(Excerpt from the book 50 Interviews: Entrepreneurs)
In 1989. Doug Odell established Odell Brewing Company (OBC), the first microbrewery in Fort Collins, Colorado. Today OBC employs 45 people and is one of the most respected companies in the area. Odell’s beer is currently distributed in eight states. Arizona, Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Missouri and New Mexico. For a short time, Doug worked at Anchor Brewing in San Francisco back in the late 1970s where he had held one of the worst jobs in the brewery, cleaning out the mash tubs and brew kettles. And prior to OBC, Doug ran a landscaping business in Seattle. Doug was first active in the local homebrew club, but when he decided to open the brewery, a couple others took notice and opened their own breweries shortly thereafter (New Belgium and H.C. Berger). Fort Collins has since become one of the hottest spots in the country for microbrewers.
Q. What was your initial start-up cost and source of funding?
A. $135,000 which was the proceeds from the sale of our home in Seattle and some angel funding from family and friends. About a year after we opened, we went back and bought out the investors.
Q. How long until there was a positive cash flow?
A. 18 months. My wife, Wynne, maintained a corporate job to cover my lack of a paycheck during those first 18 months.
Q. Did you use a business plan?
A. Yes, and looking back, it shows how ignorant we were at the time, but it was useful to provide direction and maintain focus.
Q. What was the genesis of the idea?
A. My wife and I had decided early on that we wanted to be self employed. Our thought was that we could either take the landscaping company I already had and build it up or we could take a closer look at a this new “craft brewing” movement that was beginning to form in the Pacific Northwest. I was already a home brewer and noticed the powerful impact these new microbreweries were having on people. Initially, we wanted to open a brewery in western Washington, but the area was already fairly saturated with breweries. We looked at Flagstaff, Arizona and Northern Colorado. My wife’s sister lived in Northern Colorado and Fort Collins seemed to make the most sense.
Q. What is the vision of the company and the community you serve?
A. We’ve evolved to become a large contributor to our community; it’s our way of giving back to the community that has given us so much. In fact, we’ve found that the more we give, the more we get back.
Q. What is the passion that it fills for you personally?
A. I’m passionate about beer! I like experimenting with different recipes and coming up with a finished product that people love. People are truly enthusiastic about good beer.
Q. Looking back now, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
A. The importance of delegating responsibility and doing it as soon as you can was a bit challenging. It’s something that was very hard for me. For the first four years, I didn’t take more than three business days off. In hindsight, I should have handed over more responsibility to others sooner.
Q. What is your biggest reward?
A. The positive recognition the brewery gets. Peer recognition when we win awards at the tasting competitions. Learning the entire end-to-end brewing process. Giving back to the community. The impressive reaction others get when they learn that you work for a brewery.
Q. Are there one or two things you can attribute your success to? Was it luck, timing, someone who helped you, etc?
A. Greg Bujak, a homebrew shop owner in Seattle, helped to convince me that I could start a brewery. I remember spending hours with him at his shop talking about brewing. Shortly after I opened the brewery, I invited Greg out to Fort Collins and he brewed a few batches with me. We didn’t hire our first employee until May of 1990, and not having a salary to pay helped at the start when money was tight. I don’t get very concerned about risk and have plenty of self-confidence in my abilities. We went through a significant shift about five years ago after we realized we had hit a plateau in our business. We hired a sales and marketing manager who knew what to do, and it has made a big difference.
Q. How do you attract and retain the best employees? What is the most important attribute you look for? Do you have any thoughts on the employee-ownership model?
A. The best employees are eager to take on responsibility and take ownership of problems. They are always looking for ways to do things better and willing to lend a hand to fellow employees. One of the questions we ask in the interview is, “Why do you want to work at OBC?” and that answer usually tells us a lot. If they are just looking for another job, then they are not the right fit. We hire people who truly want to come to work here and do so for more than a paycheck. We don’t offer a formal employee share plan, but three employees do indeed have stock in the company.
Q. Where do you see yourself and your company in 10 years?
A. I plan to be retired and we are beginning to take a look at all our options. I think it is important for an entrepreneur to realize that at some point in a company’s evolution, they need to take themselves out of the top position. I believe it’s essential for the health and growth of the company. The success of the brewery has far exceeded what I ever imagined, although I never gave it much thought.
Q. Are there any books, classes or training you recommend? Do you recommend an MBA?
A. No on the MBA, at least in the beginning. Some knowledge of how to run a business is important. As a company grows, having someone with an MBA is very helpful. I took some fermentation classes at UC Davis, but I learned the most by talking to others involved in the many aspects of the brewing industry and just by doing it myself. I tend to read biographies, for example. Beer School. Bottling Success at the Brooklyn Brewery by the founders Steve Hindy and Tom Potter.
Q. What is your slogan to live by or what it might say on your tombstone?
A. “If you have a dream, take a chance on it”. Dreams don’t come true by thinking about them, you have to get out there and do it.
Q. Is there anything else that I didn’t ask that would be wise advice to an aspiring entrepreneur?
A. Be patient. Don’t get ahead of yourself. Be self-disciplined enough to do the things that need to get done, even if they aren’t the things you want to do. I don’t tend to think much about the long-term, but I realize that having a five-year plan is important and something we need to do. Also, it is important to recognize when you’ve reached the limit of your own ability and need to acquire new talent that can take you to the next level.