Category Archives: Business Side of Things

6 Months after opening – part 1

I just visited my blog again for the first time in about 6 months, and I was shocked to see that people are still visiting it, looking for information on starting a brewery.  I felt a little inspired so thought I would jot down a bunch of things that come to mind regarding running a brewery.  In no particular order, it would be the following:

  • Man you will be tired:  Unless you are flush with cash and you can afford to have extra staff around, you will be working like a dog.  Minimum 60 hour weeks, week-in and week-out.  Get ready for this, or if you are adverse to this kind of thing, get ready to hire additional staff to make life easy.
  • Cash flow:  People look at our brewery and see that we are doing well, and we are.  People love our beer, we have great tasting room staff, we love what we do, and craft beer in Vancouver and BC is on such a huge upswing.  However, cash flow is an ongoing challenge and something that needs constant attention.  The bigger you grow, the more of a buffer you need for working capital.  So know this:  The cash flow needs of your business will get worse over the first 6 months and not better.
  • Managing people:  I don’t say this in terms that it is an issue or a problem, just something that you need to be aware of.  When you are building your brewery, you manage yourself and a team of people that sooner or later will leave and move onto something else.  However, when you hire staff there is so much more to the relationship than a do this do that approach.  You must deal with peoples feelings, strive to make the staff get happiness from doing what they do, and strike a delicate balance between being the good cop and the bad cop.  There are many other small components as well, and to be honest there will be days you suck at being a boss and others that will come easily.  For me, I need to work on this part of my skill-set continuously.
  • Dealing with government:  Don’t know what else I can say here.  Just get ready for inspections, forms to fill out, paperwork, bureaucracy, bitting your bottom lip, and general frustration in this bucket.
  • Customer is always right:  We get lots of feedback from people on all sorts of things.  Mostly though, people who pass along feedback have found something they don’t like or think could be improved.  There are 2 ways to take this information:  Defensively or as constructive feedback.  As much as we may disagree with what people say and how they approach us, there is always value in taking this information and using it to make your business better.  You may not always do what a customer wants you to do, but you can always take a little from the conversation.  Moreover, if you don’t listen to your customers and they take their hard earned money elsewhere, you will have nothing.
  • Did I tell you this process is tiring:  Can’t overstate this enough.  Get your ass in shape, prepare people around you for the workload and find your release so you can stay sane.  For me its exercise … what about for you?
  • Not enough time in a day/week/month to get everything done:  You will need to prioritize on a daily basis as there is never enough time to get everything done.  The fulcrum is never in balance, just make sure you are always checking on where it should be.
  • Know when to hire and add staff:  Hand in hand with the point above, before you burn out, hire someone to help.  Each person has a different threshold for workload, stress and the ability to get things done.  So don’t judge a partner or employee for what they are or aren’t doing.  Just focus on getting your work complete, and help others where you can.  When the burden of your to-do list becomes too much, spend some money and hire someone.
  • Stick to your plan but detour when necessary:  This is a tough one, but certainly one that should not be lost.  There are times when you should stick to your plan and resist going off course, and there are others where you should do the opposite.  How you know which way to go?  For me, taking an extra day to make a decision is often one of the best ways to find my path.
  • More to come … I actually enjoyed writing these points.  Maybe I will start finding time on a weekly basis to fill this sheet in.
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21 Days to go …. The Importance of an Amazing Team

This post is key for everyone that is looking to start a brewery.  Get a kick ass team around you.  Don’t make quick decisions on these areas, and I would focus on the following as key:

  • Electrician
  • Mechanical
  • Engineer (Structural, Electrical and Mechanical)
  • General Contractor
  • Architect
  • Accountant
  • Lawyer
  • Banker
  • Landlord
  • Business Partner
  • Graphic Designer
  • Equipment Suppliers

Of all these things on the list 1 stands out as the most important.  Can you guess which one it is?  Of course you know its the business partner.  Having a great partner can make everything else seem like nothing much or something substantial.  For us, we only screwed up on one of these major categories, and it really came back to bite us in the rear-end.  I would hate to think if we made bad decisions on more than one of these.  Our lives would have easily gone from manageable to a nightmare very quickly.

At various times throughout this process, we have been supported by these people.  The true sign of a great team member, is someone who is honest, supports you when you need the help, and is willing to work with a changing job.  You will change direction thousands of times throughout the process.  Having a group of trades people that is understanding of this and won’t gouge you is really important.  There will be change orders, and its how they are dealt with that really matter.

There is one person not on the list that one could say is even more important than a good business partner, and that is a good life partner.  Having someone who supports you when you need it, kicks you in the ass at other times, is huge.   My wife has supported me in every way imaginable throughout this process.  Without her, I can’t imagine what I would have done.  Hopefully you have someone like this in your life, as it is crucial to success IMO.

So kind of a fluffy post today, but I didn’t really have any other option, as I am falling asleep at the computer here.  Off to bed very shortly and up 4am to get cracking at our bookkeeping.  Not the most glamorous thing in the world, but pretty darn important.

23 Days to go …. Finally Received our Manufacturers Licence

With 23 days to go, our days are pretty busy, and with the news we received today, they are just going to get busier.  As of today, we are officially allowed to manufacture beer in our brewery!!!  Yeehaw, thats right, after submitting our manufacturers licence to the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch 12 months ago, we finally received permission to brew beer.

It is a long and drawn out process, one that I have blogged about under the Process of Starting  a Craft Brewery Page.  Essentially, I can’t see anyone getting their manufacturers licence any quicker than 6 months.  Given the amount of decisions you have to make, the people you need to work with, the government agencies that lack a sufficient quantity of personnel on this, etc, all combine to make the process go slow.  It is why I recommend that as soon as you know you have a lease in place, this is the first thing you should do, apply for permits/licences as they are going to take the longest … really anything to do with government.

Anyhow, what this means is that Thursday we are going to brew our first batch of beer, which will then be followed by brew number 2 and 3 in quick order.  I will be heading to the brewery in the morning to readjusting the webcam so that we can point it at the brewhouse and you can have a birds-view of things.

Of the many milestones in the road to starting a brewery, this is the one that you think about the most:  Brewing the first batch of beer.  A lot of work, preparation and effort goes towards making this day a reality, and next to the first day you get to drink your beer.  This day is coming and until then, we have a long list of other things to get completed.  We hope that our beer matches what we hope it will be, and really, what we expect.

The best part of having a tasting room is that we will get to make a lot of different beers.  Barrel Aged, Lambics, Sours, Hoppy Beers, Strong Beers, Blended Beers, and even Lagers will be part of our tasting room.  What makes all these beers possible is the crazy good mind of Iain Hill and the support of so many loyal craft beer supporters.  Without your encouragement, preference for craft beer, and support none of this would be possible.  We thank you for making beer unique and even strange beer something we can all be proud of again.

Very exciting times for us, and we hope to share our brand and beer with you very soon.  Until then, keep reading this blog, checking our webcam and following our social media feeds.

33 Days to go …. Hiring Employees

One thing we have learned is to leave LOTS of time for your first hire(s).  The process of hiring someone is full of ups and downs, offers, counter-offers, negotiations, discussions with lawyers, time for reflection, and a few other variables.  Ultimately, there is a saying that says, “hire slow and fire fast,”and it is a very worthwhile thing to take note of when going through this process.

Its not that we have or anywhere near firing someone, but giving yourself time to find the right person, can mean a bunch of time that you never thought it would take.  For us, we are still not 100% certain who our first hire is, for a variety of reasons.  I can only speak generally about it, but it goes like this.  You may find the right person, but you may not agree on compensation or start date, or you may find the wrong person but everything seems so easy to move forward, but it still feels like a square peg in a round hole.

This is the generalities I can make from things on our side:

  • Your first hire is super important, so make sure you make the right choice here
  • Look for someone who can do a variety of tasks, as you will have a lot of things to do in the brewery that you will need a hand with
  • Get an employment agreement early on so that you are not struggling with this at the wrong time
  • Be definitive in your actions and your approach to things.  Go with your guy, but also do thorough checks and questioning to make sure all is good
  • An ability to work hard and honesty are two traits that should be found in every candidate you are considering.  These should not be anyone who you would question this with
  • Structure the agreement so that it is beneficial to both your company and to the employee.
  • Overpay for the right person.

Both Iain and I have little experience hiring staff.  Actually Iain has more than I do.  I have been interviewed a lot of times, but never on the other side of the table.  It is a little different, and definitely not as nerve racking, but it is tough and intense all the same.  I can think back to people who were great interviewers, and others …. not so much.

We have worked with our lawyer to create the employment agreement that we have.  It is a good place to start, as they usually have boilerplates that you can add things and take away other stuff to suite your needs and what you want to achieve.  If you need a employment agreement boilerplate, there are lots on the internet.  Unfortunately, I can’t share our agreement with you, otherwise I would.

36 days out … Use a Notebook and to do list!

Of the many things this process has taught me, there are several that stand out as key learnings overall.  Its hard to say how one should practice for these things, but likely knowing about them, reading books about them, and talking with others about them are a huge help.

The first thing that I have learned is how to get things done.  I feel like I have always been quite productive in my life.  Not quite sure where I got this, but ever since I turned 30, I have increasingly become a highly productive machine.  To that end, one of the best books I read for preparing for this venture was Getting Things Done by David Allen.  You will not be disappointed if you make the time to read this book.  It will help you be more productive with your days, and organize your life to stay on top of all the details.

Another trait that I knew was deep inside me, but never really exposed is an ability to work long hours with little sleep.  Normally, I am a high energy guy, so when it comes to sleep I like to get 7 hours of bed time a night.  Continuing to exercise and stay fit means that sleep is important.  However, for the past couple months, this has been shaved down to about 5.5 – 6 hours per night, with one night a week at 12.  I find I am capable of this, definitely a little more grumpy, unhappy, etc, but that should be expected.  Find your ability to work long and hard, and you will be in a good position to succeed.

One last trait, one that might just possibly be the most important trait is the ability to not get overwhelmed by the gravity of this situation.  Really, this is one of the most stressful and intense situations an average person could go through, and with the help of friends and family, I have managed to stay positive and on track.  If you have a tough time dealing with stress and multi-tasking, you will need to either take course, read or learn to deal with this possibility.

Another huge help is always having a notebook that contains a to do list.  Make sure you cross things out when they are complete, so you can get the satisfaction of accomplishing something. To do lists are key as are notebooks with all your notes from meetings and discussions.  I can’t tell you how many times I have referenced the book to find something I have been looking for.

Until next post, keep on keeping on!

37 Days Out …. Tasting Room Details

With the changes to tied-house and the ability to have a tasting room and retail area within the brewery, there has been a paradigm shift in the way breweries in BC construct their operations. For a long time, many spaces just took a little retail area, cobbled together a small bar and sold their beer.  However, led by Main Street Brewing, Brassneck and 33 Acres, there is a new breed of tasting rooms that have fundamentally altered the model we are all following.

We have benefited from starting our brewery at a time when these tasting room areas are now allowed in Vancouver by-laws, and as such, we have focused a lot of resources and energy on building and designing this space.  We hope to make it everything we would want in a tasting room.  We have learned a few lessons along the way and it seems right to pass them along.  I have written posts in the past that relate to the tasting room, but this has the best nuggets of information in one place.

Some random thoughts on designing and building your tasting room:

  • Keep the cooler close to the bar, so your beer doesn’t have to travel a long distance to get to the tap.  Pretty self explanatory here.
  • Balance the area between tasting room and retail area.  We have a little retail area on both halves of the tasting room, which means our space seems a little bigger than it is in reality.  This might be a good thing some days and a bad thing on others.
  • Make sure your retail area and tasting room is a reflection of yourself.  Iain and I had a tough time with this, as we see things through pretty different lenses.  I am more modern and Iain is more traditional.  Our space, like our brand and everything else we do, is a amalgamation of both our opinions and preferences.
  • Plan out the flow of people.  Nothing worse than having a space that is hard to move around in when you are busy.  Think about bathroom locations, and also the layout of the retail area, and how it interacts with the bar.
  • Location, separation and number of tap handles for pouring the beer is super important.  We have gone with 2 sets, that Iain can tell you all the specifics on.  Essentially we had Bamford bar service install the lines and taps, and we followed much of their guidance on this.
  • Plan to spend a bunch of money in the tasting room.  The best way to save cash in this area is to do a lot of the work yourself and also to keep it simple.  We will end saving a lot of money, as we found salvaged wood from a few different places, and used materials from our job site in the construction of different parts of the tasting room.
  • Take your time planning the bar.  We went through this over and over on how to layout the bar.  Go see what others are doing, think about all the things you will need in a bar, and also how your space will function, down the to the last detail.  I am talking cash drawer, POS, line-ups, etc. etc.
  • Get a metal fabricator for stainless that is CSA approved.  We used a metal fabricator that is not, which is fine, except when it comes to putting in your sink, which you will need to find a metal fabricator to do that is CSA approved.

I am sure I could find a lot of other things that may or may not be worthy of putting onto this list, but this seems pretty good for now.  I am pretty tired, so need to get some sleep.  We are looking at a crew of about 3 guys 8-10 weeks to finish our tasting room.  That is a lot of work, time and energy they have expended, which also means it is expensive, so try to get everything right you can the first time.

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.