Monthly Archives: September 2014

General Ramblings

A lot of the things we have been planning for sometime now are taking shape.  The big decisions we had to make early on have all been made, and now we are left to make them all fit within the scope of this project, which is changing a daily basis.  As such, things like tap location, size of custom cabinetry, location of bar sinks, and hundreds of other little decisions need to be looked at.

We have made many errors both big and small along the way, as making so many decisions is bound to result in a bad decision or 2 ….. or 20!  So here are the mistakes we have made that come to the top of my mind, and things you should be mindful of not doing.

  1. Make sure you agree to delivery dates for equipment and services provided to your brewery.  If you don’t have specified drop-dead dates, you can’t hold people to a timeframe in getting things done.  For example, if your website needs to be created by June 1st, but you don’t have this in your contact with your web designer, then you are left with no recourse should things take longer.
  2. The marathon of this is truly day in and day out a grind.  I love what I am doing, and it is a passion and dream all rolled into one, but it is still a grind.  The first 6 months seem to go by quickly, and your energy reserves are used, the next 6 months you have moments of highs and lows, and then the next 6 months hit.  I would say this is where we are.  We don’t celebrate our accomplishments enough, we are knee deep in financial duress, and we are about 2-3 months away from making any money.  Take 1 day off a week, as it will do your mind good.
  3. Its better to have stuff arrive when you need it, not before or after.  This is virtually impossible, but getting a big piece of equipment early is in a way just as bad as getting it early.  Get your stuff delivered when you need it, and shade a little to the earlier side of things.
  4. There is an endless amount of forms you need to fill out for the Government, so always keep on top of this.  I try to spend a couple hours a week reviewing our progress and making sure we are doing all that we can to keep these things moving forward.
  5. Schedule meetings wit your partner.  I can’t tell you how many times my partner and I try to meet about something and it gets interrupted or cut short because of something else.  We are realizing it might be best to have meetings elsewhere that are important.  Planning the business is more important than working in the business
  6. Finding time to do social media is the hardest thing some days.  When you are working on building a brewery, your free time evaporates and days just cruise by.  Always find time to connect with people on social media.  For some that is doing it as the day goes on, and for me that means doing it twice per day.  We have learned so much from others, and connected with so many great people, it would be a shame not to have done this.
  7. Include your landlord in decisions that effect the building.  If you have an amazing landlord like we do, they will want to be a part of things, so it is important to let them have some say.  After all, it is their building and your business is their business.
  8. Always have a plan B ready for action, especially when it comes to your financials and marketing.  Getting stuck with one idea, or one way of doing things is a real challenge in any aspect of this process.  It evolves so much, that it is much better to wave in the wind like a flag and go with the flow.
  9. You will need money, lots of money, and you will likely need more as the process goes on.  If you think you are different than everyone else who has started a business, or undertaken a massive renovation, then do so at your own peril.  We thought we would be good after 4 or 5 revisions to our budget, only to have the wrench of a delay resulting in us needing more money.  My advice would be to research as much as possible, and leave a bucket of money with about 15% of your overall budget to get to day 1 so that you can mitigate these risks.
  10. Marketing needs to represent who you are.  Since we are a team of 2, it is harder to get this right, as we are both very different in what we like.  Also, we wanted something other than what represented who we were for some time.  Once we decided to go with our gut, we found a path to happiness and cool branding, representative of our beliefs and opinions.
  11. If you are having a tasting room like us, the front of the house is a big enigma that is full of unknowns and expensive items.  Walk carefully through this minefield.  We messed up tap locations, counter top height, layout, approval process, etc.  A lot can go wrong so make sure you think this through.
  12. Don’t forget about these electronic items/systems:  POS ($5,000) AV ($2,500) Security system ($1,500) and CCTV ($4,000).  They add up to a lot, but we couldn’t imagine not getting these things right.  Also, try to include these items on your electrical contractors scope of work early on, as it will save you $$$.
  13. Spend too much money on non-critical things.  Don’t spend a lot of money on a forklift, but get a used one.  Don’t pay any of your carpenters to clean up at $55 per hour, do it yourself. Don’t get a bin until you are ready for it, do a couple dump runs on your own.  You get the idea.

I am sure throughout today, I will make 10 decisions with my partner, 7 of which we get right, 1 we are not so sure about and 2 that are wrong … only we won’t know it until some later point.  The point is sometimes you need take your time and make the right decision, and others you need to make any decision, just make one immediately to keep things moving forward.  The key is to think about when key decisions need to be made, and factor that into your approach.  If a decision doesn’t need to made, take a day to sleep on it.

I am sure I would be able to add about 10 more things to this list if I had the time or more mental horsepower right now.  Hopefully you can add more to this list via the comments below. Thanks for reading and until my next entry.

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Marketing Decisions

One thing I have underestimated up until now is the number of decisions that need to be made for marketing.  I always thought the big marketing decisions were the tough ones, but now walking through this process, it is the small ones that suck all your time and cause the most headaches with the schedule.  Paying others to do some of your work will help bring in a fresh opinion, move things forward, and get you to a place you wouldn’t otherwise have gotten.  It will still take hard work and lots of re-working things to get them right.

As a craft brewery, we kind of thought that marketing was secondary to making really great beer, and having a great tasting room to hang out in.  For the most part, it still is but the gap has narrowed quite measurably.  With so many amazing breweries swinging open their doors in the past few years (Brassneck, Parallel 49 Brewing, Powell Street Brewing, Postmark, 33 Acres, Steel and Oak, Yellow Dog, Main Street, and many more), it is now imperative that your brand be spot on.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think you need to have a perfect brand for customers to see, rather I think you need to achieve a few important things in your message:  Authenticity, why you did this, and what makes you so different.

Yes, yes the quality of beer is still paramount.  Make crappy beer or have the same selection of beer at your brewery week in and week out, and you will find yourself floundering.  At the end of the day, consumers care most about this.  But the people that spend their hard earned dollars at breweries also want to see a brand that meets their expectations.  What makes it harder for a brewery to meet these expectations, is that no 2 people have the same ones.  Some want authentic, and others want playful, some want seriousness, and others want unique.  What do you want?

Getting back to my original point, we decided to go in the direction of making something we think is representative of us.  Authentic, Fun, and pretty straight forward.  However, what you set out to do, like everything in this process, is not necessarily what we are going to end up with.  You see, making thousands of decisions over a period of months, if not years, puts you down a path that you didn’t necessarily intend.

For instance, we always wanted our brand to be what it has become.  But to think that we named our company Strange Fellows Brewing is somewhat comical.  My partner and I always wanted a more serious name, but through indecision, other names being taken (this is huge) and the input of others, we ended up with Strange Fellows.  This set off a cascade of events that has slowly morphed our brand into something that neither of us could have imagined.

Also changing where we ended up is the list of decision that we needed to make, with each of these decisions having hundreds of little decisions to make the big decision:

  • website design and look and feel – hundreds of decisions in this bucket
  • can versus bottle versus growler – design, size and look
  • label for all product
  • logo – you will need to pick something that works on its own, with your can design, and in sizes all the way up to a decal on your car to sign-post at your brewery
  • bottle cap
  • merchandise
  • growler design
  • your story and how it relates to your brand
  • business cards
  • tasting room design meshed with your personal taste, budget and consumers taste

Each of these, and many others, have hundreds of layers to the decisions you need to make.  Its not as simple as just making the choice and living with it in a bubble.  Your decisions are not mutually exclusive, as one decision will impact another, often forcing you to rethink exactly what you are doing.  Let me give you an example.

We knew we wanted to put our beer into cans, so we charged ahead with this.  However, we didn’t know what kind of beer to put into cans.  So we had to decide which of our favourites we were going to brew, and put that out there to the world, without ever actually brewing these beers.  Which means you need to talk about flavour, alcohol percentage, etc without ever having tasted the beer.  Then you need to make a description of the beer, a beer name, a theme to your beer, create a UPC code, get preliminary approval from the LDB, get all the details on the can correct and be happy with where it is at about 10-12 weeks before you plan on packaging this product.  You see, cans need to be manufactured and that takes some time, which means before you even do anything, you need to have all your marketing complete.

It also means that once you make decisions, going back on those decisions will change other aspects of the design.  Invariably you will makes changes, and while you have your head down in the sand making all these decisions and changes, you end up with a can that may be great, but also may be quite far from where you intended to end up.  We’d be lying if we didn’t admit to this, as well as every other craft brewery in the Province.  So go easy on those people who have missed the mark with their marketing, as they may have gotten to a place they didn’t intend, and have no way of getting out.

To me, marketing matters most in terms of how much I connect with a brand.  This is everything from; what are the owners like, what is their message, what does the beer taste like, what are their thoughts on craft beer, why are they making beer, is this their passion, what other breweries do they like, and are they helping to keep Vancouver at the forefront of craft beer.  If a brand conveys all this information to me, or if I pick up on these things along the way, my decision on whether I like the brand is already made.  A company could miss 2 or 3 of these things and be alright, but if they miss 2 or 3 of these things and one of them is the quality of the beer, then I will move on.

For us, we’ve had the luxury of time, which has been our worst enemy for cash, but our best friend for crafting our story.  Having a brewery build-out that has taken about 9 months, in addition to a 12 month period that we were actively working on our brand, which comes after about 1 year of starting the process.  All this has meant we’ve been able to work out the kinks, and get it where we are pretty happy.  We could still make a few changes to our marketing, but for the most part we are pretty stoked about it.  I went through my diaries and have the following summaries from just our name selection:

  • January 2010 started working with my brother on a brand called The Crafty Monk
  • Over the next 18 months came up with a logo, and design for label
  • January 2012 met Iain Hill and started our partnership.
  • March 2012 Iain and I agree that we need to come up with a name together that is indicative of both us.
  • July 2012 changed name to Low Countries Brewing
  • Sept 2012 worked with Iain’s wife Christine on logo and branding.  We had a really tough time making the name look interesting and work well.
  • October 2013 after a year working with Low Countries Brewing, we decided to ditch the name as it was boring and not exactly what we wanted to do anymore,
  • January 2014 false start on Allegory brewing
  • February 2014 with our partnership about to dissolve over indecision about our name, we finally agree to Strange Fellows.
  • March 2014 to present we worked on our branding and marketing to end up where we are, which we hope is a pretty good place.

Without the time we had available to us, we might have ended up with a name like The Crafty Monk, or Allegory, both of which would have led us down a path that is much different than where we are today.  So take your time in making decisions, as creativity knows no time boundaries.  It would also relate to this entire process, as for us, getting all aspects of this project correct the first time is the most important thing.

 

Its official, we are going to be delayed in opening …

We received some disappointing news about a week ago!  We have been synthesizing what it means and how it will impact our business, but more importantly what we can do to mitigate the risk we are going to experience.  It looks like we are going to push our opening day from late October to December 1st.

We know how people really hate a company saying one thing, and then going about their business only to do something else.  It was not our intention, and to those people who have been following closely, we are sorry.  Not unlike anyone else, it was never our intention to put a date out there that we couldn’t make.  We tried to keep our foot on the gas pedal, while being realistic with our expectations.  We lost quite a bit of time at different points, considering the number of trades we had coordinate and the size and scope of our retrofit.  I have written about managing the schedule, working with a contractor and other items around the build in the past, so I won’t rehash those again.

This I know as true:  The bigger your build, the more expensive your build will be and the longer your build will take.  I would use the analogy of having both the wind and tide against your boat, where the wind is money and the tide is time.  The sum of these 2 problems becomes greater than each part.  Let me try to explain, when you have a bigger build than you expect, it will cost more than you budgeted because of the size of all your work gets bigger.  Like longer electrical wire runs, mechanical runs, more concrete, etc.  What also happens is it takes longer to build, which means you will need more money in getting to day 1.  No matter what you pay for lease, insurance, wages, etc on a monthly basis, whether you are ahead or behind the schedule.

Getting back on topic, some components to our build will be delayed by about a month.  So instead of having these items in place to move things along, our build-out of the brewery will be measurably slowed because of this delay.  It is crushing and cruel all at the same time.  All the effort we have put into beating drop-dead dates, the overtime we have paid to our construction crew, and the early mornings and late nights we have experienced all seem for not right now.

The biggest impact of this delay will be to our finances.  Instead of having the money we need to make it to day 1, we are now going to dilute our company, and raise more money.  There is no creative accounting that can make up for a 1 month loss of revenue, while still experiencing many of the fixed and variable costs our business will come up against.  We don’t quite know what options are available to us, but hopefully we can find a solution that keeps us afloat and allows us to make it to day 1 intact.

So I guess the good news is that I will keep blogging, as I seem to have a little more time on our hands.  More importantly, we can stop rushing so many decisions in order to make sure we make the correct choice.   I plan on blogging about a few other things, all of which will help with people who are following our path.