Editor’s note: This is part of a series of interviews from WRAL TechWire featuring “Legends – The men and women who helped create and build North Carolina’s technology and life science ecosystem.” These leaders will join Jim Goodnight, Monica Doss, Dennis Daugherty, Charles Hamner and Venessa Harrison as members of WRAL TechWire’s virtual Hall of Fame, which named its first members in 2017.
WILMINGTON – At just 31 years of age, Kurt Taylor has already received some of the biggest accolades in the business press. In 2015, he showed up in Forbes’ list of “30 Under 30” food and beverage entrepreneurs “changing the way we eat and drink” with his NextGlass app. Based on research at Wilmington’s MARBIONC Lab, NextGlass analyzed the chemical compounds in wine and beer, then used the information to make drink recommendations based on the science of taste.
According to Forbes, Taylor’s NextGlass app, which launched in November 2014, got 250,000 downloads in its first three weeks in the Apple app store and was experiencing a 100,000-downloads-per-week growth rate. Users entered their preferred beverages into the app and received suggestions of others that might meet their taste preferences, as well as where to find them in the local area.
Taylor’s company received early in-state attention as well. Next Glass took home a Coastal Entrepreneur Award from UNC Wilmington’s Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship and the Greater Wilmington Business Journal in 2014 and WRAL TechWire’s own Full Steam Ahead Award in the startup category in 2016.
In January 2016, NextGlass merged with Untappd, a California-based company that had built an app with more than 4 million users. The networking app allows beer drinkers to socialize and share new beers and brewery locations.
“Tim Mather and Greg Avola built the original Untappd app,” Taylor tells TechWire. The two met on Twitter in 2010 through a blind tweet saying “looking for #design help on a new project.” Both, it turned out, were interested in building an online, social drinking community, where members could share their craft beer adventures. “They worked nights and weekends (on opposite ends of the country) until 2015 when we all started working on Untappd full-time,” Taylor says.
The free Untappd app allows users to discover and rate new beers, beer-drinking venues and beer-oriented events, as well as interact with other beer enthusiasts. The New York Times and TIME both included it on their lists of the best apps of 2017.
By 2018, Untappd, now based in Wilmington, ranked as the fastest growing technology company in North Carolina. The 2018 Deloitte Technology Fast 500, which ranks national companies based on three-year revenue growth, listed Untappd No. 53 overall and leading the pack in North Carolina.
Also in 2018, Untappd ranked 150th on the Inc. 5,000 list, the magazine’s annual guide to the 5,000 fastest-growing privately held companies in the U.S. Untappd came in at No. 259 on the list the previous year, and No. 220 in 2019.
Today, Taylor says, Untappd is home to the world’s largest community of beer drinkers. “We provide users with an app to track, share and find their favorite beers,” he explains. “At the same time, we provide bars, restaurants, bottle shops and breweries with tools that allow them to streamline operations and promote their businesses to the Untappd community.”
Untappd HQ occupies a prime Wilmington downtown property on South Front Street, in a building owned and renovated by James Goodnight, and continues to grow, with offices now open in Charlotte and Durham. Over 80 percent of the company’s 112 employees live in Wilmington, Taylor says. “I’m from Wilmington, and it was important to me that Untappd have its headquarters here. Wilmington has been a great city for us to grow in. We love being part of the community.”
Not only is Untappd the world’s most popular social drinking app, with over 8.5 million users and counting around the world, the company also operates the world’s largest beer menu publishing software-as-a-service (“SaaS”) platform, Untappd for Business. The social and business products are currently in use in over 100 countries around the world.
“Our goal is to create a suite of software solutions that fully integrates the alcohol industry’s three-tier system,” Taylor says. “Our Untappd for Business and Untappd Marketplace products are critical steps in achieving this goal, as they integrate and streamline key operations for the wholesale and retail tiers. We currently have over 19 thousand customers (bars, restaurants, retailers, breweries…) using our software around the world.”
An annual fee gives business owners access to a suite of tools that automate menu changes on the Untappd app, as well as on Twitter and Facebook, publish menus to print or a website, and plan in-app promotions. In addition, owners get detailed analytics identifying who their customers are and what they are drinking.
“It’s a great way to get your name out there and build a client base,” a bartender at a new venue in Morehead City told us. “We immediately had new customers coming through the door.”
For Untappd users, the fun of drinking and rating beers is enhanced by colorful badges awarded for trying different styles of beer, visiting new venues, and participating in special events. During our testing of the app’s features, we quickly accumulated 42 badges. The experience reminded this former Girl Scout of the thrill of earning merit badges, but this time for drinking beer… and minus the bugs and mud.
Other members of the social community report unique uses for Untappd. “I don’t ever like to drink the same beer twice,” one downtown Wilmington bar patron told us. “This helps me keep track of what I’ve already had. Plus I can track down the one kind of beer my girlfriend will drink at bars and stores wherever we go.”
Q&A with Kurt Taylor
Looking back, what was the deciding factor in your career choice?
Taylor: I always fought the idea of being an entrepreneur. (I come from a family of entrepreneurs.) I thought I wanted a good, stable job in finance. And that’s what I had. I was working for an investment bank, making good money. But it didn’t last. I felt pretty unfulfilled, and after a couple of years I knew I needed to make a change. I wanted to build something. I wanted to create jobs and make a difference. And so I jumped in the deep end and haven’t looked back.
What kind of funding built your company?
Taylor: We’ve raised $6.4 million from angel investors.
What advice and/or mistakes-to-avoid can you share with others?
Taylor: The team is everything. If you don’t have the right team, it doesn’t matter how good your product is. Invest in hiring the right people. Make sure you find team members that will grow with you as you scale.
What would be your biggest do-over?
Taylor: One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that I’m not as smart as I thought I was. We used to operate – building products, planning roll outs etc.- in a conference room. We assumed we knew everything our customers would want. But we couldn’t have been more wrong. We are now very disciplined in talking to customers and getting feedback. We’re on-site with customers constantly. But early on we wasted a lot of time and money thinking we had all the answers.
What is most important to you outside of business?
Taylor: Family. I’m very blessed to have a lot of family around me. My family has supported me from the beginning. My dad works with me, which has been really special. My parents and grandparents invested in me on day 1 (and several times after that!). And my wife, who agreed to marry me right after I quit my job for this, has been a constant source of strength and support, always helping me push forward.
What values contribute most to Untappd’s success?
Taylor: For us, I think it’s pretty simple. Untappd has been successful because we embrace hard work, confront challenges and care deeply about winning. We want to build the best products. We want to make our customers happy. And we want to be good teammates. The rest kind of falls in place.
Kurt Taylor currently lives in Wilmington with his wife Anna and son Marshall. Anna and Kurt have been together since high school and married in 2013.