Dougal Sharp Issue 1

Five lessons learned: Dougal Sharp

Scottish Craft Brewing Company Innis & Gunn has been steered from humble beginnings as an accident in a whisky distillery to multi-national success by founder and master brewer, Dougal Sharp. Here's what he learned while blazing trails.

Have the start-up mindset

I think it's a reality that a lot of start-ups begin as one-man bands. When you're at that stage you've got to be so disciplined. There's a mindset you need to have to start a business, particularly if you're walking away from an established role with an existing company and you've got a salary and benefits and all of those things. Thinking back to why I did what I did, I've just got that mindset, that attitude of, "I'm going to do this." The different characters I've come across who have started their own businesses are all like that. I know it might sound odd but it's always the people who organise the parties, arrange the holidays, and get people together for New Year – it's that mindset.

Create an organic plan

The business plan I wrote was based on quite a lot of experience that I already had in the brewing industry, and yet within the first few months so many parts of that business plan had changed. What it really was was a statement of intent, and in the years following the launch of Innis & Gunn we went on to surpass the original business plan many times over. So, yes, I think it's important to have a business plan, but it's also important to be open to that plan changing as dictated by the successes and failures of the business. It absolutely has to be an organic thing.

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Remember, cash is king

Never take money for granted, and never assume that because something's happened in the past that it's therefore guaranteed to happen in the future. I've found, often to my cost, that standing still in real time is going backwards. You've always got to push, and you've always got to be thinking about how to drive the business forward. Within that there is a cash-down requirement to ensure you don't end up out of money through growth. That would be the very worst thing to happen because you'd be stifling the business' potential.

Nail it overseas

Development of international business is both a wonderful thing to do and an enormous challenge, and so my advice to any company planning internationalisation is to get the product or service absolutely right here in the home market first. Branding, quality, positioning, price, all of those things have to be absolutely nailed because the last thing you want to do is export a problem. Then, when you set off for your destination, leave everything you know about your home market at the departure gate and arrive with an absolute willingness to learn and absorb the culture and the motivations of your target purchasers.

Blaze your own trail

We've done lots of things very well and we've done lots of things not so well. The thing about business is, as long as you do slightly more of the former and slightly fewer of the latter you'll be OK. If I could go back I wouldn't change anything about my business because even with the things that we've done badly or made mistakes doing we've learned something valuable. There is no guidebook to business, and whatever you do in every facet of business you always learn. You're constantly trailblazing if you start a new business, and every day you add a little bit of ground to your trail.

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