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University News

‘Ginger with soul’: Seniors see start-up success

Brown Venture Launch Fund supports Easton ’16, Enriquez ’16 with popularizing craft beer

Contributing Writer
Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Farmer Willie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer, packaged to reflect its organic contents and farm-made brew, is currently available at 40 locations on Cape Cod, thanks to the efforts of co-founders Nico Enriquez ’16 and Max Easton ’16.

After getting their hands dirty juicing hundreds of pounds of ginger root, Max Easton ’16 and Nico Enriquez ’16 can now see their product — Farmer Willie’s Alcoholic Ginger Beer — at 40 retail locations on Cape Cod.

Enriquez, a former Herald opinions columnist, and Easton used seed money from the Brown Venture Launch Fund to market Farmer Willie’s this summer, ultimately creating a viable beverage business from the ground up.

Enriquez and Easton had been planning the venture since the spring of their sophomore year in 2014, when they applied and were accepted into Brown Venture Lab, a program run by the Swearer Center for Public Service, the Brown Entrepreneurship Program and the Office of the Dean of the College. The program is designed to help creative, entrepreneurial students accelerate startups by providing them with grants.

Over the next year and a half, Easton and Enriquez won pitch contests, created a website, a YouTube channel, a Facebook page and a Twitter handle, conducted interviews with over 200 entrepreneurs and juiced hundreds of pounds of ginger root by hand.

The project originated in Enriquez’s friendship with Willie Fenichel, a goat farmer in Cape Cod who made a home-brewed alcoholic ginger beer that inspired Easton and Enriquez’s venture.

Decisions on BVLF awards are made by the director and assistant director of social entrepreneurship at the Swearer Center, according to BVLF’s website. The fund awarded Easton and Enriquez $1,000, which they used, along with the $600 they won in pitch contests, to begin refining and standardizing Fenichel’s recipe, Easton said. After Easton and Enriquez had made the product consistent, BVLF gave them another $5,000, which they dedicated to obtaining legal documents and stock agreements, developing a website and perfecting the product, Easton added.

The project started slowly, with venture lab meetings every Monday to discuss what the partners researched that week and how their ideas developed. Their research included the United Kingdom alcohol market, where ginger beer exploded in 2009, and the United States market, which showed climbing sales for craft beers and ciders with local roots and stories, similar to Fenichel’s.

Easton and Enriquez both said the biggest mistake they made while launching their venture was at the beginning of production, when they invested $10,000 in each batch of beer but had yet to hire a production expert.

“We took some risks and got really lucky. … We really had no idea what we were doing, but all the batches turned out well,” Enriquez said.

“I would say oysters and Farmer Willie’s is a pretty awesome combination,” Easton said.

The partners’ methodology was experimental, and in the beginning, they faced challenges as they attempted to make the process as organic as possible. For the first batch they tried, Easton and Enriquez spent 14 consecutive hours grinding and juicing 300 pounds of ginger root to distribute among 10,000 cans. Today, they still use all-natural ginger, but they no longer hand-grind it themselves, they said.

Alan Harlam, director of social entrepreneurship at the Swearer Center, said “determination and grit are the most important qualities. If anybody thinks that their first swing at the bat is going to connect, they’re almost always wrong.” Harlam said BVLF’s goal is to support student entrepreneurs who possess determination with various resources at each stage of the development process.

“For us it’s about, ‘Do they understand a particular sector of customers and what they’re likely to want, rather than just wanting people to buy what they are developing?’” Harlam said, adding, “I often talk to entrepreneurs who are describing a solution, a product or service, and they haven’t really figured out what problem they’re solving. I believe entrepreneurship should start with a problem.”

Harlam said Easton and Enriquez were “incredibly resourceful, even scrappy. They were laser-focused.” The two knew that they wanted to initially publicize Farmer Willie’s as a summer drink, so they made sure to have advertisements and testing locations ready before summer 2015.

Above and beyond grit, Easton and Enriquez emphasized the importance of their relationship in the venture. If they had not balanced each other out and each compensated for the other’s weaknesses, it would have been much more difficult to get the project off the ground, Easton said.

“We get on very well and enjoy spending time together,” Easton said. “We got more and more excited about the idea when we started doing this (venture lab) stuff.”

For Enriquez, too, the partnership was imperative to the undertaking’s success. Student entrepreneurs “need to find a good co-founder. That’s essential. Find someone you really trust, and who will work as hard as you will and fill in wherever you’re weak,” Enriquez said. “Just doing it alone would be impossible.”

The research they did through the BVLF was also critical, as the two interviewed over 200 entrepreneurs before they launched their project. “Literally the best possible thing, when you’re starting, every person you meet, is to ask them, ‘Based on our conversation, are there one or two people you think I should meet or talk to?’” Enriquez said.

Now, Easton and Enriquez are planning on growing the business further and expanding beyond Cape Cod. They recently hired their summer intern as a full-time employee working to expand production into Boston, and they hope to be selling in Rhode Island by February, Enriquez said.

Enriquez and Easton are incredibly busy, between their senior year courses and their entrepreneurial work, but as Easton said, “I haven’t had an experience like this at all in my life. … It doesn’t feel like hard work.”

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