Blow Shit Up: Tanisha Robinson on Crowdfunding Your Venue and Brand Expansions

BrewDog USA CEO Tanisha Robinson
Image: BrewDog USA

Tanisha Robinson is a serial startup entrepreneur and tenacious problem solver. She’s obsessed with innovation, growth and community.

Robinson is also the CEO of BrewDog USA, and on Wednesday, March 27 at 11:00 a.m., she’s going to deliver an inspiring, enlightening keynote with David Kaplan, founder and co-owner of the award-winning Death & Co.

As anyone who has worked in the hospitality business knows, ours is a chaotic industry. One of Robinson’s greatest strengths is that she not only thrives in chaos, she seeks it out. Robinson, surrounded by mayhem, thrust into turmoil, is at her most comfortable.

The CEO is also fearless. She feels that companies have a duty to make their politics known, to support causes that align with their brands. Robinson, and it would appear BrewDog as a whole, are unapologetic in their approach to community and brand authenticity.

Robinson’s fearlessness, transparency and commitment to employees and customers have helped grow BrewDog internationally and within the United States. The brand has acquired a cidery. They operate multiple brewpubs. They’ve entered the hotel space. And for their latest venture, they’ve taken to the skies with chartering airplanes…

Learn more about Robinson, BrewDog and some of what she’ll be speaking about at the 2019 Nightclub & Bar Show below. Cheers!

Nightclub & Bar: Looking at what BrewDog has evolved into, you're not just craft beer. You're really in the hospitality business with the DogHouse Hotel and brewpubs, so what are the ways you're focusing on the user experience and merging that with the culture that BrewDog brings to the US?

Tanisha Robinson: I think that the primary thing that you just mentioned is user experience. Modern consumers really, really want experiences, so it's a key point of differentiation for us as a craft brewery to provide an end-to-end customer experience when people walk into our spaces. We have the beer museum, and we have highly, highly trained servers and bartenders, and our target is that 100 percent of our team are Cicerone certified beer servers.

Craft beer quality and freshness is super important. We feel like building spaces that are heavily focused on that, that give people an immersive experience, is something that makes us really different from most other craft brewers. Adding the hotel is like an exponential level of immersion when you walk in. We don't have a reception desk, we have a check-in bar where you get your welcome beer. Head up to your room where there’s fresh draft beer, which people typically pre-order. We're really passionate about craft beer, and we feel like one of the best ways to convey that, besides making and selling beer, is to provide these amazing experiences where people can really dive in and experience it the way that we want to.

Nightclub & Bar: We heard part of that DogHouse experience is that there is brew taps in every room, and even a beer fridge next to the shower.

Robinson: Yeah, there's two beer fridges in every room. There's a mini bar, which I would argue is the best craft beer mini bar in the world because we've collected some of our favorite beers from all over the world. For any craft beer geek, it's a pretty amazing lineup. Then, yes, in every bathroom there is a fridge just within reach of the shower, because if you've never had a cold beer in a hot shower, it's a life changer.

Nightclub & Bar: You said you curated the craft beers from all over, so it's not just BrewDog beers you can expect to see in a guest’s minibar?

Robinson: Absolutely right. Even our bars and brewpubs, about half the beers on draft are guest taps. Craft beer is really interesting because it's not a zero-sum game. We see ourselves with other craft brewers, arm in arm against big shitty beer, basically, the macro beers. It's craft brewers, independent craftsmen, up against that. We love other people's beers as well.

Nightclub & Bar: Beer itself at an aggregate level, is trailing off a bit. We're seeing a decline in total liters but obviously craft still continues to grow. How is BrewDog responding to that decline?

Robinson: We need to continue to innovate. We've got a couple of fruited IPAs that have done very, very well. Elvis Juice is an amazing one for us. It's a grapefruit-, blood-orange-infused IPA. Just kind of a different take on some of the classics, so definitely following along with beer trends. But also, consumers are looking at non-alcoholic as well as low-cal, low-carb type things. We're constantly tinkering with those concepts. We're a little bit further along on a global level than it would seem in the US.

Read this: Be More than Good Enough: Transform Your Bar into a Destination

We have a distillery over in Scotland and are doing some great in the craft spirit space, as well as looking at canned cocktails. We also acquired an amazing London cidery called Hawkes. We're definitely going to get ourselves into the dry cider and fruited cider game later this year. Sour beer is a pretty untapped space and something that's still new to a lot of consumers, so we'll be launching [that]. We've got our sour beer in barrels, and our sour beer brewery is inside of our hotel. We'll be releasing three fruited sours whenever the beers decide that they're ready. You know how sour beer goes.

Nightclub & Bar: We have you as a keynote with Dave Kaplan from Death & Co. You’re both innovative and aggressive in your growth. As you mentioned, you acquired the cider company. You have hotels now. You even have a subscription video on demand network for consumers. What do the next few years look like for BrewDog and how is growth a key part of your culture that's encouraged from the top down?

Robinson: One of our points of our charter is that we blow shit up. In some cases, that means maybe even our own business in some ways. I think that is a big component of, ‘How do we move the needle and how do we keep growing? How do we engage a broader realm of customers? If beer as a segment isn't going to reach everyone, then how do we connect our brand or our portfolio brands to more people? I think that's super important for us, is thinking about what are all of the possible touchpoints where we can authentically connect amazing products and experiences with a broad or broader range of customers.

Nightclub & Bar: Another aspect of growing is financing and where that comes from. BrewDog has had massive success with crowdsourcing. Does that add more pressure to your business? Does it give you more freedom? What are the pros and cons of approaching financing like that?

Robinson: Crowdfunding is an amazing way to validate interest in your business or your brand. In many ways, it sort of “de-risks” the proof of concept piece where you can see if you've got believers, if people are going to give you money just for the idea and for your big plans. For BrewDog, globally, we have over 100,000 investors at this point. In the US we have over 14,000.

It is about the capital, to some degree, because especially for a brewery and for brewpub concepts, it is definitely capital-intensive to grow. But the most important piece of equity is that we have a community of people that really, really, really care about our brand and are literally and emotionally invested. Our Equity Punks are a huge piece of our business, and they give us amazing feedback because they really care.

Read this: The Keys to Serving Cocktails on Draft with 18.21 Bitters

We don't have to try to go get surveys from our customers because our customers are also our investors, and they're going to tell us what they want to see. They definitely help us clarify and validate our strategy to make sure we're running in a direction that makes sense to the people that are buying our products. It's this amazing loop that's really great for business.

Nightclub & Bar: What advice do you have for bar and restaurant operators who may want to pursue crowdsourced financing? What are they keys to creating that following and having someone want to invest in your business?

Robinson: I think there's a lot of noise these days in social media and online. I think that if people are really compelled by a concept or it really stands out to them, then they're willing to throw some money at it. Certainly, crowdfunding is a more saturated space than ever, but I think the center of the universe to captivating potential investors is really around storytelling and execution: If people are great at storytelling and have a compelling offering, and then you can also truly deliver on that, investors will keep coming back.

Nightclub & Bar: How can operators keep up with ever-changing beer trends? What pitfalls should they be aware of and avoid?

Robinson: Yeah, I think we sort of go with the stuff we really like. I think the big one is really making sure that the staff is educated. There’s definitely a component of the staff being highly knowledgeable and making sure that whatever the beer program or the cocktail program or the beverage program is, that it's not changing on a constant basis, which makes it difficult then for the team to give really great advice on what people are looking for.

If there's constant rotation, staff kind of becomes ambivalent, like, “Okay, well, I haven't tried this IPA,” because how are they going to try 20 IPAs a day, or 20 beers a day, or 50, or however many are available. Certainly, consumers are promiscuous, as we all know, but I think being intentional from a training standpoint and aligning that training with the menu can make a really big difference. That's just from my own experience as a customer as well as an operator, but that's one that can get a little bit frustrating when you're asking your bartender, "Okay, well, tell me about this beer," and they really don't know.

Nightclub & Bar: Was it only the challenge of growing a global brand that attracted you to the CEO role at BrewDog? Or do you also enjoy the challenges presented by the hospitality industry?

Robinson: I served and bartended and washed dishes, and certainly did a good amount of time in the hospitality industry, and it's something I've really, really loved over the years. The big thing for me with BrewDog, and it's something that I have always thought about in my own business, was that regardless of what business you have, it can be a lever for impact. And the big piece for me and my companies was that community impact starts with how you treat your people.

I'm a startup person, and the opportunity to be able to jump on a rocket ship and get a chance to move the needle in an amazing brand and amazing company is super, super compelling. It's a great industry, but the big thing for me is at BrewDog, everybody on our team gets four weeks paid vacation, high-quality affordable healthcare. Nobody on our team pays more than one percent of their wages to their health insurance premium. Even our dishwashers can afford healthcare. We offer 401(k). The priority of our beer and our people being the most important things in our company were really the thing for me.

Read this: What is Humanized Data and How Will it Transform Your Business?

That value, and that we see our beer, and our brew pubs, and our locations, and everything that we have as a lever for community impact, that was the underlying reason why I knew it was a really good fit, because we're so aligned on what we see the purpose of the company being.

Nightclub & Bar: BrewDog gives 10 percent of its profits to its employees, in perpetuity. Is there anything an operator can do in a similar fashion to support their employees?

Robinson: A lot of people would say, “How can you? That's a terrible idea. It's not possible to afford it.” The reality is that our retention is extremely high. Basically, by having some component of profit sharing, it aligns the company’s incentives within the team so that everyone is running the same direction. The team is always trying figure out ways to save pennies or nickels or dimes, because it directly benefits them. We split the profit sharing evenly, so the dishwashers and the managers get the same bonus at the end of the year. It's amazing to see the team say, like one of the bartenders said, "No, don't use that disposable rag to wipe that thing—that's unicorn fund money."

You have your guys on the front lines really thinking about yields and food costs. Otherwise, it's really hard to incentivize a bar team or restaurant team to really think about giving beer away, or does it matter if you're pouring some down the drain. It's actually helpful to margins. We invest a lot in training our people. Being able to retain them is super, super important. It's expensive to replace folks once they're fully up to speed, as everybody knows. That's another key piece, is that it's hard to quantify the cost of losing somebody that you've invested in training and then replacing them with somebody totally new. We feel like it's way better for the business to have the same crew all the time.

Nightclub & Bar: Are there any books are tools you recommend for owners, operators and managers to improve as leaders and improve their businesses?

Robinson: Yeah, one of my favorite books is called Predictably Irrational. It's really interesting. It's sort of a behavioral economics book but talks a lot about what drives people to decide what they do. For me, from a strategic level, it helps me think through pricing strategy and menu descriptions, and all of that stuff has an impact on what people choose, and what they are willing to pay for things. That you can prime people for how they experience food or coffee or beer or wine, or anything. It's about understanding how certain things drive certain behaviors in people. I think it's a really, really great book.

During their kenote, “Strategies on Raising Capital and Funding Your Operation's Expansion with CEO of BrewDog USA. Moderated by Death & Co.,” Robinson and Kaplan will share their secrets to unlocking capital in both traditional and unconventional ways. In an ever-increasing crowded market, it's wise to diversify revenue streams and add supplemental cash flows to your business. You can’t afford to miss this keynote—register now!

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