James Watt is surprisingly nice — polite even.
BrewDog, the trailblazing Scottish craft brewery Watt co-founded in 2007, is known for sticking a metaphorical 2 fingers up to the establishment with PR stunts such as dropping taxidermied “fat cats” over the City and driving a tank to the Bank of England.
Watt himself is known for explosive, bombastic proclamations in the press: a quick search of my inbox reveals an email titled “F**k the rules” announcing the launch of his new business book and an update on BrewDog’s crowdfunding campaign that quotes him as saying: “We’ve not just broken a record, we’ve smashed through it with a monster truck”. He once called the Advertising Standards Authority “mother f*ckers” in a statement.
But in person, when we meet to discuss his new entrepreneurial advice book “Business for Punks,” Watt is softly spoken, cheery, and pretty harmless. The closest he gets to swearing is saying “balls.”
“I just wanted to outline our off-the-wall, slightly anarchic approach to business so other people could see what we’ve done and realise that you don’t have to do what you’re supposed to do, you don’t have to follow the status quo, and you can do things on your own terms,” he says, explaining his motivation for writing the book.
“Before I set up the business I was captain of a fishing boat. I’d never done a business before, I’d never been involved in business. We didn’t know how things were meant to be done so we went ahead and did things on our own terms, in our own way, and almost inadvertently created a whole new approach to business along the way.”
‘Finance for visionary renegades’
BrewDog was one of the first breweries in Britain to pioneer a new wave of hoppy, American-style “craft” beers and its Punk IPA is one of the most popular and recognisable brands of British craft beer.
Watt and co-founder Martin Dickie have become two of Britain’s most successful entrepreneurs in recent years, growing the business to revenues of £32 million ($US48.9 million) last year, building a network of bars across the UK, and exporting its beer worldwide.
Watt likes to talk up his “anarchic” approach and chapters of his book include “Finance for visionary renegades,” “Marketing for postmodern dystopian puppets,” and “Sales for postmodern apocalyptic punks.”
But look past the flowery language and the advice in the book is pretty level-headed stuff — keep an eye on the bottom line, know your customers, and make sure staff are happy.
The startup phase, finance, the bit about staff, company culture, finding time — all these things can apply to almost anyone in any business,” he says.
While Watt may not have run a business before BrewDog, but he’s clearly been keeping an eye on things, pointing to Apple, Zappos, and Danish restaurant Noma as good businesses based around a “cause” in the book.
BrewDog’s cause is good beer. Watt says: “As a company we focus on 2 things — our beer and our people. We have done some sort of high-octane, risky, edgy marketing things but they have all been done to increase peoples’ awareness and understanding of good beer.”
But how “risky”, “edgy”, and “anarchic” is BrewDog these days? It’s beer is stocked in huge supermarkets like Tesco, Sainsbury’s, and Waitrose.
“Our mission is to make other people as passionate about great beer as we are and we can’t do that if we don’t have the means to get the beer into people’s hands,” Watt says. “We’re about getting people excited about beer and do to that we need to get beer to market by any means possible.”
Equity for Punks
As well as launching his book, Watt is also currently overseeing BrewDog’s fourth crowdfunding campaign, which launched in April. The brewery is looking to raised £25 million ($US38.2 million) by next April and has already hit the £13 million ($US19.8 million) market.
BrewDog again pioneered the idea of equity crowdfunding in the UK, launching its first “Equity for Punks” campaign on its website in 2009 — a year before Britain’s biggest crowdfunding platform, Crowdcube, was founded. (It’s since partnered with Crowdcube for its latest fundraising drive.)
Watt recommends crowdfunding to entrepreneurs, saying: “We love the Equity for Punks model. We’ve now raised over £20 million ($US30.5 million), we’ve got a community of over 14,000 Equity for Punks investors who are advocates, who are ambassadors, who are principally linked to our business.
“We just love the fact that our business is owned by people who love fantastic beer as much as we do.” (It should be said that some people are pretty sceptical of the whole thing.)
BrewDog’s biggest international market is Sweden and the brewery is now opening up its crowdfunding campaign up to Europe to keep the momentum of its latest crowdfunding campaign going.
We’ve got a community of over 14,000 investors who are advocates
Watt says: “We are launching a Scandinavian campaign then we’re going to do some activity around our bar launches in Germany, Belgium, France.
“The next stage of our Equity for Punks campaign — because it’s a UKLA approved prospectus it’s passported across Europe — it’s taking advantage of the great distribution and awareness we’ve got within Europe.”
There are also plans for a crowdfunding campaign in the US, where BrewDog is building its first overseas brewery in Columbus, Ohio. Recent changes to US securities laws make an online funding drive there much more viable.
‘We are going all guns blazing’
The money BrewDog raises is going to be put towards everything from expanding its network of bars to opening a beer-themed hotel in Scotland and breaking into the “craft” spirits business. But BrewDog is still, and always will be, a beer company, Watt says.
“I don’t think it is more than just beer,” he tells me. “The hotel tacks on to the hospitality side of our business and we’re not looking to open a chain of hotels, we’re just looking to open one hotel up in the north east of Scotland.”
He adds: “I think the spirits tacks on nicely if you look at people like [US craft breweries] Anchor Brewing, Dogfish Head, Rogue, New Holland. With a beer, we’re more than 50% there to making a fantastic tasting spirit and we just want to do some more experimentation in that space. But the company is very, very much about beer.”
Watt says he and co-founder Martin Dickie would never sell the business to one of the big brewing conglomerates.
That’s not to say we wouldn’t exit at some point but there’s no plans at the moment,” he says, “and if we did, instead of selling to a bigger company, it would be a management buyout or to release some more equity to our Equity for Punk holders.”
Watt is so against craft brewers selling out that he this week tweeted that BrewDog bars will stop stocking beer from US brewery Ballast Point after it was sold to Constellation Brands for $US1 billion (£650 million).
Sad about the Ballast Point deal this week. We will no longer be ordering these beers for our bars. We are 100% committed to craft beer.
— James Watt (@BrewDogJames) November 18, 2015
His anger in print at deals like these — he’s called it the “bastardisation and commoditisation of beer” — comes across as more world-weariness in person.
It’s just going to limit choice and lead to a further reduction in beer quality globally which is going to be bad for the customer,” he says when I ask about the recent £71 billion ($US108 billion) merger of brewing giants AB InBev and SABMiller. “It becomes this huge global monopoly and those two companies have already not done much for quality beer.”
Will he complain to the regulator? “I’ve got better things to do with my time.”
“We are going all guns blazing on all fronts at the moment — £25 million ($US38.2 million) expansion of our Ellon Brewery to give us the capacity to keep up with demand for our beers; building a brand new location our in Columbus, Ohio; opening loads of new killer bar sites.
“The challenge for us is not finding new projects, the challenge is making sure we’ve got enough amazing people to execute the projects we’re doing to the standard we adhere to.”
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