Brewing Up Success: Career Advice From the Founder of Dogfis

by | March 09, 2011

Sam Calagione learned how to succeed in business by trying. Very hard.

Just about every chapter of his book, Brewing up a Business, includes a disaster in the discussed area. In "Publicity Stunts," he organizes a brewery opening that only 5 people show up for—including two coworkers and his wife. In "Keeping Your Balance," he schedules a huge amount of traveling in a very short period of time—and has a car accident, rental car tire blow out, and locks himself out of his truck on the way there. When he arrives at the event, sweaty and a little bloody, the event coordinator is upset that the beer is warm.

picture nameIf Calagione's tales of Dogfish Head Brewery are any example, entrepreneurship is not for the faint of heart—but it can certainly be adventurous; Sam maintains that some of the biggest leaps in a small business happen outside of the boardroom. (Calagione, for example, made most of his in a workshop, a rowboat, and at skateboarding events).

In keeping with the "off center" theme of his brand, Calagione believes in the value of approaching your business peripherally—that diving into the details, like sketching a logo for the promotion material or spending a few hours socializing with others in your field, is just as vital as managing the nuts and bolts of the product. "…[B]usiness is a form of self-expression that can be interactive and engaging, not just emotionally but practically," he writes in Brewing. "I started as a commercial artist, and I want to finish as an Art businessman or a business artist."

Calagione's holistic—and creative--approach to business also carries into his downtime.

Small Business is Personal

In the first years of Calagione's business, he spent an average of 12 hours in the office each day—but quickly learned that "productive" time off is key. "The best way to learn about your company is to get the hell away from it once in a while," he writes. Not only does this help you keep healthy and charged up for new challenges, he says, but it gives you time to "roam" and meet the very consumers you're trying to win over. "You will get only a fraction of this understanding by interacting with your customers on your home turf—in your office or store or on an official sales call," he warns.

Spend time with your distributors, mingle with customers and other companies at events, and always ask lots of questions, he urges. And don't forget to speak up where you can—it's the most direct way to inform your customers about your product and make a recommendation. "Thankfully, the most common negative feedback we get is that some of our beers cost too much," Calagione relates. "Once they've told us this, we have an opportunity to explain that some of our beers are made with five times the ingredients and they age for 10 times as long as those brewed by bigger breweries."

After he explains the pricing points, Calagione also mentions that there are cheaper beers in the collection too—useful information for the customer, and possibly the key to more business for Calagione. But the connection would not be possible unless he'd attended the festival.

The Business Stuff is Important Too

In the beginning, since Calagione knew his company wasn't quite Budweiser, he assumed the customers would "not only forgive the inconsistency of our beers and packaging, they would welcome it with open arms."

Not quite.

"One customer told me that he was so amazed by the complexity and quality of our Immort Ale—a brew comparable to a single malt scotch…--that he brought it to a whiskey tasting club only to be embarrassed by sharing a six-pack that contained four labeled bottles and two bottles covered in glue," recalls Calagione. He assured the customer that the beer inside was first rate, but "he reminded me that while that might be true, our presentation was less than professional," Calagione writes.

The lesson was well learned—and while Dogfish Head now boasts "unfinished" looking labels (designed by Calagione himself), they're always affixed on the bottles correctly. "A principle essential to the success of small business is that, since you cannot compete with big business on price, you must be sure that the value of your product over the competition's is apparent in all aspects of your offering," says Calagione; "…this includes packaging, the customer service, and the product itself."

Know Your Story

If you're a small business, you need to know exactly who you are, and what you have to offer—and you need to be able to communicate that to potential customers.

"The exercise of sitting in front of the computer or a blank page and writing down what is exciting at this moment can be humbling, but it forces you to keep your brand exciting," says Calagione. Just like a writer, he notes, a "voice" is a very important property for your brand to develop—and a task no one but you can do.

"If you are a small company and you hire a PR firm to do your press releases, odds are the press release will not be written in your company's voice but in the generic voice of most press releases," he says.

Hire Wisely and Manage Well

Calagione has a litmus test for new employees who will make it at Dogfish. "Usually the people who think of themselves as separate from the company, the people who can never bring themselves to say 'our beer,' don't work with us for too long," he writes.

At a small company, a small and dedicated team is important—so choose new hires wisely, and build in opportunity for employee satisfaction and integration at every opportunity. At Dogfish, Calagione holds "bocce nights," complete with pizza, beer, and a jukebox machine for the employees to relax and bond over the product, creating a "family" feel to the company.

But be aware that a close knit team is especially vulnerable to a bad egg, and requires careful management. Calagione writes in the book about an incident where a dedicated employee grows disgruntled for seemingly no apparent reason—until he reveals that "a person in a position of authority over him… was not working for the company as much as he was working for himself," Calagione recalls. The result was rampant disillusionment that hurt employees' productivity, and on a larger scale, the company.

The lesson: "The success or failure of your community depends on the establishment of a management hierarchy that acknowledges the realms of responsibility for both followers and leaders," he says. For a truly cohesive company to form, that hierarchy must be overseen—and enforced—along with all the coworker bonding.

Of course, bonding has its place—including identifying potential bad apples. "I can't prove any correlation, but these people usually suck at bocce," jokes Calagione.

Love What You Do, But Keep Doing What You Love

"Regardless of what kind of businessperson you are, I advise you to maintain at least one hobby," Calagione says. "Having interests outside of your business allows you to gain some distance while providing alternative exploration of new meaning for your company."

Hobbies also allow you to find different niches for yourself within your business, safeguarding against burnout. When Calagione needed time away from spreadsheets, he writes that he brewed lagers himself, or hand-made Dogfish's trademark "off center" wooden tap handles. He's since discovered a more efficient way of incorporating art into daily business; "We brought in professionals to make the tap handles and I continued to design the ads and write the copy but relied on a company to produce the digital artwork," he explains. "Basically, two trends spoke well for the future of the company: 1. I was capable of creating a unique artistic aesthetic for Dogfish Head, but I wasn't always the best person to move forward with the actual production of this aesthetic; 2. I was capable of translating this aesthetic to key people around me who were better skilled to carry out the production."

Whether you run your own business or simply work for one, it will be an outlet for much of your time and energy. Therefore, the more of your talents you can utilize at work, the more engaged you'll be. As Calagione puts it, "Salesmanship is really just an extension of confidence—it is the transference of your confidence to other people"; if you eat, sleep, and breath your brand as he does, that should be a no brainer.

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