Omid McDonald, 46, is a serial entrepreneur. He’s the founder and CEO of Dairy Distillery in Almonte, Ont., the maker of Vodkow, Canada’s first gluten and lactose-free vodka made from otherwise wasted milk permeate.
During your high-school years in Ottawa, you wrote a program to trace fetal heart rates. How did that come about?
My dad was a University of Ottawa math professor and got me into computers – my mom was from Iran, where “Omid” is from. I was lucky to have an Apple II in Grade 6 and started programming. In high school, I helped him with research projects. One of them was to predict fetuses in distress. That led to writing a program teaching fetal heart-rate interpretation.
Why did your bachelor of applied science degree take 12 years?
I thought coding would be a career. After 18 months [of school], I wanted to do a startup. My parents were very supportive. The heart-rate program led me to ultrasound and starting VMI Medical. We got to about 100 people in Ottawa, selling software mostly to the United States. I wanted a change so I went to Paris for four years – I’m bilingual. VMI was acquired so I started Simbit software for pediatric hospitals in Brooklyn. Simbit’s sale allowed me to come back and build a house, mortgage-free. Then I went into third year.
Your next venture after that was in DJs making legal remixes. Where did that come from?
Legitmix was a neat intellectual idea. Unfortunately, it didn’t pan out; the world went to streaming. I went right to the end with that – it was very painful. I applied for jobs, but then my wife said, “Do what you do, start something new.” I discovered there are some advantages in getting older; I had a huge amount of experience and contacts.
And you start making moonshine?
We visited a distillery and I fell in love with everything about it. I ordered a pot still kit. Let’s say I made nothing tasty. I was chatting with my wife’s cousin, and he mentioned that his uncle’s dairy farm had to dump skim milk. It was literally a light bulb moment: “Can you make booze out of milk?”
Your wife’s cousin is Neal McCarten, who’s now your partner at Vodkow. How did you know he would make a great partner?
When starting something, it’s hard by yourself. Someone enthusiastic to jump into something crazy is needed. We started doing research, side-by-side building the distillery. We applied to the Canadian Dairy Commission’s innovation program. They said we should “find another source” other than skim milk. I called every Ontario dairy processor, and most hung up on me; but a woman at Parmalat introduced us to milk permeate, which is perfect stuff to make booze from.
Milk permeate is usually considered a waste byproduct in the production of the milk we get in stores.
Our feelings on using “waste” changed. Before launching, we thought if we used the word, people might think it’s stinking and freak out. We called it “unused.” People said, “Wow, you’re saying this is waste?” It captivated imaginations. We discovered turning waste into something delicious is one of our biggest marketing advantages.
Do you feel like failure prepared you?
For sure. I’ve met many entrepreneurs who’ve had both; it’s about learning. Everything I do is based on the past. People ask, “Is this [business] different?” No, it’s business, building relationships, and understanding what people want. I’m doing that more than at my previous businesses – and having a blast. We live in a country where you can take crazy risks – what’s the worst that could happen? You’re not going to starve to death. Maybe move home with your parents to get on your feet. I wake up every day, lucky I don’t sell bad vodka. Cleaning out a drawer, I found a BlackBerry PlayBook. We use it as a coaster: 100 years from now people can pull out Vodkow. They’ll know what to do with it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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