Jason Wilson – Founder & CEO, Back Forty Beer Company

Tell me about your early career.
I have a degree in supply chain management from Auburn University. I spent the first seven years of my career working for the largest privately-held company in the world, before moving back to my hometown of Gadsden to build our brewery.

How did the concept for Back Forty Beer Company come about?
It was almost twenty years ago. My brother always spent his winter semester working in Crested Butte, Colorado. I was twenty-one at the time, and I always spent my winter break from college with him. I would ski for free, and crash on his couch for free, and usually eat all of his food…for free. One time, he took me to the Crested Butte Brewery and I had the best beer I had ever tasted. It was the CBB Red Lady Amber Ale. I looked at my brother and said, “This beer is amazing.” A guy stuck his head out from behind a tank and said, “Thanks!” I was blown away that this was the guy who made the beer I was drinking and I stayed there in the back with the brewer until well into the morning hours. I left to go back to college, and my mind was made up. A few years of saving money and about 300 brewery tours later, I opened Back Forty Beer Company.

How was the first year in business?
It was stressful, but exciting. The craft beer business was in its infancy and there was a lot of potential. I still had major issues to deal with, but they were all what I call first world problems, “Are we growing too fast? Where will I get the capital for this next expansion? Is this distribution partner going to be mad when I tell him we aren’t ready to expand into their market yet?”

What was your marketing strategy?
Interactions, and establishing ourselves as a brand. We focused heavily on charitable donations as a way to have a positive impact on our community while also gaining exposure to key leaders and strategic connectors. When you are a young entrepreneur, the single best thing you can do is get in front of as many people as you can. Entrepreneurs are passionate about what they do, and it shows. They will talk all night to a brick wall about whatever it is they have been consumed by (no pun intended). The energy is infectious and it really drives people to your product.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We experienced triple-digit growth for five consecutive years, and reached #1111 on the Inc. 5000 list. Of course, it’s easy to triple $1, but by year five, it was becoming an organization that was larger and more complex than I ever imagined.

How do you define success?
Ultimately, success is defined by profits. Like it or not, that’s why we are all here. As a CEO, I focus more on the things that don’t necessarily show up on a balance sheet. I consider it success every time one of my employees shows up with a new car, or buys a new house, or gets to take their family on a vacation. If my staff is happy, and my investors are happy, I’m happy.

What is the key to success?
Hard work and understanding the game. In today’s society, there is a tremendous amount of wealth and influence at the top of just about every industry. It’s critical that you understand who the real players are in your market, and who you need to know to keep your finger on the pulse. The hard work comes when you have to establish yourself as the new guy. Pick up the phone, call the CEO of that major company in your industry, and ask to speak to them. They probably won’t call you back right away. You may have to leave a few messages over time. You would be surprised how many of them will return your call and answer questions that you didn’t even know you needed to be asking.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Never sign a contract without fully understanding your commitments. Plan for the worst case scenario with any contract.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“I love the man that can smile in trouble, that can gather strength from distress, and grow brave by reflection. ‘Tis the business of little minds to shrink, but he whose heart is firm, and whose conscience approves his conduct, will pursue his principals unto death.” – Thomas Paine

“I understand there’s a guy inside me who wants to lay in bed, smoke weed all day, and watch cartoons and old movies. My whole life is a series of stratagems to avoid, and outwit, that guy.” – Anthony Bourdain

“Hardships often prepare ordinary people for an extraordinary destiny.” – C.S. Lewis

“No such thing as spare time, no such thing as free time, no such thing as down time. All you got is life time. Go.” – Henry Rollins

What are some of your favorite books?
Anything by Malcom Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Blink, Outliers), Fanatical Prospecting by Jeb Blount, Microtrends by Mark J. Penn, Drunk Tank Pink by Adam Alter, and the collective writings of Hunter S. Thompson.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I’ve had a lot. Every entrepreneur has. From learning that you aren’t getting that investment you were expecting, to seeing negative trends in your market. The toughest thing for me was having to lay off employees. That never gets easy, and I blame myself for putting those individuals in that situation. Never hire someone unless you know that you can sustain that position in your organization.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I think it was Henry Ford who said, “There is no man that cannot do more than he thinks he can do.”

Over the years, I’ve come to realize that when you really believe in something, nothing can stop you. I know that sounds cheesy, but I wish people could just realize that they have another gear inside of them that most have never accessed. There is something really peaceful about sitting in that big meeting with the bank and thinking to yourself, “I don’t even care if these guys say ‘no.’ There are a million banks out there and hundreds of millions of private investors. I’m not going to stop until I raise the capital or find a bank to close this loan.”

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Here’s an excerpt from a letter written by Hunter S. Thompson. This sentiment was the driving force behind my entrepreneurial adventure. In summary, he says you should pick a lifestyle that makes you happy, and then find a profession that allows you to succeed within that lifestyle. Don’t pick the profession first and then change your lifestyle. You’re an entrepreneur. You can literally do whatever you want. Just make sure you love it.

“We set up a goal which demands of us certain things: and we do these things. We adjust to the demands of a concept which CANNOT be valid.

When you were young, let us say that you wanted to be a fireman. I feel reasonably safe in saying that you no longer want to be a fireman. Why? Because your perspective has changed. It’s not the fireman who has changed, but you. Every man is the sum total of his reactions to experience. As your experiences differ and multiply, you become a different man, and hence your perspective changes. This goes on and on. Every reaction is a learning process; every significant experience alters your perspective…So it would seem foolish, would it not, to adjust our lives to the demands of a goal we see from a different angle every day? How could we ever hope to accomplish anything other than galloping neurosis?

The answer, then, must not deal with goals at all, or not with tangible goals, anyway. As I said, to put our faith in tangible goals would seem to be, at best, unwise. So we do not strive to be firemen, we do not strive to be bankers, nor policemen, nor doctors. WE STRIVE TO BE OURSELVES…But don’t misunderstand me. I don’t mean that we can’t BE firemen, bankers, or doctors— but that we must make the goal conform to the individual, rather than make the individual conform to the goal…As I see it then, the formula runs something like this: a man must choose a path which will let his ABILITIES function at maximum efficiency toward the gratification of his DESIRES. In doing this, he is fulfilling a need (giving himself identity by functioning in a set pattern toward a set goal), he avoids frustrating his potential (choosing a path which puts no limit on his self-development), and he avoids the terror of seeing his goal wilt or lose its charm as he draws closer to it (rather than bending himself to meet the demands of that which he seeks, he has bent his goal to conform to his own abilities and desires).

In short, he has not dedicated his life to reaching a pre-defined goal, but he has rather chosen a way of life he KNOWS he will enjoy. The goal is absolutely secondary: it is the functioning toward the goal which is important.”

This interview was conducted for research purposes by Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.