Four Things Entrepreneurs Can Learn from Sam Adams

Chris Spinelli and Jon Mervine have the rare opportunity as craft brewers to work with someone who really gets them, because 28 years ago, he was in his basement doing the exact same thing.

Spinelli and Mervine, founders of ROC Brewing, have received one-on-one coaching from Jim Koch, Sam Adams founder and mastermind behind the Brewing the American Dream Fund with nonprofit microlender Accion. The fund has lent out more than $1.7 million to startups in the hospitality and service industry since 2008.

The duo received a $10,000 loan from the fund, using the working capital to open their first facility, and is on target to turn a profit this year, after only 18 months in business.

“It’s like being a left-handed guitarist, and getting the opportunity to jam with Jimmy Hendrix,” Mervine said of working with Koch and Sam Adams. “Boston Beer, they are the founders and pioneers of craft brewing. They are legendary in the eyes of brewers.”

Koch said he decided to do more than just lend out cash to these startups. He hosts and participates in speed-coaching events across the country, giving them advice one-on-one, alongside other Sam Adams employees and successful loan recipients.

“We found that small businesses need a lot more than just cash,” he said. “You can’t just slip a check under the door and expect everything to be great, because small businesses usually lack in expertise a lot of the crucial things they need to be successful. So giving them money is really only doing half the job.”

Although he started his business 28 years ago, the economy wasn’t much different than what it is now, and entrepreneurs shouldn’t be discouraged from taking a chance during unstable times.

“When I started, the economy was just coming out of a recession and no one knew were the American economy was going,” he said. “It’s very similar to what’s happening today. But I believe there is always a place in this economy for a great product, made by passionate people, who don’t do a lot of dumb things in business.”

Here are four tips from Koch on starting and maintaining a successful business.

No. 1: Be patient. Koch said the most common question he gets asked during his speed coaching seminars is about growth. He cautions businesses to be patient and have realistic expectations.

“They want to know how fast to grow, so I have to tell them, ‘Don’t expect to get big overnight,’” he said. “Even with the success of Sam Adams, it took me almost 12 years before Sam Adams was all over the U.S.”

No. 2: Protect your seed money. Taking care of the money you raise and investing it wisely makes all the difference in creating a lasting brand.

“Don’t spend [your money] on overhead or anything that’s not completely necessary,” he said. “When I started, we didn’t have an office. We didn’t have a telephone—all we had were two car phones, and all of our accounting was done out of shoe boxes. So preserve your seed money.”

No. 3: Do what you love. It’s simple, but Koch said passion sustains.

“Most small businesses aren’t going to make you rich,” he said. “But they can make you happy.”

No. 4: Put your product first. No matter what kind of business you are in, be the best at what you are doing.

“Have a great product,” Koch said. “Being a small business is really hard, if all you have is a mediocre product. Have something really great.”