Since I quit my job at the start of the year, I’ve been looking around for other opportunities in Dublin. I’ve no doubt that packing it in was the right thing to do, but opportunities for gainful employment seem rather thinner than I had hoped (although there are a couple of leads). The long and the short of it is, however, that I have had to start thinking seriously about starting my own business.
And it is absolutely terrifying. It felt like a big deal signing the mortgage documents on our house but if I am to start a microbrewery, I will have to borrow at least a couple of hundred grand to set that up. I will have to use the equity in our house to back that up, which means it’s not just my future financial security but Dot’s too that I’m risking.
There’s the myriad of costs that starting a business will incur in addition to the capital costs of assembling a brewery (lawyers, accountants, company registration, graphic design for logo etc, website set up costs, water treatment plant for brewery and possibly also for waste water, fit out of the premises, electricians and plumbers fees, transport, further equipment for the brewery e.g. for packaging and cleaning, tables and chairs etc for office, a phone line and internet, brewery management software, kegs and packages, a delivery van and fuel, insurance, rates and rent, not to mention upfront payment of excise duty)
There’s the pressure to sell the beer afterwards. I wouldn’t call myself a natural salesman and while I think it will be easier to sell to businesses than to the general public, it’s still not something I’m particularly looking forward to doing. The pressure is going to be greater because I will already have committed myself and incurred a lot of the inevitable costs before there’s even anything to sell.
Then there’s how frantically busy I am going to be once it’s up an running. Brewing will be but one of my jobs. I will have to package the beer. Deliver it to pubs. Get new pub accounts, manage the ones I have. Chase people for payment. Install taps in pubs, clean lines, make deliveries, keep records accurately. I will probably have to keep abreast of what people are saying about the beer on Facebook and Twitter and specialist beer ranking websites (which may be hurtful some of the time). I will have to be open to run brewery tours and attend meet the brewer promotions in pubs and off-licences. It’s going to be a near 24/7 commitment in the first year at least.
I’ve got skills and experience to prepare me for some of the things I’m going to have to do, but there’s still a whole lot that I haven’t directly done before so I will be outside my comfort zone and on a step learning curve.
Then there’s the unknown unknown’s and the things beyond my control. What if the government brings in even heavier excise rates on beer. Ireland already has the third highest tax on beer in the EU (after Finland and the UK), and a high rate of VAT on top of that. There is a vocal anti-alcohol lobby in Ireland pushing for policies aimed at stopping people drinking. What if the large scale breweries, like Guinness and Heineken declare an all-out war on microbreweries and offer pubs incentives to take other taps out and exclusively sell their products? What if I get sick and become unable to work after I have incurred all the debt?
But still I think I have to do it.
- I don’t see any alternative. Dot has a good job in Dublin and the boys love school here. We are all putting down roots and settling in to a little community. I can’t move anywhere else to find a job. It has to be here. But equally, I have to have a career I can believe in, which will enhance and be a source of my self-respect. Maybe I could find a job as a dustbin man or a janitor or a telesales executive or what have you but I refuse to do it. I refuse to be broken like that. I love my family and have made many sacrifices for them, but every man has limits. Actually, I take strength from this. I am like a refugee. I can’t go back. The boats are burnt on the shore. The only path is to go for it and make it work.
- If anyone can do it, I can. I have reinvented myself in my late thirties as a brewer. It takes guts and intelligence and flexibility to retrain in adulthood and I did that much and more (I graduated with distinction for my MSc in Brewing and Distilling). I’ve proven myself in social situations too. One of the cruelties of life in academia is having to move around the world to find work and I have had to make friends anew time and again in my life. My networking skills have improved (not to mention networking in the drinks industry is a little bit easier once everyone’s a little bit lubricated).
- As to the unknown unknowns, I don’t believe the government will make things worse for microbreweries in Ireland. There isn’t the political will and excise rates are already so high. Guinness and Heineken would face a social media backlash if they tried to drive the little guys out (and the Irish will always support the underdog). I might get sick, but I’ll just have to get insurance to cover that eventuality.
Lastly, I think all of the jobs are within my power to do. The practical task of managing a brewery and producing great beer is something I have already proven I can do. And I think I will be able to manage the sales side of things. For one thing, the exchange seems at root a very mutually beneficial one. The brewery is obviously making a small profit on every keg sold and the pub is too. The pub has to give over space on the bar to the product, but that is a comparatively small burden for the profit they stand to make. They can take a chance at little risk to them. The craft beer market in Dublin is in some ways quite congested, because there are a lot of microbreweries all competing for taps in a few specialised pubs. But I would focus on ordinary pubs because of that. It is better to be the only craft beer offering in a suburban pub than one of twenty in a city centre craft beer pub. I might only get a yes from 10% of the suburban pubs that I approach, which is why I will have to approach hundreds. I’m not fussy. Everyone’s euro has 100 cents!