It’s every guy’s dream. Start a beer company after college with your best friend. After years of discussions in the bullpen where the two former pitchers spent much of their college years, that’s exactly what Tommy and Wilson did. United by their love of beer and desire to run their own company, the two bucked conventional wisdom and launched Snake Bite USA – a mixture of lager and hard cider.
With little more than a passion for the idea and a willingness to learn, the two have built Snake Bite into a recognizable brand in the Bay Area.
I joined Tommy and Wilson for lunch and a six-hour tour of Northern, visiting with their distributors and delivering pitches to prospective stores. Along the way, I learned about the ups and downs of Snake Bite’s early years and gained an appreciation for the way passion can lead to success.
What is the origin of Snake Bite?
WB: Our snake bite is based on a popular British pub-mixed snakebite, which is a blend of lager and hard cider. We got the idea when studying abroad. We went to England, had quite a few snake bites, and figured it would be a good thing to try and put in a bottle here in the US where cider and craft beer are both doing well.
TH: We did a bunch of home brewing at Williams and would drive up to a craft beer store in Bennington. We always kind of dreamed about coming up with our own thing, and Wilson had this idea for how to get there.
Wilson, you had the original idea, what encouraged you to bring Tommy on board?
WB: That’s a good question (laughs). I knew I wouldn’t be able to do it by myself – I needed a partner, and Tommy seemed like a logical choice. As much as I hate to admit it, he’s a really intelligent kid.
How has the last three years been growing the business?
WB: It’s been great. We’ve had a lot of fun. We’ve learned an incredible amount. Going in we obviously didn’t have any beer or business experience. We’ve been learning new things every day, and it’s been a great process.
TH: We’ve got some good people around us, so we are able to limit our mistakes as best as we can. Having people in a support role who know what they’re doing is a must.
How were you able to land your first distributor?
TH: At that point, we had beer and a cider that you could mix, but it wasn’t a final production sample. We had cold called the biggest distributor in San Francisco without a final sample. I was mixing beer and cider in the parking lot beforehand. We both went in thinking that if the meeting lasted longer than ten minutes, we’d be surprised.
WB: We also didn’t quite realize how ridiculous it was to be doing that.
TH: Definitely. Ignorance was important. We were just like, ‘well, let’s see how this goes.’ We met with the distributor, and he ends up bringing in another head guy, and we talked to both of them for an hour and a half. At the end, he said the same thing we had thought going in. He goes, ‘to be honest guys, I was expecting to meeting with you for ten minutes and then tell you to get the hell out, but I really like you guys, and I think you’ve got a good idea so let’s do this.’ That was very shocking and very lucky.
Did you have a sense beforehand that you wanted to be entrepreneurs?
TH: We both talked about doing our own thing. I never thought it was real possibility until Wilson came up with this idea, but he was always coming up with ideas while we were at school.
I mean we had a ton of time on the bench on the baseball team so what were we going to talk about – beer, what we could do if we had our own brewery – that would be a big point of conversation. You get a doubleheader, and you’ve got eight hours to kill, you’ve got to exhaust all your talking points (laughs). So yeah, we had talked sort of ‘pie in the sky’ that this would be awesome, though we thought it probably wouldn’t happen. Now, four years later, here we are.
Were there moments of doubt at all starting out?
WB: Not really. We paced ourselves pretty well. We’ve purposely grown slowly. I think ignorance is bliss too. We may have been in over our heads at various points, but we probably didn’t realize it.
What do you guys enjoy most about the job?
TH: There’s a general sense of excitement in doing your own thing. You tell people that you’re starting a beer company, and they usually get pretty excited, which is nice. It means we have to give the snakebite spiel about twenty times a day, but that’s a pretty easy burden to deal with. Running your own thing is really rewarding – the work that I put in today, I see the reward for tomorrow.
WB: I’d certainly rather be doing this than sitting in a cubicle somewhere. There are some downsides. You worry, or at least I worry – Tommy’s much more laid back. At the end of the day, it’s yours to either succeed with or mess up. You’re always on so there are things that you think about that you wouldn’t if you clocked out and went home at 5 o’clock.
What are your goals for the business?
TH: It’s hard to set big goals because it’s so hard to know what’s going to happen. You try to keep it goal focused in terms of individual projects. Our goal this week, for example, is to launch and secure tastings at every Whole Foods in the areas we serve.
WB: We want to expand – we have a general goal of covering all of Northern California. That’s what we focus on more than saying, ‘we want to be in all 50 states by 2016’ because that’s not realistic to think that way.
How have you come to think about success?
WB: I think if we’re having fun and not going out of business it’s probably pretty good. We both really like what we’re doing so as long as we have an upward trend, just generally not even necessarily in sales, then we’re going to be happy with it. Results will follow that mentality. If you keep the focus on doing good work and having fun, the financial piece will fall into place.
Do you have any advice for Williams students who are trying to decide what path to take after college?
WB: Part of the reason I wanted to do something like this is that when you graduate at 22, you have the rest of your life to get a steady, more responsible job. If there’s ever a time to be an entrepreneur it’s now. We’re lucky in that our family supports us, which helps a lot. If you’re able to try your own thing, I would say go for it. You can always go back and try to get a job at Goldman or wherever else.
TH: I would echo that. Take opportunities. Instead of thinking about all the problems, go out and try things. At the end of the day, who do I have to support? Just myself at the moment. I mind as well take advantage of that while I can and try to make a career of doing something that’s pretty fun.
WB: Williams is a great resource too. We should and will take advantage of it more than we do, but there are people in virtually every industry who have graduated from Williams. That’s a great starting point. If you have an idea, reach out to the alums in that field.
Do you have any advice for people about the logistics of starting a business?
TH: Do a lot of research and ask people who have been there before. People who we’ve come across are over-the-top generous with their time in helping out and lending advice. If we had just gone at it with no one helping us out, we would have been screwed.
WB: Persistence is important too. There are always going to be hard days, but you have to keep going through those. It cliché, but it’s true: nothing is built overnight. You see companies like Facebook that have done extraordinarily well, but that’s so rare. It takes time, it really takes time to build a brand.