Craft beer is more popular than cat videos right now, something that entrepreneur Mark Roberts saw coming when he gave up a steady job to found Beer Hawk, the craft beer online curator and retailer, in 2012.
Fast forward a few years and the startup is set to have a turnover of £20 million ($24.8 million) this year, with a compound growth rate of 145%. But it has not been plain sailing and his beer business almost went sour, so what lessons has he learnt for startup success?
RSNG Where and when did your love for craft beer start? MARK ROBERTS, FOUNDER ‘I’ve always enjoyed beer generally, but my love for craft beer started on various trips to the US. I vividly remember walking into, what I thought was a fairly average bar, but seeing about 20 taps of really interesting & different craft beers.’
‘I was simply blown away by the huge variety of tastes, and the very different styles to what I was drinking back home, in the UK.’
RSNG How did you come up with the idea for Beer Hawk and spot the gap in the market? MR ‘Trying to find this type of beer in the UK was difficult! A few small breweries were experimenting with craft beer. A few good pubs would also serve a limited range of craft beer, but it was almost impossible to get hold of good beer to drink at home.’
‘At the time I was Marketing Director for Laithwaites Wine, who offer an excellent home delivery service for wine. I thought, “someone should set up something similar for craft beer”… then shared this thought with a mate in the pub, and after a few pints, this became “we should set this up!”. And that’s how it started…'
You’ll only be able to learn about your business when you do it – business plans are so theoretical
RSNG Were there any barriers to you starting up? MR ‘There were many! The thought of walking away from very good jobs, with nice salaries and pension schemes at the time when both of our wives were (coincidentally) expecting our first babies. That proved a tricky conversation!’
‘Once we’d agreed we wanted to progress with this, the more practical considerations of applying for the right licences, finding reliable supply chains to source the beers, and developing a website from scratch, came in to play.’
RSNG What was the scariest moment? MR ‘We had taken the plunge, and worked full time for six weeks to go from nothing to a fully functioning website, with a small warehouse full of beers, and a small office to work from. We crafted an email to friends, family and extended networks… and just expected people to buy. I mean, why wouldn’t they?!’
‘But they didn’t. OK, one did on the first day, but that was obviously nowhere near good enough! We then realised how committed we were to this idea, and how little work we had done on the really important aspect of developing an audience.’
‘We knew we wouldn’t give up, but that was a pretty scary period of time!’
RSNG Did it all go wrong at any point? MR ‘I think with any start-up, many things went wrong at many points. I think we became fairly good at picking ourselves up, trying new things, and then getting on with it.’
‘The moment, on one of our first beer deliveries, when the whole pallet of beer crashed to the floor as the delivery truck was parked on a slope was particularly memorable!’
RSNG What startup lessons did you learn? MR ‘To keep going! To not give up, despite the set-backs. Also, to appreciate that you’ll only be able to really learn about your potential business when you do it. Business plans are so theoretical.’
‘Much better to run a series of small tests, and iterate your proposition as you go. But to make sure that all those tests feed into the overall mission of why you’re doing this in the first place.’
‘We defined our mission as to inspire everyone to discover their next favourite beer, and this has really helped us through all the changes and challenges that the start-up world brings.’
RSNG What would be your advice to anyone attempting anything similar? MR ‘To realise that it isn’t easy, but that you can’t be successful if you don’t try. I’m convinced that 90% of success is about turning up. And then being willing to get over failures, keep going, and recognise that your business might turn out to be very different to what was written in the original business plan!’
RSNG What has been your biggest surprise along the way? MR ‘We’ve had many surprises, but looking back, it surprises me how useful it was to define our values as a business, really early on. Whilst it’s very difficult to argue that this isn’t an important thing to do, I think very few people prioritise this as something urgent.’
‘What surprised me was how useful this exercise was, to help guide us through the difficult times, and to help build the company culture when we started recruiting a team.'
RSNG How important has communication been to your goals? MR ‘Hugely. Arguably it’s the single biggest thing. Consistently communicating who we are and what we stand for is the only way we’ve been able to grow our customer base so quickly.’
‘We place huge importance of communicating everything, transparently to our team. Sometimes it feels like we are over-communicating, but I don’t think you can talk about your strategy, values and priorities enough.’
‘We want to create an environment where everyone knows exactly what role they are playing in helping Beer Hawk achieve its dreams.’
In a start-up world productivity means getting shit done – there’s no time for fancy powerpoints or lengthy recommendations
RSNG What productivity and personal development lessons have you learned? MR ‘I think productivity has a different meaning in a start-up to what it does in a big company. In my previous (big company) world, I saw a lot of people being busy and seeming to be productive… when actually it was just managing internal things.’
‘In a start-up world, it means getting shit done. There is no time for fancy powerpoint, or lengthy recommendations. We need to try things, learn, do better things, and then keep improving. This cycle needs to happen fast.’
‘Learning how to adjust my own working style to this has been hugely important. I think the biggest personal development lesson I’ve learned is how I keep myself open to change, and then flexing what I do, and how I do it, accordingly.’
RSNG What would you do differently now? MR ‘I’d recruit better people quicker. We spent so much time in our first year packing boxes of beer, and deeply involved in all the administration points that go with it. We wanted to keep costs to an absolute minimum, and also told ourselves that this was how we could stay close to our customers and make the proposition better.’
‘As soon as we made our first hire, we found that so much of our time was freed up to focus on other (more useful) things that had been building up.’
‘So we learned from this, and vowed to both make ourselves “redundant” from whatever role we were doing for Beer Hawk within six months, by recruiting someone better than ourselves to do it.’
RSNG How hard has it been to get investment? MR ‘We actively chose not to get investment for the first year. We needed to prove that there was a market for what we were offering, and then that we had a business model that could do it.’
‘When we realised that we wanted to scale quicker (by recruiting people) we approached our networks for some SEIS funding.’
‘We, luckily, found two people who knew us, who became business angels. I think the investment case was easier for us, as we had actual metrics to share, rather than a hypothetical business plan.
RSNG What’s the most important thing when growing fast? MR ‘To be crystal clear on your mission and your values. As a fast-growing start-up there is so much change, and when bright people join your team there are lots of new ideas and exciting opportunities.’
‘Our mission helped focus this, and learning to only recruit people who shared our values has helped to maintain the company culture that is so very important to us.’
**RSNG What is next for Beer Hawk? ‘We are working very hard on how we bring curated, personal recommendations to people. Also, we’ve recently opened two omni-channel bars, where we hope to bring the Beer Hawk experience into the on-trade.’
‘I think it’s very interesting for a company that started as a pure-play E-commerce retailer to develop a physical presence in the real world. I’m really excited about how this can bring us closer to our customers.’
**RSNG What’s your favourite beer? ‘That’s such a hard question! It all depends on the mood I’m in, where I am, who I’m with, and even the weather. Right now it’s hot, and possibly my best beer experience has been over at Oktoberfest in Munich, so (today only) I’m going to say Augustiner Helles. It really is an outstanding, thirst-quenching lager.’
WHAT NEXT? Looking for ways to innovate and launch your own big idea? Then read RSNG’s guide to effective innovation.
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