Before NEFT, Katya didn’t have any experience in the spirits industry. She describes herself simply as “an amateur drinker” who noticed a surprising lack of good-tasting vodka made from clean, quality ingredients. Recognizing a missed opportunity in the spirits landscape, Katya ultimately founded NEFT in 2011, and now serves as the brand’s Chief Visionary Officer.
When Katya decided to start a premium vodka company, she immediately knew she wanted to launch it in Austria, a place she had previously lived as a student. The country is well-known for high-quality products, particularly organic produce. Combined with a fantastic natural water source and great small distilleries, Katya knew Austria was the perfect place to make the kind of quality vodka missing from the marketplace.
“When we started to search for distilleries, it was an easy route because we were aiming for a smaller production,” says Katya. “Austria has an abundance of small craft breweries, small winemakers, small distilleries. It’s easy to get into small-scale production there with the right passion and connections.”
Eventually, Katya expanded NEFT’s reach beyond its Austrian roots. She spent a year in the US running a small distribution operation in Las Vegas, where she met Jeff Mahony. The pair hit it off and ultimately decided to team up to launch NEFT in the wider US.
“For me it was just, you know, if you have a person that you trust with really good business instincts... We decided everything almost on the spot. To this day it's a very fruitful business partnership,” Katya says.
And though building a premium vodka and an excellent team came fairly easily, no business launches without a few bumps on the road. When asked about some of her early challenges running NEFT, Katya jokes, ““Everything! Everything was basically a struggle at first.”
In particular, one of the biggest hurdles was creating NEFT’s iconic barrel packaging.
“Packaging was a struggle. Packaging was even harder than the distilling process,” Katya recalls. “We have a long history with our distillers, who are one of the best schnapps producers in Austria. But the barrel itself was a pretty complicated part. The design was worked out, it was the manufacturing process - finding a suitable liner, a low level of BPA, using the right metal.”
Eventually, NEFT landed on a barrel that allowed its outside quality to match that of the spirit inside. Now, with an expansive team behind her to manage the day-to-day logistics of running a business, Katya prefers to focus her skills on creative branding and expanding the NEFT community.
One of Katya’s future goals for the company involves delving into more experiential marketing, while also expanding the NEFT community to include more artists. She hopes to create limited edition NEFT barrels designed by female artists - the kind people could collect and display in their homes and bars. It’s just one of the ways she wants NEFT to continue to explore new and interesting horizons.
“I like the creative component a lot,” Katya says. “Everything that comes with branding, marketing events, the customer experience, the brand image. How do we build a community together, and how do we give back to it?”
While many business owners fall back on their previous experiences to shape their brand, Katya says her lack of prior experience in the spirits industry helps keep NEFT open to bigger and better things.
“I think whenever people come from the industry, they do everything by the book. They think a certain way, market a certain way, because they’re following these rules,” Katya explains. “But if you don’t know the rules, you can say or do something that seems completely outrageous, but still works in the end.”
But whether you’re trying to run a business “by the book” or by thinking outside the box, one thing is for sure: creating a successful company isn’t easy. Katya believes the secret to success lies in embracing the day-to-day challenges inherent to running a company, and knowing how to persevere in the face of failure.
“There will be problems. A lot of problems," Katya advises. “Some things work, some things don't. You just have to take problems as part of the process. They’re unavoidable, you know? Like Winston Churchill said, ‘Success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm.
When it comes to managing a business, Katya’s biggest advice is to face your challenges head-on, but take every day as it comes. And above all, don’t let stress and worry run your life (or your business).
“It's about prioritizing,” Katya says. “It's about not sweating it too hard. The more you get stressed about it, the worse things are. Sometimes people get stressed thinking about all possible problems that could happen, and 90% of them don't even happen. So I might have a bit of a slacker approach. Let’s take care of this if it actually happens, you know? It doesn’t always work, but at least you won’t have a massive stress headache.”
Of course, it also helps to have the right team to back you up when it comes to planning, problem solving, and innovating.
“Good leaders try to inspire people and make them believe in themselves, so everyone can do their best work,” Katya says. “It’s truly fantastic to have an international team. I love figuring out people and watching how they do their craft. And finding that cultural balance and communicating with one another always makes me optimistic for our future. At the end of the day, we always arrive at a conclusion that works for everyone. We can all learn to work together.”