“If you love it, others will too.” Karen Skadsheim on the process behind her successful business start-up

By Maureen Latta

Karen Skadsheim
Karen Skadsheim

Townsite Brewing Owner Karen Skadsheim spoke with Career Sense about the process of developing a new business in Powell River. Townsite Brewing incorporated in 2010 and rolled out its first kegs in March 2012. The microbrewery’s beer won two BC Craft Beer Awards in its first year in operation, followed by another two wins in 2013. Recently, it picked up an award at the Winnipeg Brew Bombers Pro-Am beer competition. With six employees, high praise on beer review websites, and its products now distributed throughout the Sunshine Coast, Greater Vancouver, and Vancouver Island, Townsite Brewing is a shining example of a successful business start-up.

What made you decide to start a brewery?

When I found myself living in Powell River, there wasn’t a lot of craft beer here. And everybody I spoke to said, “What this town needs is a craft brewery; we need a brew pub or whatever.” Basically, nobody else was doing it. I talked to the building owner here and he said, “That’s a great idea—let’s do it.” And that was that.

Did you check out other business ideas as well?

Not at all. It wasn’t, “I want to start a company, what do I want to do?” It was, “If I’m going to be living here, the beer needs to improve dramatically. My needs are not being met.”

How did you fund the start-up?

It’s all private investment. I was very fortunate in meeting the gentleman [Steve Brooks] who owns this building. He’s a little bit of an angel investor in the whole thing. But it was friends and family and people who believed in the project. We didn’t go with people we didn’t know. I think a lot of private investors are people who say, “If I’m not going to get 20 percent return on it…,” which for a little start-up company is crazy. That kind of private money is too costly. It’s a risky venture. So we went with family and friends that believed in the project. They didn’t want to lose money, but they were happy with a smaller rate of return.

How did you approach Steve Brooks?

He loves Powell River. He lives in West Vancouver and thinks Powell River is great. He had this building [the old post office in the Townsite] and I approached him and said, “Hi, my name’s Karen. You don’t know me, but I think this town needs a brewery and I think the post office would be a perfect building for it.” And he said, “Yes, you’re absolutely right—let’s do it.”

Did you benefit from the assistance of any government programs?

We had an employee over the summer through the Wage Subsidy Program. And also I went to Community Futures’ business start-up program, and that was very helpful.

What kind of marketing research and analysis did you do beforehand?

I went on a trip and visited a whole bunch of other breweries around the Pacific Northwest: Oregon, Washington, and different models that people were doing. Because in the early days it was like, should we do a brew pub, or should we have a straight brewery, or what should we do?

It was really eye opening. The most telling one was [an example of] ‘It’s always greener on the other side of the fence.’ I visited a brew pub in Seattle and one of the founders said, “If I had to do it all over, I wouldn’t have a pub—I’d just have a production brewery.” He said, “I really dig what this guy Matt is doing over at Fremont Brewing. I suggest you talk to him.” So I went to talk to Matt and he said pretty much the opposite. He said, “If I had to do it over again, I’d have a brew pub.” It’s always greener.

You have to try to figure out what’s going to work where you are. What we ultimately decided was that, if we had a brew pub, we’d have one customer in this town, it would be us. But by having a brewery, we are going to promote all the other pubs in town; we’re going to be in partnership with them. We don’t want to compete with our customers in a small town. In a big city like Vancouver, you can have a brew pub because you’ve got that much more population. But in a small town, it makes send to collaborate with your customer. So it’s a symbiotic relationship in a smaller town.

Were there any other aspects to your market research that people might find interesting?

It’s all drudgery, typical research. There’s nothing exciting about it. You’ve just got to do it, ask questions. The trip was fun, it was a great thing to go and see all these other places. Definitely try and get outside of our own market so people don’t see you as a competitor.

How did you handle the need for partnerships, expertise, and early staffing?

You’ve got to have a great team. Basically, everybody that’s on the team — with the exception of Cédric Dauchot and Chloe Smith — they were all friends. There was a great show about a bakery in Baltimore and the guy says, “I staffed it with the best people I know, my friends.” Of course, there wasn’t anybody in town who was a commercial brewer, so we had to advertise for Cédric, and we had to go through a lot of résumés before we found them. They were living in Saskatoon. He’s originally from Belgium. We’ve got the only Belgian brewmaster in BC, which we didn’t even realize. And coincidentally, his wife [Chloe] is also a brewer, so it’s been an amazing fit.

How happy are you with how your business has progressed compared to your projections?

It’s been beyond every wildest expectation or hope. It’s been great. The people in Powell River have really taken to this brewery, and they love it. It’s such a relief. Some of it was, “I can’t believe you’re opening a craft brewery in Lucky Lagerville.” That’s how I think other people see these smaller towns. And certainly Lucky Lager is still a big seller in this part of the world, but people are leaving the big cities for these small towns and they don’t necessarily want to drink that.

What are your personal qualities and qualifications that helped bring your business to success so quickly?

Horseshoes in the right spot. Having a great crew. For me personally, I’ve been an administrator for a lot of years, and it’s very paperwork-heavy dealing with the government and dealing with liquor. I had no idea. Because before you have your licence, they don’t even talk to you, and once you’ve got your license, it’s all systems go, full speed ahead, damn the torpedoes, and then they’re like, “Oh, well, you need to do all this.” “Well, can’t you have told me this six months ago so I would be prepared for this day?” No, they won’t even speak to you without a licence, and they don’t give you a licence until you’ve built the brewery, and once the brewery is built, you’ve got to start making beer.

Brewing Perfect Storm stout
Brewing Perfect Storm stout

What’s your approach to marketing?

We’re doing the marketing in-house for the brewery. Michelle Zutz is a great salesperson, she can sell anything to anybody, and it’s even better when you love what you’re selling. As far as the rest of the marketing goes, we’re all craft beer lovers—we’re all fans. What do we like? This is how I like to be marketed to, so that’s where we go from there. We use a local artist for all the artwork and we’ve been getting great reviews on that. So keep it local.

Any frank advice for people who want to be entrepreneurs in the Powell River region?

Do something that appeals to you that you love. If you love it, others will too. But if you’re not in love with it, it’s never going to happen. If it’s something that you’re doing just because, “I need to do something; I think people might respond to this,” no, no, you need to respond to it.

Take your time, don’t rush it. It took us six months to find Cédric and Chloe. We incorporated in 2010 and took our time doing the research and the business plan and finding the right fit for key people. But I think when you rush—it’s difficult not to do—because obviously once you start going, the money starts bleeding out and you want to start recouping that as fast as possible. But make sure you budget properly and try and take your time and make sure everything’s fitting properly.

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