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Turn your passion into a profitable small business

Luke Boase

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During the yearly Dry January challenge, Luke Boase didn’t just stay alcohol-free for a month—he took it that one step further, and made it part of his lifestyle.

With this fresh revelation, he was on a mission to normalise sobriety.

After a lot of ‘nos’ and a tireless process of trial and error, flavoursome alcohol-free beer Lucky Saint was born.

This article is overflowing with advice on everything you need to know from handling rejection to encouraging an open communication of mental health in the workplace.

So have a refreshing drink ready because this is going to make you thirsty for more:

From Dry January to a fresh business proposal

Pay attention to growing trends

Use your business to challenge the change you want to see

Broaden your horizons to find your passion

There will be a number of rejections before the breakthrough

Prepare for the long haul— you can’t build a business overnight

Last-ditch efforts lead to last-minute flights

Increase market penetration by offering a better product

Research—all the information you need is at your disposal

The moment you realise it can’t just be a side hustle any more

A business named on luck, and built on it too

A lockdown followed by an on-trade shutdown

Pivoting your business model could lead to an unexpected growth in sales

Making mental health a priority in the workplace

Don’t feel like you have to wait to bring on a managing director

A growing team comes with a constant change of focus

First impressions and funny exchanges

Bex Burn-Callander:

Are you doing Dry January or have you mastered the art of balance all year round?

Luke Boase:

Well, I did dry January four years ago, in 2018, and then one month rolled into three months and then three months rolled into a year, and I haven’t really drunk since then, actually.

So Dry January, funnily enough, is a huge moment for us as a business, but less of a moment for me personally.

Bex Burn-Callander:

But that’s amazing.

What’s been the impact on your life? I suppose there’s always an impact on the wallet from giving up all booze, but how has it changed you?

Luke Boase:

I think the reason I started was, this time four years ago, I was at a point in this journey where I was just about to quit my job.

I had developed the beer itself. The brand was in development, and it was time to go full time, and to take the big leap, as it were.

But I’d spent two years in development, and I’d done that alongside an existing job. So I had that security, and all I had to do was work on one thing.

The first job was was it possible to brew the beer? And so that’s all I focused on.

I figured that out and then you move on to the next things.

But there comes the moment where you actually need to jump and you need to say, “Right, this is everything.”

In the spirit of trying to sort of increase my chances of success, I was like “I wonder what positive impact it’ll have on me if I stopped drinking.”

So I started with a month because a month is definitely achievable and then I was like, “Well, maybe I can do three months because that’s achievable.”

Then I did a year, which was a massive undertaking, but actually over the course of a year, you then realise that you break down all of the norms around drinking, and all of the social occasions. It’s kind of like a social crutch.

You go through all of those over the course of the year, and you figure out that it’s actually not that hard.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And you’re bang on trend, aren’t you?

The stats are showing that a lot of people are making the same choice.

I read somewhere that there will be a 31% growth in low and alcohol-free beverages in the next three years. So, this is quite a big movement.

Luke Boase:

The category has grown, over the last five years, by threefold and alcohol-free beer is still the fastest growth category in beer, and there are a number of stats around people moderating.

Every single age demographic is moderating their alcohol consumption.

A third of young people consider themselves non-drinkers.

For me, the most interesting bit is the moderation piece in the middle ground. It’s the equivalent of the Flexitarian Diet.

It’s not that every single person has gone vegan, but lots of people now have plant-based foods as part of their diet. Whether that’s just during the week or at home, whatever it is.

I think alcohol-free is the same. It’s now part of a healthy lifestyle, and you don’t have to go all in and become sober or teetotal, because that’s a bit of a terrifying undertaking for most people.

Bex Burn-Callander:

But this was the mission, right?

So you started Lucky Saint because you wanted to normalise the idea of sobriety in life, in the UK where every question the answer is always, “Let’s have a drink.”

So you are sort of bang on mission, right?

Luke Boase:

I think we’re a little bit careful, I’m not here to tell anyone to be sober. As a brand, we believe in moderation. Not in abstinence.

We’re obviously not against abstinence, but we’re not here to tell people not to drink. It’s more about balance.

But the bit that I really wanted to challenge was just the expectation and the status quo that every social occasion should be linked with alcohol.

And that doesn’t need to be the case.

We’ve all done it. We’ve all walked into a pub and felt the need to apologise, whether it’s to the barman or the people that you are with, that you’re not drinking.

I believe there should be products out there that you are proud to say that you are drinking, and you should never have to apologise for.

That’s the status quo that we want to challenge, and we want to change.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Tell me how you set about on this journey.

You mentioned you were working, what was the full-time job? And then how on earth did you start on this journey to try and create a tasty non-alcoholic beer?

Luke Boase:

Funnily enough, I grew up in the world of advertising.

My dad, mum and sister all worked in advertising. So, to be honest, I grew up thinking that’s obviously what I was going to do, because it was literally all I knew.

When I left university, I thought maybe it would be worth broadening my horizons a little bit, and just seeing if there’s anything else out there.

So I got some work experience for a fund management company. Then, at the end of it, they offered me a job and I’d had quite a good time.

On paper, it was a great job for a good company and all of that stuff. So I kind of fell into it, but I was never that passionate about it.

What I did learn was I loved companies.

I used to find it fascinating meeting companies and when the management of companies would come in, and they’d present, and they’d talk about their strategy.

I always just thought it looked way more interesting being on that side of the table and being in a business, rather than trying to figure out whether a business has got a good or a bad strategy.

I then went and worked for a Belgian entrepreneur, and he had a few different businesses. So I started getting involved in his businesses and helping them out.

He had a university in the US that I went over and did a big project on. And then he also had, a sort of the elephant in the room, an oil and gas business. And it was always the agreement that I was not coming in to work for that business.

Then after about two years he said, “Luke, I’ve got this one project in Kazakhstan. Could you just do this one project for me?” I was like, “OK, fine. I’ll do one project from Kazakhstan.”

Anyway, slowly but surely, I got sucked into his oil and gas business and two years later I was still doing all this stuff.

But I think during that time, I had this kind of epiphany moment, which was meeting two founders of a tech business. I remember it really clearly, I was sat in an office in Victoria, and they had a concept stage, and their model was going to disrupt the whole of the retail world.

I sat and I listened to them, and they were literally so passionate, driven, and excited about what they were doing. So much so, that the whole world and idea of startups just literally sort of unfolded in this meeting to me.

And I was like, “Well, this is the world I need to live in. I need to be that excited about what I’m doing. I need to have that much belief in it. I need to be that passionate about it.”

That was really when I then started trying to think about what I’d do next, and would I go and work in a startup or would I do my own thing?

I spent a few years burying myself in the startup world, and just learning as much as I could, and meeting as many people as I could.

There were a few ideas that came and went. The one that I could just never shake off, because it sort of emotionally got me, was this idea of reinventing the alcohol-free beer category.

The reason I think it got me was just that proposition of alcohol-free beer is so good. On paper, it’s the best proposition in the world.

So the right occasion, the right time, it’s exactly what you need.

But the reality was, I wasn’t even close to being a consumer of it.

At that point the market leader in 2016 was Becks Blue, and they had a 55% profit share. So everywhere basically served that.

And for me, there wasn’t a liquid, a beer in a bottle, that tasted good enough to bring me into the category, and there wasn’t a brand that empowered me to do so.

That was the kind of inception point as I asked myself, “Well, is it possible to brew a beer that’s good enough to bring people into category. And is it possible to build a brand that will empower people and make people feel positive about drinking alcohol free?”

Bex Burn-Callander:

Am I right in thinking though, that when you actually started approaching breweries, the answer was, “No. No, don’t bother. This is a Herculean task. Do something else.”

Luke Boase:

Yeah, totally.

So from that point, I then just started reaching out to as many breweries and getting as many conversations as I could. One of the early conversations I got was with the ex-CEO, at that time, of a really successful craft brewery in this country.

I said I was really well prepped, I remember it so clearly. I was sat in a fire escape in the office, because I obviously couldn’t have this call in the middle of the office. I was really well prepped for it.

“This is a big deal in the industry,” I told him, and I explained what I wanted to do. And he just couldn’t have been more dismissive.

His recommendations were, “Good luck with it. Make sure you don’t put any personal guarantees on any of the money that you borrow.”

Then he was like, “We’ve looked at it as a brewery, my brewery is basically the best brewer in this country, and he says you can’t do it. I think you’d be better off making fizzy drinks.”

He referenced a really nice soda brand. He was like, “Look, this is an awesome business, you should go and do something like that.”

So you just sort of dust yourself down and say, “Well, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it.”

Bex Burn-Callander:

How long did it take to crack it? And how did you get there?

Take me through the various steps.

Luke Boase:

The short version is, I spent two years working with six different brewers, in three different countries.

I spent a period of about a year in the UK and I worked with four brewers over here, trying to brew to a low alcohol.

To make alcohol-free beer, you can either brew to a low alcohol, so you brew something that doesn’t produce very much alcohol. Or you can brew to a full strength and then you can remove the alcohol.

For the latter, the equipment is very expensive and it’s not widely available. The technology that we’ve ended up using isn’t available at all in this country.

So we were trying to brew to a low alcohol, and the course of events that I’d go through every time is, I’d go and build a relationship with the owner, or the CEO of a brewery. I’d then go and pitch my idea and I’d get him or her really excited about it.

And then they’d say, “OK, that’s great. We need to get the head brewer involved here, because at the end of the day, they are going to be the ones who are going to make this happen.”

And the response from the head brewer would be a bit like, “God, it’s not really what I’m here for. I’ve no personal interest in this. This is a side project.”

What would happen, we’d do one or two brews, and then I’d get the call from the owner of the brewer saying, “Yeah, look, the results aren’t great, and to be honest, my head brewers not into this and I need him or her to be happy, because we got loads on, and they’re a pretty important person to us. So, sorry Luke, but not one for us.”

So I went through this constant cycle.

I’d do that again and again, and it happened four times in the UK. But each time, I did figure out that the process that we were trying to use, wasn’t going to get us to the product that I wanted to create, which was always this classic lager.

Luke Boase:

The aim was always about brewing the best, highest quality, alcohol-free lager. By using that process of trial and error, I figured out that it wasn’t going to be possible.

I then went to Belgium and trialled one of the alcohol removal processes over there. I didn’t get great results and I think there were a bunch of factors contributing to that, not just the technology that we were using.

I was aware that there was this final piece of technology that I hadn’t trialled yet, called vacuum distillation, which is the process of removing alcohol from full-strength beer.

I decided to hunt one down and I knew that this technology was more readily available in Europe.

So I tracked down a particular brewery that I knew brewed amazing lager. That was part one.

Then part two, I found out that they did have this equipment.

So I approached the CEO. I was sat in the office, and I’d sent hundreds of these prospective emails to people, and most of them would just go completely unanswered.

I emailed the CEO of this brewery and I just lied actually.

I said, “Look, I’m in Germany on Friday and I’ve got to come and see you to tell you about this idea.”

Amazingly he responded, but he responded literally in two minutes flat, and said, “Sure, come by at 1.00.” And so, it was like, oh right, got to get a day off work and book my flights and get myself ready.

Anyway, I went out there and I explained what I wanted to achieve and the concept.

And he was like, “Yeah. OK. OK,” it wasn’t lighting his fire necessarily.

I wasn’t getting all of the positive vibes back. But then the bit that just completely unlocked it for him was two things.

The first was in the UK, alcohol-free beer was only half a percent of beer sales at that point. So it was this tiny, tiny, tiny category, at the bottom of the beer category.

But in Germany, it was 6% of their sales.

And in Spain, it was 15% of beer sales.

So there was this huge question about why penetration so low in the UK?

The second bit was Beck’s Blue had a 55% market share, and Bavaria at that point had a 30% market share. Between the two of them, they pretty much had the whole market.

Luke Boase:

Once we realised how small the category was in the UK, and who owned the majority of the market shares, the CEO turned around and said, “Well, it’s obvious why the category is so under penetrated. It’s because the product isn’t good enough.”

So at that moment, he slammed his very, very large fist on to the table and was like, “Let’s go over and meet the brew master.” So literally there and then, we started discussing what we wanted to achieve in terms of product development.

I like to think this was all like really fast, and we were right there and then, rolling our sleeves up. When in reality, it was coming into their peak season.

So getting an agreement is one thing, but actually starting to work and figuring out when you get test batches. It takes six weeks to brew our beer, so actually it’s quite slow.

Then they’d ship it over to the UK on pallets. It’d come over in these plastic kegs called key kegs. They’d arrive at a house in London on a pallet. It was just the least convenient thing ever.

I’d put them in the garden, and I’d have a party pump, so you’d attach the keg and then you’d pressurise it with a hand pump and then all this foam would just come out, and you’d be trying to work it all out.

It would be completely the wrong temperature because it’s 15 degrees outside.

So the beer is being served, and there’s foam everywhere and you’re trying to figure out, “Is that good or bad? Is that right?”

We went round and round a few times, but the big unlock and the big ‘Eureka!’ moment, I guess, came when we moved away from producing filtered lager.

It was fine, it was good quality. But it just wasn’t, for me, it wasn’t lighting my fire. It wasn’t something, I was like, “Damn, this is so much better than anything else I’ve ever tasted.”

I was trying all the wheat beers in Germany and the alcohol-free wheat beers. It’s a style that lends itself really well to alcohol free, because there’s quite a lot going on flavour profile wise, but they also have this amazing body to them.

You hold the glass up to the light and it’s this really cloudy liquid.

And the sort of penny dropped.

It was like, hang on a minute. With all that body, it just looks like a really full-flavoured beer just by looking in the glass.

That was when it was like, OK, well, hang on a minute. What if we left our larger unfiltered, and we retained more of that flavour and more of that body?

That was the change that we made.

I remember, I got another batch of kegs that arrived on a pallet in London and I tried it. It was like, oh yeah, I think that’s better.

Like I say, it’s quite difficult to tell when it’s just very imperfect tasting-like conditions.

Anyway, I flew over to Germany, and we poured a fresh keg right in the brewery, perfectly served at two degrees and in a chilled glass.

Suddenly, it was like, we’re there.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Eureka.

Luke Boase:

It was so good. It was just complete, we were done.

Bex Burn-Callander:

It’s amazing to me that all those breweries, those six breweries in these different countries, and that you managed to keep on plugging away.

I have to ask though, you said that you approached this German brewer because you knew they had this particular technology. How on earth did you know that?

Luke Boase:

Just research. If you go far enough down, if you go to page 19 on Google, you find this stuff out.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I thought maybe you might have called the manufacturer of the technology and bribed them to tell you who their customers were or something like that.

Luke Boase:

No. That would’ve been a clever idea.

Bex Burn-Callander:

What was the kind of springboard moment to quit the job?

Because you said earlier on in this chat that there was a moment that came where it was like, I have to take this seriously.

Was it when you’d kind of cracked it with the unfiltered, the flavour was right, and then you thought, I’ve got to throw my all at this now?

Luke Boase:

I firmly believe a side hustle can’t be a side hustle forever. That was the point for me, I didn’t feel like I could ask people for money and not be doing it 110% of my time.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Then your original business plan was that you were going to sell through trade, so bars, etcetera.

So how did you land that first customer?

Luke Boase:

Oh, fun story. In the summer of 2018, I knew I was going to have to hire a salesperson.

I met a recruiter, an amazing woman called Emma Forster, and she was very patiently teasing it out of me. She was like, “OK, so let’s start from the beginning. What are the types of customers you’d like to work with?”

Initially the first words that fell out of my mouth were, if there was a burger chain, it would have to be the brand Honest Burgers, because of what they stand for in terms of quality.

Emma said, “Well, you’re not going to believe it, but Tom, the founder of Honest Burgers, he was best man at my wedding. And I’m having dinner with him tonight. Would you like an intro?”

I met him the following week, and we sat down at 10am, outside the original Honest Burgers in Brixton Market, which is like just the coolest little site.

Tom was all over the alcohol-free beer base, as he has had periods of not drinking.

So it was going very well, but he didn’t have anything like that on his menu.

This was literally a half an hour meeting, there and then, he was like, “I love it. I’ll put it in all 28 of my restaurants. The next menu change is the 1st of October.”

This meeting was in August.

“Make sure you’re ready.”

That became our launch date. Honest Burgers were our first customer. It’s a bit of a coup.

Bex Burn-Callander:

I know your brand is Lucky Saint, but I mean, talk about lucky.

That’s just crazy that the opportunity just literally fell into your lap. That’s amazing.

Luke Boase:

I mean, look, we’ve had a few of those. We’ve carried on like that for 18 months.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Yes. When suddenly the world changed, and your beautiful business got a bit of a shock.

Tell us what happened.

Luke Boase:

In January 2020, we launched Lucky Saint on Draught, which was this draft idea at the time.

But I thought if there’s a time to test it, then you’ve got to test it in January. We launched it in 50 venues in London, which is no mean feat in the on-trade world for a fledgling brand.

They were really, really great venues, things like, The Wigmore on Regent Street, and some really good small pub groups in London. And it just flew. What we thought was three months’ stock, sold in just three weeks.

I remember at the beginning of March, I put two plans to the board. It was fast or faster.

Everyone was just, “Yeah, let’s go faster.” Then a week later, my chairman called me, and he was like, “Luke, I think it would probably just be worth running a couple of scenarios. I think we just need to find out what’s going to happen, if we have no revenue, and no cash receipts for 12 weeks, as Covid blows over.”

That was a nice thought.

On those assumptions, we had three weeks of cash. Then obviously everyone knows what happened with Covid.

The on-trade shut.

The thing that was tricky was, that the on-trade ultimately got shut down, but people had stopped ordering long before it got shut down, in week three of March 2020.

We were in a position where we still hadn’t been paid for our January sales, because of the way that the payment terms work.

You’d probably expect to be paid for January at the end of February, but actually everyone was already tightening up and starting to hold on to cash at that point.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You’re the new kid on the block, so probably you don’t have the might of a big brewery behind you or whatever.

So you’re the last person that’s going to get paid.

Luke Boase:

Well then, the internet came to the rescue.

Amazon was the first thing to pick up. Do you remember the stockpiling thing?

Like everyone was buying loo roll, but people were stockpiling and suddenly Amazon just took off.

Over a two-day period, suddenly we were doing big sales numbers on Amazon. I was like, OK, well, it’s just people bulk buying and stocking up. So this will probably drop off in the next week or whatever, but it never did.

Then a week later, the same happened on our website, and it just took off.

By the beginning of April, we were making more weekly revenue, than we were pre-Covid.

April was a record month. We’d had this extraordinary January, where we’d launched draught and it had been a huge month for us at that point.

We were up on January, in April 2020, all through direct to consumer.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That’s amazing though. The majority of your growth actually happened when you completely pivoted to a new model, direct to consumer.

It’s like sending boxes of bottles to people’s homes, or is that through some of the online supermarkets as well?

What ended up being a really positive channel?

Luke Boase:

It was all through our own channels. We had obviously the third-party websites, they’re great, and we did good volume through them, but really all of the pickup came through our own channel.

Our own Amazon store and our own website.

Bex Burn-Callander:

And what are your hopes and fears for 2022 and beyond?

Tell me a bit about how the brand is going to evolve from here.

Luke Boase:

One of our mantras is, “Do the right thing well.” Which comes out of the mantra, “Do one thing well.”

We’ve set out with a mission to create the world’s defining alcohol-free lager. Anything that distracts from that is something that we won’t do.

Inherently, innovation from a liquid perspective, isn’t something that sits at the core of our strategy.

I also never say never.

The other really exciting initiative that we launched at the end of last year, was an initiative in mental health.

We have partnered with Mental Health First Aid England. We undertook it as a business, so we decided we wanted to train a third of our business in Mental Health First Aid.

It’s like physical first aid, but it gives you the tools to be able to spot someone who may be struggling with their mental health, knowing how to approach and assess them, and then being able to point them towards the right support.

Nine of us did it initially, with a guy called Harry Corin.

It was honestly such a powerful two days.

We then thought, we wanted to train the rest of our business, because it was that sort of profound in terms of the impact that it had.

We started talking to Harry about what we could do more broadly for the industry as well. Harry has now joined our business, and we are partnered with Mental Health First Aid England.

So we offer Mental Health First Aid training to people within the industry.

The idea is that we’re supporting their mission to get 1 in 10 people trained within the workforce. So we go in, and as an example, this month we’re launching it with Honest Burgers.

We’re training 16 people in their business next week. Then there will be 16 people across that business, who will actually be touching hundreds of people within their business.

The ripple effect is actually really extensive. We’ll be touching thousands of people next year.

Bex Burn-Callander:

What made you choose Mental Health First Aid specifically?

Have you, either with your own mental health or people around you that you’re close to, seen that people have been suffering and you’ve wanted to be able to help and not been able to?

Luke Boase:

We launched the initiative almost two years the day after a friend of mine took his own life.

It was having done the Mental Health First Aid training, frankly, it opens your eyes to the things that you miss, the things that you ignore.

I think the decision to go with Mental Health First Aid, as an initiative, was due to a couple of things that came out of the training we did.

One was the fact, that there are a number of positive steps that you can take, that positively impact your mental health. It’s not all about crisis management.

The second aspect is, there’s lots of people who like talking about mental health, but first aid training is this very tangible way of helping.

Actions speak louder than words. It’s a really tangible skill set, that you could put out there, that does make a difference.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You’re working on some really cool stuff, but I asked about hopes and fears.

I want to know what you’re worried about and what you think might adversely impact the business over the next year?

Luke Boase:

Life’s too short to freak out about that stuff.

I’m optimistic that this is the final phase of Covid. We get through that, we get into the summer, the category is in a really healthy place.

We’ve got fantastic team, we’ve done loads of work building the team over the last 12 months.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Tell me about that because you mentioned bringing a managing director on. This is still a very young business, that’s quite an unusual decision.

So why get an MD so soon?

Luke Boase:

I met, our now chairman, three months after we launched, and he’s an amazing guy called Chillen.

But one of the things that we started talking about very, very early on, was he is a huge advocate of hiring disproportionately senior roles, at a disproportionately early stage in your business, because it gets the foundations for you then to grow much faster.

We started that search, and that was a conversation we started in February 2019, and Emma started in February 2020.

We put a huge amount of work into making sure we found the right person.

It has been transformational for us, particularly around being a team and culture.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Because you’re now 30 people now, right? How has that changed the business, having head count rise relatively quickly in quite a short space of time?

Luke Boase:

I think you break it down into phases.

There was a point where we were team of 10, I think almost everyone, theoretically, reported into me. Then Emma joined, and we started building a management team. I think it’s a fascinating journey.

The thing that I continue to be surprised by, is the rate at which my role changes. I get about a six-month run at trying to do a part of the role, and then it’ll all change, and it’ll be like, “Right, we’re done with that, you need to go focus on something else.”

So you go from managing people, to not managing anyone.

You go from being very internally focused, to suddenly being externally focused, on execution one moment, and then it’ll all be about building foundations for future growth.

It’s a continual change of focus, like an evolution of focus.

Bex Burn-Callander:

That sounds awful to me. The idea gives me whiplash, but you thrive off that, right?

Luke Boase:

There are bits of it that I get more energy from than others, for sure.

I think I love doing new stuff.

There’s always the next phase to go after, and the faster you grow, the quicker the phases come.

Bex Burn-Callander:

Just finally, Luke, have you had any interesting responses to Lucky Saint as a product?

What were people’s first impressions?

Luke Boase:

I’ll give you the two sides of it.

I remember in year one, I stood in a lot of Sainsbury’s stores, doing sample tasting. So I was stood at the front of store, my branded jumper on, desperately trying to convince people to try alcohol-free beer.

The number of people who were like, “Not interested. What’s the point?” All of that stuff.

It’s definitely easier now than it was then.

Bex Burn-Callander:

You said you came up with some pretty clever lines, some pretty good ways to get people to try it. Give me a glimpse of what some of those lines might have been.

I know, for example, that Lucky Saint is really low in calories.

So at any point were you like, “Try this beer, it won’t make you put on weight.”

Luke Boase:

It got to the point where I’d actually try and get them to basically buy a teacake, because it was easier to get their attention with a teacake.

Then when I had them engaged, I’d then be like, “Oh, and you should also try this beer.”

They’d be like, “Oh, no, I can’t, I’m driving.”

Then you say, “Oh, no, it’s fine because it’s alcohol free.”

Then they’re like, “Oh, well, I don’t like beer.”

So I’d say, “But you just said you did like beer.”

Anyway, you get these very funny exchanges and you just learn to go with the flow.

Inspired by this small business story?

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