What do you get when you cross a real estate professional and an advertising executive? Apparently, the answer is a craft beer startup.

This entrepreneurial equation is playing out right now with a new product startup called Growler Chill, a unique home appliance that keeps craft beer growlers fresh for weeks. The team behind Growler Chill are its co-founders, Randy Hollister, a real estate professional, and Tonia Speir, a branding and advertising executive. Prior to partnering and launching Growler Chill, neither had experience in the craft beer industry -- beyond "product testing." Instead, the pair were experienced enough to recognize they were sitting on a winning idea that satisfied the "Holy trinity" of startup success.

  1. Solve an actual problem.
  2. Have customers in a growing market willing to buy.
  3. Establish social proof quickly.

How these two business professionals transitioned from established careers to what has thus far been startup success is a great lesson for other entrepreneurs.

Solve a (real and existing) problem.

In early 2015, Hollister was phoned by his son who asked for gift advice for a fellow craft beer enthusiast. Hollister, an avid craft beer fans himself, tossed around ideas, including a kegerater, a household devices that holds an entire keg of beer, but these appliances were too large and held more beer than anyone wanted to admit drinking.

Alternatively, they agreed that craft beer growlers, containers that hold up to 64 ounces of beer, were the perfect size. Growlers have a big problem, however, as once they are filled, they lose their freshness very quickly. An ideal gift would be a device that could hold and keep two or more craft beer growlers fresh -- but no such appliance existed.

That got Hollister thinking. In his garage, he started cobbling parts together, and after some experimentation and research, he discovered that such a device could feasibly be created. That's when the light bulb went off, and the concept of Growler Chill was born.

 inline image

"My experience with the craft beer industry was limited to 'product testing,'" joked Hollister. "I understood, however, that I was sitting on an idea that had merit -- at least to me. The next step was to determine if anyone really wanted it."

Find customers (willing to actually buy).

Hollister ran the Growler Chill idea by Speir, an ad executive and branding agency founder, with whom he worked on projects in the past. Speir quickly realized the potential for the idea and developed a detailed and aggressive branding strategy that would raise visibility of the product in the craft beer industry.

"I was in the same boat as Randy," says Speir. "Although neither of us had experience in the craft beer industry, we both followed it and were seeing several new craft beer products entering the marketing. It was just a matter of time before a device that could keep multiple growlers fresh would be introduced, so we needed to act quickly."

Speir joined Growler Chill as a co-founder, and with Hollister worked quickly to develop a brand strategy and a prototype and set off on an ambitious year-long tour of numerous craft beer trade shows, festivals and conferences to test the idea with customers. They also launched an aggressive social media campaign targeted at the craft beer industry. Everywhere they went, the reception to the product was overwhelming.

"It did not take long to validate our assumptions for the idea," says Hollister. "Everyone we spoke to, showed the product to, and discussed the idea with were excited for it. Our challenge was that we had only produced a prototype, and without starting the expensive production process to have product to sell, we still had no way of knowing if people would actually buy it."

Achieve social proof (quickly and affordably).

"We were really excited," notes Speir, "because the craft beer industry is exploding and the reception to our product was profound. Because we didn't have an actual product to sell, however, we couldn't know for sure whether any of this buzz and interest would convert to actual sales. We needed social proof and validation, and crowdfunding seemed like the perfect way to get it."

To get to the next level and validate Growler Chill, Hollister and Speir targeted Kickstarter, a crowdfunding platform that allows inventors and entrepreneurs to pitch ideas to the Kickstarter universe and raise capital by pre-selling the idea. Kickstarter and other crowdfunding platforms are a great way to develop validation for a product. More importantly, if the crowdfunding campaign fails, it can provide instant -- and relatively cheap -- feedback that an idea is not worth pursuing.

Growler Chill spent thousands of dollars on promotion in addition to a working prototype, which included social media campaigns, media placement and traveling. The effort paid off, and the Growled Chill Kickstarter campaign reached its funding goals within the first few hours of launch and has gone on to become land in the top three percent of all successfully funded Kickstarter campaigns -- with only a few more days to go.

This was all the social proof they needed.

Even with this early startup validation, the Hollister and Speir need to execute. "Sometimes, it is like walking in the dark," says Spier. "You never know what challenge the next day will bring. Luckily, starting a business today has never been easier, and Kickstarter has made achieving speed to market for a complex product idea much more feasible."

Other entrepreneurs can certainly learn from this.

What do you think? Share your views and feedback on startups and crowdfunding with us on Twitter @Inc and @PeterGasca.