Venture Voice – interviews with entrepreneurs

Entertaining Entrepreneurship

Steve Hindy of Brooklyn Brewery

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We’re heading back to the archives, this time revisiting my 2006 interview with Steve Hindy, co-founder of Brooklyn Brewery. Steve’s career journey, both as a foreign correspondent before he took the entrepreneurial leap, and as a brewery owner, is the stuff of blockbuster movie fare. After all, being robbed at gunpoint and being threatened by the mob are not problems the average entrepreneur encounters (thankfully!). Steve and his co-founder Tom Potter forged ahead through the ups and downs of the early years, even staring down bankruptcy at one point. But as Steve told me, building a business is like climbing a mountain. You put one foot in front of the other, you do the work everyday, and eventually you get there.

In 2003, Steve and Tom sold their beer distributorship for $10 million to focus on the brewery. Since we spoke, Brooklyn Brewery has grown from $12 million to over $50 million in revenue, and it’s become a local institution, committed to investing in and giving back to the community. At the end of 2020, 36 years after convincing his neighbor and homebrew partner to quit his steady job at a bank and join him in starting a brewery, Steve announced his retirement. His story is proof that with grit, determination and a bit of fearlessness, you can turn your passion into a thriving — and thrilling — venture.

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Highlights from this episode

“Somehow I got it in my head I wanted to cover a war.”

“I was sitting behind President Sadat when he was assassinated in Cairo.”

“Foreign correspondents tend to develop some pretty bad personal habits, much worse than beer salesman I can attest.”

“Entrepreneurship really takes all the creativity and all the resources that you have.”

“I didn’t have the greatest resume for starting a brewery.”

On convincing his partner Tom Potter: “When I suggested we start a brewery, he thought I was nuts.”

On partnerships: “Misery loves company.”

“Of course, our plan showed that we would use that money to make a fortune. But it didn’t really work out that way.”

“Yeah, it was very difficult. We were robbed at one point. We had drivers who took off with our trucks. Our last year in business we spent $60,000 on parking tickets.”

“A lot of times you don’t want to hear what customers have to say about you and your company. But, you know, we did it that way…I think it was harder than not distributing your own beer. But I think it was the difference between success and failure for us.”

“We always looked forward to the day when we could offer to buy [our investors] out or buy their stock back. And that day they came, but it was about 14, 15 years before it came.”

“What I learned about business is that a lot of people do sell their original investors down the river…we didn’t want to sell our friends down the river.”

“In a lot of companies, people on the ground floor get crushed by the people on the floor above, or maybe the fifth floor above, who put in the right money at the right time.”

“I think early on, one of our best moves was finding a designer who could really do justice to the name Brooklyn.”

Recruited Milton Glaser (who designed the I Love New York logo) to create the Brooklyn Brewery logo.

“The first time I called there [Milton Glaser’s office] his secretary kind of blew me off.”

“I think entrepreneurial terror is something that anyone who’s thinking of their own business should contemplate. You should ask yourself, Am I ready for that kind of desperate situation, and what am I going to do?”

“First time I read that I was just giddy with laughter, maybe nervous laughter.”

“We were scared out of our wits early on.”

“We got robbed at gunpoint at one time. We ended up emptying the safe of $30,000 cash to guys with pistols. And we had a run in with some mob types here in Brooklyn when we were building the brewery who basically were looking for bribes to allow the project to go on. But none of that was as scary as facing the possibility of failure, which is to me the most scary possibility.”

“We’re just very determined.”

“We left behind the fear of total failure probably about 1995.”

“Last year we grew by 18%…Craft beer as a whole grew by 9%.”

“Having a high profile in the community has gotten us into trouble every now and then.”

“Brooklyn is a wonderful place — two and a half million people. But it’s also a poor place. It always lags behind the city in employment. Brooklyn needs housing. It needs affordable housing. And Ratner has big plans for affordable housing in this new development.”

“We have no regrets about supporting this.”

“The boycott has not had any impact on our sales.”

“No good deed goes unpunished. That’s something you got to face up to if you’re going to be involved in the community.”

Steve and Tom wrote a book about their experience called Beer School.

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