Since they began in 2009, Clay Robinson alongside Dave Colt and their colleagues at Sun King Brewing in Indianapolis have created one of the most genuine and respected breweries in craft beer. From just 509 barrels in 2009, Sun King kicked out 5,024 in 2010 and surpassed 21,000 barrels in 2013. More than anything, they've grown well--maintaining an incredible culture and having never wavered when it comes to their focus on quality.
Sun King has also grown smart and in addition to having brewed beer with us, Clay has served as a respected sounding board for our progress. His relationship with our head brewer Tim Marshall began long before SOB was even a concept, when Tim replaced him as the head brewer at Rock Bottom Indianapolis in December of 2002.
I first met Clay just before Solemn Oath opened its doors at Craft Brewers Conference 2012 in San Diego. If you've never met him or heard him speak, the dude has an incredible and motivational business mind combined with a personality that makes you feel like you've known him for twenty years. I have the utmost respect for what Clay and Dave are doing in Indiana and what they've built provides a great deal of inspiration for what Solemn Oath can soon become.
Clay Robinson: That anyone can do it. If that were the case, then everyone would be doing it! The world is full of people who are much more comfortable doing what is asked of them and not shouldering the responsibilities that come with doing your own thin.
Entrepreneurship takes a lot of hard work, dedication and discipline. While working for yourself sounds great, it is unlike any other job you can have because it never stops (short of the ultimate failure and closing of your business and even then it can have lasting ramifications). The weight of the world rests on your shoulders and you are directly responsible for your successes and failures. It takes a certain kind of person to excel as an entrepreneur. I was raised by one, so I come by it honestly.
I don’t have a good answer for this one. While I’m certain that I’ve taken some bad advice, the beauty of running a small, independent company is the ability to change course quickly and easily. When things start to head in a direction that you’re uncomfortable with, whether it’s because of your own idea or advice you followed, then you have full control to make the necessary changes and turn things around.
I’m a big believer that failure is one of the best ways to learn, so whether things are going your way or not, it’s a good time to learn something from the experience.
Take up yoga and meditation. They will help you manage the stress, stay focused and all around feel better.
Everyone at Sun King starts out part-time in the Tasting Room, even if you have the world’s most impressive resume or experience.
That would be in the fall of 2009, about three or so months into it. We had been struggling to gain traction outside of the initial places that really focused on craft beer in Indy, most of which were downtown. We had just opened the Tasting Room and people were starting to visit us more frequently. At the same time I had been stopping while out on deliveries to try and solicit taps from bars around the city to no avail. A guy came in and told Dave we needed to send someone to talk to the bar he goes to all the time about carrying our beer… Dave turned it on him and told him, ‘You spend your hard earned money there every week, so you asking for it is going to go a lot further than this one of us, who he doesn’t know from Adam, stopping in to try and sell him something.’
That’s really when the light bulb went off and we started asking people who loved our beer to ask for it at their favorite bar or restaurant. Within a few weeks, the phone started ringing and bar/restaurant owners and managers were calling us to see what they had to do to carry our beer, seeing as they had never heard of us until a bunch of their customers started asking for our beer!
I believe that culture is just as important as a strong, well thought out business plan. In fact, Sun King was born out of cultural conversations between Dave and myself. It all started with questions like:
“What was the worst job you every had?"
“What was the best job you every had?"
“What drives you crazy about this job?”
“How do we want to give back to the community”
“How do we want to treat our people?”
All of this led us to examine and determine what kind of culture we wanted to create and we strive to stay true to our roots/goals as we grow. Our culture emanates from the owners, who are there day in and day out working along side our crew. I know we all pride ourselves on the fact that there isn’t a job in the building that we would ask someone to do that we haven’t done ourselves.
I think that it will look a lot different than it does now, especially considering that craft beer only accounts for around 7% of all beer sold in the U.S. People are really starting to wake up and care about where their food and beverages come from, and artisanal producers like craft brewers stand to gain significantly from that.
There will of course still be a large percentage of people who continue to drink watered down domestic beer, but I believe there will be 15 to 20 national craft brands (there are already a number of breweries gunning for those positions) that sell a whole lot of beer. There will also be a sizable tier of mid-sized regional breweries that service a single state or a handful of states surrounding them and finally a lot of smaller local breweries and brewpubs. There is no reason that craft beer shouldn’t and can’t be represented everywhere, especially given the generational shift that is occurring.
While working for yourself sounds great, it is unlike any other job you can have because it never stops. The weight of the world rests on your shoulders and you are directly responsible for your successes and failures. It takes a certain kind of person to excel as an entrepreneur. I was raised by one, so I come by it honestly.
Personally, I have to go with my dad, Omar. I pulled him out of retirement at 70 to be the business mind behind the brewery and he has been invaluable to our success. He has been an entrepreneur for over 50 years and is probably the hardest working person at Sun King. He’s succeeded and failed which has led to being rich and going broke more times than I can count on one hand. His spirit, drive and manner in which he carries himself is inspiring and he rarely takes no for an answer. If he can’t do it then he will find someone that can. These qualities, along with the fact that he’s a lot of fun and a little bit crazy make me incredibly proud to have the opportunity to benefit from him as a mentor.
Professionally, New Glarus. They have done an amazing job with growth, while continuing to sell all of the beer they make in their home state. What is another business you would like to start? We recently won a lobbying effort that allows Indiana Small Brewers to own/operate a distillery, so we’re working on plans to execute that over the next year or so.
Make a plan and take a good, hard look at your strengths, but more importantly your weaknesses, then choose your partners wisely and surround yourself with good people that you want to work and grow with.
My office most often looks like a bomb went off in a 12 year old boy’s room! There are a lot of real gems in there, but if I had to choose, it would be my thrones. I picked them up at a local neighborhood yard sale a couple of summers back. They were originally crafted for the Knights of Pythias lodge in Brookston, IN. There are two of our original tap, handles crafted by a couple of local artists out of found metal, that look like scepters and I like to take photos of my guests to assign as their contact photo.
I’ve been fortunate to have a lot of great mentors in my career. In my early days as a brewer, it would have been Scott O’Hearn (long time Rock Bottom brewer who was my senior brewer for a period of time). Scott showed me the beauty of simplicity in recipe formulation and really helped me refine my processes.
In my later career, it would have to be my partner Dave Colt. I learned a lot from him in the years that we were brewing together, plotting and scheming to create Sun King. Most importantly I learned consistency, something that we strive for at Sun King everyday.
I love to travel, get away and experience the world. Regardless of place, my ideal vacation includes down time to enjoy some reading and relaxing, as well as readily available outdoor activities and places to explore. Experiencing the local culture, complete with an exploration of food and beverage is always a must.
We look for a good, solid work ethic, a good attitude and a good head on their shoulders. The ability to take a pay cut doesn’t hurt either. It’s what got Dave and myself into the business and we like to stay true to our roots. The only job we hire for is the Tasting Room. Everyone at Sun King starts out part-time in the Tasting Room, even if you have the world’s most impressive resume or experience. We are a get in where you fit in kind of organization, so it’s a great opportunity for us to give people a chance and let them show us how they work and get along in our environment, which isn’t what I’d call normal.
I tend to sleep pretty well these days. I’m really starting to feel like our business is turning the corner from start up to mature business, and I’m comfortable with our direction and trajectory. I occasionally spend a few hours up at night rolling over projects I have working or things on my to do list, but often than not if I’m up in the middle of the night it is because my days have been too busy to stay on top of my email and I feel like my inbox is crushing me.
...fortunate to recognize and act upon.
Capital is always an issue, but we are fortunate to have a group of investors that is more concerned with the long term health and growth of Sun King. To this day, none of our original investors have received any return on their investment because we have chosen to re-invest every penny in things that help us grow and be better at what we do.
Our motto has always been: If it doesn’t make beer, it doesn’t make sense, and we’ve stuck by that as we’ve grown by purchasing bigger/better equipment, implement equipment/programs that will increase the quality and consistency of our beer and of course hiring more people to do the jobs associated with brewing and distributing more beer.
Now to answer your actual question: If capital were not an issue, I would want to invest it in a broad range of things including: Employee programs to increase quality of life and job satisfaction, Quality Control/Lab and Sustainability efforts like wastewater treatment and energy efficiency projects.
I’ve put in a lot of time, energy and effort to get to this point in my life. I spent the better part of a decade doing something I loved for people I didn’t necessarily like or agree with, but that was all part of what led me to where I am today. All of the frustrations, obstacles, set backs and failures are what make me who I am and I’m grateful for them all, so I’m not sure I would even classify them as sacrifices.
Header image of brewery provided by Mike Atwood. Image of Clay provided by Kristin Hess.
Founders & Radicals is a collection of ideas from some of the driving forces in commerce, art, and entrepreneurship. These people do rad shit and we hope you draw inspiration from them. We certainly do.