I first came across Mesh and Bone in late-February of 2017. I was four glasses deep into a bottle of Pinot Noir at a fundraiser in Chicago. Surrounded by a sea of dapper gents and well-dressed ladies in varying shades of purple, I spot the tasting table across the room, lined with four bottles with plain white labels.
I stroll over to see what’s what. The first sample I’m introduced to is the Sotol. I learn that the plant from which the spirit is made takes 15 years to mature and yields just one bottle per plant. It’s got a similar taste to tequila, but it’s smoother and supposedly omits the nasty bite and aftertaste. I take down the sample — smooth — and wait for the sting. When it doesn’t come, I immediately start to exchange contact info to set up a time to learn more about this company.
What I don’t know yet is that Mesh and Bone are waking up the booze industry and building a company centered on courage, novelty and human connection.
+ + +
Fast forward two weeks to a sunny, yet chilled day in Wicker Park and I’m standing outside the door to interview Mesh and Bone’s founder, Scott Crist.
I’m buzzed in and as I head up the creaky stairwell, Scott pops his head out and greets me with the friendliest of ‘hellos’. I’m unexpectedly joined by two other Mesh and Bone partners, Seth Martineau and Kevin Georges who are working away on their laptops as I’m getting acquainted.
The apartment (aka M+B Headquarters) walls are lined with old records, an assortment of greenery and a bar stocked with various spirits. The most distinctive being the plain, white-label with the black-line trim — Mesh and Bone.
Crist is laid back, measured and humble. His persona is antithetical of the clichéd, frantic, ‘triple-booked’ narrative of a startup founder. He makes you feel at ease.
His natural and honest approach is reassuring, too. As was his answer when I asked why they were encouraged to build Mesh and Bone in the first place. Crist stated simply, “We just wanted to share things we loved with our friends.”
The Origins of Optimism
The team started coming together in 2014 when Crist and Georges were roommates in Tokyo. When Crist returned to the states with the seed of an idea in place, he met up with Martineau.
Crist and Martineau had worked together prior to Mesh and Bone on another product launch during their time at Newell Brands, too.
“What else is global, that could be fun that we do. Something that’s a little sexier than plastic pens”, said Crist. “There’s a pen called Inkjoy. That [project launch] gave us a lot of confidence that we could do a global launch. We did it ourselves with our CFO Lucas [Pasqualotti], who’s based out in London. Literally, the three of us and another guy”.
For entrepreneurs, confidence matters a lot. It grows with a track record of success as beginners or seasoned veterans. Once planted, the seed of optimism that’s planted inside of us grows when we feed it.
“That showed me that ‘we can do this shit’. If I hadn’t done that, I don’t think my mindset would’ve been thinking that way”, said Crist.
The Unmarketing Effect and Being Who you Are
As I was doing my research to prep for the interview, I found a barren website, no social media presence, and only a few articles online.
The group’s unconventional way of thinking in the age of rapidly increasing social media sharing and emphasis on content development strikes me as novel. From both a traditional and modern perspective, their approach could be considered misguided.
“The overriding thing about Mesh and Bone is what we don’t do. We don’t do Facebook. We don’t do Instagram. We’re not really doing a website. We’re actually innovative. We give you an authentic product experience and let you discover,” said Crist.
It feels like a rogue way of finding the white space but in a literal sense. In a world where brands are hyper-concerned with their brand voice and their positioning, Mesh and Bone let their customers tell their story after experiencing the product for themselves.
“We don’t like to label ourselves. We like that we’re a bit ambiguous to the public. Marketing positioning is boring. That means you can easily be replicated. The traditional model says that if you don’t position your brand, the consumer will position it for you. If you’re ambiguous though, it’s hard for people to recreate what you do,” said Crist.
As someone who loves carving out marketing personas and better understanding the ideal customer for a product or service, I found their approach refreshing and peculiar. It’s well-suited for a company that sells a product with a wide-ranging audience, though. It made me uncomfortable, but that’s usually a sign of something remarkable.
I’m reminded of something Seth Godin once said:
“The organizations that succeed realize that offering a remarkable product with a great story is more important and more profitable than doing what everyone else is doing just a bit better.”
If you’re a spirits drinker, who doesn’t love finding a unique product and having a fun story to share with friends? Such a ‘positioning’ doesn’t require much of a persona.
A Little Something for Everyone to Share
Compounding the fact that their products are of premium quality and that it’s hard to find a similar experience elsewhere in the states, Mesh and Bone has a little something for everyone.
For many, it’s the first time encountering these drinks. And the first time is usually accompanied with a story — usually from a member of the team at a tasting, event or a friend spreading the word. In a way, it’s how M+B has some control over the narrative.
After tasting the Sotol at the fundraiser, I went searching for more info on the product. I stumbled on this video that features the team, accompanied by locals, venturing into the Chihuahua desert in the middle of narco country to source the plant.
A week later I gifted the product to a few of my tequila-enthusiast friends, told them the origin story and tried to turn them into believers.
The thrill of discovery is another element that each product brings to the table. Crist discovered Arakku for himself during a coworker’s wedding in Colombo, Sri Lanka. And now, here they were, sharing it with me.
As we discussed the products in more detail, Martineau chimed in about the Arakku.
“This is an ancient drink. It’s older than whiskey and no one’s ever heard about it. I guarantee you, if guys out in California were doing it, it’d be everywhere. But in Sri Lanka, they’re not thinking, ‘how do I create a global empire?’. It’s more like, ‘this is my drink and I take pride in it.”, said Martineau.
“I think the story behind it, how it’s made, the fact that it’s so unique, that one really embodies the spirit of what we’re doing as a company really well. It’s totally different, you’d never find it on your own, it’s a great product, it relates to what you’ve already been drinking but it’s better.”
What’s really great about the mystery and the grassroots approach is that the product unintentionally creates these human interactions. The lack of info makes you want to know more.
I asked if there was concern that, without context, the products might seem too vague and that our instinct to stick with what we knew would prevail.
Crist responded that “If people want to know they’re going to ask.”
And asking opens the door for discovery.
+ + +
Mesh and Bone is creating a conversational, high-quality product without really saying anything at all — at least in the world of modern marketing.
And that’s not to say that a brand can’t have a distinct voice and enhance our experience (and sales) because of it.
But it does give us some evidence that even in 2017, they don’t have to. Since our conversation, I’ve seen their products popping up in Target and Mariano’s as well as tons of local shops. The brand is growing, as is the conversation surrounding it.
Maybe Mesh and Bone will have more of an online presence one day, but for now, the product speaks for itself.
Before parting ways, I had to ask about the product’s name. I’d heard through the grapevine that it might be about meshing cultures or some other potentially layered meaning.
“There’s something about courage. That’s very important to us. Courage to go into an industry that we know nothing about. Courage to leave traditional jobs that gave us security. Courage to disrupt a very old industry from a product perspective.” said Crist.
Make Epic Shit Happen. That’s what “Mesh” stands for. I dig that.
And the “Bone”? Well, you can draw your own conclusions about that part.