It's about beer, jerks

A short story about the Beer Jerk journey so far, challenges faced and a few thoughts for other start-ups based on our experiences to date

Mad about great beer? Join the club. That’s what Luke White and I were ultimately thinking when we launched Beer Jerk, a beer club with the intention of helping members find, discover, drink and discuss awesome beer.

Beer Jerk is about the story, the adventure and the discovery of great beer and great breweries. Fancy a Chipotle Porter? Give the Danish gypsy brewed Texas Ranger a go. How about a beer brewed in an ancient Dutch windmill? Give the 10.2% Imperial Stout, Rasputin a go, it’ll knock your socks off. Ever heard of a Gose? A historic beer originating in Leipzig which all but disappeared and is now being resurrected, Gose is a salty beer often made with coriander which probably wouldn’t have been badly missed anyway…

Members try one new beer every single week while we do the hard work of selecting the beer, writing up the beer story, tasting notes and the story of the brewery. One beer a week. Sort of the opposite of binge drinking then.

We think of it as being a bit like a book club with wonderful rare beers. And no books.

Ok great so what has been the Beer Jerk journey so far? The following is our perspective on this whole start up business thing, told through our own ‘stages’.

Obviously it all starts with yours truly on a Lufthansa flight from Hamburg to London…

Stage 1: I have an Idea, the best idea!

The Scene: I love beer. I love sharing beer notes and experiences with my mates. Germany has beer. I drank great beer in
Germany. Lufthansa has rubbish beer on board the plane. Cue the idea.

The Idea: Start a beer club to help people find, try, talk about and enjoy great beer.

As I’m sure most entrepreneurs find, it’s the idea that’s the easiest part. It gets the adrenaline pumping and the creative juices flowing, you feel amazing, unstoppable, a captain of industry. Surely only you in the whole world has thought of this idea and having the idea is basically having the business. Right? Yea right. Turns out our beer club idea was already being pursued with great success in the UK and the USA.

So this is the 1st hurdle to overcome, the knowledge that you are not unique and your idea is not special. Don’t get discouraged if you aren’t the first one with the idea, that’s not always what matters. This discovery forces you to critically view the idea from a non-emotional point of view and weigh it up on its true commercial merits.

For (the then unnamed) Beer Jerk this meant a lot of research, guesswork and gut feeling about the viability of the idea. We crawled the web to get an understanding of how the overseas players where performing and what we discovered was very encouraging. Snippets here and there about their financial performance, customer numbers, capital raising rounds and overall progress all helped with early stage validation.

In the end we figured the idea was sound, showed promise and good success overseas and would ultimately be a fun business to pursue. We were also lucky in that there was no local competition at the time. So Luke and I joined forces and committed to establishing a club to get people drinking and discovering great beer. From desperation, a corporation.

Stage 2: Preparation, and more preparation

Preparation is tough, but essential. You have no plan, no money, no website, no business model and ultimately no customers. You are starting from scratch. You face endless roadblocks and barriers, most of which will have you yelling in frustration, crying in desperation or gibbering madly in the corner. But boy, the feeling when you overcome the roadblocks will give you a kick of high octane to fuel the next roadblock busting sprint (of which you will need many).

This stage will take it out of you and really test how strongly you believe in what you are doing. There is so much to do, so many people to call, connections to make and things to organise that it certainly takes a toll physically and mentally. Hopefully this stage is also fun, if it’s not you’re heading to a dark place, and you probably have some tough decisions to make.

For Beer Jerk the key challenge was defining a business model that we felt was sustainable yet held true to the fun, beer loving vision that we had to start with. This was the fun bit, this was the bit that kept us engaged. Next came the operational planning, the not so fun bit. Evenings and weekends where spent working out: logistical problems, product sourcing issues, the best ecommerce platform, the most helpful bankers, the marketing strategy, the cash flow budgets, how best to execute the model to deliver the vision to our future members etc. etc. ad nauseam. All this with both Luke and I still holding down day jobs (which we still are by the by).

Our advice during this stage is to remain calm and set clear goals with specific timelines and deliverables. Make the time for your family and friends, hit the gym as often as you can, go out for dinner, take walks on the beach. Take moments to ‘time out’ and give yourself a break, you’re gonna need it.

Prepare but don’t over prepare. You can spend too much time working through every possible scenario and permutations that it bogs you down and kills your progress. The reality is you will constantly need to evolve through every stage so know when enough preparation is enough and then take tangible action. This is why setting specific time bound deliverables is critical as it helps you measure progress and ensure action is continuous.

If you manage to push through to this stage’s conclusion you have proved at least a couple of things. You have the tenacity, team and love for the idea that is required to give it a good shot.

Stage 3: Validation

The often overlooked yet critical step in testing out any commercial concept. If you don’t validate your model, product or proposition you are effectively shooting in the dark. We can’t shoot, and we certainly can’t shoot in the dark so we naturally took to validating Beer Jerk as best we could. We rounded up a handful of people who showed early interest (mainly friends and colleagues from then on known to us as the Chosen Few) and we tested the prototype concept on them. We setup a prototype website in a couple of days, bought a bunch of great beer, sent the beer out to the Chosen Few and held our collective breath.

Lucky for us it turned out people do like great beer. Turned out they do enjoy getting tasting notes and the story of both beer and brewery. Turned out we validated the concept. No shot in the dark required. This is a great stage to be in. It validates all the hours and effort during the preparation stage and gives you your first true read on whether the business has a chance in the real world. Finally, it saves you spending time, effort and money chasing a business that may not have good odds at success. Validation is certainly no guarantee of success but it helps understand the business better, gives you excellent opportunities for feedback and allows you to make tweaks and changes to your offer.

Definitely, most definitely, spend time on real world customer validation.

Stage 4: Launch

Oh holy cow are we really doing this? Is what we were thinking in the lead up to launch. Anxiety, excitement and doubt will all fight for airtime in your fizzing head. Good thing for us we had great beer to drink through the whole process. This stage comes with feelings of great accomplishment. For the first time you see the end result of all the hard work. Nothing quite comes close to the feeling you get when you click that final button titled ‘Launch your store’.

These feelings quickly disappear though and your next thought is “man I hope we get customers”. This is another great reason to do customer validation before you launch. We found that our first customers came from the Chosen Few, those few people with whom we piloted and validated the prototype concept.

Take time to celebrate your journey so far and toast your success, but don’t lose sight of your key strategic objective whilst your head is buried in technical, tactical day to day activities.

Stage 5: Early Growth

Boom! You’ve got customers! This stage is about those early adopters, those guys who commit early, enthusiastically and tell all their mates about you. You need these guys, you need them bad.

We spent a lot of time through validation and the early stages of launch finding and talking to these ‘early adopters’. We hit up magazine editors, bloggers, brewers and craft beer mad friends. We sent out free beer, swapped favours and spent hours in coffee shops and pubs talking up the business. We asked contacts if they had contacts, and asked those contacts if they had contacts etc. etc. you never know which people will add massive value to your process.

Oh yea it really helps if your business and its value proposition is super easy to describe in very few words. Refine this down to its absolute core and then test it on a whole bunch of people to perfect the ‘pitch’.

It’s hard to see the return on time and effort in this early stage as the customers are only trickling in but as long as you believe in the idea and your validation was sound then stay the course! The nice thing about these customers, even though they may be few, is that they are vocal. If they like what you do, they don’t shut up about it. The reverse is also true though so make sure you delight these early customers and deliver on your promises.

Stage 6: More growth, we are unstoppable…

Velocity is picking up, you are signing more customers each week than the week prior. It feels awesome. You feel you’re onto something good and that the trend is here to stay. You revel in your early success and maybe, just maybe you take your foot off the peddle a little… don’t! You will see why in stage 7.

Stage 7: Uh oh, we missed target

Based on prior success you have got ahead of yourself and predicted stellar performance. You won’t always grow in a linear fashion, adding fistfuls of customers every week as if it’s raining pieces of eight. This is a tough pill to swallow but provides an important lesson. Don’t count your chickens before they have hatched, remain measured in your approach and keep emotions out of your decision making process. Get a mentor (or a few) that you can trust to provide perspective and experience.

Stage 8: Crossing the Chasm

For us the current key challenge is making that leap from ‘early adopter/geek’ appeal into the more mainstream appeal. The early adopter is great but they aren’t very numerous and you need the volume of the mainstream to generate good growth.

There is a lot of literature on this topic but one of my favourites is the excellent book Crossing the Chasm by Geoffrey Moore.

This stage is by far the hardest we have hit so far and we reckon it’s the one that will truly test out if the concept is viable or not.

So this is the place we find ourselves at present. A proven concept, a great product, lots of early adopter customers who are passionate and engaged, but… crossing that chasm into mainstream is hard work. We haven’t quite cracked this nut yet and most start-ups will face a similar situation. For us we are knuckling down and going through every possible option (gimmick or otherwise) in an attempt to get across that chasm. We are setting small weekly goals, completing them and then measuring for results. This way we can cycle through many different approaches and more importantly understand which ones are working and which aren’t.

We think it’s a really good idea to get a marketing ninja on your team who just ‘gets’ customer acquisition. We don’t have such a ninja but we have certainly learnt the hard way that, outside of early adopters, mainstream customer acquisition is hard yakka. In hindsight such a ninja should have been part of the founding team so we would recommend that as an approach for sure.

Whats Next?

So what does the future hold for Beer Jerk and what are we shooting for? The same thing we had in mind when we started. Get as many people as possible trying, experiencing and talking about great beer from around New Zealand and the
world.

To that end we are committed and foccused on demonstrating a strong growth in membership. Once we have demonstrated an ability to grow a more ‘mainstream’ base and clearly understand the activities (and associated costs) that have worked we will be looking to raise capital to pursue more rapid growth.

Conclusion:

So far this journey has been fun, tiring, testing, exhilarating and incredibly challenging.

There have been many ups and downs and we have learnt a lot and know there is so much more to do before we can finally take a celebratory drink ourselves.

We hope you have been able to identify with this article and perhaps one or two things have resonated with you.

A Point on Cloud based Tools:

From the start Luke and I wanted to ensure our business was hosted ‘in the Cloud’ as much as possible to ensure flexibility in work location and collaboration. To that end we have used a host of excellent cloud based tools that have been incredibly useful. Thought we would outline the main ones below for your benefit:

  • Shopify: This is our ecommerce platform. Fantastic platform, simple to use and comes with anexcellent app store.
  • Asana: Our task list for collaboration andprogress tracking.
  • Dropbox: Cloud based storage. ALL our files are in the cloud.
  • Realtimeboard: Our online whiteboard, great for brainstorming and collaboration.
  • Sumo Paint: For our artwork and design. Looks, feels and works like Photoshop (except great FREE functionality).
  • Mailchimp: For email campaigns, simple andpowerful.
  • Pocket: for storing and sharing webpages that we need to reference or keep tabs on.
  • Zoho: Our online mail client although they provide a smorgasboard of other solutions also.

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