They had us at “beer and wine.” Or, more specifically, that they are a company that’s passionate about helping customers make their own great beer and wine.
And that’s what the largest beer and wine making supply shop in Indiana, Great Fermentations, is about–providing awesome products, backed by amazing service.
You might not think of Indiana as the brew capital of the world, but it’s where founder Anita Johnson first set up shop—literally—in 1995. She became a brew aficionado after her first experiment, when she offered a friend a meal of good ol’ boxed mac and cheese and fish sticks in exchange for a lesson in homebrewing. Apparently her beer-making skills were better than her cooking acumen, and before long she ditched corporate life to start Great Fermentations.
Her son, Bryan, had relocated to Colorado, but returned to the family business in 2012 to grow the company’s online presence, a feat he managed so spectacularly that they went from less than $90,000 in sales to $1 million within three years. As his mom has stepped back from day-to-day operations, he has since taken on everything from overseeing inventory on the website and the two retail stores, to helming product development. “I kind of run the show which scares me a little,” he laughs.
Riding the Beer Economy
Although it would seem logical to attribute Great Fermentations’ success to the current craft beer craze, that’s actually not the case, says Bryan. That’s because the reason many people previously turned to homebrew was because it was the only way they could get their hands on the type of beer they wanted.
Now, beer options are pervasive. Craft beer has exploded—experiencing double digit growth in 2014 and 2015, with a slight slowing in 2016—which means beer fans can find their favorite varieties as close as the neighborhood grocery store. However much the craft beer business may have infringed on his market, Bryan is quick to note that they wouldn’t be where they are without some of those craft brewing behemoths that started as homebrewers, citing noted craft brewers like Dogfish Head and Sam Adams, which had their roots in homebrewing.
In another paradox, the booming economy has been another factor contributing to a potential slowdown in growth. Seems homebrew does better when people have more free time on their hands. Now “being busy” is so ubiquitous that fewer people are taking the time to slow down and nurture a hobby.
Finding Growth in an Evolving Market
To keep growing, Bryan knew he had to look harder for different avenues, one of which he found in a brand of brewing equipment that he describes as “the Porsche of the brewing world–the nicest and most expensive equipment out there.”
No one was yet capitalizing on that market, so he decided to become the expert, learning its products inside and out and getting traction from a $2,250 product that really gave them a boost.
In addition to partnering with this premium brand, Bryan earns customer loyalty by ensuring visitors have a seamless experience online. And finally, he grows brand awareness through savvy social media ad buys, which are more successful now that he has name recognition.
Of course, he’s always looking for the next big thing and his money is on kombucha. “We’ll definitely be staying in beverage making–our goal is to expose the next generation to the hobby of brewing.”
Working in his favor is the small-but-growing movement of mindfulness which encourages people to return to a slower pace, including doing things with their hands. He believes this return to simpler times is one way people are trying to fight the “tractor beam of technology” that’s trying to take over every aspect of our lives. “There will always a market of people who want to do things themselves.”
Conquering Small Business Life
“It’s crazy running a small business because even though I have a great team of employees, there are certain things that only I can do,” he notes, echoing a sentiment that every small business owner, everywhere, has undoubtedly voiced at some point.
And, given his IT background, by default he’s the printer fixer and server ninja, just to add a few more tasks to his extensive to-do list. That’s why he’s committed to using tools that streamline his workday.
Somewhat surprisingly for a trend-tracking guy, he likes to keep his tech simple and user-friendly. “I’m good if I have something that helps me do my expenses and something that lets me keep in touch with people,” he says, keeping it pretty old school by relying on stalwarts like email, Evernote, his white board and QuickBooks as his go-tos that help him run his business – and his life.
Along the way he’s learned some key strategies that can help any small business:
- Manage cash flow and make sure you can ride out any lows–a philosophy he got from his mom, who believed in building up a reserve so she could pay her employees and keep the business on course even if there was a catastrophe.
- Realize that you can’t compete with Amazon on margins so you have to provide extra value to customers when they come through your door (or portal as it were). He takes comfort in the fact that as new hobbies evolve, they will first be serviced by small- to medium-sized businesses before Amazon gets in on the game.
- Monitor your marketing budget, keeping an eye on how much you are spending compared to how many customers you are bringing in. “Social media and search can chew through your marketing dollars if you’re not watchful,” he says.
And finally, remember that a daily 5:30 shift beer can do wonders. His personal favorite type of beer?
“Anything Belgian, like a Belgian Tripel,” he says. “If it’s above 7%, there’s a good chance I’m going to like it.” We’ll drink to that.