Family/CommunicationLeadershipPeopleMarch 22, 20152Award-Winning Beer: An Entrepreneur’s Handbook

If you're thinking about starting a business - here are five key areas that need your attention.

I have to admit upfront that this post is pri­mar­i­ly a thin­ly-veiled excuse to say won­der­ful things about my hus­band. How­ev­er, be assured there is an impor­tant life/work les­son here as well. My hus­band Patrick is in the final stages of set­ting up his craft brew­ery, and it’s been fas­ci­nat­ing watch­ing him trav­el down five par­al­lel busi­ness-build­ing tracks for the past year. I’m real­iz­ing that any suc­cess­ful entre­pre­neur needs to walk down these same paths.  (He’s doing this much bet­ter than I did 25 years ago, when I start­ed Pro­teus, but still I rec­og­nize the path­ways from my start-up days.)  Here’s what they are:

Facilities/Physical:  From the moment he rent­ed his brew­ery-space-to-be last May, Patrick has been focused on a wide vari­ety of phys­i­cal, object-relat­ed tasks, from revamp­ing the space (clean­ing, paint­ing, putting in trench drains, hav­ing the plumb­ing and elec­tri­cal upgrad­ed); to spec­c­ing out and order­ing the brew­ing sys­tem and decid­ing how to set it up in the space; to switch­ing our main vehi­cle from a car to a truck for schlep­ping pur­pos­es. Almost any entre­pre­neur­ial ven­ture — even some­thing like a one-per­son Cloud-based enter­prise that seems not phys­i­cal at all — requires ask­ing and answer­ing ques­tions about phys­i­cal require­ments and doing the asso­ci­at­ed tasks.  Where are you going to work? What equip­ment will you need? What work process­es will require phys­i­cal space and how will you set that up?

Rela­tion­ships: Patrick won’t be hir­ing any employ­ees dur­ing the brew­ery’s ear­ly days — but that does­n’t mean rela­tion­ships aren’t impor­tant to his suc­cess. He’s spent more time with his land­lord, his plumber and his elec­tri­cian that with most oth­er peo­ple he knows over the past few months.  And he’s work­ing to build good rela­tion­ships with a much wider group as well: his sup­pli­ers, the folks who built his brew­ing sys­tem, and oth­er local brew­ers, just to name a few.  Even if you’re start­ing a sin­gle-per­son enter­prise (or at least sin­gle-per­son to start with), don’t under­es­ti­mate the neces­si­ty of hav­ing a web of peo­ple around you who want to do busi­ness with you and are sup­port­ive of your suc­cess.  If you don’t tend to those rela­tion­ships, it’s real­ly hard to accom­plish almost anything.

Organizational/Admin:  I now know that start­ing a brew­ery — even a small one — requires jump­ing through an aston­ish­ing vari­ety of admin­is­tra­tive hoops.  The fed­er­al per­mit­ting process was a daunt­ing sev­en-month jour­ney of frus­tra­tion and bureau­crat­ic nit­pick­ing through the bow­els of the TTB (Alco­hol and Tobac­co Tax and Trade Bureau). Watch­ing him go through it and lis­ten­ing to his very legit­i­mate com­plaints, I was aston­ished that any­one who does­n’t have a fleet of lawyers and accoun­tants to call upon ever ends up open­ing a brew­ery.  The two-month long state per­mit­ting process was, by com­par­i­son, a walk in the park. Then pile on all the local require­ments (build­ing codes, busi­ness license, city coun­cil OK, etc. etc.) and the inter­nal func­tion­al ques­tions to be answered (How will we bill cus­tomers? What account­ing pro­gram will we use?). Any entre­pre­neur who assumes he or she can just start pro­duc­ing their cool thing and make a mil­lion is court­ing dis­as­ter.  I think for most peo­ple, this is the least fun part of start­ing a busi­ness — but if you don’t think through it in a pret­ty struc­tured way (or work with some­one who can help you to do that), and build the time and effort required into your start-up plan, your busi­ness will grind to a halt before it even starts.

Prod­uct:  I’ve been tru­ly impressed with the fact that, as he’s been ful­ly immersed in these first three aspects of start­ing his busi­ness, Patrick has also been devot­ing a lot of time to mak­ing sure his prod­uct is extra­or­di­nary.  He’s spent the whole year doing exhaus­tive recipe devel­op­ment and test­ing on each of his four stan­dard beers and two sea­son­als. Now that his sys­tem has arrived, once he gets it set up he’ll be going through a whole new prod­uct loop of fig­ur­ing out how to repli­cate the qual­i­ty he’s achieved — at 20x the vol­ume.  He’ll be going from 5 gal­lon home­brews to 3.5 bar­rel (108 gal­lon) pro­duc­tion batch­es.  It’s all too easy as an entre­pre­neur to think “I’ve got a great thing — it will knock every­one’s socks off.”  And yet — will it?  It’s essen­tial that you build rounds of test­ing, ramp­ing up and improve­ment into your pre-sales start-up planning.

Mar­ket­ing and Sales: And yet, just hav­ing a great prod­uct or ser­vice isn’t enough.  You have to think clear­ly and prac­ti­cal­ly about who your cus­tomers are, how you’ll let them know that you have some­thing they need, and how to com­mu­ni­cate that in a com­pelling way. This is Patrick­’s least favorite part, and so the one in which I’ve been involved most involved.  We’ve had many brand­ing dis­cus­sions: that is, what are we promis­ing, and how do we want to con­vey that promise in words and images? Based on that, we’ve put lots of thought into nam­ing and labelling for each beer. Since we’re now a cou­ple of months away from hav­ing beer to sell, we’re focus­ing on all the deci­sions, large and small, need­ed to con­nect our prod­uct with a delight­ed cus­tomer base. For instance, we’re only sell­ing to restau­rants and bars, vs. retail, so we iden­ti­fied the cri­te­ria for the hos­pi­tal­i­ty busi­ness­es that could be attract­ed to our prod­uct and price point, and then made a list of all those busi­ness­es with­in about a 45-minute dri­ve of the brew­ery.  Now we’re fig­ur­ing out how to sup­port and inspire our future cus­tomers to let their patrons know they’re car­ry­ing our beers. And then how to make it easy for those patrons — once they’ve tast­ed and liked the beer — to become vocal fans and advo­cates.  In oth­er words, even great prod­ucts don’t sell them­selves.  Before you have prod­uct to sell, think about who your tar­get audi­ence is, why they need your prod­uct, and how you’ll let them know it exists and can meet their needs.  And do your best to do some mar­ket-test­ing before­hand: it’s easy to think peo­ple will love your thing just because you do, but you need to get some inde­pen­dent con­fir­ma­tion of that love.

And, hap­pi­ly, Patrick just received some great inde­pen­dent con­fir­ma­tion:  he sent his four stan­dard beers (1875 Milk Stout, 1829 IPA, 1758 Wit­bier, and 1855 Cream Ale) out to six nation­al com­pe­ti­tions a few months ago.  Just last week, he found out that he won awards in four of the six: 2 gold, 3 sil­ver, and 3 bronze medals — and each of his four beers won at least once.

All of which goes to show — when you take care to walk down the right paths as an entre­pre­neur, won­der­ful things can hap­pen along the way. 


  • Duncan M.

    June 5, 2015 at 10:42 am

    Start­ing a busi­ness is nev­er easy, and the path is paved with many chal­lenges. How­ev­er, hav­ing some­body by your site, to advise you and talk to is price­less. Build­ing rela­tions and focus­ing on achiev­ing the estab­lished goal can def­i­nite­ly keep you on the right track.


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