Twenty-eight years ago, a brewer with big dreams set out to sell his family’s lager. He took his chilled beer bottles, packed them in a briefcase, and headed to Boston’s many bars to sell his stuff. Brewing small batches in his kitchen, he transformed from a door-to-door beer salesman to the founder and brewmaster of one of the world’s biggest beer companies in the country.
Haven’t guessed who it is yet? Yep, that’s Jim Koch, founder of the Boston Beer Co. and brewer of American beer staple Samuel Adams. Yes, he was once a small businessman himself. And now, the founder is taking his successful "Brewing the American Dream" program nationwide to repay other budding entrepreneurs.
The program, which began in Boston in 2008, is a microlending program in partnership with Accion, the country’s largest microfinance organization. The program provides low- to moderate-income business owners and soon-to-be start-ups with the essentials of successful small businesses. By helping the "little guys" in the food, beverage, and hospitality industries, Koch is coming full circle. "My plan was to grow over five years, make about 5,000 barrels, and make a little over a million [dollars] a year and level off," Koch says. "My dad [who was a brewmaster before] said, 'You can’t survive at that level.' But I believed that I could."
Now, Koch says, his little brewing experiment has "turned out to be about 500 times bigger than I thought." He believed that his beer — a "really great beer" — would find the right market.
Looking back on his start, Koch says that he realized what he needed most as a growing businessman was not just money; it was also encouragement and advice, a big reason why mentorships and hands-on support are integrated into the Brewing the American Dream program. The program offers "speed coaching" events that pair Samuel Adams employees and local experts with loan-takers to give them professional coaching and advice. Topics don’t just cover food and beverage aspects, but also marketing, finance, operations, distribution, and more.
Koch says he didn’t have a mentor when he first began, but did have a few people giving him invaluable advice when he started out. He received both advice, like how to "be your own salesman," and nuts-and-bolts tips on finance, like payrolls.
The advice "was more valuable than the money," Koch says. "I did fine without the bank loans. But had I made dumb mistakes because I didn’t listen to people or didn’t have anyone to tell me [what to do], I wouldn’t be here."
And yes, Koch was turned down by several of the big banks while trying to finance his dreams. Still he never gave up. "I quit my job, I was committed," Koch says of his first venture. "I used to teach mountain climbing, and in most climbs there is a point where you are 'committed' — and that’s the term — where it’s actually easier to get to the top and back rather than turn around. I was past the point of no return, I was committed."
It’s that determination that motivates him to help others who are where he was 28 years ago. His favorite example was one businesswoman, named Lucy Valena. A "coffee artisan," she took out a loan from Brewing the American Dream to finance an espresso machine to make coffees at corporate events. After repaying that loan, she took out more loans to invest in more machines, and ultimately, to open a coffee shop in Cambridge, Mass. The end result: Voltage Coffee, a shop with 18 employees and major street cred (it was named the best coffee by Boston magazine). Koch says he liked watching her success grow.
"I was there," he says. "I’ve been through all the same stages that she’s been through. It’s fun for me to help her get through that, to keep her motivated."