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Patrick Dillingham and Sean Koffel: “Do What You Love and What You’re Good At”

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Patrick Dillingham and Sean Koffel: “Do What You Love and What You’re Good At”

The cofounders of Windy Hill Spirits discuss entrepreneurship, career management, and the best advice they’ve ever received.
Sean Koffel, left, and Pat Dillingham | Courtesy
Sean Koffel, left, and Pat Dillingham | Courtesy

Patrick Dillingham and Sean Koffel are co-founders of Windy Hill Spirits, which produces American Born Moonshine, a corn-based beverage modeled after traditional Appalachian moonshine. Dillingham, originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, is a former quarterback for the University of Notre Dame’s Fighting Irish football team. Koffel is a former U.S. Marine Corps captain and a veteran of the Iraq War. They graduated from Stanford GSB in 2010 and cofounded Windy Hill Spirits in 2012. The company is based in Nashville, Tennessee, and sells three versions of its moonshine: Original, a 103-proof unaged corn whiskey; Apple Pie, which is 83-proof and flavored with apple, caramel, and cinnamon; and Dixie, which is 83-proof and flavored with sweet tea.

In 10 words or fewer, what is the big idea behind your business?

Dillingham: Putting together an incredible team and building a foundation to be a disruptive force in the spirits industry.

Koffel: Make a whiskey brand that pays homage to the incredible tradition of Southern mountain moonshiners.

What is the best advice you’ve ever received?

Dillingham: When I asked how to think about approaching my career, an early mentor of mine told me: Do what you love and what you’re good at. If at the end of the day you want to call it a career, so be it. Advice like that made me more confident to jump onto what we’re doing now.

Koffel: Ever since I was a little kid my mother has said, “You get one shot at life. Have a blast. And if you mess it up it’s your fault.”

What was the most difficult lesson you have learned on the job?

Dillingham: When starting out, no one will ever believe in the vision of the company more than the people who started it. That can be at times a lonely feeling. Following your convictions is a tough thing to do but it’s the only way to build something special.

Koffel: We were much less experienced when we started and idealistically thought people would give us positive support and tell us “Go get ’em!” but a lot of people were discouraging. They said, “Why would you leave an awesome career to start a business in Nashville?” We weren’t starting some iPhone app, which seemed to make more sense to a lot of people. We never had any bitterness toward people who chose to pass on the investment; that’s capitalism. But it was hard hearing discouraging comments from people we’d looked up to growing up. Now when we hear those kinds of things, it just feeds our fire. Pat and I give each other a nod, pull our hats down and get back to work.

What inspires you/how do you come up with your best ideas?

Dillingham: Our bootleggers [salespeople] are in the market every day and know more than we ever will about our customers. We work hard to create opportunities for communication with them, and that’s where our most creative ideas boil up. Our culture is so strong no one really cares whose idea it was or who gets the credit. We are all working for the same team goal: building an unbelievable brand that makes people proud to drink it.

I don’t think of myself as an entrepreneur. I think of myself as leading a small company that will someday be a big company.
Sean Koffel

Koffel: This brand started as an extension of everything we violently believe in the world. As we added incredible people to the team, it grew from being an extension of our souls to the extension of 25 other people’s souls. They all have such different views and experiences and they approach solutions differently than we would by ourselves.

What do you consider your biggest failure?

Dillingham: I think I fail every day in something. There is always something I can do better. That’s where growth comes from. If you have never failed, all it means is you have never been in a position to fail, which is how you grow. You have to put yourself on the line.

Koffel: It was my life’s honor to serve my country in the United States Marine Corps and I was humbled to have had the opportunity to serve with such extraordinary men. My biggest failure continues to be that there is not more that I can do for the guys I served with who are still over there. If you have never seen failure, you have never been accountable for anything.

What values are important to you in business?

Dillingham: Loyalty and will. Someone is either on the “train” or not. You can’t coach loyalty and effort but you can coach all theother things to help people be successful.

Koffel: Hard work, loyalty, and honor. Loyalty is currency and conducting yourself in a way that maintains your honor and that of your team and family is what is most important to me.

What impact would you like to have on the world?

Dillingham: Making an impact on a daily basis is what I think about. If you add those up over a lifetime, hopefully you’ve lived a great, honest life and made something of every opportunity presented to you.

Koffel: To hopefully someday maximize everything I have in myself to help my family, my team, and my country.

Why are you an entrepreneur?

Dillingham: A lot of people seem to think being an entrepreneur is a career by itself. Sean and I just wanted to build a business that we believed in and would grow to be successful. We never called ourselves a startup, we were small at the start because we were a young company.

Koffel: I don’t think of myself as an entrepreneur. I think of myself as leading a small company that will someday be a big company.

What was your first paying job?

Dillingham: My first job was pretty much working summer sports camps through high-school, prior to heading off to Notre Dame.

Koffel: My family is a horse family. I grew up riding and my mom raised horses. As a kid I got paid to muck out stalls.

What businessperson do you most admire?

Dillingham: My first football coach from grade school: Bill Campbell. I grew up with his son who is a close friend of mine. Everyone calls Bill “Coach” for a reason. He’s a coach on a lot of levels to a lot of different people and I am honored and lucky to call him a friend and a mentor.

Koffel: My father without question. Outside of my family, Fred Smith, founder of FedEx. He was a football player at Yale and a Marine officer. Everyone told him FedEx was a bad idea. Like FedEx, our business is not about eyeballs but revenue and payroll and people with real jobs, some of whom who may not have a high school degree. There was a point in FedEx’s history when Smith was down to his final dollars. He took the company's last $5,000 to Las Vegas and won $27,000 gambling on blackjack to cover the company's $24,000 fuel bill. He was an edgy guy who lived for his people and did anything to make it happen.

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