“While the company is in it’s make-or-break early years the entrepreneur has to keep their hands on any and all controls that steer the ship.”
I had the pleasure to interview Matt Thomas Founder & CEO of Brew Dr. Kombucha, Townshend’s Tea Company. Matt started a company in 2003 with $45,000. It now has over $30MM in annual revenue and 250 employees. In the 2017 Inc. 5000 list, they were listed as the #734 fastest growing U.S. company.
What is your “backstory”?
I founded my my first teahouse in 2003, one year after coming up with the idea in business school at the University of Oregon. By 2008 I had opened my 2nd teahouse and started making kombucha. We quickly realized it was a hit and rented the basement of our NE Portland Teahouse to start making more if it. We grew out of the basement the next year and have kept up a fast pace, to the point where now we are producing over half a million bottles per week out of 60,000 square feet of brewery space. We also have continued to grow the teahouse effort, with nine NW teahouses currently.
Can you tell me about the most interesting projects you are working on now?
Saying to my team “Great work this year making twice as much kombucha as last year. Now we need to make twice as much next year” is a big ask when you’re talking about many millions of bottles. Our team is excited by the challenge though, because we remember to have fun and know that we are making an honest product that is good for people.
Another fairly new project that is getting us a bit of attention is our distillery. We extract the alcohol from our fermented kombucha using non-heat distillation, and use that byproduct to make a line of craft spirits — we’re the world’s first and only tea distillery. We’re making delicious stuff, from our Pacific NW Fernet to our botanical-forward Gin. Applying tea-crafting expertise to a spirits effort has had some super tasty results, and levels up our company parties.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
The group of twelve family and friends that invested the first $45,000 in my first teahouse, when I was 23 years old, were instrumental. I was young and ambitious, but didn’t have a cent of my own money to get off the ground. I made it through all the hard times during the first handful of years partly because I didn’t want to waste their money and let them down. One of the most gratifying parts of how far the company has come is sharing that success with those initial investors.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Fermentation has been a part of the human diet from the beginning. Now that we live with constant access to refrigeration, much of the population doesn’t ingest any raw, fermented foods. The medical community is becoming more and more aware that this can be the cause of a lot of internal gut/stomach/liver/etc. issues. The proliferation of authentic, raw (unpasteurized) kombucha has the potential to help a lot of people.
We’re proud that our unique process, which removes excess alcohol and doesn’t rely on juice or additives, gives everyone a tasty, live and active, fermented kombucha. We’ve solved the puzzle of creating a kombucha for everyone. That’s our biggest contribution to the world, absolutely.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. (Please share a story or example for each, if possible.)
1) You have be able to self-fund your growth. Determine what profit margin earns you enough money to advance the cause, and keep the organization lean for as long as you can. We worked hard, for very little, knowing that if we kept reinvesting our profit into the company we had a straight line to the path we’re on now.
2) Don’t delegate too much early on. While the company is in it’s make-or-break early years the entrepreneur has to keep their hands on any and all controls that steer the ship.
3) It doesn’t have to be you against the world. Experienced individuals are willing to give you advice if you ask for it. If we had just brought in someone who had experience at a beer brewery, we could have become a lot more efficient sooner, with some very simple additions to our facilities.
4) I wish someone would have told me how to prepare for and nail a sales meeting in the grocery business. I was our first salesperson and was gung ho about growing our business, but looking back I didn’t know what buyers really cared about in a sales meeting. I’m lucky I had a good story to tell and an even better product.
5) No matter how small you start, dream big.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this.
I’m in awe of what Jeff Bezos and Amazon have been able to take on. If I had fifteen minutes with Mr. Bezos I’d try to get at how he has organized his vision into strategy and execution over the years