growth, there were more moments to catch our breaths and look into our past at lessons learned the hard way. It has not been easy to transition from a bootstrapping little brewery, hand delivering hand-bottled beer in a pickup truck, to a brewery distributing to 26 states and 4 countries. But it has been fun. As the president of this growing company, I find that my role is constantly changing. It has been quite a challenge to build a great brand, but that is what we are aspiring to do. It takes strong leadership, commitment, and passion to persuade the rest of the company to follow your vision. You must have a clear understanding of who you are, and what your business goals are. I still do not have 20/20 vision when it comes to the business, but I am a lot less blind than I was in the old days. Living through inevitable mistakes provides clarity. Living through the wrong way to do things teaches you the right way. Starting a business can be Sisyphean: Sometimes you crush a toe as the rock lurches back at you, but when you love your job those instances only give you more conviction to push the rock forward. This is a story of one of those instances.
NOBODY TOLD ME THERE’D BE DAYS LIKE THIS
It was the end of the summer, early September 2002. I was scheduled to face another physically impossible workday. As our bottling crew loaded our undersized delivery truck with pallets of beer, I stood at a worktable constructing tap handles.
Most of the big breweries opt to order generic tap handles out of a catalog, but to be consistent with our off-centered motto, our brewery produces an off-centered tap handle. First a local blacksmith bangs out a metal rod and welds bolts to the base of it, then a friend of the brewery who is a guitar maker designs and whittles a few dozen foot-tall wooden fish. The rods and fish make it to the brewery in paper bags and land on my workbench. Then I put them together by drilling a hole in the fish, filling the hole with epoxy, jamming the rod into the hole, and affixing a metal badge onto the fish that describes what style of beer is on tap. I then take these tap handles to potential draft accounts in the surrounding cities along with cold beer samples and try to convince them to put Dogfish on tap. When I’m making these tap handles, I always feel like a Zulu warrior, sharpening his spear before a big hunt. I’m thinking about nailing a few new accounts and the thrill of the chase more than the incredible inefficiencies associated with making tap handles this way.
On this particular day, after completing the tap handles, I had to deliver a truckload of beer to Friedland Distributing in downtown Philadelphia, check in with a few existing accounts, drop off samples at a couple of potential accounts, and end my day hosting a beer tasting at a hip-to-be-square art gallery in downtown Philly. Since we first began distributing our beers in 1996 I had been playing the role of delivery guy-salesman-president-brewer with blurry and varied results.
Believing this to be a great way to kill a whole mess of birds with one heavy stone, I would schedule other appointments while in the city to drop off a delivery. I drove the truckload of beer into the city, unloaded the truck by hand, headed out into the city to solicit new business, patronized an existing account for an early dinner/happy hour tasting during rush hour, then drove back to Delaware to be home in time to tuck my children in.
The first time I delivered to Friedland’s (our Philly distributor located in the absolute worst, crack-addled neighborlesshood in all of Philly,) I got lost. Like a man with a death wish, I rolled down my window to ask some guy standing guard over a burning car for directions. He said he knew exactly where I needed to go but wouldn’t tell me until I bought “something” off of him. I did as I was told out of fear and arrived at Friedland’s 10 minutes later. When I described the freakish scene I just lived through,
Eddie Friedland calmly informed me that he knew exactly the person I had run into, and quite frankly, the shit he was selling wasn’t nearly as good as that being sold three blocks in the opposite direction. Welcome to the beer business.
On this particular day, I had to load a few cases of Midas Touch beer into the cab of my truck along with a bunch of posters and coasters for the art gallery event we were sponsoring later that evening. I had been contacted by a partner in a thirtysomething-run self-described “edgy” and “young” PR firm. His company was putting together this extreme sport/skateboarding/art throwdown that was being covered by major magazines and cable networks. All we had to do was provide some product. How could we lose? It was the perfect demographic for us to showcase our over-the-top, edgy (that word again) beers, which, he added, he happened to love himself.
And love himself he did. But it sounded like a good opportunity, so I said what the heck and committed eight cases of beer and my presence to the event. I called my college buddy Tom, invited him, and asked if I could crash at his downtown apartment if we had too much fun. He was on board. The plan was set. The truck was loaded. I hit the road.
As usual I was multitasking—driving, writing down a phone number in my Palm Pilot, and talking to the production manager, John, on the cell phone—as I came to the intersection for coastal Route 1, the primary road bisecting east and west Delaware. As I prepared to stop, my brakes failed and the box truck coasted out into oncoming traffic. I was composed enough to inform John what was about to happen. “Holy shit, I’m about to hit this car!” were the words he later informed me I used before he heard the sound of breaking glass. I threw the phone down and braced myself as a Ford Escort station wagon bore down on me from the southbound lane. I could see the driver’s face clearly and his posture mirrored my own. White knuckles on the steering wheels, our wide eyes met. He was already braking and his 60 mph speed was dropping. I thought if I sped up he would pass right behind me. Boy was I wrong. As I accelerated he fishtailed into me. He nailed me right below my driver’s side door. My window shattered, and I took a little glass shrapnel in the cheek. He had just missed my gas tank but took out my hydraulics and my electronics at the point of impact. So now, thanks to my brilliant decision to speed up, I’m doing 30 mph over the median and into the northbound lane unable to turn or brake. The first thing I noticed as I looked south at the oncoming traffic was that there were no cars within striking distance. My sigh of relief was choked by a fearful gasp in the next instant as I realized I was headed directly for a telephone pole on the shoulder of the road. I turned the wheel instinctively, which of course did nothing, but the impact of the accident had altered my course so that I was turning almost as much as I needed to. The telephone pole sheared off my driver’s side mirror and scraped down the side of the box truck. More interesting I suppose was the way the telephone pole support cables sliced through the top of the box truck and opened it like a giant can of tuna. As I jammed to a stop to the sound of metal cutting metal, I looked out my nonexistent window and noticed the Escort had landed safely in the median and the driver was blinking in shock at the fully inflated air bag before him.
The engine was killed when I lost electric and as the symphony of destructive sounds faded from my ears I heard my name being called. It wasn’t God. It was John. He was still connected on my cell phone. I picked up the phone and put it to my one un-bloodied ear. First he asked if everyone was okay. He then informed me that the scene he just heard unfold—shattering glass, shearing metal, and lots of meaty cusswords—was more exciting than any episode of Cops he had ever watched. I promptly thanked him, hung up, and dialed 911 to fill them in on what just happened and where we were. I climbed out my window and ran to the median to check on the guy I had just hit. Thankfully he was alright. His nose was bleeding from where his eyeglasses met the air bag, but otherwise he was not hurt. As I was apologizing and explaining what happened to him the police arrived along with an ambulance. They gave me a ticket and called a tow truck. The dealer from which I bought the truck was only 10 miles up the road. I called to inform the guys at the brewery that they should rent a moving truck and meet me at the dealership in half an hour. At the dealership they informed me that the frame was bent beyond repair, the electric and hydraulics were shot, axle ripped, and that the box on my box truck would never look like a box again. The guys from the brewery showed up, and we backed the U-Haul flush with the rear of our useless truck and unloaded and reloaded 350 cases of beer by hand.
Two and a half hours after the moment of impact I was ramping onto the highway, back on course. I was sweaty, dirty, a little bloody, but back on course. I called my friend Tom to inform him of what had just happened. He asked if I was sure I still wanted to come. I stiffened my upper lip and blurted, “You can’t hurt steel,” an old rallying cry of immortality from our college days. He responded, “Game on,” as I had hoped he would. I hung up and called Friedland Distributing to inform them I would be a little late. The U-Haul I was driving was basically a glorified van with a box-truck back that was made to carry sofa sets and coffee tables, not multiple half-ton pallets of beer. It was doing this swervy dance all over the highway anytime I went over 52 miles per hour. Each time I hit a pothole, the back tires would bottom out and scrape the underside of the wheel wells in a cloud of smoke and burnt rubber stench. This happened until I was just north of Wilmington, at which point a back tire blew out and I careened off the highway. I managed to do a controlled dive onto an exit ramp and into a gas station at the base of the ramp. I jumped out and went to the gas station window to ask the attendant where I was. The first thing I noticed was that he was yelling at me from behind a wall of bulletproof glass. Not a good sign. He told me to move my truck away from the pumps, that he didn’t fix tires, and that I should buy something or fuck off. Nice. I bought some gum, moved the truck, and called AAA. They told me they wouldn’t handle rental truck tires. As I asked them politely for advice, my cell phone died. I then went to a pay phone and dialed U-Haul. They said they would call me right back. I called my friend Tom, told him what had happened, and reminded him that they still couldn’t hurt steel. He laughed at me and hung up. The good folks at U-Haul called back and said they hoped to have someone there in an hour to change the tire, but they needed my rental information. I went back to my truck to get it. The information was inside my wallet, which was inside my locked truck along with the keys. That was it: the last straw. My spirit was effectively broken. Turns out they can hurt steel. I called my friend Tom and told him to please send lawyers, guns, and money ASAP. I gave him my coordinates. The sun was going down in the land of bulletproof glass, and I had a broken truck overflowing with mind-altering substances. It was like a robbery-scenario equivalent to The PerfectStorm. Tom left work and headed my way on a life-saving mission.
To make a long story a little less long, I was back on the road a mere 3 hours later. I paid one company to unlock the truck, another to replace the tire, and purchased more gum than a bus full of sixth graders on a field trip for the right to stand my ground. Tom arrived to help me through all of this, ever mindful of the desperate eyes fixed on his late-model Audi. I headed back onto the highway in a truck that was still way overloaded. I was covered in sweat, grime, motor oil, and exhaustion. It was enough to drive a man to drink.
I called Friedland Distributing and told them where I was. They said there was no way I was going to reach them before they closed and could I come back tomorrow. I laughed a little too maniacally into the receiver of Tom’s cell phone (mine was long dead) and asked them if they were kidding. They weren’t kidding. They felt my pain but would not acquiesce. I called my friends at Philadelphia’s Yards Brewery. They were gracious enough to let me leave the beer at their place and have Friedland pick it up the next day. I dropped the load and raced to the art gallery. My contact there was antsy when he greeted me because the party was set to start in 10 minutes. He wondered why the beer wasn’t cold yet and if I was really going to wear that to the party as he pointed to my dirty, bloody shirt. I started to describe my day to him as his eyes glassed over and he interrupted to say that while I iced the beer he would get me another shirt.
I was now wearing a too-small skater shirt, and I looked like an extra from an Avril Lavigne video. I was standing behind a Red Bull bar in a graffiti-stained art gallery preparing to serve beer made with grapes to a bunch of green-haired, multi-pierced trustafarians. I found myself wondering what August Busch III was doing at that very moment.
Tom and I went out to retrieve the last two cases of beer from the truck. When we returned, the pansy-assed PR guru got in my face and started waving a bloody middle finger at me. He had broken a bottle while trying to remove its cork and boy was he pissed. The corks weren’t coming out of the bottles, and he didn’t have time for this. I looked down at the empty beer cases and noticed they were marked “recork.” These cases, I now realized, were from a batch we bottled with corks that were one size too big. Most of these cases mistakenly were distributed, yet their reception was a great indication of our customers’ loyalty. The corks were supposed to pop out a la champagne, but since they were too tight you needed a corkscrew. Unfortunately, if you screwed down too far the bottle exploded in your hand, which, according to the number of irate phone calls and e-mails we received, happened quite frequently. We instituted an aggressive policy in which anyone who e-mailed us a picture of their hand bleeding received a Dogfish Head T-shirt. Anyone who e-mailed a picture of their hand with stitches received a hat. Our lawyer was more dumbfounded than impressed with this policy.
So I explained the situation to the PR guy, and he continued to give me the finger. I really wanted to pick this little wuss up by his overquaffed hair and shake some backbone into him. In the last 12 hours I had lived through a car accident that totaled two vehicles, hand-loaded and reloaded 350 cases of beer, swerved off the highway in my second runaway truck of the day, survived a lockout in one of the scariest urban combat zones outside of a third world country, and continued on to Philadelphia in the very same death mobile only to make it to his little party on time.
But that’s not what I did. Instead I walked around him to the bar. I opened up every bottle of beer that I brought with me except four. I told him his problems were solved and that I would send him a T-shirt. Unless he required stitches, in which case I would send him a hat. At the end of the evening I lay awake on the sofa at Tom’s apartment, alone with my thoughts and bruises. I couldn’t really be upset with the bloody-fingered PR pansy. On a basic level he was right. I promised him the beer, and I had an obligation to make sure his patrons got what they expected. Before leaving the art gallery I shared a beer with a guy who hadn’t tried Midas Touch before. He usually drank wine, and I explained the winelike character of this beer to him. I described the day the recipe was discovered in King Midas’ tomb in Turkey. How the 2,700-year-old tomb was so perfectly preserved that, as the last rock obstructing the entrance was removed, the archeologists on hand literally watched the colors fade from the tapestries on the walls. He really liked the beer and asked where he could buy it in Philadelphia. I wrote out the address of the closest store as I walked out the door. As I lay there on the sofa thinking about this new Dogfish convert, I polished off the last glass of Midas. I thought about what a career-affirming moment it must have been as the archeologists walked into that tomb staring at the fading walls. I thought about my day and all of the work that I had in front of me. I shut my eyes and fell sound asleep, looking forward to the next day.
IT’S ME AGAINST THE WORLD
This is what it sometimes feels like to be an entrepreneur. When you are a one-man start-up, this feeling is even more immediate, but, as you grow, you will continue to encounter the resistance of the established business world around you. There are lots of people out there representing the status quo, and you must fight for your niche. Hopefully, for all our sakes, many people out there respect the healthy fight against the status quo. With all of the bureaucracy, red tape, consumer apathy, entrenched competitors, and general barriers to market that we face, it can be a difficult task to get a foothold.
One of the most difficult tasks we face is equipping the business and its employees so that it is possible to maintain a life outside of the business. When you open your own business, everyone from employees to customers expects you to be available all the time. In a lot of ways, your constant presence is truly necessary during the start-up phase. If the business is to be a reflection of yourself, you need to make sure your self is present at the business. Before you can entrust coworkers to make decisions that will best reflect the company’s philosophies, you need to make sure you spend the time necessary to present those philosophies, fully formed, to your coworkers and customers.
People learn best from watching, and you should never underestimate how much coworkers learn about the company by watching how the leader goes about a typical workday. Once you have established the philosophies that you believe are most intrinsic to your company, and you have instilled these philosophies in the people you work with, then you need to make time to occasionally step back in an effort to see the forest for the trees. While your coworkers depend on you to guide them in the day-to-day aspects of the business as the company gets on its feet, you need to direct the company in a way that allows you to leave the premises to gain perspective on where the company should go. If you want your company to grow strong, you need to realize that your coworkers depend on you to guide them somewhere beyond the completion of day-to-day tasks. If you allow yourself to be forever mired in the minutiae of your business, you can’t possibly reach your potential as the leader of that business. Delegating to capable people is part of the solution. The other part is delegating some free time to yourself. Free time does not necessarily mean unproductive time. By my definition, it means engaging your mind and body in exercises that free you from the necessary tasks of your business.
I did the whole mattress-on-the-basement-office-floor, time-to-make-the- donuts thing during our start-up years at Dogfish Head. In fact, as I do the math now, I worked an average of 12 hours a day for the first 7 or 8 years we have been in business. At times I was exhausted and disoriented, but usually I was happy. I’ve heard the saying that you should work to live and not live to work. When you work for yourself, one doesn’t take precedence over the other. However, you start to look like a socially challenged deviant if you do nothing but work. Regardless of whether you’re okay with it, answering your home phone by cheerily shouting the name of your business to the caller doesn’t go over very well with certain people who cannot understand such a thing as a healthy obsession. I realized that if I didn’t want to burn out on the company that I created and loved I would need to have a life outside of work and develop some hobbies. The means to finding a physical release to the stress that comes with running a small company was easy. I played sports through high school and college and have continued to be physically active throughout my adult life. I had a rowing machine next to the mattress in my cellar office at the brewpub, and I would throw on my Walkman and row for 40 minutes every other day. Or I would take a jog along the beach in between brewing and working on the dining room floor at night. For me, the release of endorphins is equal to the relief of stress. My mind wanders as I exercise, and I often find solutions to business problems during a row or a run. While the time I spend exercising significantly reduces stress, it’s not necessarily the most intellectually engaging use of my free time. I wanted to find hobbies that provoked my thoughts in ways that my normal business activities couldn’t. To this end I have found a great release through artistic hobbies that challenge me to look at my business from a fresh perspective.
THE BUSINESSPERSON AS ARTIST
The artist and the businessperson each have the same ultimate goal: a desire to create something unique that might leave a lasting impression on the world. Both are productive activities of self-expression. You can create art by yourself but you can’t create a business by yourself. At the very least it takes two people—you and a customer. The artistic approach relies on a passive, introspective process to achieve self-expression while the business approach involves a more active, inclusive process. That’s why I see pursuing artistic hobbies as a perfect escape route for businesspeople. They can engage your mind in nontraditional yet productive ways.
I wrote short stories in college, but writing a business plan and recipes, advertising and marketing materials made me realize writing wasn’t really an escape from business. But then I didn’t really want to escape from thinking about business. I wanted to escape from thinking about the things I had to think about and into the things that were fun to think about. I have always enjoyed expressing myself through writing; even when those expressions were only interesting to me. I don’t have a particularly evolved artistic knowledge or ability. I’m not sure I could tell a Monet from a Manet if my life depended on it. But I know what I like. And I know which art inspires me. My favorite artists are those who express themselves in multiple mediums. Warhol is the perfect example of inspiration for me. He painted, silk-screened, and photographed. He produced movies, bands, and magazines. And he completely melded his personal and professional lives into his art. In his 1975 book, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol, he expressed this intentional blurring of artistic lines.
Business art is the step that comes after Art. I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as a business artist. After I did the thing called “art” or whatever it is called, I went into business art. I wanted to be an Art business man or a business artist. Being good in business is the most fascinating kind of art.
I have found a world of truth in this typically glib statement by Warhol. I understand his statement, “Business art is the step that comes after Art,” to mean that business is a form of self-expression that can be interactive and engaging, not just emotionally but practically. Brewing has continued to be a great outlet for my artistic expression. But I’m proud to say I’m the least talented brewer of the five of us who work at Dogfish Head. I am better at conceptualizing recipes and beer ideas than I am at physically making a batch of beer. I still brew occasionally for two reasons: so I can call myself a brewer with a straight face, and so I can continue experimenting with new recipes, which is a strength of mine. I’m good at experimenting but not so good at repeating my experiments, so I usually make one test batch of something and then leave it to the technically superior brewers that I work with to find the best way of repeating that recipe and maintaining it in full production.
What I miss most about the early days when I was brewing every day at my pub, was how my mind would constructively wander as my body focused on the task at hand. Some of my best ideas for growing Dogfish Head came in those moments. Our business concept is centered around the idea that we approach everything as a craft. So I wanted to choose hobbies that could be used in my business, and to further the idea that Dogfish Head is a craft business. That was an easy image to convey in the days when anyone could look into the brew house window and see the president of the company actually making the beer, but as we grew and I left the brew house that image became a challenge to maintain. Once the brewery grew to a point where other people were brewing more of the beer than I did, I had to find something else to do with my hands. I couldn’t find much inspiration in an Excel spreadsheet, and besides, my wife is better at constructing those than I could ever be.
So I began making wooden tap handles by hand and creating print ads and promotional material, too. As the business continued to grow, I couldn’t keep up with the production pace necessary to satisfy the demand for the tap handles or the frequency of advertising updates. So we brought in professionals to make the tap handles and I continued to design the ads and write the copy but relied on a company to produce the digital artwork. Basically, two trends spoke well for the future of the company: (1) I was capable of creating a unique artistic aesthetic for Dogfish Head, but I wasn’t always the best person to move forward with the actual production of this aesthetic; (2) I was capable of translating this aesthetic to key people around me who were better skilled to carry out the production.
The problem was that I received more personal satisfaction from making things than I did from running things. My company, however, needed me to run things more desperately than it needed me to be hunched over a drafting table shellacking homemade Dogfish Christmas ornaments. The only way I could make the transition from crafting tangible things to crafting the brand was to continue with hobbies that not only provided a creative outlet for me but fed back into the continued expansion of our brand identity. Again I think of Warhol as an inspiration. He introduced a production element into his work on a level never previously seen in the art world. He freely admitted and even boasted that other people helped him make his artwork. He recognized that embracing teamwork was the best way to make his art available to more and more people. He didn’t call the place where the paintings were completed his studio, he called it the factory. This distinction infuriated the purists who believed the creation of artwork had to be a solitary pursuit, at the same time that it endeared Warhol to a new generation that realized art and commerce could cohabit peacefully.
The first years in any business are extremely demanding of both time and energy. Once your business develops a steady course of profitability, and if you are able to expand your company from a sole proprietorship to a staffed business, it is essential that you take a step back from the hands-on, authoritative leadership position. This simultaneously provides coworkers with the opportunity to develop a sense of responsibility and achievement while giving you back your work–life balance. Competent people cannot rise above the fray and help relieve you from the daily minutiae of running a business unless you give them the opportunity to sink or swim. Once you see that you have picked the right people and have given them the tools they need to succeed, you’ll be surrounded by a group of strong swimmers. You can be away from your business and not feel guilty.
Regardless of what kind of businessperson you are, I advise that you maintain at least one hobby. Having interests outside of your business allows you to gain some distance while allowing an alternative exploration of new meaning for your company. I realize that may sound like freaky, New Age psychobabble, but it is important. All parents think their child is a singular genius. Visit a friend with children and check out the door of their refrigerator. There’s bound to be a collection of crayon drawings and collages usually involving yarn and the tracing of a small hand. To you these items could seem as artful as a stick of gum but to the parent and the child the refrigerator door might as well be the main gallery at MOMA. These drawings represent the first few tangible symbols of individual expression for both the parent and the child. The drawings might depict a person that is three times as big as a car but that is how the child sees it and he has yet to be stifled by socialization that tells him his perception is wrong. In short, a child’s perspective is purely and uniquely his own. It doesn’t matter that a drawing of a fish looks more like a drawing of a ham.
Now back to the business world. Let’s say you own a bike shop. If I told you to sketch a picture of your business, you might draw the outline of the building you work in and a realistic facsimile of the sign hanging from your awning. You wouldn’t be any less or more right if you drew a picture of a little girl with a triumphant smile and two Band-Aided knees standing next to her bike. To you that image might represent the sense of pride that comes with learning something new and taking risks. You might sketch the view from the top of a mountain—a beautiful vista that you could ride to on a bike. To you that might represent achievement and reaching the top of your profession. None of these pictures is any more accurate than the first literal depiction. But taking the time to experiment with different perspectives will enhance and bring depth to your perception of the business. This exercise might even lead you in a new direction if you only thought literally, analytically, and practically about your business. Whether you end up incorporating the actual hobby into your business is less important than the journey that engaging in this hobby takes you on.
Business is all about risk. What’s the worst thing that could come from making a sculpture that personifies your ideal customer? That it looks foolish to everyone but you? Who cares? I’ll bet your customer would be impressed by your effort, would be proud to recognize herself in the artwork, and would leave with a new level of understanding and appreciation for the person she chose to do business with. Maintaining a creative activity separate from the day-to-day approach to managing a business enables you to expand your faith in yourself and your ideas and to amplify the identity of your company.
The best way to learn about your company is to get the hell away from it once in a while. Some time spent outside your workplace should have nothing to do with your company, and some time should have everything to do with your company and where it’s going. You need to make sure you take vacations to recharge your batteries. If you are enslaved by your company, you will resent it. It might be 6 months or a year after you open before you and your company are ready to be separated for a week, but that should be one of the main things you work toward. It will keep you healthy, and, if you can do it, it means your company is finally stable enough to survive your short-term absence. I use all of my vacations and most of my weekends to just hang out with my family. Since Mariah and I work together, we get to spend a lot of time with each other. If you do not work with your loved one, you need to realize how much your commitment to your company wears on them in ways it doesn’t weigh on you. You have the stress of running the company, but your partner probably has the stress of trying to maintain a relationship with a person who is way more obsessed with work life than the average nine-to-fiver. These loved ones deserve your time as much as your business does, and time away from the company is necessary to nourish your personal relationships.
Besides vacation and family time, a business leader benefits from spending time outside of the company working on the company. Previously I mentioned that one characteristic all good businesspeople seem to share is a high level of self-confidence. The next most obvious quality they share is great salesmanship. Salesmanship is really just an extension of confidence—it is the transference of your confidence to other people. If you start a small company, you are not in a commodity business. You are not selling a commodity and you are not selling to a commodity, you are selling to a person.
When you take time to leave your workplace and roam through your marketplace, that time will be best spent engaging with people who are relevant to your business. Whether it is a service or a product, you are in business to sell something. Your desire is to sell. But effective selling is not based on what you desire, it is based on what your customer desires. To understand your customers’ desires you must have compassion. You need to understand what they care about and why they care about it. You will get only a fraction of this understanding by interacting with your customers on your home turf—in your office or store or on an official sales call. You will gain a better perspective of your customers by observing and interacting with them outside of these traditional forums.
Once you’ve figured out who can mind the store (a huge task, really), it’s time to get out and meet your brand through the eyes of the world. You should try to talk to the people who come in contact with your brand at every step that it takes through the marketplace. In the case of the beer business that means I spend time with my distributors, retailers, and my customers. But the key is to find out where to get the important information from every step of the way. When I go to the distributors, I meet with the owner and talk about sales volume, product mix, and budget planning. But I also go down to the warehouse loading dock and talk to the people who actually load the trucks. I ask how much of my beer is going out the door compared to other brands. I ask what styles of beers sell best in which neighborhoods. I ask a bunch of questions and I learn a lot.
The beer industry is heavy on festivals. We get invited to pour our wares at over a hundred festivals a year. This makes sense because we sell a fun, social product. I doubt the guy who makes paint thinner is loading his van with T-shirts and samples every weekend on the way to another paint-thinning festival. These festivals are great because we get to catch up with other brewers who have made their way through the pitfalls of the industry alongside us. We get to meet and thank existing customers, and we hopefully turn a few new customers on to our beers. The people that come to these festivals are passionate about beer, and if I can get them to talk about what they like and what they don’t like, whether it’s our beer or someone else’s, I can leave with a wealth of information. Thankfully, the most common negative feedback we get is that some of our beers cost too much. Once they’ve told us this we have an opportunity to explain that some of our beers are made with 5 times the ingredients and age for 10 times as long as those brewed by bigger breweries. We remind them that we make beers at a few different price points and we hope that we have beers in our portfolio that would appeal to almost any drinker. The important thing is that we are communicating with and learning from our customers and our potential customers.
Every time I interact with distributors, retailers, or consumers on their own turf, I get a better understanding about what Dogfish Head means to them. I learn what things we are doing well and the areas where we need to improve. I see not only how our brand is positioned and perceived in the marketplace, but how it compares to our competitors, as well. If you take the time to roam constructively, you will learn a tremendous amount about your company and its place in the competitive environment. You will be able to gauge your company’s successes and failures through the eyes of your customer. In this outside environment your thoughts won’t be cluttered with unjamming the fax machine or paying the electric bill, and you can think freely. Call it proactive free time. However, gathering information while roaming is only half the battle. Once you have this information, you must translate it and use it to grow your company in the right direction—toward your customers’ desires.
Your hobbies may involve creating something, or they may simply be activities that allow your mind to focus on things other than business for a while. The most important thing is that your head escapes the business and the bottom line. Ultimately, whatever your hobby, it will in some way impact your business, either by directly contributing to it, or by giving you some time away to recharge and gain a clear perspective.
I have always loved music—I remember waving my magic Wiffle ball bat and chanting hexes on my parents’ radio in an effort to get it to spit forth Laura Branigan’s “Gloria.” I remember being embarrassed to cry tears of joy in front of my sisters one Christmas upon opening my LP copy of Doctor Demento’s Funky Favorites. (I didn’t say that I always loved good music, just that I always loved music.) As I got older my tastes developed, diversified, and intensified, but my love for music goes back to my earliest childhood memories. Like many lovers of music I longed to create music of my own. Being an entrepreneur, I wasn’t willing to let my lack of tone or talent get in my way.
A few years ago the lead brewer at Dogfish Head, Bryan Selders, and I formed a group called the Pain Relievaz. We bill ourselves as “Probably the finest beer-geek, hip-hop band of our generation.” Of course we are also the only beer-geek, hip-hop band of any generation. Bryan is actually a talented musician and we have set up a pretty sophisticated little recording studio in his house. He lays down the tracks, and we both write our lyrics.
Obsessive as I am, I could not entirely separate my love of music from my love of Dogfish Head. So we sing songs with names like “Brewer’s Bling-Bling,” “Worst Brew Day Ever,” and “I Got Busy with an A-B Salesgirl.” We wrote the songs for the same reasons we make the beers and cook the foods that we do. It is basically off-centered music for off-centered people. We have used the band as a promotional asset for the company. We did a multicity tour of great beer bars, and we set up our mics and amplifiers and sang our songs and served our beers. We drove from city to city and lived out our rock and roll dream. One of the highlights was playing the book release party for Ken Wells’ Travels with Barley, a great social history of brewing in America that includes a whole chapter about Dogfish Head. We cut a six-song disc on our own Dogfish Records label called Check YourGravity, of which we have sold over 500 copies. As I’ve said, a sense of humor is central to the brand identity of Dogfish Head. Here’s a sample of the Pain Relievaz new jack philosophy:
I’ve been rockin’ phat beats since the boys in Mendocino
were sellin’ all their ales from a Chevy El Camino.
And when I rock the mic you’ll know that I’m serious
’cause my rhymes are more fruity than the beers of New Glar-e-us!
This probably means nothing to you unless you know that Mendocino is home to one of America’s earliest microbreweries and that New Glarus, a small Wisconsin brewery, makes a world-class cherry beer. But we didn’t make this disc for the people who don’t care about beer. We made it for ourselves, the true believers, and the people who are just getting into good beer and want to learn everything they can. The Pain Relievaz aren’t exactly in the middle of a multilabel bidding war, but we’re not that bad, either. And I don’t think the level of professionalism matters as much as the message that comes from such a project: Our off-centered brewery has found another off-centered method to promote what we do. There’s nothing wrong with taking a risk and experimenting. Especially if you don’t take your experiment too seriously.
The Pain Relievaz are hard at work on a follow-up release. It will be the first beer-geek concept album featuring samples of beer jingles, beer ads, and sales motivation mantras interlaid with goofy lyrics and Bryan’s melodic backing music. It ain’t Jay-Z, but I hope it will represent the authentic, audacious, ambitious, exploratory image of Dogfish Head.
In addition to music I’ve continued to paint—mostly designs for T-shirts, ads, and label artwork, which I do at the kitchen table next to my son and daughter as they work on finger-painted and crayon-based masterpieces of their own. Works of art have been accepted as commercial objects for hundreds of years, but commercial objects aren’t always considered works of art. Warhol worked hard to change this, and as a small businessperson you can, too. As long as the work of art represents your company in some meaningful way, the level of professionalism is secondary. The further development of the image of your company should be the goal, not winning any awards at the local art league.
Everybody is different, it’s true. But I think that businesspeople and artists have more in common than most people think. Every businessperson benefits from exploring the artistic side. Of course your company started as the ultimate blank canvas, but there are lots of other canvases you can play around with as you make your way through the world of commerce. You need to be adamant about blocking out and using free time for free thinking. The free thinking you do will help your company whether it is proactive free thinking—roaming the marketplace to better understand your company—or passive free thinking—roaming a bowling alley to better understand your children. Either way, these activities outside of the daily rigors of business life will fortify and refresh you for the battles you face as you grow your business.
Want to read more? Check out the book online!