If you read me, you know I never do this, but I’ve known Mystery Brewing’s Erik Myers for 12 years, and I thought the best way to talk about his appearance tonight on CNBC’s Crowd Rules, where he competed with – and won – other entrepreneurs for a $50,000 prize, would be to give you the conversation, verbatim, as we had it.
But first, a bit about the show: “Once again, we saw three great small businesses, but in the end, the Hillsborough, N.C., beer company Mystery Brewing made the best case for an infusion of fresh capital. Its $50,000 prize will help the owners grow their business without adding to the debt they’ve incurred since start-up,” CNBC show panelist Pat Kiernan wrote.
I could give you my opinion. I could tell you about how awesome Erik is as an entrepreneur as he showed on CNBC, how he brought so many aspects of tech entrepreneurship to building what is now a very successful brewery, or what he’s learned along the way, but I’m hoping you’ll actually watch the show and find out about all this for yourself.
Could Erik have built Mystery Brewing outside of Durham? Probably. His brewery and brewpub are actually 20 minutes away in Hillsborough. But he and his wife Sarah live in Durham and Erik is immersed in the startup community there. He’s also the author of North Carolina Beer and Breweries (Blair), which took him across North Carolina to investigate the scene and all it has to offer. One more: He’s the Vice President of the North Carolina Brewers Guild.
Erik built Mystery like a tech startup, raising $50,000 on Kickstarter and another $250,000 in private seed money. He blogs, he markets well, and he’s everywhere — and in that, Mystery Brewing and companies like it deserve to be in the same sentence as Triangle Startup Factory graduates, NC IDEA winners, and, you know, all those other startups from Durham that landed on a CNBC reality show.
Joe: OK, so it’s pretty amazing and somewhat surreal that you’re going to be on a reality show Tuesday night.
Erik: (Laughs) That’s one way to put it. It doesn’t feel very real. It’s so far outside of normal every day experience and the entire thing happened very quickly. Tuesday night will probably be really strange.
Joe: How do you think you’ll come off?
Erik: I honestly don’t know. I’m sure that I’ll come off a little goofy – because I’m kinda goofy. One of the stories that I think they wanted to follow is that I’m a little blinded by my own vision sometimes – which I’m not sure is entirely fair, but probably has more truth in it than I’d like to admit.
So, I think I’ll come off like a goofy megalomaniac? I think that the brewery will show very well.
Joe: And I think that’s a big deal – showing that this isn’t just a basement or garage thing. This is real. So how did the show come together? Who made the initial call and where was the interest?
Erik: They contacted me. I get the idea that they found me via my original Kickstarter project. I wasn’t even sure it was real until they had followed up an e-mail with a phone call. Who gets a random e-mail inviting them to be on a reality-type game show? Me, I guess.
Joe: And then they sent a camera crew down? That had to be fun — he said somewhat sarcastically.
Erik: Well, they sent a camera down — we shot a bunch of stuff ourselves, and then they sent a producing crew down that worked with local talent to shoot the “expert visit” portion of the show.
It was a long, not-very-business-as-usual kind of day, but it actually was kinda fun.
Joe: So I’ve known you since 2001, when you were living in Boston, and when I met you, you were basically a writer and a techie. When did the brewing start and how did it get to a point where you knew it was bigger than a hobby?
Erik: My mom bought me a homebrew kit for Christmas in 2000. I made a lot of really terrible beer. It was really only a few years ago — 2009 or so — when I started thinking that maybe I could do it as a career… and even then, I thought I would get into the beer world by writing and blogging about it, not by making it.
Joe: You moved to Durham in 2003 and took a job at UNC doing IT, a job I know you hated. In your promo, the message is pretty much “quit your job” – which is easy to say, but not so easy to do, even when you hate your job.
Erik: Yeah, I know. One of my greatest fears about that promo is that people will watch it and say, “YEAH! I need to quit my job!” and then do it, go broke, and then blame me for the advice, but I’m really serious about it.
Quitting your job forces you to make that thing that you’re trying to do work. It’s like skydiving, I guess – I’ve never skydived – but until you make that step, all you’re doing is standing in an airplane looking down saying, “That might be fun.” Of course, you don’t want to take that step without a parachute, but you have to make that step at some point.
It’s terrifying, but it was definitely one of my best early decisions, even if some of my early days were spent at home playing computer games all day when I should have been working.
Joe: I still do that now. You do a ton of stuff for Mystery outside of actually making beer. And when I say “you” I mean “you,” even though you have a good-sized staff. Tell me about some of those endeavors and some of the payoff.
Erik: Well, I still manage a lot – but not all – of the design and marketing copy, and I like to be at as many events as possible. I also manage the website and I’ve been working on building my own database and web-based program to run brewery operations, and that will hopefully lead into doing some piloting with a software company that’s working on a web-based management app for breweries.
I try to spend as much time on the public face of the brewery as possible because it’s my idea that small businesses – regardless of industry – are about people and about relationships. A business is only as strong, or as popular, as the people who are representing it.
Joe: We had a conversation about two years ago in which you said that in five to 10 years, Durham and Raleigh are going to look like San Francisco and Oakland. Still think that today?
Erik: Absolutely. Just look at our thriving hipster population. (Laughs, as do I)
But seriously, I’ve heard a lot of people call North Carolina “the California of the East Coast” and I think that applies in a lot of ways – we have the same kind of agricultural base that northern California does, and now a really great startup, tech, and pharma industry, supported by well-attended R1 universities. We’re a little behind because the South has been a bastion of textiles and manufacturing for so long, but we’re catching up quick.
Look, Raleigh is one of the fastest growing cities in America. Durham is recognized nationwide as a center for arts and food. We’re the fastest growing beer industry in the country – tied with Texas. People want to live here, which means that people want to do business here. Give us an MLB team and a Chinatown and we’re golden.
Joe: Whether or not you win, the publicity from this ought to be, well, it ought to be percolating a little bit right now in fact. What do you hope to get out of your appearance on the show?
Erik: Well, two things. I’m hoping to generate at least a little bit of interest in investing in the business, because we’re looking to grow, add some more fermenter space, and get a bottling line to increase our visibility in the market.
That, I’m hoping, will come hand in hand with just more awareness of the brewery. I meet a lot of people in the state who still don’t know that we exist. We don’t have an advertising budget and we pretty much just market to nerds — beer or otherwise. You either know about us because you’ve found us on social media or you’ve run into us at a beer event.
Word of mouth is incredibly strong, but it’s also incredibly slow. I’m hoping that this will generate a lot more exposure for us, drive people to our new taproom, drive keg sales around the state and set us up for further growth.
Editor’s note: Joe Procopio is a serial entrepreneur, writer, and speaker. He is VP of Product at Automated Insights and the founder of startup network and news resource ExitEvent. Follow him at @jproco or read him at http://joeprocopio.com