BrewPublik: A real-life Charlotte startup story

BrewPublik: A real-life Charlotte startup story
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Charlie Mulligan is the Co-founder and CEO of local Charlotte startup, BrewPublik (craft beer, handpicked for you and delivered to your door).

I almost couldn’t believe it when we got our first sale. My team had just setup our booth. An elderly lady approached. I looked up from the display I was adjusting to see her, curiously looking over what we had setup. She asked what “BrewPublik” was, and then said she would definitely buy this as her husband’s Christmas present. It was surreal. I thought, “Really? Are you sure?” It was actually strange that this project that we had spent almost a year on was now something that someone would pay for.

That night, we got home as a team and celebrated wildly – meaning we broke out a vintage bottle of NoDa Triumphant and everyone had about 4oz. But those few sips remain some of my favorite ever, because that first sale was so sweet. We looked around at each other at BrewPublik HQ, and realized that this could be a real business.

That was last December, and now BrewPublik has hundreds of customers, but the highs and lows of starting a company from scratch never change. Sometimes, I feel like I’m on the precipice of the most exhilarating life ever. At other times, I look around and legitimately worry that I’m going to end up penniless and destitute. And these emotions change so fast. As a startup founder, I can feel both of those on the same day, sometimes within 15 minutes.

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My co-founder Zach and I started BrewPublik with what was left in my savings account after I quit my corporate job and we convinced the awesome members of my leadership team to help us out after hours in exchange for a stake in the company. A nice zero-APR credit card from Bank of America helped too. We worked hard and tried to work smart. Soon though, our little runway of cash was out.

I remember desperately waiting for customer cash to come in so we would have enough money to pay for our inventory purchases. I learned the hard way that it takes 2 days or so for money from a credit-card sale to actually get to your bank account. Then, I was driving home one day from a customer delivery when I got a call from one of our vendors. Where was his money, he asked. The company didn’t have it. So I did something I never want to do again, I begged for a couple more days. Note: I probably will.

By February, we had signed on about 100 or so customers. We made enough money to cover most of our costs, but we couldn’t pay ourselves or anyone else on the team. But the concept was working, so it was time to try and raise some money.

Fundraising is hard. It’s complicated, and I can personally vouch that there are far fewer pitches made in bathrobes or trips to nightclubs than as portrayed in The Social Network. Also, just having a good idea, which we thought we did, is not enough. You need a good team and you need a plan. And you need to be able to blow a hardened investor away with just a 60-sec pitch. There are some real similarities to being a politician.

Anyway, one day we found out about a competition coming up in 24 hours hosted by Startup Grind (a network organized by Google to support entrepreneurs) and threw together a pitch.

We had 60 seconds to pitch, and immediately we felt like we had something good. The room clearly understood our concept and was excited about it (a benefit we always get since we sell beer).

Nevertheless, we were a baby company, so we were still a bit surprised to be selected as a finalist. We presented a bit more about our company and answered some questions, but the main win was that we got a chance to speak further with the investors, Sierra Maya 360 and Enventys.

We were 3 months old, but we had a chance to follow-up and ask for a $250,000 investment. That would have been game-changing. This time we went to Carolina Ale House to celebrate, and I ordered about 5 beers. They were out of like four of them.

But let’s be real, we weren’t really ready for $250,000. The conversations were really great, but we just weren’t worth the amount of money we would have to ask for. And so we got $0.

Even if you’re prepared, it’s never a good feeling to have someone look at your work, your dream and say they aren’t interested. It just doesn’t feel great. It’s like when you ask someone out, except that before asking for the number, you would have worked out for 300 days straight, rehearsed every potential conversation, and recruited a posse of 5 people to help present your case to the girl at the bar. And you had a powerpoint presentation. Then she rejects you.

Nevertheless, we knew there was much more work to do. So we kept meeting with people and asking for money. We met with my dad at the Hawthorne’s Pizza near Highland Creek. He gave us some money – thanks, Dad! Then we started meeting with other investors. Some people met with us. Some never returned our calls.

Meanwhile, we were busting ourselves to try and create a company worth investing a lot in. I opened new credit cards. We spent Dad’s money. We were growing, but also doing lots of work to get our service to a place where we could handle hundreds of customers. The bills grew. I was doing my best to take care of everyone, but we got to 200 customers and seemed to hit a wall.

We were spending all our time trying to rapidly improve our infrastructure, but we needed cash. The strain was starting to wear on the team, and it was tempting to lose faith. Being a startup is great when you can manage your own time and drink on the job. It’s not so great when you don’t get paid for three weeks.

We were still talking to investors, but it wasn’t moving fast enough. I looked at our bank account and I looked at the team and stated it as bluntly as I could; we need an investor – fast.

So we pushed harder. We had to back down from some of our requests and re-double our efforts to close a deal, all the while doing our best to keep things going on a limited budget.

Luckily, we found one that seemed like a good fit. We negotiated terms for a few weeks, and eventually set on a date of July 3rd to close a deal that would provide funding for us for the next 6 months. It was a huge relief. We drove down to meet the investor, had some wine and cheese, and then signed a few documents.

It all seemed so easy, considering that we were literally signing up for the lifeblood of our company. Then the investor passed the check. Just a little piece of paper, but it meant everything to us. It was July Fourth weekend, and I rushed home to cash that check with my Bank of America mobile app, which was kind of hilarious. What a feeling! All of a sudden, we were actually in a good cash position, at least for the next few months. We declared a company-wide celebration at noon on the Fourth – everyone dialed in from their festivities and we celebrated like we had just gotten a million dollars.

We hadn’t. But it was a big step.

Now, it seemed to be time to put all our big plans in to motion. We got to work and then I got another call.

I actually was lying on my stomach on the pavement, straining to get some new product photos for our website (and sweating like a pig, by the way). The call was from Sierra Maya 360, who we had pitched back in February after the Startup Grind competition. It was 11am on a Friday. The ask was to come in at 2pm. And thus began the craziest two weeks of this whole ride – the last two weeks.

Amish Shah, Jeff Brokaw and Dan Rogers from Sierra Maya 360 are passionate, energetic, and dedicated to make an investment in Charlotte, the city. We talked that Friday for 3 hours and both sides were jazzed by the end of it.

brewpublik-meeting-with-sierramaya360-charlotte

Sierra Maya has a unique model, connecting real movers and shakers from Silicon Valley, Hollywood and tech hubs. Immediately, they presented a case for how they can help BrewPublik become a national player in a fraction of the time it would take us to build up ourselves. It was exhilarating to sit down with them and talk about what BrewPublik is going to be – a place I always knew we would be, but probably more like 3 years from now.

Six days later, we were on the phone with all the partners in the firm. Three days later, we had a deal put together. It’s been an intense experience, like all experiences with VC firms. But, contrary to what I expected, it’s been a ride full of support – less time getting grilled and more time coming up with creative ideas to make BrewPublik huge, nationally and in Charlotte. And I still haven’t made any pitches in a bathrobe.

But now we have an awesome, energetic and well-funded partner. Guys, I can’t even start to explain how excited I am about the future. You’re going to see some great things from BrewPublik soon – some really innovative ways to get you awesome beer. I’m just a little hyped.

Today, on Monday, August 10th, I can take a step back and take a look at the journey we’ve been on. Right now, I feel like I’m standing on the precipice of this amazing journey of taking a humble startup into a disruptive, nationwide company.

But we may not blossom like we want. We may fail, like most startups. We may fall off the precipice and not make it.

Right now though, I’m on top of one those good parts of the roller-coaster.

And I’m going to enjoy it before the plunge.

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