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Billionaire Jim Koch: Listen to your gut, not your dad

The real risk, says the brewmaster CEO, is letting skeptics keep you from chasing your dreams

Jim Koch, co-founder and chairman of the Boston Beer Company
Source: The Boston Beer Company
Jim Koch, co-founder and chairman of the Boston Beer Company

When Jim Koch walked out of a job that most people would kill for to start brewing beer in his kitchen, everybody, including his father, said he had lost his mind.

"When I started Sam Adams, I had a very good job. It was a really nice office on the 33rd floor of a skyscraper here in Boston. It was a world famous management consulting firm, making good money, flying first class, all that stuff," says Koch. "I left that to start brewing beer in my kitchen in an industry that didn't exist, that everybody thought was crazy."

Koch, pronounced "Cook," is a sixth generation brewmaster. But in 1984, when Koch started The Boston Beer Company in his home, small, regional breweries were losing market share fast. Even his father doubted him.

"My dad told me this was about the dumbest f--ing idea he'd ever heard," says Koch. "When he was a brewer, you know, the big brewers were grinding up all the small and regional breweries that used to exist in this country and he thought that they would do that to me."

He explained to his father that he was not attempting to compete with the giant brewers.

"I thought my dad would like put his arms around me, 'Jim I'm so excited, so gratified that you're continuing what was the the oldest brewing tradition, the most generations of brewers in America, and I'm glad it didn't end with me, Jim,'" says Koch, now 67.

"But, no, because he was very excited that you know I'd gotten a good education and I was able to go to Harvard, he was very, very proud of all of that. This crazy idea of starting a small-scale brewery was not his idea of success."

"My dad told me this was about the dumbest f--ing idea he'd ever heard." -Jim Koch, CEO of the Boston Beer Company

But Koch, then 34, had a different paradigm for success, one that he recommends all aspiring entrepreneurs consider.

"Yes, there's a risk that I'll start this brewery and it'll fail and I'll lose all my money. Big deal," says Koch. "I'll pick myself up, I'll go on with my life, and I will have done something really cool. The real risk would have been staying in a job that was OK but I didn't love for the rest of my life, staying in that job and getting to 67, where I am now, and looking back and going, 'Oh my God! I wasted my life.'"

Koch's gamble paid off. He set out to launch a brewery that would be doing a million dollars a year in sales, and now it's doing a billion dollars a year, a journey he wrote about in his recently released book, Quench Your Own Thirst: Business Lessons Learned Over a Beer or Two. More importantly, Koch is happy.

"The real risk," he says, "is wasting your life and not doing what you really want to do." And, perhaps, listening to your father instead of your gut.