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Entrepreneurs Uncovered: James Watt

How BrewDog became the punk beer brand for the people

The founder of the fearless brewery talks rebellion, risk-taking and how keeping customers at the heart of his business has been the key to success.

Tired of life on the high seas, and a mass market saturated with generic beer, James Watt jumped ship and launched BrewDog – a rebellious brewery determined to start a revolution. Here he shares his thoughts on how to make a publicity splash on a budget, putting your customers first, and why it’s sometimes better to seek forgiveness than ask permission.

Read our Q&A with James below.

How did you get into the business of beer?

I studied law, but quit my job in a legal office after two weeks and then spent seven years working on a fishing boat in the North Atlantic. I was also making beer at home at the time, then in 2007 I quit my job, got a bank loan and started making beer full time.

Having been a ship’s captain, any challenges that this business faces are put into perspective by knowing how tough it is to make your living on the North Atlantic in a January storm.

Tell me about the supermarket competition.

We were 12 months old as a business, losing money, going nowhere – and we’d both moved back in with our parents because we couldn’t afford to pay ourselves. We entered a supermarket beer competition, forgot about it and got a call a few weeks later saying that we’d finished first, second, third and fourth.

Your book says, ‘Start a revolution, not a business’. Does that encapsulate BrewDog’s punk mentality?

The best businesses need a purpose. They’ve got to have a mission and be driven by passion – for us, it’s fantastic beer. The strongest companies are the ones that exist for a higher purpose than just doing or making something, or providing a service. That’s why we wanted to start a revolution, not a business.

We’re punk in that the beers we make are a modern-day rebellion against bland mass-market, mass-produced, mainstream beers – so a liquid rebellion.

Your book also says, ‘Ask for forgiveness, not for permission’. Is it something you still do now?

Absolutely. As a business, we like to move super quickly, do things on our own terms and we really don’t care what people think. So we just do what’s best for the business and our team, and we’re not too fussed about getting permission. We can always see about forgiveness later down the line.

Tell us about some of the most memorable activities and stunts you’ve done?

Our business plan has always been ‘death or glory’, so I always say, ‘Let’s be a big global success or let’s crash and burn completely, because the space in between is completely boring’.

In our case, taking risks has often manifested itself in the form of crazy big publicity stunts, like throwing stuffed cats out of a helicopter over London or making beer at the bottom of the ocean. And by doing that we can put ourselves on the map, get people speaking about good, different beer – and ultimately grow the category and our business.

What’s the philosophy behind doing these kind of stunts?

The philosophy is that our marketplace is dominated by multinational mega corporations that have hundreds of millions in their advertising budget. We’ve got nothing in our advertising budget, so for us to compete we’ve got to find new and innovative ways to make our point, to raise awareness about our business and about our beers. That’s focused on two things: engagement on social media, and these high-octane, risky publicity stunts.

Social media seems like it’s played a big role in your story. How important was building up your following?

So important. Our business has always been focused on community – it’s part-owned by a community of 70,000 so-called ‘equity punks’. Because our company’s purposeful, it’s been easier to build a community of likeminded individuals who are passionate about fantastic beer, and helping us build a completely new type of crowd-funded business.

How does crowd-funding tie in with your philosophy?

We started crowd-funding in 2009, when we couldn’t get any more money from banks. We needed cash to expand, but we also wanted to shorten the distance between ourselves and the people who enjoy our beer. Having our best customers as part owners of our business made them complicit in our success. We don’t see our 70,000 equity punks as an investors – we see them as ambassadors, advocates and our best allies.

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