3 Life Lessons from a beer billionaire.


To celebrate the 25th episode of my podcast, Bulletproof Entrepreneur, I was delighted to be able to speak with James Watt, the Co-Founder and CEO of the brewery, pubs, and hotels group, BrewDog.

BrewDog is an outstanding British success story, one of the world’s leading beer brands, and is valued at almost £2 billion. From humble beginnings in their hometown in Scotland as “two men and a dog” brewing their own homemade version of craft beer, they’ve come a long way.

But it wasn’t easy, and James shared several valuable life lessons during our conversation.

Constraints can be valuable.

Desperate for investment in their early days, James and his co-founder, Martin, travelled to Manchester to audition for the TV show Dragon’s Den. 

They rehearsed their pitch during the drive to the TV studio and were planning to ask for £100,000 in return for 20% of their business. They were confident they’d receive a great offer from one of the Dragons.

Unfortunately, at the audition, the producers decided that they weren’t a good fit, so they were denied the chance to pitch their idea. They went home utterly dejected but knew they had to find another way to find investment; otherwise, their business would fail.

Eventually, that led to the launch of ‘Equity for Punks’, the world’s first crowdfunding scheme. Thousands of small investors who enjoyed Brewdog beer and were part of their community pledged to give money to the company in return for shares in the business.

James said that the scheme has had the single biggest impact on their long-term success, and now over 230,000 Brewdog fans have joined the programme and have invested in their favourite beer brand.

And the crazy thing – if a Dragon had invested £100,000 for 20% of Brewdog back then, it would now be worth over £350 million and have been the most successful investment ever made on the show!  

If life gives you lemons, make lemonade (and add it to your beer!).  

To err is human – but fix your mistakes.

Brewdog has gained notoriety for its outrageous public relations stunts, such as driving a tank through London to announce the opening of their first pub and dropping stuffed “fat cats” from a helicopter to announce their fundraising, which was carried out without the aid of “fat cat” bankers and money men. 

But one campaign that backfired was the infamous “gold can” promotion. They announced that they would be giving away a number of solid gold cans hidden amongst the standard packs of beer. However, the cans were gold-plated and not solid gold, and numerous recipients complained that they had been misled.

So James decided to pay anyone who was unhappy with the gold can they had received the value it would have had if the can was solid gold. The payment would be from him personally, not the company or shareholders, and the whole episode ended up costing James £500,000!

It was a painful mistake, no doubt, but by ensuring that no customers lost out as a result of his error, he protected the brand and his own reputation. 

Sometimes you’ve got to own up, say sorry, and fix the problem.

‘It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently. Warren Buffett

The power of a vision

James is crystal clear about his values and those of the company, the team, and the community that they’ve created. And he doesn’t hold back on defining the vision – total world dominance!

They also want to do good for the people who work for Brewdog, their customers who buy the products, and make a positive impact on the planet. Every decision they make at the company is through the lens of this vision. 

So they’ve backed it up with clear actions such as ensuring that 50% of profits in their bars are shared with the staff and they’ve purchased a large estate in Scotland on which they plan to plant millions of trees to help pull carbon from the atmosphere and ensure they become a zero emissions company by the end of 2023.

Even if you’re not planning to take over the world, having a vision of where you want to go in life is vital. Once you’re clear on what a ‘life well lived’ looks like in your own unique circumstances, you can ensure that every decision you take moves you towards and not away from it. 

James is a world-class storyteller and entrepreneur. He’s taken the germ of an idea and turned it into a wildly successful business by the age of 40 through his tenacity, relentless focus, and sheer determination.

There are lessons there for all of us.
To listen to my conversation with James, click this link or find it on any pod platform.

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