The Business Partners of ATX

By Rachel Cook – February 1, 2021

While relationships come in a variety of forms, it’s imperative that each relationship dynamic possesses strong communication, a solid foundation and trust in order to succeed. Business relationships — particularly, business owners and co-owners — must share an unrivaled passion and vision for their business, while also bringing their own unique skill sets to the table to ensure the success of their company.

This month, AFM spoke with a few local businesses to look into how they work together to create success.

Rise Kickbox

Photo courtesy of Rise Kickbox.

Co-owned by Jessica Drake and Fernando Bernstein

AFM: How and when did you first find kickboxing? 

BERNSTEIN: I found kickboxing after high school. I ran into an old student of my original karate coach when I was younger, and he was training under a world-champion kickboxer at the time. I was lucky enough to join him.

DRAKE: I was managing a gym at the time and decided to take a kickboxing class. I immediately loved it and decided to jump right in and started training with a Muay Thai coach four times a week. I’ve always wanted to compete but never have.

AFM: How did you guys meet? What led to Rise Kickbox?

DRAKE: My ex-husband and I were in the market to open a kickboxing studio when our commercial realtor mentioned that her husband was thinking of doing the same. Thirty minutes later we were introduced. Three months later we opened Rise Kickbox! The inspiration was to create an inclusive environment that encouraged people of all levels to want to train.

BERNSTEIN: We wanted to provide classes that combined realistic kickboxing and self-defense, blended with cardio for all fitness levels.

AFM: What differences set you apart from each other that help you to run your business? 

DRAKE: One of the things that brought us together as business partners is also one of the things that sets us apart. I have a background in management and sales within the fitness industry, and Fernando has a background in teaching and competing in martial arts, competing and coaching on an amateur and professional level for almost 20 years.

AFM: What are some tips you have for other ATX businesses starting up? 

BERNSTEIN: You have to believe in your product and be persistent. You have to consistently market your business and be able to adapt to circumstances that come up. 

DRAKE: Also, customer service! Have patience and always treat your customers with respect. You always want your customers to feel welcomed and like they are a part of the family.

AFM: How do you keep each other motivated during tough business times? 

DRAKE: We are realistic but always optimistic. If we’re hit with something unexpected, we focus and immediately try to figure a way around the obstacle. It goes back to having those common goals.

BERNSTEIN: We believe in the service we provide, because health and fitness is a necessity both physically and mentally.

DRAKE: I think knowing that keeps us motivated. Keeping our clients motivated is what motivates us.

AFM: How do you think businesses could benefit from having co-owners versus a sole owner?

BERNSTEIN: Two brains are better than one. Having a business partner allows you to brainstorm, come up with ideas and deal with situations, good or bad, as they arise.

DRAKE: Yes, and, in general, it’s somebody to share the workload with! Since it’s just the two of us for the majority of the classes, if one of us is sick or has something unexpected come up, then the other one is there to carry the load for the time being. We always know we can count on each other.

AFM: How has the Austin community played a role in your business?

BERNSTEIN: The Austin community is very fitness-minded and supportive. They welcomed us and have become not only members but great friends.

DRAKE: I find Austin to be very laid-back and, like Fernando said, open. We have created what we like to call our “Rise family” because of the Austin community. Whenever we have a new member sign up, one of my favorite things to say to them is “Welcome to the family.”

Birds Barbershop

Photo courtesy of Birds Barbershop.

Co-founded by Jayson Rapaport and Michael Portman

AFM: How did you two meet? 

RAPAPORT: Michael and I go way back. We are both from Laredo, Texas, and went to pre-school together. From there, we weaved in and out of each other’s lives pursuing our careers, but eventually, we both arrived in Austin.

AFM: How did you go into business together?

PORTMAN: I moved to Austin about a year after Jayson did. One of my first nights in town, I went over to his apartment to try to get the lay of the land — favorite restaurants? Best dry cleaner? And one of the questions I asked was, “Where do you get your haircut?” He didn’t have a good answer, and so we started to brainstorm about how we could improve on the age-old service. We joked it could be fun to turn this into a business, and when I got home that night, on my answering machine (yes, back then we still had answering machines!), Jayson had left me a message and said we should do it.

AFM: What sets you apart from each other, and how does that help you run your business? 

RAPAPORT: We both do different things, with not a lot of overlap. We trust each other to a fault, and so we get to lead the organization as we see fit. We are there for each other as sounding boards and make the big decisions together.

PORTMAN: It is a left-brain, right-brain dynamic. Jayson focuses on finance and operations, and I work on marketing and the look and feel of our brand and shops. The advantage of being co-founders is you don’t end up getting spread as thin as you would with only one person running the business.

AFM: Mixing business with friendship can be tough. How do you work through obstacles together? Any examples?

PORTMAN: When you work together for this long — Birds is celebrating its 15th anniversary this May — we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses, and that keeps us from stepping out of bounds. Operating a personal service business during a pandemic is extraordinarily difficult, and a lot of tough decisions had to be made. But our north star is treating our employees well and protecting the brand, and when that vision is aligned, the obstacles become less intimidating.

AFM: What do you appreciate the most about each other? 

RAPAPORT: Michael is a band-aid ripper, and I appreciate that a lot. He looks to get to the root of things as quickly as possible, and I think that’s really important.  

PORTMAN: Jayson likes to think long-term, and so he’s able to teach me not to always sweat the small stuff.

AFM: How has the Austin community played a role in your business?

PORTMAN: Austin is everything to us. We’re fairly certain that if we started this business in a different city, we would not have made it. In Austin, people gravitate towards supporting small businesses — it’s a rare and unique quality that we have been lucky to be a part of. We have grown in tandem with Austin and it’s been a really fun ride. 

Wonderkind Co. 

Photo courtesy of Wonderkind Co.

Elle De Freitas, CEO and Co-Founder

AFM: How did you meet Cally Burgett, your other co-founder

DE FREITAS: I met Cally because I needed someone to brand Vegan Wonder. I knew her through her husband. I needed Vegan Wonder to be branded because I needed to market the first event!

AFM: What is the mission of Wonderkind, and how did you land on the name? 

DE FREITAS: Wonderkind came from Vegan Wonder. We wanted the transition to be seamless, so we kept Wonder, and Vegan Wonder’s tagline was “For the kind and the curious.” The mission of Wonderkind is to help food and beverage brands stand out in a really crowded space.

AFM: What have been some big milestones throughout the first year? 

DE FREITAS: In February, landing a brand that was outside of our network, meaning that our work was starting to speak for itself. In May, landing Repurpose, our first “big” brand. In June, we made our first hire. And in July, we moved into our first office space.

AFM: Finally, what do you see for the future of Austin’s food scene with CPG (consumer packaged goods) and healthy food?

DE FREITAS: There will be a lot of innovation in terms of how things are made. A lot of VCs will start creating their own brands in-house. You’ll see a lot of ingredient innovation. New food trends will take hold, and products will be made as a result.

Still Austin Whiskey Co.

John Schrepel, Head Distiller. Photo courtesy of Still Austin Whiskey Co.

Chris Seals (CEO & Co-founder), John Schrepel (Head Distiller), Mary Santo (Tasting Room & Events Manager), April Riggs (Digital Brand Manager)

AFM: How and when did you all meet?

SEALS: A love of whiskey brought us together — along with a desire to build something really special. We have only one focus at Still Austin: to authentically make the best we can. That goes for flavor but also so much more. 

Photo courtesy of Still Austin Whiskey Co.

AFM: How did you develop an interest in whiskey?

RIGGS: I’ve always enjoyed a sip of whiskey on cold bike rides, but my first taste of a Ward Eight at The Tigress had me hooked! I also am madly in love with whiskey sours. Something about that layer of froth from the egg white with the acidity of the sour rocks my world.

SCHREPEL: I enjoy being hands-on and always learning something to improve in life in general and in my craft. Making whiskey has given me constant satisfaction with always learning new ways to improve inside and out of the distillery. It keeps me on my toes, which I love. If you let up, so does the product, and that’s not an option.

SEALS: I came to love whiskey by drinking it with my dad. It was our way to connect, and a love of it led to an adventure of a lifetime: starting a whiskey distillery together!

SANTO: I fell in love with whiskey when I worked at a restaurant named Maysville in New York City’s Flatiron District for about five years. This was one of the premier American whiskey bars in the city at the time. Our whole team was obsessed with whiskey education, and we dove right in every day, wanting to learn more and share our passion with our guests.

AFM: Tell me about Still Austin Whiskey Co., your whiskeys, what you love about it and what you’re proud of.

RIGGS: We’re an Austin-born, craft whiskey distillery where every step of the process, aside from the growing of the grains, is done right here in The Yard at St. Elmo. And those grains are grown in Texas, so we keep everything else in-state and as local as possible. What I love and what I’m proud of are the same: the people behind this brand. Our Straight Bourbon, The Musician, is a stellar product and was made by a production team of total bad-asses that really love what they’re doing and care about every step of the whiskey-making process.

SCHREPEL: Still Austin Whiskey Co. is a one-of-a-kind place. Everyone that works here all has such a deep passion and love for whiskey and the industry in general. It is rare to find such great people to work with and to work for.

Mary Santo, Tasting Room & Events Manager. Photo courtesy of Still Austin Whiskey Co.

SANTO: Still Austin is a blast — I love working here. We make grain-to-glass whiskey, all on-site here in South Austin. We care about our spirits, our team, our farmers and our community. I’m proud of the juice and our amazing team. 

SEALS: We are primarily a bourbon distillery, and while our bourbon tastes great, there is something deeper that I love: bourbon is more than a drink. It represents who we are as a people. Our actions speak more than anything about who we are. As a product that bears our city’s name on our label, we believe every action we take must reflect the goodness and heart of our people. We love Kentucky’s bourbon and Tennessee’s whiskey. We love the scotches of Scotland and French brandy. And our hope and intention, with all sincerity, is that every action we take and every expression we release stirs in our hearts a deep value for who we are, as Texans and as Austinites, and a pride in what makes us different. We strive to honor the people who make us who we are.

April Riggs, Digital Brand Manager. Photo courtesy of Still Austin Whiskey Co.

AFM: What were some obstacles you faced? How did you work through them, and how did that affect your relationships with each other?

SEALS: Early obstacles included (1) building a distillery in Austin, Texas (it only took 37 months for the project to be approved by the City of Austin), and (2) making the best bourbon (it took a lot of expertise, focus, patience and determination to stick to our vision of 100% Texas-grown grain and hand-making everything from grain to glass). Recently we faced a huge challenge during COVID, as all of our main ways of introducing people to our product were shut down (bars and our tasting room were closed; no events; and no sampling at liquor stores). Thankfully, we had a team with the vision to try something new while staying true to our values. I think it brought us together because our jobs all had to change (we introduced our bourbon in highly unconventional ways!), but we didn’t have to change our goal. 

RIGGS: It’s a typical start-up, in that every day can be its own unique challenge, and sometimes things are moving at the speed of light, and other times at a glacial pace, and both require trust, compassion, empathy and a helluva sense of humor. Conflict, especially during the ‘Rona, requires an extra layer of all the things listed, plus a lot of Zooms/calls/emails to get on the same page. We work as a team to keep communication lines open and to be honest (and kind) when dealing with each other and tough situations. We have a team that’s still fairly new, and we’re all learning to trust each other.

Chris Seals, CEO and Co-founder. Photo courtesy of Still Austin Whiskey Co.

AFM: How has the Austin community played a role in your business?

RIGGS: Can’t be named “Still Austin” and try to dominate a market other than your own first, so for jumping into my role a year ago, I wanted to really dig into our own backyard and make meaningful connections with Austin consumers. We are a city of passionate people that like to have fun and take having fun pretty seriously. This makes it relatively easy (and fun) to build a brand in this city. On the other end of that, I’m pushing whiskey! Most people are fans — it’s not like trying to get your bestie to buy into a pyramid scheme. 

SEALS: Austinites have embraced us 100% and vice versa. It’s exciting to see the pride that the Austinites have in a bourbon that is handmade here, from grain to glass, with a focus on the highest quality. They like that we use local farmers, local artists (for our label) and support our local community. And they support us back by sharing a special bottle of our bourbon with their friends. We have grown by word-of-mouth and could not have done it without the love of our local community.

SANTO: Still Austin is always intentional about lifting up local businesses and charities. Anytime we can partner with organizations like HAAM, we jump at the opportunity. We want to take care of our neighbors.

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