Dawn Richardson: From High School Teacher to Spirits Distiller

Dawn RichardsonDawn Richardson had an unusual upbringing, but in a way one that made her the ideal candidate to take the leaps of faith required of an entrepreneur. “I was a gypsy kid and went to 20 different schools before I graduated from high school.”

Richardson’s mother was a 70’s hippie, roaming the West with her family living out of a school bus. She was the first female construction worker in the state of Utah, earning money where she could season-by-season and taking classes in small college towns along the way. “You might say she marched to the beat of her own drum,” says Dawn.

But to her daughter, it was normal, everyday life, and there were parts on the road Dawn loved. When it was time to go to college, Dawn headed to a small liberal arts school in Durango, Colorado, where she could explore lots of classes and go skiing. She got a degree in political science thinking that she might eventually head to Washington, DC and work in politics.

“My parents (Dawn’s mother married when Dawn was 13) had always pushed me to teach but I would protest, ‘I don’t want to go into that underpaid, female-dominated, and underappreciated profession,” she remembers. But ironically her desire to travel helped push her in that direction. The family travel bug got her, and she headed to Japan to see the world while earning money teaching English. She taught in Japan for two years, and then returned home and got a masters in education and a teacher’s license and, after brief forays teaching skiing, and then working for a cell phone company, headed back to the classroom.

 “Because of my unconventional upbringing, I always had an openness to it. I would think, what’s the worst that can happen? You lose your business and have to get another job? That’s not so bad.”

For the next 14 years, she taught social studies to high school students. Dawn loved teaching but felt it was time to move on. She felt additional pressure outside the classroom from parents and administrators and then a mysterious illness sidelined her and gave her time to think. “I got a virus that caused my spinal cord to swell and it really scared me. I thought it could be the stress of teaching or just being around all those germs. We still don’t know what it was. Suddenly I was faced with my own mortality and I realized, I’m not happy and I need to change that.”

Dawn and her husband, a software developer, had always talked about opening their own business some day. “Because of my unconventional upbringing, I always had an openness to it. I would think, what’s the worst that can happen? You lose your business and have to get another job? That’s not so bad.”

Together they investigated several options including a beer garden, but were deterred by the enormous start up costs of upwards of a million dollars. But when Rising Sun Distillerythey really started looking at the business, they realized the largest profit is made in alcohol. Then a story on the evening news about local distilleries caught their attention. Looking at the viability of that kind of business, it seemed to make sense.

They started slowly. Her husband continued working and Dawn got her real estate license so they could bring some money in as they were starting up.

They consulted with another distillery in Colorado where they live, and read lots and lots about the business. Then they began experimenting by making wine and beer. When they felt comfortable, they went all in. Cashing in 401Ks, and selling a rental property they owned, the Richardson’s were able to cover the start up costs of property and equipment. Additional business and home equity lines of credit covered them through a few months of operating.

Rising Sun Distillery LogoThey launched Rising Sun Distillery with a line of gin and vodka. Their niche? Local, organic, non-GMO products. And just five months into the business, they are also recipe testing some peach vodka and a pear brandy to expand their product offering soon. While any entrepreneur knows that making the product is just the beginning, the Richardson’s count themselves lucky to be launching in Colorado.

“First of all, alcohol is a highly desirable product. But also, we live in a state where we can go door-to-door and sell our product because liquor stores are all privately owned.”

While her husband and her mother take the lead on outside sales, Dawn develops the recipes and manages the in-house tasting room where they feature their liquors in a range of artisanal cocktails.

In the short four months since they’ve opened, Rising Sun can now be found in 25 different bars and liquors stores in Colorado. Slowly but surely, they are growing the business.

“It’s a bit scary for sure. We’re not paying our bills with profits yet but we’re seeing signs that sooner rather than later, that will happen. But there’s so much to learn in this industry and I feel like we’re just babies starting out. But it’s really fun.”

Richardson’s one regret?  Her freewheeling childhood gave her a comfort with risk taking, but it didn’t give her any mentors in business. I’d love to talk to other women who are doing this because it can be hard and that would be a nice support.”

Tips from Dawn Richardson
  • Assess your comfort level with risk, if you are not a risk taker and are not comfortable with the worst case scenario, then opening a business might not be the best choice.
  • Working for yourself is a 24 hour job.  The satisfaction of working for yourself far outweighs working for someone else, but it is very hard to leave work at home and have a work life balance.
  • There is so much more to opening a business than I first thought, and a lot of the tasks are not in my skill set.  It is important to know when to outsource and when to hire help or when to join with others.