Ahead of next month’s Startup Summit, brewery entrepreneur James Watt tells Kim McAllister about the Ellon-based company’s plans to defy the pandemic and tap into new markets abroad

BrewDog founder James Watt’s business book sold 100,000 copies, but his wife’s outsold him 250 to one.

The brewery entrepreneur is married to artist Johanna Basford whose adult colouring books Secret Garden, Enchanted Forest and Lost Ocean kickstarted a whole category.

“We had a bet that whoever sold least books would take out the bins,” Watt said. “She’s sold 25 million copies – I’ll be taking them out for the rest of my life.”

Watt will be headlining next month’s Startup Summit, an online conference for budding entrepreneurs and small business owners on October 28 and 29.

He will be interviewed by the philanthropist and entrepreneur Sir Tom Hunter.

“Startups are so key to the overall economy and Scotland is a fantastic place to start a business, we were a startup ourselves,”  Watt said. 

He founded BrewDog in Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire with Martin Dickie in 2007. They have since moved to Ellon and operate 102 bars worldwide as well as producing a range of craft beers. Watt will share his story with an estimated 1,000 attendees at the event.

“I had no idea what I was doing,” Watt said of the early days. “We did things on our own terms.”

The brand has been built using a provocative marketing strategy, with stunts including throwing stuffed “fat cats” out of a helicopter over London and getting into an arms race with a German brewer to see who could make the strongest beer in terms of % ABV.

“Sink the Bismark” was BrewDog’s strongest at 41% ABV until it produced “The End of History” at 55% ABV – packaged in a stuffed squirrel. 

The most recent high-profile story involved supermarket chain Aldi. When it tried to copy the Punk IPA branding, Watt tweeted an image of a mockup called “Yaldi”. In a further twist, the brewer is now making a product called Ald IPA to be listed by Aldi.

“Companies are too hung up on keeping everyone happy,” Watt observed. “You need to make a statement.”

At Startup Summit he will answer questions from Sir Tom Hunter about his journey over the past 13 years as an entrepreneur. And he is at pains to point out it is not all glamour.

“Being an entrepreneur is dangerous,” he said. “It will tear your life to pieces, it’s tough. You have to be so tenacious, you get so many kicks – but it’s rewarding.”

When asked how budding entrepreneurs might prepare themselves for the business journey, he answered: “You can’t. You need to steel yourself and have a stubborn edge.”
Watt will also discuss the balance required between work and home life and the different forms of investment available.

The company pioneered the crowdfunding model, raising over £2 million with its “Equity for Punks” scheme. The shares come with benefits such as discounts in its bars and online purchase of its beers, and the opportunity to attend the annual shareholders’ meeting.

BrewDog is also part-owned by private equity firm TSG, to which the company sold 22.3% in 2017 for £213m.

Despite closing the 102 bars for several months during the coronavirus pandemic, BrewDog has big plans for growth in the future. The company is in the process of opening its first bars in China and India, and is moving into Australia too. There are even plans to use surplus bread in the brewing process, but the focus will be on sustainability.

BrewDog has recently purchased over 2,000 acres of forest just north of Loch Lomond and intends to plant one million trees as well as returning 550 acres to peatland restoration, which acts as a carbon sink. The project will involve volunteers and will include a campsite.

“Everyone who bought a share in our crowdfund will get a tree and they’ll know which one it is using location mapping,” Watt said.

The idea appears to have come from the recent visit to Edinburgh by Sir David Attenborough who spoke about climate change at The Hunter Foundation’s charity dinner. Hunter invited Watt to the event and will mention it in his interview at the Startup Summit.

“He doesn’t accept the world the way it is, he wants to bend it to the way it should be and that, in my book, is brilliant,” said Hunter. “James comes along to events, he listens, he learns, and he comes up with a plan – he’s action-oriented,” Hunter said.

Startup Summit will include speakers from many different areas, including Alice Zagury, CEO of The Family, Amali de Alwis, Managing Director, Microsoft for Startups and David Wilding, Director of Planning, Twitter.

Bruce Walker, the co-founder of FutureX which is organising the Summit, said new business needs the support now more than ever.

“Startup Summit 2020 is bringing together the most successful business leaders and entrepreneurs to inspire, educate and support the next generation of startups. The online event enables startups, SMEs and high-growth founders to get access to the tools, resources and a community of support that they need.”

  • Startup Summit, the international festival of entrepreneurship, will take place on October 28 and 29, 2020 . Join 1,000 attendees online and find everything you need to start, grow and thrive in business. Visit www.startup-summit.com