“Buy me a beer.” How many times have you heard that? But there are only so many hours in a day, and maybe the person demanding said beer just moved across the country. Talk about a conundrum. On second thought, let’s talk about the solution. It’s called BrewFund, and it’s a startup out of Johnson City, Tennessee, that is teching up the process of buying your buddy a beer. There’s a platform–and app–that allows users to give, receive and redeem a beer at a growing number of participating craft breweries.
“The beauty of the BrewFund is that it’s a simple idea up front but behind the scenes we are so much more than a basic app,” he says.
Partnering with just two breweries at the time, the company did a soft launch in summer 2016 before pitching at 36/86. “This was an amazing launch pad for us to get started,” says cofounder David Nelson.
Today, there are 13 breweries on the platform, with plans to open it up to more in the next few weeks. In the next year, expect to see BrewFund in Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, Indiana, Michigan, Wisconsin, Colorado, Oregon, Washington and California. After that, Nelson and cofounder Travis Rother have plans to scale across the country.
Which brings them to their biggest startup challenge—finding the time to dedicate to it. “We’ve bootstrapped the entire development of the BrewFund and having two technical founders has made this possible,” Nelson says. “However, this means that we have continued to do consulting work to keep ourselves moving forward. Finding that fine line between working on our own products and our clients has been difficult at times.
The duo are starting the process of seeking outside funding to help them market and scale our product, but to do that they need to increase the number of breweries on the platform as well as grow their consumer base. That’s where hiring some sales expert is going to help, Nelson says.
As the startup grows, Nelson plans to stay engaged with customers and their needs.
“It’s easy to be head strong, believe you have the best idea, and fail because it simply doesn’t meet the customer’s needs,” he says. “Reach out beyond your friends, friends of friends and work colleagues to get honest feedback about your ideas and the entire offering. Continue to get this feedback by talking to your customers and actively participating in all events centered around your customers. Be the main person to answer support requests and listen to what they say. Do not argue. Listen. Think from their perspective. Then build your product around the feedback you get. Our success so far is only because we have followed this mantra from the start. Our first plans never would have been a success without the feedback we’ve received from our breweries and customers.”
Johnson City may seem like an unlikely hub for a tech startup, but Nelson says the Tri-Cities region is full of support and opportunities for local entrepreneurs.
“When I first came here I was worried about the startup community I was coming to,” he says. “I was even wondering if there would be one at all.”
But he quickly found a variety of organizations ready to help entrepreneurs start anything from a new boutique to the next tech business. He also joined Spark Plaza, a coworking community in downtown Johnson City.
But despite a network of great organizations, he also saw a disconnected startup community.
“It seems like every week I learn of another person working on an amazing new startup in the region,” he says. “Unfortunately, each of us barely knows of the other’s existence. We set out to change this by forming a stronger startup community by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs.”
They began with a local pitch competition, Pitches and Pints, the first of which was attended by more than 100 startup supporters, entrepreneurs and community members.
Now they’re working on forming Startup Tri-Cities, a nonprofit with the mission of bringing the startup community together and guiding aspiring startups to all of the resources the region has to offer.
“The best part of being a Northeast Tennessee startup is that you get highly personal support for your venture as long as you know where to look,” he says. “Our community may be smaller than many cities, but this personalized mentorship you receive is unprecedented.”
And it’s not just about finding the resources to help launch and grow a business. It’s also about finding that network of people who understand what it means to be an entrepreneur.
“Launching a startup is tough,” Nelson says. “Half of the world thinks you should go get a job and the other half thinks you are lazy. They simply don’t understand us. Working 9-5 for 30 years with the hope of a great retirement just doesn’t appeal to all of us. The only true support you get as an entrepreneur, through all the ups and downs, is through other entrepreneurs. This support network helps all of us achieve success through support, shared knowledge and expertise in variety of fields. By ensuring there is a strong community in our area we will also have a pool of talent to work with that share our same work mentality. And if the impossible happens, and we need a job, I would much rather have other startups in the area to join than start a ‘standard career.'”