A former hedge fund trader, Bill left a financially rewarding job to pursue a more meaningful venture with positive societal impact, even when no one in the industry saw the market potential.
The overall beer consumption has been declining as people are opting for a healthier lifestyle. Yet up until five years ago, there was no viable non-alcoholic alternative for adult beverages, accounting for only 0.3% of the total market.
In this episode of The Founder Spirit podcast, Bill Shufelt, Founder and CEO of Athletic Brewing Company, shares his enthusiasm of crafting fulfillment in revolutionizing the non-alcoholic beer segment and his journey of building a health-conscious brand.
Bill stopped drinking a decade ago and felt enormous positive effects on his life. But he was also frustrated by the lack of great tasting, non-alcoholic beverage options, and determined to create an innovative beer for today’s healthy, active adults. A former hedge fund trader, Bill left a financially rewarding job to pursue a more meaningful venture with positive societal impact, even when no one in the industry saw the market potential.
Just how did Athletic Brewing Company turn one of the most unappealing, underwhelming beverages into a booming business over a short span of 5 years?
TUNE IN & find out from this delightful conversation with Bill on the significance of building something you're passionate about and creating a meaningful impact on society.
Bill Shufelt is Founder and CEO of Athletic Brewing Company based in the US. A former college athlete and hedge fund trader, Bill fused his financial acumen and love of beer in a partnership with the award-winning brewer John Walker. Together, they brought Athletic to life after intense R&D and perfected a proprietary process for crafting great tasting, non-alcoholic beer. And his passion for the great outdoors is beautifully reflected in all elements of the branding.
Founded in 2017, Athletic Brewing Company has revolutionized and de-stigmatized the non-alcoholic beer segment, now the fastest-growing and most exciting category in its industry. Moreover, it has earned its place among the top 15 craft breweries, and stands as the 2nd largest non-alcoholic beer brand in America. In 2022, Inc. Magazine ranked Athletic as the 26th fastest-growing private company in the nation, and TIME Magazine honored it as one of the “100 Most Influential Companies.”
Bill is Certified Financial Analyst and holds a Bachelor degree in Economics from Middlebury College.
[00:04] Jennifer Wu: Hello everyone, thanks for listening to The Founder Spirit Podcast. I'm your host, Jennifer Wu. In this podcast series, I interview exceptional individuals from all over the world with the Founder Spirit, ranging from social entrepreneurs, tech founders, to philanthropists, elite athletes, and more. Together, we'll uncover not only how they manage to succeed in face of multiple challenges, but also who they are as people and their human story.
And if this podcast has been beneficial or valuable to you, feel free to become a patron and support us on Patreon.com, that is P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/TheFounderSpirit. As always, you can find us on Apple, Google, Amazon and Spotify, as well as social media and our website at TheFounderSpirit.com.
“And for the first time in my life, I realized the hedge fund world was great, but I had no way to ever make a positive impact on anyone in that world. This was a chance where I could not only have a rewarding and challenging career, but it could actually impact tens of millions of people in society's health… And so that is the fire that burns every day for me, and I can't stop thinking about and keeps me going when this journey is really tough.”
“Now, fast forward to summer of 2019, everyone is furious with me and John because all their customers want non-alcoholic beer, all of a sudden, and we're the only ones who can make it. And it was just this hugely ironic turn of events.”
Joining us today is the visionary Bill Shufelt, Founder and CEO of Athletic Brewing Company based in the US. A former athlete and hedge fund trader, Bill fused his financial acumen and love of beer in a partnership with the award-winning brewer John Walker. Together, they brought Athletic to life after intense R&D and perfected a proprietary process for crafting great tasting, non-alcoholic beer.
Founded in 2017, Athletic Brewing Company has revolutionized and de-stigmatized the non-alcoholic beer segment, now the fastest-growing and most exciting category in its industry. Moreover, it has earned its place among the top 15 craft breweries, and stands as the 2nd largest non-alcoholic beer brand in America. In 2022, Inc. Magazine ranked Athletic as the 26th fastest-growing private company in the nation, and TIME Magazine honored it as one of the “100 Most Influential Companies.”
Just how did Athletic Brewing Company turn one of the most unappealing, underwhelming beverages into a booming business over a short span of 5 years? Well, let’s find out.
Hi Bill, welcome to The Founder Spirit podcast! Delighted to have you with us today and thank you for taking the time.
[03:04] Bill Shufelt: Hi Jennifer, really excited to be here. Thank you for having me.
[03:06] Jennifer: Bill, growing up in Connecticut, what were some of your formative experiences?
[03:13] Bill: I've always been very active, very busy, very outdoorsy. We had a very tight knit family, I really couldn't have asked for a better childhood - very positive environment to grow up, very hard working household.
I grew up in one of the New York City suburbs and we weren't necessarily affluent as a family, like every dollar definitely had to travel and last. I was motivated to have more comfortable means as I grew up, but also both of my parents did instill a great work ethic in us, (they) encouraged new interests and activities.
I was just super busy all the way through high school, and I probably had too much fun in college. From there, I was off and running in a career on Wall Street where I resumed working very hard.
So my default mode in my life has always been action, like Newton's first law, an object in motion will stay in motion unless met by an equal and opposite force. And I generally like to be the force and be moving forward.
[04:10] Jennifer: Speaking of being the force, you played football at Middlebury College. In what way did sports play a big role in your life?
[04:17] Bill: I would say in many ways, my career has been like a sports environment.
I grew up loving sports and the activity and the busy-ness and playing the games. But then as you continue to grow older, you really rely on teammates, and the effectiveness of working together as a group is so important.
You pick each other up in challenging times, you challenge each other to get better. Working in a team environment was really formative for me, as you lead people who are as much as four years younger than you.
Unfortunately I didn't fall in love with fitness until six years after my athletic career. So I'd tend to think I'm fitter now than when I played college football. So I definitely left some things on or off the field, depending on how you look at it.
But those teamwork lessons and the work ethic lessons I think I've carried forward into my career. I was in sales and trading, in the finance world for more or less 12 years and that is super interactive. It's all about communication, working as a team and the most effective people leverage all the people around them. So there's a big teamwork element and there are major peaks and valleys. Being on a desk with 20 people in the open air, essentially, was very much like a sports field.
And now one step further in the Athletic world, I'm one of the two leaders of this company and those teamwork lessons are all the more elevated. I'm so thankful for all those team experiences and the managers I've had that I've learned from, both good and bad, and have really taken those to the team environment and culture at Athletic, too.
I think team sports is a huge element of my story, but there are very much stories of lone wolf founders and I'm the opposite of that. I'm very much a generalist, a teammate, and it is a total team effort at Athletic.
[06:01] Jennifer: I think that's a common thread that I see coming through people who've played team sports at a very competitive level is that they're able to understand different individuals on their team and how they could contribute. And that ultimately, I think is so beneficial later on in life, whether you're starting your own entrepreneurial venture or you're working.
You had mentioned upon graduation, you chose to start your career as a trader. What initially attracted you to Wall Street?
[06:38] Bill: I kind of defaulted into finance. In the town I grew up with, I would say 80% of people were in financial careers, just due to proximity of New York City. People who I knew who had done well in their careers seemed to all be in finance, the careers were available in finance, I was always good at math, I was an econ(omics) major.
I chose sales and trading particularly because I really enjoyed my summer internship - I liked the fast paced nature of the investment analysis. And so I went into that route for trading specifically, and then elevated my education by getting my CFA on the side and learning more skills to move up the investment process and be closer to the decision maker of the portfolio, essentially.
Not only executing trades when told, but being the person who's deciding when to buy and sell those stocks, how to construct a portfolio, which companies go in there doing the analysis myself. So my goal in finance was to always keep moving up the investment process.
And Knight Capital was a great place to start in the financial world. I consider myself really fortunate because there were a lot of talented people in that building, but it didn't necessarily come with the egos of a huge financial firm. There were a lot of really scrappy people who had earned every dollar and every rank and every account they had.
I learned a lot of great things from those people and it just really synced well with my work ethic. It was a meritocracy - you could come in and earn additional responsibilities if you were there out-working people. It was five or six years until I parlayed that into my next opportunity.
[08:12] Jennifer: By the way, I know why you became a trader because you're very action oriented. (chuckles)
[08:17] Bill: For sure. In many ways, I didn't realize these skills until later, but I loved video games, I loved computers growing up.
And in an environment where both the trading firm Knight (where) I worked at was probably the highest velocity of trading decisions on Wall Street. Plus then, the hedge fund I worked at, Point72 and SAC, is probably the highest velocity hedge fund in terms of turnover. And there are sleepier trading shops for sure, where you do five trades a day or one trade a month, and it's a concentrated portfolio.
These were portfolios with hundreds of stocks very often, and you're tracking thousands of stocks and trying to capitalize on dislocations in all of them very quickly. And so, I had 12 monitors at any given time. And around the market open and close, from like 9:25-10am, there are dislocations everywhere.
And it's all about speed. And people who can interact the fastest on the computers, like a video game, often do better than people who can't keep up. And I think ironically, all the video games I played in high school and college probably really helped in my career at some point.
[09:25] Jennifer: (chuckles) Okay, so maybe there's hope for my son as well then, or kids today. Speaking of high velocity trades, what is the most number of trades that you've executed in a day?
[09:38] Bill: I have no idea, but I would guess the daily average was probably at least 500 or 1000 - it was very busy. And market hours aren't really that long - market's open for 6.5 hours a day, so I would guess 100 trades an hour easily.
[09:53] Jennifer: Wow, that's incredible. And as you mentioned, you joined SAC Capital Advisors, which is one of the largest hedge funds in the world, led by Steve Cohen, now the owner of the New York Mets, a Major League Baseball team. It is said that he is also the inspiration behind the TV series, Billions.
So tell us, Bill, what was it like to work for Steve Cohen, the legendary hedge fund manager?
[10:20] Bill: I have to say it was, in many ways for high performing people who like intellectual challenges, like action, there really couldn't have been much more to ask for in a day to day financial career.
It was a true meritocracy. You were graded very objectively on your outputs and the quality of your work and your results, which, as someone who showed up every day and worked incredibly hard, was all I could ask for.
And I'll give total credit to Steve, he shows up. Obviously, I haven't worked with him in over 5 years at this point, but he shows up every single day and he's sitting in a chair in the middle of the room and he is plugged into the markets. He's catching things that no one else sees. For every firm out there in the world that has a founder who, or management who's totally checked out and stuff, Steve was very plugged in and on top of all the details.
A perfect example of how in tune he was and amazing at seeing the bigger picture of what's happening in the market in real time - I think it was probably 2012 or 2013, there was a big flash crash where there was a programmatic, algorithmic thing on the New York Stock Exchange where half the stocks, like A to N, were dislocated by this program that got released.
And it all happened fast and furiously from 9:30 when the market opened to 9:33, and everything was corrected very fast. And in that short amount of time, he figured it out in the room sooner than anyone, which stocks it was, what part of the alphabet, which kind of stocks. And he provided realistically billions of dollars of emergency liquidity to the market because he was on top of it and knew those stocks inside and out, felt confident buying $100 million of this stock on the fly.
To give credit to him is showing up every day in those chair, and I have a lot of respect for that, and it's very much a true meritocracy and some of the most intellectually challenging people I've ever worked with, very differentiated viewpoints and not just vanilla herd mentality.
The question was, how was it to work there? It was very intellectually challenging and exhausting a lot of times, but also, that is a good thing. I really liked a lot of my colleagues there - they were extremely smart people, good people. It was a team environment, we challenged each other a lot.
And in finance, it was intentionally or unintentionally exactly where I should have been. So I really thought I would have been there for the next 25 years had I not come up with the idea for Athletic Brewing.
[12:43] Jennifer: This is the perfect segue because you left Point72 in early 2017 to found Athletic (Brewing Company). What was your motivation to start a new beverage venture with your background in finance as a hedge fund trader in a category that, frankly, nobody really cared about? (chuckles)
[13:03] Bill: Yeah, that's exactly it. I was incredibly passionate about and saw the emerging need for something in a category that nobody cared about. And I felt like I was a customer that no one saw or cared about.
And at the same time, I thought my experience was very typical, and I thought there was a huge portion of the population that either was already thinking that or was going to be thinking it within 10 to 20 years, and I just couldn't see the trend going the other way.
And so I stopped drinking almost exactly ten years ago, and for sure I was drinking too much and too often, and it was a distraction in my life and a productivity ceiling. But in the same way, nothing serious ever happened with my drinking. And I was very functional and it worked within my lifestyle and stuff, but I was just drinking too often.
Ten years ago, I decided to just stop and I wanted to feel good and be healthier and always have a clear head. And I was training for my first ultra-marathon at the time, and that was just a coincident factor, but I really had been thinking about stopping for a while.
And the second I stopped, easily within a month, there were just all these positive factors that emerged in my lifestyle to reinforce that was a positive, long term decision, and it was easy to never go back.
I was sleeping through the night for the first time as an adult. I had no idea how much alcohol had been shaking up my sleep, I felt so much better when I worked out, I felt like I wanted to accelerate the whole time I was working out rather than surviving workouts. And so it was great for sleep, great for fitness, it was great for work productivity.
I had no idea how much the cloud in the mornings was, even when I had one or two drinks. If you all of a sudden have a great night's sleep and no hangover at all and you've had a workout, that mental clarity at work was like a totally different level for me.
For someone who was graded entirely on my intellect and speed at work, that was important in my productivity. But then it kept going beyond that, at night, because I wasn't having any drinks or anything, I started reading a lot of books and that really opened up my mind. I hadn't really read recreationally. And then in my relationships, there was no drinking, my relationship with my fiance, and now wife, at that time, also improved.
From that, relationships with friends improved and so it was almost all positives and nothing being subtracted where I thought it would be. And I realized no one cared if I was drinking.
I had this very positive life choice, but I genuinely loved great beer and great food and I wanted that beer again and it blew my mind that it didn't exist. And I saw all the health information that used to be totally hidden was now at people's fingertips on phones and fitness wearables, iWatches and everything, podcasts.
And I was like, people are going to be bombarded with the positive effects of not drinking and eventually this is going to be a huge megatrend that people just reduce their alcohol consumption. So the opportunity was building and I had this latent idea, but I didn't recognize it. It was an idea until my wife pointed it out to me.
And so she was in a very receptive place - she was in business school at the time and we were walking to dinner one time and I was just doing my thing, complaining about how bad non-alcoholic drinks are and I was like, someone should just fix this. And she grabbed my shoulder, stopped me in my tracks and was like, you should do that. So she had seen this huge positive change in my life, heard me talking about it and she was the one who encouraged me to actually look into it and research it and she helped me get going and research. So that was the genesis of the idea.
And then immediately, once I started to look into it, I was like, oh my goodness, this is not only just an idea that scratches a niche for me, but it is a huge idea. It was so obvious to me that it was an enormous economic opportunity, but at the same time, I didn't resign from my job for two years. So it took a lot more for me to realize.
[17:07] Jennifer: That’s right, because you were used to seeing the market dislocation as a trader.
[17:12] Bill: Yeah, it was one of those things we're really trained to… As stock pickers, if you are buying a stock based on something people are already talking about, it's not a differentiated idea and you should not expect a return on that idea. You buy stocks based on the secret that you see and other people don't see.
The average US adult is not drinking alcohol in greater than 99.5% of the occasions they are awake. But the non-alcoholic adult beverage market was less than 0.3% of the adult beverage market. The sliders on that scale were almost on the opposite ends of the spectrum (that) I would have expected them to be, given the size of the market. And in my head I just knew it was going to 10-20, maybe even 50% of the market over time.
And no one was talking about that, no one was researching it, no one was. So I had this big secret essentially that I knew this market was huge, but at the same time, I was already in a very financially rewarding place. And why trade one very sure thing, financially rewarding job for a very unsure financial outcome?
My wife also connected the dots for me two years later - I was going into 2017 and I had no intention of quitting my job really, at that point. And my wife basically sat me down and was like, this change you've had in yourself is something you could help tens of millions of people realize.
And when I connected that fulfillment piece, there's 15 million US adults with documented alcoholism, that is a way bigger number than most people think, it's probably way bigger than 15 million. 1 in 5 deaths under the age of 50 is related to alcohol. Alcohol causes over 5% of cancer, supposedly. There's like 232 million missed work days a year due to alcohol. 40% of incarcerated people were drunk when they committed their crimes. And the stats just go on and on.
And for the first time in my life, I realized the hedge fund world was great, but I had no way to ever make a positive impact on anyone in that world. This was a chance where I could not only have a rewarding and challenging career, but it could actually impact tens of millions of people in society's health.
When me and my wife started talking about that, that was so exciting that I couldn't sleep at night anymore and I couldn't possibly turn it off. And so that was when I walked into work three days later and quit my job.
And so that is the fire that burns every day for me and I can't stop thinking about and keeps me going when this journey is really tough.
[19:48] Jennifer: Yeah, I love this. Well, obviously you and Jackie saw the potential in this idea to create the first beverage company that's focused on crafting high quality, great tasting, non-alcoholic beer for today's active and healthy consumer.
It sounds great today, but back then, what were some of people's reactions when you told them that you were going to quit your day job?
[20:10] Bill: So it's interesting. So my colleagues were pretty shocked, but really, no one ever quits that firm unless they're doing something grand, like starting their own hedge fund. And so that was probably pretty surprising for people.
I think people knew me so well that they knew I was serious and people weren't telling me I was an idiot. They knew I probably researched it and was just so excited about it, and they probably also just thought I'd be back.
But then it was funny. So then once I started to move into this world, the consumer conversations, everyone at the consumer level I told about it, got it was like, oh I would try that, that could be like my new Tuesday Wednesday beer, and I'd give it a try.
And every survey I ran on Google surveys and stuff, upwards of 50%, sometimes to 70% of people said they would drink it with some frequency if it tasted good and came nicely marketed and didn't have the stigma of O'Doul's, as a generic brand, I don't mean to dump on O'Doul's. The consumer interest was definitely there.
But then when I talked to people in the industry, like brewers, suppliers, equipment producers, I would go to conferences with 10,000 people and there was no interest in the industry, no interest in talking about it - people were so confident it was not a thing.
And there was a massive disconnect between the industry's interest in looking into this and the consumer level. And that was very reinforcing for me because I knew I'd almost have a really long timeline to break into this because the industry was so cold on the idea - it would take such resistance, which was exciting.
And then also I was coming in as an outsider to an industry that is very set in its ways, like very little technology, there’s still a lot of paper mail in the beer world. And so I knew I was coming into an industry with an outsider's perspective and a very different viewpoint and that got me excited as well.
It was very hard to get going for that reason, that the industry was so cold to it. But that also gave me and John a lot of time to do our planning and build the business the right way and not have to rush into it, which was a huge positive over time.
[22:17] Jennifer: This is actually great because you're now starting to talk about your co-founder, John. I understand from John that two years prior to leaving Point72, you had spent your nights researching how to make beer, writing business plans and searching for a brewmaster.
So tell us, how did you meet your co-founder, John Walker, the Chief Brewer at Athletic?
[22:40] Bill: So I had never brewed a batch of beer in my life before I quit my job. And I mean, I really have never still brewed a batch of beer totally on my own. There's always been someone more talented with brewing experience running the show.
And so it's almost a classic situation of a non-technical co-founder and a technical co-founder. John runs our entire breweries and is our brewmaster. I'm the outside world founder who does CEO, sales, marketing, finance, stuff like that. And it's really a good puzzle piece and co-founding partnership for that reason.
To find John was a very dark period for sure. I went from this big hedge fund where everyone wanted to talk to me, and everyone picked up the phone on the first ring to this world where no one in this industry wanted to talk to me. I was nobody. I had no resources. I had the least interesting idea any of them had ever heard, and they just didn't want to waste any time on me.
And I'd go to conferences with 5,000 brewers and not be able to have a meaningful conversation and talk to hundreds of people. And then I put up job ads and got no responses. I took non-alcoholic out of the job ads and got hundreds of responses and then hundreds of hang ups. And then none of the contract manufacturers wanted to work with us either.
So it was kind of like being torn down in all different directions. I'd go on these trips after a series of no's, I would ask my brother if he wanted to go skiing or if my wife wanted to go away for the weekend and I’d rebuild from the ashes to enthusiasm and get back at it.
So five months into this, John reached out. He had seen an ad I had posted and he was interested in moving his family to this part of the country anyway, which helped, but he definitely did not know it was a non-alcoholic brewery. And I basically begged him not to hang up and begged him not to say no. And I was like, tell me in three days it's a terrible idea and you're not interested in it, but if you give me five minutes, I bet I can get you excited about it.
And I told him about the idea, and he wrote me back that next Monday and was like, I was 100% going to just say no and move on, and it goes like … genius. He's like, I thought about it over the weekend, I couldn't stop thinking about it. I talked about my family, I grew up in a restaurant family, it just makes sense. It could be so innovatively challenging, there's a need for it. I'd love to hear more.
And I basically flew across the country to see him the following week, really, since then, we haven't stopped the collaboration in whatever form it’s been over the last six years. John was really not only the first, but the only person to see potential in the idea. But at the same time, that's totally to his credit, and it really required someone with his approach to the process.
I am very much a go-fast person, and I had these plans laid out. John and I started home brewing in this empty warehouse, and I had this idea of how I wanted to make beer. And he was like, that's great, we're going to follow the scientific method and we are going to change one degree in one tank every day, and it's going to be hundreds of trials. There's no way it'll be less than six months, but it'll be so worth it because we're going to learn a lot about everything we're going to do.
And just like John's thoughtfulness to that approach, he was totally willing to make the time investment, the effort investment to get on the right foundation. We learned so much in that period that it's been the same way ever since. We're just constantly investing and learning. So total credit to John and his approach to the world, but that's exactly why no one else saw the opportunity in it as well.
[26:14] Jennifer: It also helps that his name is so similar to Johnny Walker, the whiskey brand. And he's the chief brewer of a non-alcoholic beer brand. (chuckles)
[26:26] Bill: Yeah, I joked about it once really early, but I told him he was going to be the more famous John Walker someday.
[26:32] Jennifer: Good for him and hopefully better for the world since it's very low in alcohol.
You had mentioned that you built this small brewery in Connecticut to start with the initial funding that you had gotten, I believe it took you eight months of a lot of trial and error. And John mentioned about 100 batches of homebrew beer in order to perfect your process and your recipe.
Can you tell us how your brewing process is different from other non-alcoholic beer companies and what is your secret for maintaining full flavor?
[27:07] Bill: We did about at least 9 months of trials and perfecting our process. And we had overlaying that, 6 to 9 months of construction going on. And then we ended up launching on time for that summer, but it definitely (had) a number of moving parts during that time.
I learned in the research process and these conferences just how thoughtful and creative brewers are. Most brewers people think of as like, oh, bearded guys in flannel shirts who throw a bunch of stuff in a tank. And really, brewers are such talented chefs and they're so talented in the sciences and so exacting and really get very little credit for what a precise profession it is.
The assumption we were working off of is (that) if the existing technologies were effective in making great non-alcoholic beer, this very smart group of tens of thousands of brewers would have figured it out at this time. And so we wanted to burn that to the ground and start from the screws of a totally new method.
And that's really what we built back up, was a way to make non-alcoholic beer from all natural methods with no preservatives and use it by controlling things like time, temperature, pH - sometimes we go really slow, sometimes we go fast, sometimes we do it hotter, colder, different ingredient profiles.
The process John and I came up with is ultimately ten different steps are altered in the brewing process versus the traditional brewing process. But that's also why it's so differentiated, we are just doing it in a totally different way than most people. And at the end of the day, that is the big commercial trade secret also, so I can't go too far into depth with it beyond that.
But I will say something we did uncover early on is that it hadn't really occurred to me that ethanol is this incredible food preservative. Ethanol keeps bacteria, everything out of a lot of things. And so the absence of that made us a very vulnerable food product.
And so actually, some of the more challenging things we do are on the lab side, the food safety side. We have incredibly expensive tunnel pasteurizers and different things in our breweries that most breweries don't have to have because of ethanol. So we have made a lot of unexpected investments in the food safety world for quality, but that helps us sleep at night also.
[29:24] Jennifer: Having turned the brewing process upside down, for the record, Athletic Brews are incredibly tasty. So for those of the audience who are listening right now who have had it, you know what I'm talking about. And for those people who haven't had it, please take my word for it because I don't drink alcohol nor do I like the taste of beer.
But for some strange reason that I cannot comprehend, I seem to be addicted to your brews. I've only had it once a couple of months ago, but I'm actually dreaming about having another one, so I'm waiting for my shipment currently.
Bill, 80% of your customer base still drink alcohol. Why do you think your beers are so much better than the competition?
[30:08] Bill: I think it's that investment in our business and our quality. I think people have just the utmost confidence when they pick up one of our beers. it's going to be delightful and true to its quality, consistent, and hopefully one of the best parts of their day. We're really customer and quality focused and it kind of all builds off of that.
[30:28] Jennifer: But does that also make it more difficult to scale? Because right now you have two factories, one in California, one in Connecticut.
And as you expand overseas, which you currently are, does that commitment to quality and ingredients and different factors in the brewing process, does that also make it more difficult, you think, for you guys to scale going forward?
[30:53] Bill: Absolutely, definitely more expensive. But in some ways, it's also easier to scale, so I can explain.
Most food products in CPG and most beverage products are contract manufactured where people come up with an idea, they work on a formulation, but then they ultimately outsource the production to a third party who there are all these great third parties who invest in facilities and do all the food safety the regulatory type stuff on their behalf.
And the nice thing about that is, if someone else is making a product, it in theory, scales seamlessly inside their buildings. But there is risk if you outgrow a contract manufacturer also, because then you have to go find another contract manufacturer and on and on. And there might just not be that capacity in the industry available also.
Non-alcoholic beer is seeing a bit of that these days, where the industry has grown so fast that all of a sudden no one can make it for the players who are relying on contract manufacturing. So that's an interesting dynamic.
For us, we've taken the burden and the expense of building out all our manufacturing to make our beer, which is definitely expensive up front, but on the back end, you own all the equipment and it's just your people making the beer. So the margins do become more favorable over time as you scale.
But also the most important thing in that decision for us was owning the quality. So our team, being in charge of every beer we brew, having the option to dump it down the drain if it's not our best, but we can measure it every day, make sure it's perfectly up to spec. And our team gets better and better at brewing our beer every year, too. We've had real quality advantages by owning the process as well.
At the end of the day, if you're not making your product, there's ultimately going to be some level of sacrifice associated with it unless the person making it is better than you at it, so I think it's really shown up in our quality over time.
The challenge is now we're at such a scale that we need to build our breweries two plus years in advance. So there is real risk around forecasting and financials, and the investments are getting pretty big as we build our new breweries. Our most recent brewery in Connecticut is about 50 times the capacity of our original brewery.
[33:08] Jennifer: Impressive! Let's shift gears and talk about sales. In the early days, while John was tinkering with the proof of concept, you were already out selling products that you didn't have. What was sales like in the early days?
[33:25] Bill: Well, I will say in my prior life, sales absolutely made my skin crawl. The concept of selling anything was just not for me, it was not my personality. I was very much a do my work and get it done and not do anything with sales and politics in an organization.
But the funny thing is I'm so passionate about what we're doing at Athletic that sales comes incredibly easy. It's what I want to be talking about, I know everything about it and want to share that with people. And when I see that mirrored in a customer or retailer, like their enthusiasm for it - it's just so exciting.
From the start, even when we only had most of our original sales in the 3 to 6 months leading up to our launch, John and I were hand-bottling glass bottled beer. And I was driving around New England, pre-selling the beer before we were ready to have it ready to go.
Whole Foods was our first account to really commit to our beer on a big way. I walked into the Brooklyn Whole Foods with a glass bottle of homebrewed beer, and the woman the local forager at the Brooklyn store basically was like, this is amazing, I totally get it, you should go immediately to regional headquarters in New Jersey and share this. Total credit to Whole Foods as a big company with a small mindset.
And the next week I was in New Jersey regional Whole Foods and they were like, yes, we're bought into this, our customers will love this, we'll give you a trial in Connecticut, but we want to expand this everywhere you’re ready, basically. That was exciting with Whole Foods that helped us get a nice distributor.
And then I started opening up the whole state of Connecticut, just driving all around the state and doing samplings and talking to retailers and stuff and all sorts of funny small scale stories.
I would see someone in the parking lot and be like, hey, can you come up to the counter two minutes after me and just be like, did you say 50 calories? And act like they were excited about what I was talking about.
Winning over retailers with all sorts of tactics like that. Because the reaction from most people was no, no, no, and you had to break down walls in unique ways everywhere you went.
It was really very fun also to sell in the early days and that first summer, I probably did 70 athletic events where I would mostly run the race. I would get there early, kind of run the race, make sure I was finishing around when the winners did, and then sample beers to everyone who finished it.
A lot of them were just races I was going to run anyway. I'd email the race director and be like, hey, can I also bring a tent and a cooler and hand out 500 beers after the race? And race directors would be so psyched to have someone just like there enthusiastically sharing drinks at the finish line.
So I did that about 70 times that first summer and gave out thousands and thousands of beers all over New England. And I think that's where we made our thousand true fans.
The scary part of that was, I was selling so hard because I was passionate about it and I wanted to build the brand, and John and I thought we'd built this impossibly big brewery that was going to last us five years. And it's really a very small brewery in hindsight. But we had forecasts from everyone twelve months out, and we're nowhere near capacity.
And all of a sudden, ten months in, we were totally out of capacity and way out of stock, everyone was yelling at us for this very ironic non-alcoholic beer shortage that the industry couldn't have cared less about a year before. Now, fast forward to summer of 2019, everyone is furious with me and John because all their customers want non-alcoholic beer, all of a sudden, and we're the only ones who can make it. And it was just this hugely ironic turn of events.
And John and I, we only had, from the early days, four teammates. It was me on the outside world doing all the sales, marketing, finance functions, and John inside the walls with two other teammates. So he had one brewing teammate and one canning teammate to help can the beer with him. And they'd run the whole facility, and I'd mail the e-commerce packages at night and that was our whole company and we were out of money, we didn't have extra people and everyone wanted more beer.
And John and I, creatively, we sourced enough used big fermenters that we could have dropped into the extra space in the brewery - we doubled the capacity of the brewery. And we were like, now we're going to be good for a while, hopefully at least, two years. And we outgrew it again in three months, and so then we knew we were really in trouble on capacity at that point.
It went from literally no one picking up the phone, no one talking to us, everyone making fun of us, to this really ironic shortage a year later.
[38:05] Jennifer: It's because of consumers like me. (chuckles)
[38:10] Bill: I mean, I've always been our biggest consumer right from the start.
[38:13] Jennifer: And you. I just thought it was very impressive because people who don't even like the taste of beer like your product.
One thing I wanted to ask you is that Athletic beers are fully fermented with under 0.5% alcohol content. What other health benefits do your products offer besides great tasting and non-alcoholic?
[38:37] Bill: Because we are malt based, we can't technically advertise health benefits or speak to them, really. I can speak personally from my own health experience as a consumer.
There is a lot of research out there and podcasts and different things about alcohol's impact on health. I think Peter Attias, Andrew Huberman speak really well to it. But at the end of the day, in my personal life, alcohol did impair my sleep.
And objectively, alcohol does come with a lot of extra calories. The rule of thumb is per 1% alcohol is generally 20 ethanol calories. A lot of the light beers are 95-100 calories on the low end, if they're over 4% alcohol, that's generally 80 plus ethanol empty calories there.
So if you take that out and you have a sub-0.5% beer, it is very easy to have a very hearty ingredient profile at a very low calorie point. For example, I'm drinking our Athletic Lite beer right now and it's only 25 calories. So it's a really nice lager flavor in a light beer format that is a quarter of the calories of many of the lightest Lite beers. So there is a lightness to that, a lot of our customers probably perceive as healthier, and like I do personally in my own life.
But beyond that, beer, in general, has a lot of good things going on for it. It's full of electrolytes, it's got a nice carb profile, it's basically four clean ingredients - water, malt, hops, and yeast. It's so refreshing to pick up foods that have like 1234 ingredients these days.
[40:15] Jennifer: Yeah, actually my favorite, or the only Athletic Brew that I had, was the Athletic Lite, which, as you mentioned, has 25 calories and 5 grams of carbs. And it still tastes great.
I also wanted to ask you, going back to what you had mentioned before, the market for non-alcoholic beers in the US is booming compared to that of the traditional brew, which is actually declining. But at $330 million a year, it nonetheless represents still a tiny fraction of the overall market. And how do you see this market evolving going forward?
[40:57] Bill: When we started, non-alcoholic beer was about 0.3% of overall beer sales. There's a $115 billion beer market estimated by the Brewers Association in the US. It's grown to about 1.4% since we started, so definitely a nice multiple of what it was.
But there are some channels that still have almost no penetration by non-alcoholic beer. For example, convenience stores make up almost 40% of beer sales for some brands, there is almost no non-alcoholic beer in that channel. And same with club stores, there's very little beer.
If you look at grocery, it's up to like 2.4%, grocers have been a bit faster to adapt. In some big liquor chains, it's over 5% of beer already. But then in natural channel grocery, non-alcoholic beer is already over 10% of all beer sales. So it is way ahead of the curve and maybe pointing to where we're going in the future, which is really exciting to me.
The worldwide average non-alcoholic beer as a percent of beer is 5.6%. In most places in the world, non-alcoholic beer is already a much more significant market than the US, and that's largely due to stigmas around drinking it. But in a lot of European countries, it's upwards of 8-10-12% already.
So there is real precedent for it being a huge part of society. There are a lot of data points to reaffirm my gut instinct that it's going to 10-20%, maybe even 50% over time.
[42:28] Jennifer: Well, I was at a dinner recently, there were six of us and four of us didn't drink alcohol at all. So I was really quite shocked, growing up I always thought that I was in the minority. And I was thinking, well, wouldn't it be great if I could have brought my Athletic Brew to the dinner party? (chuckles)
[42:47] Bill: That was one of the eye opening things to me. When I stopped drinking, I realized I was probably in the upper 10% of drinkers where I thought I was very much an average drinker.
As I started to look around places, I did realize that a) a lot of people just aren't drinking alcohol at all and almost everyone is going to the bar with very little frequency, who is drinking.
And I've since come across stats like 60% of US adults have 0.14 drinks or less per week. So the majority of the population is almost a rounding error to zero on alcohol consumption. And it's really like the upper band that is consuming most of the alcoholic drinks.
But that being said, there is a great inclusion argument to be made there too, where humans have been drinking beer and alcohol for like 5,000 years. If we can only include all those people who don't really drink into these great societal moments with a beverage they're excited about, that's probably a really societally positive thing also, just from an inclusion standpoint.
[43:51] Jennifer: Yeah, I agree. I see that you're drinking Athletic Lite today on the podcast. Is that your favorite brew from Athletic?
[44:01] Bill: No, it's totally by coincidence because it paired really well with my lunch today. But I would say I am most inclined to reach for one of our IPAs probably.
Our Run Wild IPA was really designed around me and John's perception of what our favorite beer would be. I grew up drinking a lot of the well known regional breweries from the late 90s, early 2000s. I was in college at a boom time for craft regional brewery discovery and so I fell in love with those classic West Coast IPAs that had a nice malt backbone to them.
So I tend to drink a lot of our Run Wild IPA, which is like a more classic West Coast IPA. And then our Free Wave Hazy IPA is like a New England hazy IPA, which I also really like that as a totally different change of pace IPA.
[44:49] Jennifer: Just as a side comment about the sugar profile of your products. So my friend who actually introduced me to Athletic this summer, he's diabetic, so he wears one of these monitors where he puts in his arm and he can monitor the sugar content of his intake.
He was really surprised that every time he drinks an Athletic non-alcoholic beer, what type of effects it has on his blood sugar level, which is very low compared to other things that he's consuming. So there, maybe you can get Andrew Huberman to do an episode on Athletic Brew. (chuckles)
[45:30] Bill: Yeah, and definitely not medical advice or anything, but I have seen that as a consistent theme of positive consumer outreach that people do tend to drink Athletic beers to fit within a health regime and then they fall in love with it because it does work so well within a really flexible dietary life.
[45:46] Jennifer: Yeah, I think that it helps because it's fully fermented, I guess it tastes better than drinking kimchi juice.
[45:51] Bill: I'm a huge fan of all fermented products and functional things, and I call it CPG tourism, but I love going into the different aisles of the grocery store, especially the functional beverage aisle. And I drink apple cider vinegar every day and I'm a total health food, functional drink life hacker for sure.
[46:10] Jennifer: So today Athletic is the number 2 non-alcoholic beer brand in the country, but you're on track to surpass the market leader, which is Heineken 0.0. You have now also expanded into sparkling water. So what other products are on the horizon for you?
[46:29] Bill: I'm kind of like a horse with blinders on in that I really don't spend too much time thinking about competition and things like that. We're really thankful for the efforts Heineken is making in the category and think that their product's very thoughtful and love their marketing and they're super nice people.
We are primarily focused on just making great beer for the most part. We're so confident that it’s gonna be part of the normal, healthy life in the future, that we want to make sure we're meeting our customers needs first and foremost in non-alcoholic beer.
But that being said, I was a total functional beverage nut and John is such a tinkerer and so talented as a chef and beverage maker that we've made so many things at a small scale that we absolutely love. It's just a matter of focus and commercializing thoughtfully what we do.
So there will definitely be a time in the future where we have a number of product lines, but we want to make sure we absolutely fall in love with it, our team loves it before we launch anything incremental. So I would say we're very focused on beer for the most part.
We did launch a hop water - we were making it for fun and we didn't intend to sell it, but our customers were asking for it and so we did. But that's more meant for a daytime occasion, all ages drink and we really think that'll live over in the water aisle at some point and not in the beer side.
It might be a little while before we launch any more innovation, even though in any given month we are tasting and trialing and falling in love with multiple different things.
[48:00] Jennifer: Athletic is also a certified B corporation and 2% of your sales go to the “Two For the Trails” program. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
[48:10] Bill: Two For the Trails is our core environmental program, which we devised in business planning and created.
And it was really our intention where we knew if we didn't hardcode some of these positive things in our company that were so important to us culturally and in the impact we wanted to have in the world, that we would never be able to go back and install them because it would be too costly at that time and not part of our business.
Two For the Trails is 2% of sales, up to $2 million annually. We've donated about $4.5 million in the last five years through this program to over 200 partners, to enhance outdoor access for generations to come. So we only get one shot at this world, and we want to preserve that outdoor access.
And it's meant to be a really loose mandate, trail building, trail cleanup, anything from urban bike parks to backwoods trail and hut systems, cleaning up the oceans, removing plastic from the oceans - we supported the Maui Fires in different ways.
We get hundreds of inbounds a year as we open up the grant window. And then our team, we have a committee making hundreds of donations after grading all the applications and stuff. And at $2 million every year going forward, it's going to be a really big compounding impact of that program.
[49:28] Jennifer: Bill, you've come a long way in such a short period of time from tinkering with homebrew equipment, Athletic has managed to transform a whole industry in just five years. What, in your opinion, is the most unexpected part of your entrepreneur journey?
[49:46] Bill: I think one of the most unexpected things is how long-term I'm thinking about the world these days, where it might have been the product of the era I grew up in.
But it seemed like entrepreneurial journeys were so fast, where so many companies these days burst onto the scene, and either go public or sold and are off and running. And all those options are, of course, on the table, and as is an IPO for sure.
But as I look at the world, too, I feel like now that we're five years into this that we could compete with anyone and beat anyone. And that has me thinking on a much longer time horizon than I ever thought. And now that we especially have some validation around our proof of concept.
And in the beginning it was all a hypothesis and narrative and a story that I was very passionate about. But we had no data and now we have all this data and green shoots that it is potentially going to this very big place. And now we also know that we can do it ourselves and build for the long term. And so it just has me so energized and thinking about the long term.
And hand in hand with that is John and I have always approached our team culture from a very long term way. And one of the most surprising things to me was how important our team culture, our employee handbook and mission has been. I made a handbook originally as a somewhat check the box type behavior, where there was for sure passion and ideas in it, but I didn't expect it to really get referenced.
Any other company I'd ever worked for, employee handbooks were dropped off by consultants and no one ever opened them up for any reason and knew what was in them. And at Athletic Brewing, we actually open it up all the time. And every single person who joins our team, John and I sit down with and we talk about what's on the pages and why it's important and where we're going and why the team is so important and why our community is so important.
And that stuff has caught me very off-guard as someone who was always previously so financially and operationally minded. But I think that is just because I care about it so much too.
[51:50] Jennifer: And over the years, you've raised over $170 million in capital, including $50 million from Keurig Dr. Pepper in the latest round. What is the exit strategy that you have in mind going forward?
[52:07] Bill: Yeah, there are many companies out there who raise a lot of money but don't actually buy any assets with that money.
So I see a lot of fundraising decks for food and beverage companies who aren't building breweries but raising similar amounts of money that Athletic did. And that is a head scratcher to me because we've built three breweries in five years with our fundraising, and a lot of that money has gone into hard assets.
There is an expected return on every dollar raised from investors, and I take my shareholder fiduciary duty really seriously. One thing I have realized, though, is that it's not necessarily an all or nothing exit requirement. Many companies have raised so much money that the only way to get people a liquid return is to go public or totally sell the company.
There are those options for sure, to get a return, but there are options like running a very profitable long term business and paying dividends is a great thing. Shareholders can buy and sell shares and get a return that way at a fair market price. I guess it's occurred to me over the process of building Athletic that there are many different exit paths for shareholders and it doesn't necessarily need to be a binary change of control outcome.
[53:20] Jennifer: And to those struggling entrepreneurs out there, what advice would you give them?
[53:25] Bill: Yeah, there's a great Tom Brady quote that I love. I'm not going to nail it directly, but it's on the wall in my office, actually.
But it's something to the effect of, to all those people out there working hard, waking up before dawn, struggling in the shadows, working hard at something they love but aren't noticed right now or see that on their team, just keep going.
Very often, the solutions you're looking for are just a walk without music away to think through, or around the corner from the hardest times. And the biggest opportunity is on the other side of the biggest challenges.
And 99.9% of the people gives up when they hit those challenges. And that's where the real moats are, is clearing all those challenges along the way. And John and I really learned that along the way is to really go right at the biggest challenges because that's where the durable business opportunity probably is.
[54:21] Jennifer: That's great. We're soon coming to the end of this episode. Can you tell us what your favorite books are over the years?
[54:27] Bill: There's so many, since I stopped drinking ten years ago, I've become a high velocity reader.
I recently completed reading all of Warren Buffett shareholder letters, that was a pretty meaningful experience for me. One of my favorite business books that isn't really a business book is The Obstacle Is the Way by Ryan Holiday, that's all about enduring challenges and mindset. And recently, I love Seth Godin for marketing.
[54:52] Jennifer: And where can people find you and Athletic Brewing Company online?
[55:56] Bill: Yeah, we're just @athleticbrewingcompany across all social media, easy to find and a lot of it goes right to me.
[55:02] Jennifer: And last but not least, what does the Founder Spirit mean to you?
[55:06] Bill: I think building something you're passionate about and knowing the dent you can have on the world that is going to be meaningful and fulfilling.
Whenever people ask (me) about an idea, I'm like, are you passionate about it? It is a hard journey - are you excited about it? When someone is talking a thousand miles an hour and can't turn off an idea, I think that's what the Founder Spirit is because there's just nothing more exciting than building and doing something you care about.
[55:34] Jennifer: Thank you.
We're now coming to the end of our interview, and as you know, we end every episode with a quote. And for this episode, we have a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, an American philosopher and poet:
“Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.”
Bill, many thanks for coming on the podcast today and along with it, you brought your enthusiasm for reinventing beer for the modern adult. Thank you so much.
[56:03] Bill: Thank you so much, Jennifer. It's an honor to be on The Founder Spirit, thank you for having me.
[56:08] Jennifer: And if this podcast has been beneficial or valuable to you, feel free to become a patron and support us on Patreon.com, that is P-A-T-R-E-O-N.com/TheFounderSpirit. As always, you can find us on Apple, Google, Amazon and Spotify, as well as social media and our website at TheFounderSpirit.com.
For this season, we're partnering with the Villars Institute, a nonprofit foundation focused on accelerating the transition to a net zero economy and restoring planetary health.
[56:50] END OF AUDIO
(03:13) Bill Shufelt’s Formative Experience
(04:17) How Sports Plays a Big Role in His Life
(06:38) Early Career as a Trader on Wall Street
(10:20) Working for Steve Cohen, the Legendary Hedge Fund Manager
(13:03) Starting a New Venture That No One Cared About
(22:40) Meeting John Walker, Co-Founder and the Chief Brewer
(27:07) The Scientific Method and Secret To Maintaining Full Flavor
(33:25) Sales in the Early Days and the Ironic Non-Alcoholic Beer Shortage
(40:57) How the Non-Alcoholic Beer Market is Evolving
(44:01) Bill's Favorite Athletic Brew
(48:10) Two For the Trails Program
(49:46) The Most Expected Part of His Entrepreneurial Journey
(52:07) Exit Strategy Going Forward
(53:25) Advice for Struggling Entrepreneurs
(55:06) What the Founder Spirit Means to Bill
Social Media Links:
Bill’s Favorite Books: