When you launch a craft brewery, where do you begin? Equipment is expensive, space and permits aren’t easy to secure, and thanks to the recent surge in microbreweries appearing across North America, craft brewing is on its way to becoming a crowded market.
This question played on our mind ever since we came across Postmark Brewing, one of the newer craft breweries to open its doors in the Pacific North West. If the company has an ace up its sleeve, one that differentiates Postmark from nearby competitors, it’s the distinct visual aesthetic of the Postmark brand.
The company’s passion for the West Coast lifestyle permeates everything from physical branding to a range of collaborative partnerships that span music, photography, clothing, art, and live events. Those who consume Postmark’s sessionable beers aren’t just fans. They’re fanatics -- brand ambassadors who visit the brewery to refill stylish beer bottles and growler jugs, and who proudly sport Postmark-branded merchandise, like the hand-crafted leather growler carrier that clips straight onto a bicycle.
On the eve of Postmark launching their first collection of bottled beers, Bench photographer, Taby, and I met with Steve Thorp, Postmark’s co-founder and resident 'Do All Guy'. Steve took us on a tour of the brewery and shared his advice on everything from securing and allocating startup capital, to using non-traditional marketing (SoundCloud is one of their strongest online channels), to launch a successful craft brewery.
Hi Steve. Prior to Postmark you started FreshTAP and Urban Winery. It seems like launching a craft brewery was a natural next step for you.
Totally. Back in 2011, our original concept was to create a winery/brewery/kitchen, one you could tour and check out the operation. So we branded our physical location ‘The Settlement Building.’ We did that because we wanted to give it kind of an umbrella that housed a collective of manufacturing and lifestyle brands.
Right now we have Postmark Brewing, Urban Winery, and the Belgard Kitchen. But next year there could be another small business unit that sprouts from within the organization. And it can live within this entity, as long as it fits the core values and what we stand for as a company.
Are there any particular values that have shaped the development of Postmark and your other brands?
My business partner Mike and I, we come from a creative, energetic background. So one of the things that we really like to do, and what we believe we’re really good at, is bringing really strong people into our environment and our organization. I think a big value that Mike and I have held for years is being able to identify those key people. And build that organization and culture that people really want to be a part of.
Over the years we’ve really honed in on some core values of the business. Trust and integrity with people are two that are constantly at the top of our list. Especially in a business that’s so small, with things happening all the time. And when you’re in startup mode and there’s so much happening so fast, it’s definitely a key value.
Communication is key. That’s a line that we use all the time with people. Constantly be communicating about everything happening in the business. Good, bad, doesn’t matter. Just keeping those open lines of communication.
Also, ‘innovate until you die’. Innovation was the original core value that we’ve developed over the years, as it’s always been a really key one for us. As a value, innovation is present in everything from our food venue, to our branding, to our products, to anything we would do within the businesses. We’re constantly trying to be better, constantly trying to be innovating.
You're directly involved with the branding of Postmark.
Yeah. It is definitely a big passion of mine, for sure. Before, I had an eight-year career in the action sports and lifestyle business. I sold product, I marketed product. I owned my own small agency. So I enjoy branding. I understand it.
Also, we’re lucky because, for the most part, all of our brands are targeted directly at my network of friends. So I am the core demographic of my own brands. This makes it more familiar and a little easier for me to market those brands.
Postmark has such a strong visual identity. How would you describe the brand to others?
We are a true West Coast lifestyle brand. It’s in the core of who we are. Everyone here at Postmark and within the brand, we’re all outdoor enthusiasts. If we’re not here, we’re out camping, fishing, hiking, dirt biking, snowboarding, surfing, doing something. It’s just what we love to do. So we really wanted the brand to speak to that. I have also started shooting photography way more, and many of my friends are photographers. So we really wanted to bring that essence into the brand.
You've definitely hit the mark. Has the way you've crafted the Postmark brand had a noticeable impact on the success of the business? Does it attract a certain type of customer to Postmark?
Yes, for sure. I think we’ve done a really good job of saying who we are, and this is what we are, and this is what we believe in. And I think that, because that message is quite clear, it has attracted the people that we hoped it would with Postmark. With craft beer you attract everyone, because everyone’s excited about craft beer at the moment. But I think Postmark speaks to the people we want it to speak to. And we’re really happy with that.
Music is another way you connect with customers, which is interesting. You don't see a lot of companies doing that. Why did you decide to go down this route with your marketing?
Music is such a massive part to setting the mood for any environment, and it’s also a big part of our DNA. We started a SoundCloud account that’s actually become one of our strongest media channels. It has resonated strongly with a ton of people, and a lot of people find Postmark and communicate to us directly through SoundCloud.
Everyday people message us to say “Thank you so much for starting your SoundCloud. It’s all I listen to all day at work.” People listen to our playlists when they go for a run or go on road trips. It’s really cool to see how people respond.
Who creates the playlists and how does it work?
Every week, Nate (Postmark’s Managing Director) builds the SoundCloud playlists; he has a really keen eye for new cool music that no one knows. I produce the photography and the album covers. And then we blast it out to our subscribers. We’ve actually put a ton of energy into the music side of the business and we’ll continue to do so for this year.
It sounds like you guys have a lot of fun working together. What's the best thing about the lifestyle you've created for yourselves?
I think the coolest thing about what we do is that we live our work. Our lifestyle has really crossed over to our work. And I enjoy every aspect of this business, from the very top end hard decisions I have to make, to doing everything on the finance forecast side. All the way down to the littlest thing, like helping out the restaurant or anything around the brewery. It’s a really rewarding business. It’s full of great people.
And the hardest?
I would say the hardest thing about what I do is having enough patience get through the day without being excited about the next one. For me, I’m constantly moving quite quickly, and being surrounded by ideas and concepts, so it’s about slowing down and having that focus and discipline to see the plan through.
Starting a brewery isn't a small undertaking. Do you have any advice for other entrepreneurs who are thinking about starting a venture that's similar in size?
I would say, trust your gut. For a lot of people, their intuition is probably stronger than they think. So don’t make decisions based on greed. Make decisions based on your intuition, your gut, and your passion.
I’d also say that persistence is everything. Don’t ever stop. You know, we’ve been knocked down in this business to the point where people said: “I don’t know if this thing’s actually going to work.” And we just kept going and believed in it, and worked, and worked, and worked. Because we believed in it. And I think that that’s the key. If you really believe in something, you’ve just got to keep pushing. And eventually, it will work.
Finally, keep in mind that you have to wear every hat in this business. When we started FreshTAP and Urban Winery, it was just Mike, myself, and our winemaker, so we did everything. As the business evolves you can layer in people that start to take over different business units or manage different parts of the business. But, as an entrepreneur it’s always hard to let those parts of the business go. It’s important to channel your energy and your focus into what you’re best at.
Securing startup capital is also a common hurdle for entrepreneurs. What advice do you have on raising the kind of capital required to start a brewery?
That’s a great question. I would say most entrepreneurs would answer that by suggesting friends and family and people that believe in them. I think that at the heart of every investment round is the people behind it. I truly believe that. You know, you could be raising $100,000, you could be raising $10 million. For me it’s always the people behind it. And within that, there’s kind of a collective of different beliefs, ideas, strengths, weaknesses, in that person. One of them when you’re opening something like a brewery, you look at their past history and what they’ve done within the industry and what they’ve done with their experiences outside and inside the industry. Looking at where their strengths are. And beyond that, what their personality is. If you believe that they can achieve what they’re trying to set out to do.
You can look at pro forma statements and forecasts all day long. And you need to do that for due diligence to understand that they know their numbers and what they’re getting into. But it’s really about the people.
So, for us, we had a track record of a few years within the manufacturing business. Plus we had a few years of working in and out of the industry. So we had a really good understanding of the business. So when we did look for some outside capital, it was strategic. We were looking at the right people. It wasn’t necessarily easy. You never want to be naive to say “it’s easy to raise money,” because it’s not. It’s a big challenge. As an entrepreneur, it’s always fun to build that hype when you’re trying to close an investment round. But until that check is cut and in your hands, it’s a lot of work. But if you have passion for the project and people believe that and they can see that you’re all in, I think that’s the biggest challenge. A lot of people get into projects without their full intention and passion in it, and I think that’s where the miss is.
When you launch a brewery, where do you first funnel your startup capital?
Deciding where to allocate your capital definitely does take some real strategic work, because a lot of the infrastructure that you need for the manufacturing side can be debt financed. Because it is really, really good equipment. But that’s if you have a strong track record with the bank. If you can do that, it’s going to cost you a lot less than either borrowing it or giving up equity in the business. So it’s this balance of, if you are going to bring in capital, you want to use it in the most strategic way. You don’t want to just go out there and spend a bunch of money, you need to have budgets in place, and understand your cash flow requirements. Now, some people are able to spread that dollar a lot thinner in things like operational money. Like marketing, like branding. We come from the background, so being able to touch on our networks of designers, photographers, friends, web designers, videographers. We’ve been able to really dig into our network of people to really support us. And it’s been a really big grassroots operation.
And the funny thing is we get people looking at our brand and thinking: oh my god you guys must have a massive marketing budget. We actually don’t. We haven’t spent a ton of money. Pretty much everything is done in house and with close partnerships. We shoot all the stock photography ourselves. We built the brand with friends. We used a couple of good friends that were next door at Burnkit to help build the original icon set and logo. Then I worked with some old industry contacts on the packaging. And then most everything else we’ve done in house.
What are your plans for the future? Where will you take the businesses from here?
We definitely have some secret five-year goals. (laughing) At the end of the day, we’re always evolving. The markets change, the industries change, the trends change. The brands that are able to be nimble enough and evolve and not get stuck in their ways are definitely the ones that you see succeed over time. Granted they have a formula for their company/brand and they stick to that, and I think we will too. We’ll always stick to what our values are. But I think our company will evolve, and if people like Postmark and they want to keep drinking Postmark then we’ll grow Postmark to fill the demand. We’re not scared to keep growing, that’s for sure.