Distilling Life Lessons into a Thriving Local Business
John Mleziva took a winding path to his current role as the founder and owner of State Line Distillery in Madison. While working in a biology lab at the University of Minnesota, after earning his B.S. in biology at UW-Eau Claire, he realized he most enjoyed working with undergraduates. He got a Master’s in educational policy and administration from the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities and spent four years working in student affairs at Edgewood College, while volunteering at local breweries on the side.
Finally, it was time to take the plunge: He moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, in 2012, for an M.S. in brewing and distilling from Heriot-Watt University. Then he returned to Madison. “I was working at a distillery but needed to pay the bills, so I worked at UW-Madison as the internship coordinator for L&S Career Services, but kept my eye on starting my own distillery,” Mleziva explains. “I researched writing business plans and found the Small Business Development Center at UW-Madison.”
“I’ve worked with Michelle Somes-Booher [the director of the Wisconsin SBDC at the UW-Madison School of Business] for four years,” says Mleziva. “Michelle and I are either trading emails or chatting every couple months. She’s been amazing, checking in with me, and this year, she’s going to help me do a SWOT analysis.”
“SBDC has been absolutely crucial for helping us build and start to grow the business,” says Mleziva. “Michelle’s insight on writing a business plan, and the things she suggested I think about, as well as the questions she asked me, helped me identify where I had holes in my plan and needed to dig more.” For example, Somes-Booher suggested that Mleziva create psychographic profiles of his target consumer, which involves analyzing potential consumers based on their activities, interests, and opinions; rather than just looking at demographics (age, income, neighborhood, etc.). Psychographic profiles can help business owners understand their consumers’ motivations and values. “Who are my customers, and how do I get them to care about State Line Distillery?” says Mleziva. “What am I building here, and how can I align it with the needs of my customer base?”
Mleziva says Somes-Booher and the SBDC have also helped him transition from opening his business to running and leading it. “Michelle asks hard questions and has me revisit numbers, poke holes, and break things, in a really constructive way,” Mleziva says. “She’s been really helpful in terms of reminding me to schedule a few times a week to close the door and spend time on strategic thought and planning.”
State Line Distillery currently has three full-time staff members, including Mleziva Production manager Mark Anunson manages scheduling and spirit production; and Mike McDonald, the bar manager and spirits ambassador, operates the State Line Distillery cocktail lounge. Four part-time bartenders and a part-time director of events round out the team. “I have a fantastic team of people I’ve hired who fill the gaps where I’m not the strongest, says Mleziva. “Together, we can operate really smoothly.”
State Line Distillery is a grain-to-glass distillery that oversees every part of the distilling process. “The level of care starts from moment the grain comes in, until it’s mixed into a cocktail, poured into a glass, and served,” says Mleziva. “We pay attention to details, without being pretentious. State Line Distillery aims to be a welcoming place to come learn how to make spirits and enjoy yourself and the experience.” A Wisconsin maltster delivers grains to the distillery, and the rest is up to Mleziva’s team.
“At that point, we can differentiate ourselves in unique ways, in terms of flavor profile,” says Mleziva. “It leads to meaningful partnerships—for example, the sage we use in our gin is locally grown by a farmer outside of town, which allows us to interact with the community in a different way. We feel strongly about what that allows us to do in terms of product and partnerships.”
Mleziva’s longer-range goal is to forecast production enough in advance to partner directly with local Madison farmers to grow grains. “Why not work with a farmer to grow interesting varietals of wheat, barley and rye, just for us?” Mleziva says. State Line Distillery does social media marketing, with occasional strategic print pieces, like the Isthmus annual beverage issue. They recently began working with Madison-based marketing agency Ideas that Evoke to develop a comprehensive, yearlong marketing plan to grow their brand recognition in Madison, Milwaukee, and beyond.
“Events have played a role in getting us visibility,” says Mleziva, who is also interested in expanding distribution into Minnesota, where his roots are. “I have strong connections there, including our investors, and I’ve always said I wanted to be in Minnesota. We want to be synonymous with Madison and Wisconsin and to grow outside of this market. We want to expand at a pace where we can give new markets the time and attention needed for us to be successful.”
Mleziva is also exploring ways to stay connected to the higher education community in Madison. UW-Madison has a fermentation science program that has partnered with local wineries and breweries to educate students in winemaking and beer brewing.
“I’ve been approached to potentially put together a distillation program,” says Mleziva. “That’s exciting for me for two reasons: Giving back to the community in interesting ways is fantastic, and I have a passion for higher education and working with college students. It’s a unique age group, and any way we can have more interaction with college students who are excited about what we’re doing—science, marketing—it’ll make us better as a business.”
Mleziva plans to talk with Somes-Booher soon about both his mid-range goals and his longer-term goals and vision and how to get there in a smooth way. “As we continue to expand over the next year, I see my work with Michelle ramping up,” he says. “We’re at a point where I see State Line as a glowing red-hot ember, and we’re ready to, in a controlled way, add more fuel to the fire.” Mleziva encourages other local entrepreneurs to reach out to the SBDC.
“It’s amazing that this resource exists, and everyone should try to use it if they can,” he says. “There’s a wealth of knowledge in Madison and in that building, and I can’t overstate how happy and grateful I am to be working with those people.”