Some 15,000 people were jammed into the facility, laughing, talking, and sipping beer in the midst of an electric atmosphere.

A rock concert?

Nope.

The grand opening of the new MadTree Brewery in Cincinnati. That's 15,000 people. At a brewery opening.

Co-founders Brady Duncan and Kenny McNutt still seemed flabbergasted as they recalled the February opening (their second facility).

Both Duncan and McNutt left corporate life five years ago to start this new venture. In just their second year, MadTree brewery landed in the top 5 percent of all regional craft breweries in the country (by volume).

And things haven't slowed down--the brewery is growing at nearly double the rate of the craft beer market. It's remarkable, considering there are now nearly 5,000 microbreweries in the saturated U.S. market.

So how did these two bearded boy wonders do it?

I sat down with the founders to extract these secrets (and then I had a beer):

1. Mission and vision are overrated--just know who you are and stay true to it.

Surprisingly, the founders told me mission and vision statements can be overwrought. They started with a simple definition of who they are and haven't strayed. They want to a) consistently make a quality beer, b) be a pillar of the community, and c) take care of employees.

Their explosive sales speak to beer quality. MadTree is involved in their community in more ways than I can detail. And they've been on the "Top Places to Work" list for the last two years in Cincinnati.

Know who you are. Be who you are. Period.

2. Culture isn't an afterthought--it's the guiding thought.

The founders talked most about culture, and worry the most about it (as they hire at a torrid pace).

They described with great pride a culture of intense hustle yet laid back demeanor and fun. Managers lead by example and a sarcastic, dry sense of humor predominates. They place special emphasis on transparency and autonomy.

As Duncan told me, "In the Procter & Gamble culture [his former employer], you wanted to be the guy with the answer. Here, my job is to foster an environment that enables the employees to make the decisions."

I toured the state-of-the-art brewing facility with Duncan and asked him what he spends most of his time on now. His answer? "Fifty percent everything and 50 percent culture".

The Sunday after their massive grand opening, Duncan found himself uneasy with being at home and not helping help his team clean up--so in he went. "It was important to me to be supportive of people doing hard work. That's our culture."

3. Love the product? Yes. Know the market? Hell yes.

McNutt has had no shortage of brewer wannabes picking his brain. Many love their product and have jumped in at the deep end but don't understand the market, telling McNutt "My accountant will take care of that." Others know the market but the product is an afterthought.

McNutt's message? It takes both. "And it takes knowing the market far better than any investor you'll ever present to."

MadTree was the first Ohio craft brewer to use cans versus bottles, because they deeply understood the market and knew cans would be a hit.

4. Use data as a differentiator.

Both Duncan and McNutt had corporate jobs heavy on data analysis (as an analyst and engineer, respectively).

Their business plan was built on data--McNutt constructed an Excel workbook with over 100 worksheets to scenario plan just about everything. The business plan's bibliography was huge--overflowing with supporting data.

Using data as the backbone of a business plan allowed them to first see if they could make a business out of brewing, as opposed to entering the venture with a mindset of "make it work at all costs."

The data-based approach also allowed them to build confidence with investors and retailers, so that by the time they were ready for retail distribution, serious pull existed.

5. Put your money where your mouth is.

Duncan and McNutt spent the money to bring samples of their beer to every single meeting with investors and retailers. It's one thing to say your product is great, it's another to put it in front of everyone and say, "You decide."

6. No matter what you know, there's still so much you don't.

Data can't predict everything. Once the founders got their funding and started spending, very little went to plan. It required a heavy dose of "make it up as you go." Entrepreneurs always have to be ready to roll with the changes.

So raise a glass to MadTree, and raise your own startup savvy. Big success just might be brewing for you too.

Published on: Mar 7, 2017
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