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Talking Small Biz with TailGate Beer

Posted on 16 February 2012

Wesley Keegan of TailGate BeerCompany: TailGate Beer

Entrepreneur: Wesley Keegan

Location: San Diego, CA

Website: TailGate Beer

Facebook: TailGate Beer Facebook

Twitter: TailGate Beer Twitter

What guy in his 20s doesn’t dream about brewing beer for a living? How about combining that with a love of attending sporting events? Sounds like you have the makings of a dream job, right? Wesley Keegan thinks so!

Starting with the trademarked name “TailGate Beer”, and some experience as a home brewer, Wesley has been able to do what other brewers haven’t – combine America’s love of beer with the pre-game ritual of tailgating. Rather than give a synopsis of his entrepreneurial journey here, we will let Wesley explain in his own words.

Not only a savvy marketer, but a genuinely nice guy, Wesley has the tenacity that is required to be a successful entrepreneur. In the below Talking Small Biz interview, when asked if he ever considered throwing in the towel, he responded, “If I’m grabbing the towel, it’s to wipe sweat from my face. Not to toss it in.”

You started the company in 2007 and are now a player in the craft beer market. That’s pretty incredible for an operation that started out as a hobby! This must seem like a dream come true – what every entrepreneur hopes for. Do you ever pinch yourself and wonder if this is all just a dream?

TailGate Beer: Honestly, at the outset, I was very bold in my expectations. I always sort of figured we’d do exactly what we planned to, we just needed to be smart and follow the plan. I never really considered the possibility of failure. People who doubted me were wrong, or so I felt.

Obviously the “plan” changes quite often, but I’m big on goals and I try to keep them in place. It helps me motivate myself.

I do consider myself very blessed. It doesn’t feel like a dream come true…yet. Every milestone we hit, I’ve got a new one waiting. When I take a moment to sit down and recount some of our growth and what has transpired these last 5 years, that’s when it gets very humbling.

I know I’ve got it real good, I fight every day to make it better.

You claim to be too dumb to have understood what you were getting into. This is a hard pill to swallow, considering your success. Was your self-proclaimed naiveté a help, or hinderance, in getting TailGate Beer going?

TailGate Beer: Haha! Success is a loose term. I think we all measure it differently. Corporate types like to remind me success means EBITDA measurements, or some financial statement’s metric. I would say we’ve been successful in making what was essentially just a name a real product that sits on the shelves at places I actually shop.

Honestly, I really didn’t know what I was getting in to. I mean, I had my degree and am a sponge for new knowledge. But in terms of what the craft beer industry was and is; what I needed to be able to do to build a national brand…I didn’t have a clue. I never would have guessed the economy was going to do what it did; that certainly threw a wrench in to things, too. But we’ve launched and grown through that downturn. I’m so excited now that things are looking up. If we did what we did with nothing, in arguably the worst economic climate of our lifetime, imagine what we can do now!

I think my naiveté was ultimately a benefit. I can’t say that I’d be here if I knew just how daunting the task before me was going to be. At times, it was overwhelming.

tailgate beer product line

Do you think not fully understanding what one is getting themselves into is a good thing for an entrepreneur? Or would you suggest one does their homework to get a better understanding of the marketplace before venturing into it?

TailGate Beer: Don’t get me wrong, I did my homework. I read/listened to every book about business, entrepreneurism, self-help, that I could. I took diligent notes. I reached out to anyone I knew with real world success that would give me 5 minutes of their time. I didn’t understand the craft beer industry as well as I maybe could have, but I felt ready to launch a business.

I think ultimately, though, we can never know what we’re getting in to. At some point, we need to just jump in with both feet, right? Life is like that, not just running a company.

Any entrepreneur I meet, I always say, “Do your homework.” Learn as much as possible about your field. Study other industries. For me, I studied Starbucks’ founding and Southwest’s guiding principles to success. Network with anyone who will listen. Seek help. Ask questions. This is a very lonely job at times – find people who will make it less scary.

Running a business really is all-consuming, to the point of wondering if it is all worth it. Have you ever had a point in your journey where you thought you were never going to make it and entertained thoughts of throwing in the towel?

TailGate Beer: This is the point I tell you about my amazing fiancée, Dee Dee. She’s been with me from the beginning and is probably a better person to answer this question. There were so many times where I’d look at her and say, this is it. I owe X amount of dollars today, I don’t have it, I’ve got to close the doors. Somehow, we made it work. Shoot, the first 3 years felt like that every day. Even still I get those feelings.

I think the difference for me, though, is I am absolutely terrified of failure. When I find something that I want to do, that I’m not sure I can, I tell people about it. I tell people I care about. People I would feel ashamed to let down. That fear of failure has driven me to keep my nose down and outwork the competition. If I’m grabbing the towel, it’s to wipe sweat from my face. Not to toss it in.

The picture many people associate with tailgating is a fan drinking a can of beer from one of the large American brewers; not exactly the picture of a craft beer connoisseur. Have you found it hard to break into this market, or are those stereotypes just that, and real football fans are open to a quality brew?

TailGate Beer: Yes and no. The vast majority of the beer consuming public isn’t the beer connoisseur. They’re regular people like you and me. People who like nice things, enjoy quality at a fair price, enjoy identifying with brands they consume. On that end, I think we do well.

The beer connoisseur is a broad label to a very diverse culture. I’d say there absolutely is that noisy minority that, no matter what, has a negative perception. I can’t do anything about that person. I just ask them to stick with us. We’re going to be doing things they like, it just doesn’t all happen at once. But for every one of those people, there are 100 well-educated craft beer enthusiasts who genuinely like what we do. We get more encouragement and vindication for our efforts than I sometimes feel I actually deserve. It’s all very humbling.

Think about the last game or concert you went to. How many people did you notice that brought beer in a bottle? I’d guess a lot. It’s a really common thing. According to the latest polls, the average tailgate host spends over $100 on food per tailgate. That person doesn’t want a beer-flavored water to wash it down. They want something that complements their meal; something that can be enjoyed rather than suffered through. All we’re saying is, we’ve got an affordable, award-winning beer that is moderate alcohol content and full-flavored. Enjoy more than one, and bear with us as we roll out more styles. If we don’t make your favorite style yet, we will.

TailGate Beer HefeweizenIn the beginning of 2011, you made the decision to discontinue selling your beer in bottles and made the shift to aluminum cans. A large part of this has to do with the fact that most stadiums don’t allow bottled beer on their premises. Considering your tie-in with tailgating, it seems like a very wise business decision. How important is it for a small business to recognize when they have to make a drastic shift in order to move their company, and product, forward?

TailGate Beer: We wanted to make this move for a long time. The problem is, it’s prohibitively expensive. That’s why you don’t see more of it. So many breweries are so leveraged by even their bottling line that a canning line just isn’t an option. If it is, you still have to buy printed cans by the truckload. I’m talking big rig type truck. Hundreds of thousands of cans. Even at $0.15 a can, that’s a big bill.

Our fans had been asking us for cans since the beginning. There’s a lot of misunderstood information about beer in cans, the general population has an association that seems dated back to the 70’s. Our other target demo, tailgaters, love cans – they’ve been drinking beer from a can since forever. It was an easy transition to justify.

For the everyday consumer, we have to do some educating. Fortunately, brands like Oskar Blues paved the way, and large companies like New Belgium and Sierra Nevada are in the can game now, too. They have more resources for educating consumers that cans are the best vessel for beer. That type of stuff is good for all of us.

Technology has improved so much that the metal taste people remember from the 70s isn’t there anymore. There is no light penetration, as well as reduced oxygen exposure. Our favorite phrase is: “Craft beer in a can is keg-like quality.” Most everyone agrees keg beer is best, why would a mini keg be any different?

As a small business, we were better suited to make the change we did. We really only produced about 20% of the volume back then, compared to what we did in 2011, and a lot of that was draft. Being a small business, you have to be reactive to changes in the marketplace, and when something needs to be done, we don’t have to send things “up the ladder.” I just say, “OK, looks good. Let’s do it.” I hope we can maintain that culture as we get bigger.

You have some pretty stiff competition in the craft beer space, to say the least. But you are bringing some pretty innovative ideas to the marketplace, including being the only craft brewer offering 24 ounce cans. Considering this sized beer is a huge seller in convenience stores, it seems like a no-brainer, yet others aren’t doing it. Is this type of innovation the key to making your brand a success?

TailGate Beer: You’re right, and I think it’s great! There are so many different companies and so many different styles out there now. Beer is like wine was 20 years ago. There really is room for all of us, if we do things differently than each other.

The 24oz cans, I think, will be our most pleasant surprise. We’re just getting started with them, so I can’t call them a success yet. It was one of those things where I looked at the market and thought, why doesn’t somebody do this? To say it’s a huge seller in convenience stores is a major understatement. 50% of all beer sales in the average convenience store is in a 24oz can. How could an industry that’s experiencing growth at 11%+ per year not have an option available?

Pricing is one piece, I think. We’re so competitively priced that we’re usually below your average craft and above your average domestic. That’s on purpose. The whole industry has a void there, seriously. There are no players in that space. Pricing it where we do makes a package solution, like a 24oz can of craft beer, a viable option for us.

Building a craft beer brand means that you need to stand out in a very crowded playing field. You have chosen to merge tailgating with quality beer, which has never been done before. However, just because you have a great idea that nobody has taken advantage of doesn’t guarantee you will be a success. What steps are you taking to get your brand in front of your intended audience?

TailGate Beer: You’re spot on. In fact, we’re The Official Beer of Tailgating™, if you can believe it. And someone has taken advantage of that demographic – their name is Anheuser-Busch. They were The Official Beer of Tailgating™, but now we are. In my opinion, that’s a pretty powerful piece of intellectual property that is really going to benefit us moving forward as we generate better promotional tools.

Our audience is the everyday beer drinker. I tell people all the time, if you drink anything other than only domestic beer, you’re going to like our beer. If you only drink domestic beer, you still might like our beer. We do really well with the average beer drinker as a gateway product. As a product that is full flavor, but not intimidating.

For example, beer is in the news a lot these days. So people are naturally intrigued. If someone tries a double IPA first, they might be so shocked they’ll never give craft beer a second chance. They might just surmise, “I just don’t like beer.” We’re saying, try something with flavor, try something with moderate alcohol content. Try something that has won some pretty prestigious awards. You’ll like this.

There is a different issue with the beer connoisseur that is familiar with more flavorful beers. That beer fan that does love double IPA’s, we’re saying, try an IPA that won’t knock your socks off and fill you up, too. Drink something that will have that flavor you love so much, but you can actually pair it with a full meal, too.

Blacktop Blonde by TailGate BeerThe sports fan is heavily targeted by the major breweries. An example being the recent Super Bowl featuring millions of dollars worth of ads from Budweiser, all targeting those who enjoy watching football. You seem to be getting your brand quite a bit of attention via national publications and fan websites. How do you find these media outlets?

TailGate Beer: No question. We don’t even try to compete with companies like Budweiser. We respect them, and let them do their thing. It’d be like me opening a confectionery and saying we’re going to put Hershey’s out of business. That’s just not even a consideration.

We’re really operating in a void. That middle range that’s created by price between domestic and craft beer? It exists in terms of being drinkable and identifiable, too. What I mean by that is there are so many brands out there that people have no tie to. They don’t know where 3rd Street is, they might not be able to pronounce a brewer’s last name, etc. We’re conveniently easy to pronounce and easy to understand. Everyone sees a white pickup truck and knows what we’re about.

I’ve been real fortunate with this name, TailGate Beer. My father came up with it and it’s what started this company. Like you say, companies spend millions on branding. Our name does a lot of the hard work for us. That was honestly what launched this company, we felt the name held value.

Outside of that, I’m grossly blessed. We’ve been told our name is like a Post-It, “Why didn’t I think of that?” sort of thing. From day one, we’ve been very fortunate to receive a lot of notoriety. The first few years, a lot of our attention was by luck, a journalist was looking for a story, or an industry publication wanted to talk, that sort of thing. It was something that was manageable, and I enjoy doing this stuff when those sorts of opportunities come up. When Maxim Magazine called to tell us that our Blacktop Blonde was rated as one of the top beers in the US in 2011, I knew we were in over our heads. I enlisted the help of a local PR firm to help us tell our story.

We’re a tale of a company founded at the beginning of the recession, a young guy with no financial backing, and some pretty appealing family roots. I’ve always felt we were a good story to share, we just needed the help to do it.

As a business owner, you have to watch every penny, which means you need to utilize technology to help minimize costs. What online technologies does TailGate Beer use in its day-to-day operations?

TailGate Beer: I’m a bit of a tech-geek. Honestly, I love new technology and would probably pursue a career in it if I hadn’t gotten in to beer.

We’re a very lean company, though. We don’t all own iPads or have company issued computers, so we’re cost conscious. For example, I did splurge on an iPhone for myself – when I’m on the road it can be my only lifeline. Things like that have made a major difference. All of us have smartphones because I know that when our customers want/need something, we need to be reachable and able to respond. That’s really important for me.

The other big thing is social media. We try really hard to stay current with that. The difficulty is that in California, the laws are sort of goofy. As a CA brewing company, we can’t tell you via Twitter where to find our beers. Even if it’s something as simple as, “We’re proud to announce @TailGateBeer 24oz cans are now available in AMPM’s!” That’s illegal. It’s really prohibitive and counter intuitive to business development. Wineries can say, “Such and such wine now available at Joe-Boo’s BBQ” – we can’t. So we get creative. We try to find ways to interact and post fun, informative things that we feel will connect with our fan base. It’s a struggle, but we’re doing better every day.

Note: This interview has been edited for clarity.

Read more Talking Small Biz interviews with other entrepreneurs to learn what they are doing.

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