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A person holding a glass of wine with a smile.
Running a business

Jill Watanabe is introducing a new spirit to Utah

Name: Jill Watanabe

Location: Salt Lake City, UT

Business: Tsuki Sake

A bottle of wine and a glass on a table.

Why did you decide to start your own business? How did you get started?

In 2019, I had plans for a sake brewing internship. I was going to finish out the busy season at a fine dining Japanese restaurant and then explore opening a sake brewery in Salt Lake City, and then covid hit! I teamed up with a couple guys who were also on the track to starting a sake company, and began learning how to brew and contract brewing with a purveyor in Denver, CO.

What makes your small business unique from others?

Tsuki Sake is Utah’s Premium Craft Sake Co, and that in itself seems to be unique. An American sake company? In Utah of all places? And one of the co-founders is a half-Japanese woman? There’s more that makes our company unique, but that seems like a great start!

What is the biggest lesson you learned in the first year?

So many come to mind! But I think learning how to not get attached to my idea of how things needed to go was a big one. I believe this is what entrepreneurs call “pivoting!” Additionally, building confidence and becoming aware of my mental health management was a huge part of my first year.

What was the most surprising thing about becoming a business owner?

Having to learn skills I never thought I would need in order to grow our business, and also realizing and putting stagnant skills I already had into use.

Were there any things about running a business you didn’t know when you started? How did you teach yourself?

So many things! For me, I think entrepreneurship was one of those things I didn’t quite fully understand in the beginning. Ignorance was bliss! From operating agreements to invoices, logistics and freight costs, labor and raw materials, sales and marketing…not to mention your self-worth is constantly being challenged. And infinite stress over whether or not you prioritized the right things today…are you prepared for tomorrow and did important things fall through the cracks? Many things I learned the hard way by jumping in, but I also learned certain skills on Youtube and LinkedIn.

What tools help you run your business?

In the beginning it was a lot of spiral notebooks and to-do lists. I’m using Google Docs and Google Chat now. Notion is awesome too, they have a lot of great templates that help me stay organized with sales. We use Quickbooks Online to manage invoices and PNLs.

With QuickBooks, payroll and bookkeeping work hand-in-hand.

What advice do you have for others looking to start their own business?

Get your personal ducks in a row before jumping into the business world! Know how you’re going to pay yourself and what your goals are. Partner with people who put in the same amount of work as you.

What is your best advice to other small business owners for hiring and retaining staff?

People are all we have. If you make them feel replaceable, that's how much you’ll get out of them. Prioritize their well being and work/life balance. And don’t expect employees to have the same business owner mentality as you.

What challenges do you feel are unique to AANHPI business owners?

I feel like one of my personal challenges is not looking Asian enough. Whenever I tell people I’m half-Japanese, people like to scan my features and decide if they would guess that or if it makes sense. At times it feels like I’m not enough of either side, so I’m lukewarm accepted by both communities, if that makes sense.

What has been your proudest moment?

There have been many! Even small moments of pride where I know I got through to someone at a festival about how sake is made and why it’s such an amazing beverage! Attending the Sake Association’s summit in Washington D.C. as the only female sake company co-founder was amazing. Getting accepted into a sake brewing internship in 2021 (even though it was canceled due to the Omicron virus). The most recent proud moment I had was being selected to represent the Sake Association in the Advanced Sake Brewer Course in Niigata, Japan this July!

When you’re having a tough day, who or what inspires you to keep going?

My wife, Kayla! Every time. Ironically, whenever I’m feeling defeated, I always seem to run into an old friend who roots me on, or a pleased consumer who raves about our products. Connecting with other business owners is always very inspiring as well.

How do you maintain a work/life balance as a small business owner? In what ways do you take care of your mental health?

I’m still working on balancing this. I have worked through multiple chapters of burn out. I still work on managing guilt for not overworking myself. Having a good routine and consistency is a no brainer for productivity, yet I try to offer myself grace when I fall off, instead of feeding into guilt and shame which only prolong my low points. Absorbing every joyous moment with my family charges me up to keep pushing on!

What’s your “power song” and why?

“Consideration” by Rihanna and SZA, because RiRi is a baddie!

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