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Clint Compton enjoys a good cocktail.
While out at a trendy Dallas bar with his wife in 2011, he saw something he had never seen before: His whiskey was served with ice in the shape of a sphere. The bartender explained that the sphere shape gave the drink more ice than a cube would—but since less of the ice is touching the actual drink, it melts more slowly, for an optimal drinking experience.
“My nerd instinct immediately went off,” says Compton, an engineer who has degrees in interactive design, information technology, business administration, and business management. “I thought it was the coolest thing I’d ever seen and I needed to find out how to do it myself.”
Compton went home that night and began researching what would become The Whiskey Ice Co.—a purveyor of bar tools and accessories that are now used on every continent this side of Antarctica.
This is the story of how he did it.
Compton’s research quickly revealed a few things: The ice makers currently available were overpriced, slow, and didn’t work reliably (you wouldn’t always get the ice shape you wanted). He figured he could apply his engineering experience to see if he could make something better.
“I’m an inventor at heart and I looked at this like a little science project,” Compton says.
The issue he found with the products currently on the market was that their thermodynamics weren’t optimized—the chamber in which the ice was made wasn’t good at converting warm air into cool air, leading to ice that was flat or misshapen.
To find a solution to this issue, Compton used something called computational fluid dynamics—a branch of fluid mechanics that uses numerical analysis and data structures to analyze and solve problems that involve fluid flows. Using this method he was able to create simulations on his computer that visualized how changes in temperature were propagating throughout digital prototypes of his ice machine.
After months of research he discovered some things that could be done to make the machines work more reliably. So he designed a product and partnered with a local manufacturing company to build a prototype. His prototype would prove to work faster and better than what was currently available on the market. However, the cost of producing one was $1,200, which was roughly the same price as what an ice maker retailed for at the time.
“That price point kind of excludes a lot of the market,” says Compton. “I knew if I could get the price down, the market would open up because there are a ton of people like me who would think these things are cool.”
He discovered a solution that not only made his business viable, but turned it into a mission-driven organization.
Clint and his wife, Jessica. (Photo credit: The Whiskey Ice Co.)
Around the time he was fashioning his first prototype, Compton became familiar with the concept of upcycling—reusing discarded materials to fashion new products of a higher quality.
Compton needed aluminum to create his ice makers because aluminum has high heat conductivity and capacity. But raw aluminum (also known as bauxite) is expensive—so Compton wondered if he could upcycle it.
He began reaching out to manufacturing plants all over the Midwest to find out what they did with their scrap metal. All in all, Compton says he spoke to about 90 manufacturers, and of those 90, he said 60% told him they recycled their scrap metal, while the other 40% simply threw it away. The ones who threw out their scrap metal said they did so because the recycling companies didn’t pay them enough for it, making it more trouble than it’s worth.
“The recycling companies weren’t making it worth their while, and I thought we could do something better,” Compton says. “It would be a win-win because we wouldn’t be contributing waste and we’d be making the price more approachable.”
Compton reached a deal with several of the manufacturers that weren’t recycling their scrap metal to buy it from them at a higher rate than what they would otherwise get from the recycling companies. Using this approach, Compton estimates he was able to lower the cost of his materials by 60%.
Furthermore, for every 25 pounds of aluminum Compton upcycles, he estimated he is able to save about 78 pounds of bauxite, 1,200 cubic feet of carbon dioxide, 4,000 gallons of water, and 150 kilowatts of electricity—enough to power a home in the United States for four days.
“I was floored by how big these numbers were,” Compton says. “Once I realized what a big difference we’d be making, I knew reducing waste would be our thing that would help us stand out from the competition.”
By 2012, Compton had converted his three-car garage into a private workshop, filed for an LLC, and began selling spherical ice ball makers online for $400 a pop.
Photo credit: The Whiskey Ice Co.
The Whiskey Ice Co. sold their first 20 spherical ice ball makers within a matter of days.
“It was like magic,” Compton recalls. “The word-of-mouth advertising we got was huge. We were stunned by how interested people were.”
But success bred new challenges. Compton and his wife, Jessica, had both run the business while holding down day jobs: Compton worked as an engineer for a telecom company and Jessica was a schoolteacher.
“I was working about 120 hours a week between both jobs and reinvesting everything we made into the business to meet demand,” Compton says.
One of the investments Compton made was a commercial laser cutter that allowed him to put branding on every ice machine (paint fades and cracks on a machine that gets hot and cold). He then used LinkedIn to reach out to liquor company representatives and offered to sell them ice makers with their business’s branding on them. That is how he got connected with Brown-Forman, manufacturers of some of the most popular spirits in the United States, including Jack Daniels, Woodford Reserve, and Old Forester.
“They thought my elevator pitch was interesting enough and my price point was right,” Compton says. “I told them I’d make ice makers with their branding on it and guarantee every machine for life.”
Brown-Forman ordered 100.
“We hadn’t even made 100 yet,” Compton recalls. “I was excited and terrified at the same time because my wife and I were assembling and packaging these things in our garage.”
Soon, Bacardi, America’s other large spirits manufacturer, placed an order. Then Compton was able to break into the retail market by striking deals with Sharper Image and Brookstone. By 2015, The Whiskey Ice Co. was moving over 1,000 units a year.
“I went from a guy messing around in my garage to making products that carry the names of some of the most well-known brands in the world,” Compton says. “It was a lot of hard work, but it was an amazing feeling.”
As demand continued to outpace production, Clint and Jessica decided to move their headquarters out of the garage and into a manufacturing facility in Dallas. The duo also filed a patent for their ice machine-making process. In 2017, after five years of pulling “double duty,” as Compton calls it, he quit his day job to work on The Whiskey Ice Co. full time.
“It was a whirlwind five years,” Compton says.
Today The Whiskey Ice Co. sells 16 different types of spherical ice ball makers ranging in price from $400 to $960. The machines are capable of creating a perfect ice sphere in as little as 15 seconds. The Whiskey Ice Co. also sells stainless steel jiggers, bar spoons, Hawthorne strainers, julep strainers, shakers, tongs, flasks, and glassware. Items can be purchased individually or as part of a set, and all products come with a lifetime warranty.
In addition, The Whiskey Ice Co. sells a variety of tonics, tinctures, bitters, and syrups. Compton also enjoys working with clients on drink recipe development.
“Ice ball makers aren’t just for whiskey, so we show our customers how to use our products in different ways,” Compton says. “We want them to think outside the sphere.”
Compton has hired one additional person to assist him with manufacturing, but relies mostly on automation to produce his product and keep costs down. This is made possible through a technique known as “lights out” manufacturing. Essentially, Compton is able to lay out all the materials needed to build his product on a work table. He then runs a program on a computer that tells a CNC mill how to cut all the parts needed to build one of his ice ball machines. He leaves for the night and comes back in the morning with all of his parts freshly cut.
“We basically get an extra workday out of the machines when nobody is even here,” Compton says. “Between upcycling and automation, we’ve figured out a way to manufacture to a price that gives our product wide appeal.”
Compton says he is able to produce an average of 20 ice ball makers per day. But even still he is having trouble keeping up with demand. So in March of 2019, after self-funding the business for the past eight years, he went to find help.
The first place Compton went to for a loan was his bank—whom he’d been a customer of for the past 25 years. He had good credit and good cash flow, so he figured the process would be fairly painless. But after submitting an application, he hadn’t heard anything for two weeks.
“I kept calling the bank manager and he kept stalling,” Compton says. “So I started to look at other options.”
During his research he came across Fundera. While initially skeptical of a third-party service, he decided to submit an application and was quickly connected with senior loan specialist Alex Pagan.
“Alex was really good at explaining to me what Fundera offers and why it’s different,” Compton says. “I was cautiously optimistic.”
After explaining how his business needed financing to keep up with demand, Pagan recommended applying for a loan with the Small Business Administration.
“I didn’t know anything about SBA loans,” Compton says. “But Alex explained to me how it worked and why I’d be a good fit, and it made a lot of sense.”
While working with Fundera, Compton decided to also speak with his bank about an SBA loan. He was blown away by the difference: Pagan told him he could get the loan in two weeks to a month, while his bank said it would take a minimum of two months. Pagan said he could get him the $300,000 his business needed, while his bank said they couldn’t do that amount.
In the end, Compton ended up securing a $297,000 term loan with the SBA brokered through Fundera.
“What really solidified my happiness with Fundera was that the people helping me made me feel like my goal was their goal,” Compton says. “I’m glad I gave Fundera a shot because it turned out a lot better than working with my own bank.”
With the money secured through Fundera, Compton has purchased additional manufacturing equipment to help speed up production. He is also planning on moving his manufacturing to a larger facility when his lease expires in 2020, and hiring another employee.
At the Las Vegas Nightclub and Bar Show this past March, Compton unveiled several new products, including interchangeable adapters that allow his machines to craft ice in a variety of new shapes, including skulls, diamonds, and hearts. He also unveiled a mechanism that can cut the inside of an ice sphere out and leave a raised area for a logo.
“People just salivated over that,” Compton says. “Over the two days of the show we must have had thousands of people visit our booth.”
In the past year The Whiskey Ice Co. has moved several thousand units while reducing waste, promoting upcycling, and working with every major liquor brand from Grey Goose and Glenfiddich to Dewar’s and Patrón.
Compton is thrilled with the success of the business, and hopes his products can promote what he likes to call “The Whiskey Lifestyle.”
“It was a term I coined years ago when trying to explain to people who weren’t interested in cocktails why they need an ice ball maker,” Compton says. “In the end I think our products help you slow down and think about what you’re enjoying and savor the process of enjoying it.”
When he looks back, Compton admits he is still amazed at how everything has turned out.
“It’s crazy that two people in their garage could make products that people all over the world want,” Compton says. “I make stuff that is cool to me, and I’m just grateful that other people like the stuff I create.”