James started his own craft brewery (with minimal experience in making beer) in 2016. Here he talks about how other local businesses are a powerful and valuable network for empowerment, support, growth and cross-promotion.
I started Pretty Decent as I not only drink beer but I love the impact that beer can have.
And I don’t mean the sloppy, slurry impact, you see in Shoreditch on a Thursday night.
I mean the fact that it’s an equaliser. It’s available at a range of different price points and there is a flavour, taste and type of beer suitable for almost any occasion.
Take Estrella: a mainstay in my fridge. It might not be a trendy, craft type. But since age 19 it’s held the taste of lazy days in Spain, drinking on the beach with mates. I maintain it’s the best beer I’ve ever had – because it supported a moment in my life that felt like bliss. It holds the pale, malt sweetness of great memories.
Why communities are essential for small businesses to thrive.
Combine its egalitarian nature and the ability to make an occasion and you have the reason why beer felt to me the perfect platform to use it as a force for change which is where my second passion came in: business with purpose. I worked for over five years in the charity sector, so I wanted to find a way to combine giving back with starting a business. The idea of Pretty Decent was therefore born with the aim to create a place where people could drink the best beer, and feel like they were doing a pretty decent thing whilst sipping on their pints. This is why we came up with our very simple USP: for every beer drunk, we make a small donation (15p) to combat the global water crisis.
The first step I took was to establish the values for my business:
- Give back straight away – no “100% of profits”
- Treat people properly & pay fairly
- Don’t talk sh*t about beer
- Listen to people drinking
- Don’t believe the hype!
I think establishing these was the most important step when starting up Pretty Decent.
Sure, there is so much to do in the first couple of years in a business, from fundraising to bookkeeping through to production and serving (I worked every shift behind the bar in our taproom for the first six months). It may feel like you haven’t the time or energy to establish these as part of your ‘brand’. But knowing who you are and what you stand works like a compass, guiding you, never steering you wrong.
The next big step for us was understanding what felt achievable. This is key for any business. Some people may start with a large amount of personal investment, others may have an idea that no one else has, some may have the skills to be the very best in their industry and establish themselves as market leaders.
We had none of these.
We had beer (nothing new there – archaeological evidence of beer suggests the first was produced approx. 12,000BC), a crowded market with some very established craft beer brands, and a £15k start-up loan from the government – enough to put a deposit on a railway arch in a residential area, and buy some tanks that were little bigger than a homebrew kit.
So, we had to work with what we knew we had – and that was a sense of purpose, and the fact that if it all went belly up we’d at least have donated some money to a cause we cared about (Pump Aid).
I’m saying this because it’s important to understand what your initial path may be, or you can get crippled by a sense of failure in comparison to other businesses.
The community of small local businesses has been hugely powerful for us. However, knowing our aim and our path ensured that I could look at the growth of others and learn from it rather than feel like we’ve failed against it. As we knew who we were and what we were, it also enabled us to talk confidently about what we were trying to achieve to other local businesses which helped us form those crucial early partnerships. Having an elevator pitch and knowing how to talk about it passionately is essential. And it’s helped our working relationships with other local businesses to flourish, especially when collaborating on bespoke brews or exploring different concepts with like-minded people.
But having said that, we don’t get caught up too much in being part of a ‘scene’.
"Having an elevator pitch and knowing how to talk about it passionately is essential."
We just do our thing, working with people and local businesses we feel right about working with. Two of our favourite partnerships have been with specialists in wine (shock horror). And we’ve just opened a bar and restaurant with a dance music label which was born out of supplying beer for their record launches. So as long as you share common ground and enjoy people’s company, then partnering with other small, and often local, businesses can be awesome – it can be an enjoyable experience that also gets your product out to a broader, new audience – but you have to trust your instinct. Overthinking only leads to cynical networking.
On a local community level, people also saw we were trying something out in our taproom (where we still sell over 60% of our beer). In our early stages there were a just a few hardy few local residents who would brave the cold (we were only able to put a glass front on our arch this September!) and come down to drink our beer and support us. But as time went on people got to know each other in our arch through chatting to other cold-hardy locals, bringing along friends who were new to the area and gradually a pretty decent community was born.
Without this support we’d have been dead in the water – it allowed us to build our message, try new recipes and products, and crucially meet like-minded people who supported what we were trying to do. I’m certainly proud of the diverse collection of friends — and supporters — we’ve made through serving beer in our archway.
"... partnering with other small, and often local, businesses can be awesome - it can be an enjoyable experience that also gets your product out to a broader, new audience – but you have to trust your instinct. Overthinking only leads to cynical networking."
Running a small business can have its drawbacks and frustrations – a larger marketing budget, and perhaps a sales team might have meant our name would emerge more quickly, and a quiet weekend in our neighbourhood (say due to bad weather or a bank holiday) can cause some pretty scary financial shockwaves – your model doesn’t have the security of consistent wholesale supply, and the rent is always due at the same time each month! But we believe in what we’ve built, and those that have joined the team have bought in and shaped it beyond what I could ever have imagined – and I believe that has been down to remaining confident in our values, helping refine them and grow them into what we truly hope to be a force for change in the world.
Hopefully, as we grow we’ll continue this – so people see past the latest Double IPA, or a new recipe and see first and foremost what we’re trying to do as a young local business, which we hope is something pretty decent.
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