Sarah John (BA 2011), founder and director of Boss Brewing, is a woman on a mission to achieve her goals and break barriers along the way. Here, she describes a rollercoaster ride of business successes, battling corporate giants, bringing her newborn to meetings, and generally shaking up the status quo.
Start-ups take all your blood, sweat and tears. Looking back, I don’t know how I did it.
I’d worked in sales while studying at university and at some point, I had that classic entrepreneurial moment when I realised that I wanted to do this for myself. I wanted to build something and take destiny into my own hands.
Brewing was a hobby; my business partner and I started as home brewers and then our passion turned into a business.
I liked the fact it was a male-dominated industry. I knew we could be different, unique, and a bit disruptive.
The real turning point for me was when we went on a course on how to start a brewery, hoping to pick up some tips. There were three speakers and their resounding message was: don’t do it, you won’t succeed! It was the most negative thing I had been to, but it also motivated me. I wanted to do it right and I wanted to do it better. I’m always up for a challenge.
When it’s your business, it’s your baby
We launched Boss Brewing in 2015 and it was a big learning curve.
I’m the sales and marketing director, but I discovered that in your own business, you end up wearing many hats. I’ve gained so many practical skills that no matter what happens now, I’ve got an excellent education in running a business.
I’ve learned about developing a brand and the importance of creating an identity and sense of community. It’s not easy! We’re in a market that’s very saturated – there’s so many craft beers out there, you need to stand out and be different. So, in 2017 we developed our comic book universe; all the characters on our beers are based on people at the brewery.
On a personal level, I’ve learnt so much about myself. There’s nothing quite like the challenge of running a business! When it’s your own business, it’s your baby and it feels much more personal. I’ve learned how resilient I am at overcoming challenges. It’s definitely developed my strength of character.
People say that doing something you love takes the fun out of it, but for me, it’s helped to keep me going when times are tough. My business is my hobby. Six years on, I still love what I do.
Don’t be afraid to shout about it
When I initially started out, people would assume I was the salesgirl or the promo girl, those kinds of stereotypical roles.
When I explained I was the owner they would often be very surprised. It was never malicious or intentional, but simply ignorant. I’ve always put myself out there and not thought too much about being a woman or being different. If I’d been a little less confident at the beginning it might have wobbled me. It took strength of character to overcome the ignorance.
On the flipside of the coin, , I am aware that being a woman does make us a different kind of brewing company. I was always happy to use that to our advantage. We had lots of PR, news stories and awards because it was different – it was a story people didn’t come across very often.
If you’re a woman going into a male-dominated field, don’t be afraid to shout about it because it’s what makes you stand out. It can be the unique selling point that makes you different and makes you stand out in a crowded market.
Women CAN have it all
I was pregnant when we launched and that was unusual – you don’t see a lot of pregnant women in beer but I didn’t see why that should stop me.
Having said that, it was very challenging with a new-born baby. I took her to a meeting when she was seven days old! I took her to all my meetings because I didn’t want to be apart from her and I was breastfeeding, but I also had a lot of support with childcare from my mum.
They say that women can’t have it all, but they absolutely can, they just need that support system.
Playing the hand you’re dealt
Before the pandemic, 80% of our business was with pubs and restaurants. When the announcement about lockdown was made in March last year, it was devastating. But we soon pivoted and focussed on growing our already existing relationships with big retailers. We launched our web shop and developed new services. We have our own brew kit and canning and bottling lines, so we picked up lots of business packaging for other breweries. It turned into a successful year and massively surpassed our expectations.
It was all about adapting, and we’re not the only ones. There are so many stories of businesses being creative. It has shown us how resilient and resourceful we all are.
When you’re dealt a hand, you deal with it, and so many businesses have just dealt with it.
Brewing is quite collaborative and it’s a very helpful industry. We’ve collaborated with other Welsh companies and people love it because they like to see two locals come together and they want local businesses to do well.
We’ve had so many messages of support coming through with our orders. People really are kind and want to see others succeed. It’s brought out the community spirit in all of us.
Big boss, little boss – it’s all in the name
In (2018) we put in an application for a trademark which was supposed to cost £300, but a letter came through from Hugo Boss’s solicitor opposing our application.
My initial reaction was a sense of pride that we were even on their radar, but this was shortly followed by complete shock. It was an awful time with lots of sleepless nights. We thought we were going to lose everything we had worked for. Even the solicitors were telling us to consider changing our name. We had worked so hard on our rebrand and the name had nothing to do with Hugo Boss.
The name ‘Boss’ is based on ancient Egyptian history. Traditionally, brewing was a female domain, and it was a kitchen task. The first ever brewers were female, but as it became a product you could sell, men took over. It then became very male dominated. Our name is a play on the fact that the original bosses of brewing were women.
We were advised to back down, but I wanted to fight it, so we kept pushing back. In the end we came to a settlement so we could keep the name Boss but had to change the name of two of our beers.
The whole process was exhausting. It should have been £300 but cost £10,000 in legal fees. When we settled, I decided to tell our story and I went to Wales Online. It quickly became a David vs Goliath story and it gained momentum.
We got a call from the Joe Lycett show. The show is about Joe challenging the ‘big guys’ on behalf of the ‘little guys’. He changed his name by deed poll to Hugo Boss and it went viral. It was mental.
As a brand-awareness piece, it’s the first thing that people know about us now. They ask if we’re the Hugo Boss brand. Our supermarket sales went up 50%, and customers were requesting it in pubs. A company in France saw the story and started ordering from us and our social media went through the roof. It’s taken our brand to a whole new level.
I learned so much from this experience. It was a rubbish situation but I’m proud of the fact we turned it into a positive story and gained the followers and the sales. It was real example that even when something seems awful, you can find something positive in it.
Take the plunge
This is a difficult moment in time to be graduating. The job market might not be there, but what COVID-19 has shown us is that there are opportunities for people to develop their own businesses if they’re entrepreneurial and creative.
We’ve seen so many different businesses come out from the mess that is COVID-19. People who have had a dream for a long time are now putting it into action.
If I were a student now, I’d be thinking about what I could go out and create. The safe jobs aren’t necessarily there, so why not take that risk? Create something new for yourself, from scratch.
There are no guarantees, so maybe now is the time to take the plunge?