given the chance of improving his or her life”. How do you see this democratisation of technology at Made of Genes?
MB: To answer that, let me put the Health Sector in context. According to the OECD, public spending alone on Health rose from 6.9 % of GDP to almost 9 % in 2030 and will rise to 14 % by 2060. We live in a society that is ever more demanding when it comes to Health Care. In a globalised world in which knowledge flows freely, we have to come up with strategies that allow efficient Health Care through policies and tools that focus on preventive medicine, more effective treatment and the re-use of information by various service providers.
OF: At Made of Genes we have always wanted to provide personalised medicine based on Genomics. That is why our model puts the client first. There are many companies, especially in The United States, which have seen the value of genome data and which gather personal information to commercially exploit it later on. We have always shunned this model. We want to create a genomic service that anyone can use without renouncing privacy, and always have the final say in what information is released and to whom.
You met each other taking an Executive MBA [EMBA] programme at ESADE. What made you decide to take it?
OF: I always knew that I wanted to work in business. I am a Computer Engineer and when I was finishing my degree, I began a diploma in Business Studies, which I dropped when I decided to do a PhD. It was then that I decided to do an MBA on finishing my thesis.
MB: For me, the key factor was the need for a change. After five years working in consultancy, I wanted new challenges and goals. However, I thought that just a change of job was not the answer. I needed to think, acquire knowledge and pool experience with others before taking the next step. Here, the ESADE EMBA seemed just the ticket.
Did you want to become entrepreneurs before you took the ESADE EMBA programme? What influence did the EMBA have on your project?
MB: No, I wasn’t thinking about starting my own business, rather it was part of the process I just mentioned. The EMBA is not an Academic Master’s programme but a change process that gives you the tools to reflect and to plan your next objectives. With regard to how much the EMBA affected our project, it all began as just another assignment and a year and a half later, we are striving to make the dream come true. I don’t think we would be where we are now if it had not been for the EMBA programme.
OF: I had also neither thought about founding a company and in fact I am still surprised at doing so. In the beginning, it was simply a capstone project. We had found we had too good an opportunity to let it slip through our hands. I suppose that the EMBA programme gave me the self-confidence I needed to tackle something as inherently risky as founding a start-up.
What knowledge and values did you acquire during the EMBA programme and that you applied in setting up Made of Genes?
OF: Made of Genes is a firm that is inspired by the Lean Start-up model. We began with an idea and its corresponding Business Model Canvas. Then, after several validations of the idea, we varied it up to eight times until we found a value proposition where we could say to ourselves: “That’s the idea, now let’s register a company”. We then carried out several more iterations of the idea and honed our vision in the light of market feedback and the resources we had available. Nevertheless, having a flexible, dynamic vision at the outset was vital. With hindsight, the first seven business models would not have worked in the real world.
MB: Yes, that’s absolutely right. The obsession with validating the model and focusing on the market has become of part of Made of Genes‘ DNA. It is something that we have established as ‘best practice’ among our various work teams. The key is to meet users’ real needs in which technology has to solve problems, not create them.
What changes has taking the EMBA made to your careers? Did it mark a watershed in your lives?
OF: It certainly made a huge difference. When I joined the MBA programme, my view of things was an entirely technical one. For me, the technical aspects were the most important things about a product and I naively believed that a good product would sell itself. After completing EMBA, I no longer thought that. I had become aware that the market and sales strategy are much more important than the product. Paradoxically, I believe that having the new vision of the market helps technical types like me to identify real needs and thereby develop better products.
MB: The key point is the 360-degree vision EMBA gives you in a classroom with 50 professionals drawn from different backgrounds and experience. In the year and a half that the programme lasts, you take this in and it changes your way of seeing a company and helps you grasp and take decisions far beyond your context or position. Having founded a start-up marks a watershed in one’s personal and professional development. Why would you recommend taking the EMBA?
MB: Taking the EMBA is a unique opportunity for personal, professional and intellectual growth. I would recommend it to anyone who is eager to grow and learn in ways that go beyond the strictly academic.
OF: As I mentioned, I believe that the EMBA programme is a way of giving a technical type like me the tools they need to thrive in senior management. To be honest, I would not recommend EMBA for everyone merely as a way to get a better job. I think such an approach is the wrong one and that there are many other ways of climbing the ladder — for example, through professional specialisation. An EMBA is a way of getting a better grasp of business complexity while renouncing greater specialisation. If you aim to get this wider grasp of business, the EMBA programme is undoubtedly one of the best investments in time and money that you can make.
How would you sum up your experience as entrepreneurs? What would you say to someone who was thinking of setting up his or her own company?
MB: Entrepreneurship is a way of life for us. We think about Made of Genes 24 hours a day. Passion for one’s project is vital for anyone thinking of starting their own business. Second, I recommend that the decision be a family one. Do not even think about starting a business unless your wife or husband is willing to back you to the hilt. Last, when it comes to finding those who will help you along the way, seek people who complement your skills, who you can rely on, trust and learn from.
OF: I would ask someone thinking of beginning a firm whether they are just looking for a job tailored to their needs or for a scaleable solution to a social problem. They are two very different notions of entrepreneurship and involve different levels of risk and self-sacrifice. When it comes to scaleable business models, we in Spain cannot afford to continue thinking only about the domestic market. This means that we need to plan internationalising our business from the outset despite limited resources and access to funding. Whether we like it or not, we still have a lot of catching up to do when we compare how things work in the start-up eco-system in The United States.