In 2012, Joel Gregory began looking for a new direction. His engineering job at Sharp Electronics no longer fulfilled him, so he started a blog in his spare time about his two passions: beer brewing and non-profit work. The blog was the beginning of a simple, but unique dream: A non-profit brewery that would use its net income to support local charities. When he was laid off that November, he turned what would for most people have been a crushing blow into an opportunity: Five months later, he registered Ex Novo Brewing as a business, and got to work building a company that, to quote its slogan, makes “better beer for the greater good”.
He’s doing it all with a grassroots marketing strategy that relies on word-of-mouth, a lean but effective social media presence, and appeals to Portlanders’ love of good beer and their fellow human beings, in that order.
Ex Novo Brewing, which is tentatively scheduled to open for business on June 6, is still in the beginning stages. Only within the last few months has Gregory secured a space for the brewery and hired brewmaster Ian Greene. While it springs from humble beginnings, however, Ex Novo Brewing is already well on its way to realizing its mission, having already partnered with Mercy Corps, Impact NW, and International Justice Mission.
I sat down with Gregory to talk about building a business from the ground up, mixing word-of-mouth marketing with social media, and improving the community one beer at a time.
Q: Tell me the story of Ex Novo Brewing. How did you get started, and what was the idea behind it all?
Joel: I started brewing beer about three or four years ago, and I was also looking into the non-profit sector as a possible change of career. I heard from a lot from people who just needed someone to do the fundraising for them. It clicked with me what a sustainable business brewing is, especially in Portland. I wasn’t trying to get rich off of it anyway, so I thought I might as well use it for a good outside myself. I got laid off about a year and three months ago, and that accelerated the timeline – no reason to get another engineering job if this was the direction I wanted to go. I’ve been at it for a year and a half, and it’s changed a little, been sculpted and refined, and now it’s finally happening.
Q: What’s your marketing model? How do you plan on selling this business?
Joel: Right now we’re leaning more heavily than we will in the future on the non-profit part. We’re tapping into available resources, and we have partnerships with the organizations that we’re going to support: Mercy Corps, Impact NW, and International Justice Mission. We value their support, and the stuff they do to market us-it’s all free. I think as soon as we start on the brewery aspect, we’re going to back off a little on the non-profit piece. We want the beer to be the number one priority, and we don’t want people to think it’s about charity – “I’m drinking a mediocre beer, but at least it’s for charity.” We really believe in this craft, and we don’t want it to be a second thought. We want people to get excited about the space we have here, and if they’re stoked about the non-profit piece as well, that’s gravy. As far as logistically, we’re pushing this video we made on social media and on our website. We decided to spend some money early and get a good-looking website done, and we’ll have another round of that once we get our line of beers and events going.
Q: How does social media figure into your marketing approach?
Joel: The people who first liked us on Facebook were all my friends, and it’s been exciting to watch that grow, for more and more people who are a few connection removed hear about us and get on board. We post events and things we have and get a great response, and as soon as word gets out on this location, the audience will grow three to fivefold. We’ve got 2000 likes on Facebook, and when you do your marketing there, it’s got a pretty good reach. Same with Twitter. Those are the two that we’re pushing on. We’ve found that sponsored posts on Facebook are kind of a waste of money; it doesn’t turn into any tangible or quantifiable result, so we stopped doing that after giving them some of our money.
Q: Can you give me an example of how you grow your customer base?
Joel: Right now it’s really grassroots. Without having a space, the events we can throw are pretty minimal. Last year, at my house, we had an annual fresh hop festival where we harvested hops grown in the neighborhood, and made beer with them right then and there. That drew in a lot more people than would normally come to some guy’s house for a brew night; we had 40 or 50 people come by, half of whom I had never met before. That’s the grassroots approach right now, and after that we’re going to go more outside the neighborhood, trying to get folks who work around here involved. For example, there are probably thousands of people who work in the hospital here who haven’t heard of us yet, but they’re going to. Same with down the street at Left Bank; there’s a good population of beer drinking folks who will hear about us and come to events once we get the space ready.
Q: So, word of mouth is a big part of it?
Joel: Big time. We’re not doing the non-profit thing as a marketing gimmick, but it does help our marketing. People say, “A non-profit brewery – that’s never been done before, have you heard of that?” Word gets around with people who are involved in non-profits, so we’re seeing our web traffic spike. I always ask people how they heard about us, and that’s usually it.
Q: How do you interact with the charities you give to, and what is your criteria for choosing them?
Joel: So far we have chosen Mercy Corps, Impact NW, and International Justice Mission. We had sit-down meetings with them, told them who were and how we can help with what they’re doing. With some of them, it’s giving in general, and with Mercy Corps, we’ve decided to partner with what they’re doing for the Syrian refugee population. They’re such a big organization, and we wanted to tell a bigger story. What we’re doing now is committing the same dollar amount to all of them, whether that takes six months or five years. At that point, we’ll re-evaluate and decide whether we want to take a new organization on or re-up our current commitment. For new charities that come on, we have an application process; they get in touch with us and send us an application, and the board chooses the direction we want to go.
Q: How do you grow a business that gives away its net profits?
Joel: We have to be smart about it and not give ourselves out of business. Part of that is keeping our debt under control at the start. We’ll be paying that off in the next five years, so maybe at that point we’ll funnel what we’re now paying for debt into more growth aspects. Within that budget, we’ll slowly build more growth capital, a reserve that we’ll use to buy extra tanks. We don’t really need to move out of this space for a long time, so we can grow in this space and be what we want to be. There’s also potential for a second location. Once we show a great business with good cash flow and revenue, we’ll have an easier time getting banks involved to loan us money for a second location, if we decide to go that route.
Q: Going forward, how do you think Ex Novo will change the way that beer is marketed and sold in Portland? What effect do you think you’ll have?
Joel: As we sell outside of these walls, distributing to bars and restaurants around town, people will be looking for place they can buy our beer once they hear of us. It reaches a level of excitement and customer loyalty, especially if you’re supporting a charity that someone already support on their own. If we can deliver the product people want in a good quality beer, it will develop a kind of loyalty where people will be looking to order our stuff wherever they can: Why choose someone else over the thing they already support?
Q: Where do you see this company in five years?
Joel: Right now we have a thousand barrel capacity, or 31,000 gallons of beer; I hope to double that in the next five years. If things are going well, if we’re profitable and making good impact with our donations, we could help charities do things like hire another case worker or get additional bed space. I would also love to have another location in the works, maybe somewhere in deep Southeast.
Q: How would you define your digital marketing presence?
Joel: Right now it’s kind of slow. We don’t have a person dedicated to marketing; that’s kind of me right now. When I have time, I do my best to work on the website and the blog, and do social media pushes. If you go on the blog, you can see all the way back to when I was first thinking about this a couple of years ago, and read through our story: How we got where we are now, and how we’re going to continue on and make things happen. There’s a good amount of people who have followed along with that and have a deeper connection to the business. As we grow, we’d love to get stronger, marketing-wise, and get a little more strategic.
Q: Any plans for the grand opening?
A: We’ll have a week of shop openings, and for the grand opening we’ll have live music, all our beers flowing. If it gets crazy, you’ll be able to go the park next door, throw the Frisbee around and relax, and then come back. We’ll make it an amazing weekend. We’ve been looking forward to that day for a long time.