It works a bit like the Keurig in your break room.
The Pico is an automated home-brewing appliance. You pick one of a hundred or so popular micro-brew recipes, load the ingredients, and wait for perfection.
Surprisingly, the company (called PicoBrew) was started by Bill Mitchell, who was a vice president at Microsoft and reported up through Bill Gates. I caught up with him recently to ask about how he plans to take on the giants of the beer industry.
You held a high rank at Microsoft--what do you miss and not miss?
What I miss most is the new project reviews with Bill Gates. He has a unique way of drilling down on every possible aspect of a product--business, technical, legal--that I think is unparalleled in the industry. He's a true renaissance man and a lifetime learner, and it was a true challenge to try to out-master him in any subject area. I always learned a lot preparing for those reviews, and then from his feedback. I don't miss the bureaucracy and meeting overhead that seems to be a hallmark of any large company. The overhead limited what I could actually get done as a hands-on contributor myself.
How did you stay toe to toe with Gates?
The name of the game when presenting to Bill was to keep him engaged. You could always tell if he was engaged...he'd rock and nod his head, in a very active-listening kind of way. But when he'd start rocking fast, look out, because you were about to receive a lesson on all the ways you were wrong and how what you were proposing couldn't actually work. This was all a sort of modified Socratic technique that I found incredibly effective: You were always motivated to understand everything about what you were presenting. I've taken this approach with every project I take on now: You can always know more about an area and do a better job! There's opportunity everywhere, because everything can be improved if you understand it well enough.
It's a long journey from that to making a home beer brewing machine--how did you get here? Why?
I had a great run at Microsoft--18 years of starting and running new projects like smartphones, automotive, and wearables, with many very bright and motivated people. Eventually, however, you want to try your hand at "entrepreneuring" as well as "intrapraneuring," and this is what led me to leave the company.
Ultimately there are new business creation opportunities that don't make any sense for Microsoft but that I'm passionate about. I'm attracted to spaces in which technology has not been applied deeply but which could potentially move forward in a big way with the right technology boost. Home brewing was a passion of mine, and yet it was frustratingly devoid of advanced technology which could improve automation and ease-of-use, repeatability and control, instrumentation, and overall quality. There was just this great, green field in the burgeoning space of craft beer that I knew we could contribute to and really solve some problems that would get customers excited. So we set out to do it in 2010, just my brother, a food chemist and fellow homebrewer, and I. We set out to "get the world brewing," and I think in 2016 we're going to make some major strides in this direction.
What lessons did you learn in the corporate world that you have applied in small business?
[Laughing] "Avoid meetings unless you need a meeting!" Corporate life seems structured around the hallowed "meeting," and standing meetings especially seem to soak up everyone's time all the time. Communication is great, but most times it's more efficient to just send mail or talk in person!
What lessons did you have to unlearn?
I kept my entrepreneurial/small-biz focus while at Microsoft, so I didn't really need to "unlearn" much...it was more like getting back to more efficient work patterns that are a necessity in any startup.
David killed Goliath. What weapons do you have with PicoBrew to help the home brewer? How is it easier than just going to a bar?
The key reasons that professional breweries use a Zymatic, our first product, are to create precise, repeatable results and to save time and effort. For the increase in quality and the decrease in drudgery (babysitting time and cleanup), the Zymatic is finding a legion of fans. The Pico takes the next step in terms of size and cost reduction and simplicity. With Pico, anyone can turn out brewery-quality beer...beer that tastes better/fresher than what you can buy in cans and bottles at retail. You can brew beer from around the world, so you have the ultimate selection, too. And finally, you can customize that beer, either by making your own custom variants or producing your own "FreeStyle PicoPaks."
What advice do you have for other former corporate employees wanting to innovate?
Build what you can with a small team and figure out everything you can--customer value proposition, technology, business plan, IP--before you take any VC investment. Staying small keeps you focused and avoids wasting money. If you've worked in a lavish environment, this will be difficult. But be frugal and minimalist until you have everything figured out. Then take some investment when you're truly ready to go big.