Tom Miller (TM), James Cartwright (JC) and Chris Mortensen (CM) studied their Executive MBA at Cass from 2012 to 2014. Now, alongside their full-time roles, they mentor Cass students, and over the past 12 months started up their own craft beer company, Elemental Brew House.
We sat down over a beer (obviously) to talk with the team about dealing with HMRC, their love of brewing and how they fit it all in!
Tell me about your time at Cass!
(TM) We all started at Cass together in March 2012, to do our Executive MBAs. We all came from different fields. James and I were in the same working group in our first year and Chris was in a group we worked very closely with. We were a very close-knit cohort who worked hard and played hard, and in doing so we formed very strong bonds which will last our whole lifetimes.
(TM) During our second year at Cass, we moved over to 200 Aldersgate and left Bunhill Row behind. Chris and I took modules in how to Fast-Track Ventures and New Venture Creation, because we had both always had the idea that we would want to launch a venture at some point. (CM) I also studied lots of strategy.
(TM) A lot of our venture creation coursework was so relevant. For example, we had to interview two similar businesses, one which succeeded and one which didn’t, and Chris and I chose coffee in East London – which is very relevant to the brewing industry but ahead in timeframe. I did lots of learning then that was useful for our proof-of-concept launch. We also created our business plan as part of a coursework.
(CM) I specifically enjoyed Fast Track Ventures with Sam Kamuriwo. We learned a lot about growth versus speed, pitfalls etc. The main conclusion I took away from that elective was you need the right team and the right mix of skills. It really sowed the seeds for our idea and our approach. I also learned all the marketing tools and methodologies such as customer segmentation and behaviours, frameworks and foundations and we used lots of the theory in our launch. Even getting our license we used a framework from Sam’s class.
You’re now offering MBA students a chance to work with you?
(JC) We have developed a very deep relationship with Cass, and we all wanted to open up the opportunity to current students to get their Business Mastery Project (BMP) underway with us for our new venture. Tom, Chris and myself have strengths in several fields but we are also able to recognise where our gaps lie. As a result we are offering a really great opportunity for a current student at Cass who wishes to learn more about digital marketing and launch strategies. Our BMP is focussing on a detailed analysis of the London based craft ale market, customer segmentation and profiling, along with the development of optimised launch strategies for our product range. You will also get to know the process of beer making along the way.
(TM) We love to give back – we all mentor current students – and lots of people don’t know what they want to do for their BMP. I was sponsored by my company so I did my project on them and Chris and James had ideas too, but not everyone does, so we wanted to offer something to benefit them. If things go well this year then we will no doubt come back next year and see if we can offer another opportunity.
What did you do after you graduated?
(TM) We all went back to our full-time jobs in different industries and are currently running the ‘Elemental’ business in our spare time. We graduated in June 2014, did our proof of concept in 2015 and had our official launch about four months ago in October 2015.
(TM) Chris and I were the original partners, but we always wanted James to come on board. He recently joined us back in 2016 so we are now all co-founders at Elemental Brew House.
(CM) I remember we started talking about this in October 2014 over dinner! We were all finished and back doing our normal full-time jobs – it was nice to have not so much to juggle. (JC) and then our flagship product won a prize!
Your beer won a prize?
(CM) Brewing has always been a real interest of mine, I’ve been home brewing for at least 10 years. (TM) And he got us interested, because we liked the idea of brewing beer for ourselves to consume! We brewed this particular beer at Chris’s house (CM) and in February 2015 submitted what is now one of our flagship beers, Pamplemousse, to this home brewers’ competition. There were about 380 entries, and we placed in the top 10. A prestigious judge said in a special comment that ours was his favourite and the feedback was that it was very highly regarded. It validated the product and created the ground swell.
(CM) I got Tom and James in to brewing in our first year, and after this we kept having conversations about the best things to make. We want to appeal to each person’s palate so we did a lot of testing. We went from homebrew, to thinking about what gives us an edge, to proof of concept from August to December in 2015. We were successful and last year started looking for brewing location. We chose a place in Edmonton in Spring 2016, then had to get a license, and started brewing there in October 2016.
(TM) We have been brewing commercially for over a year now, but we recently moved in to our current premises in Edmonton as this allowed us to step up in production scale from 150 litres to 850 litres. We recently completed our first brew at this new scale and all that remains is to label it and it will be ready to sell.
What’s been the biggest challenge?
(JC) HMRC! The taxation regulations and VAT all take so long. There are some helpful videos around but at a certain point you just have to grind through it.
(TM) Yes HMRC had obstacles! We had plenty of advantages from our fast track venture course but as a small business we’re struggling because there are no economies of scale, for example in negotiations with suppliers. We’re definitely trying to start lean and learn the business!
(CM) We literally have do to everything. We’d love to outsource but at the moment it’s cheaper to do it ourselves, although maybe not as cost-effective from a time point of view. We all work full-time so fitting it in can be tricky. Luckily we’re now licensed and when we move to even larger premises it will just mean an adjustment to our license which we can deal with when that moment comes.
(JC) When we were in MBA mode we would come and study and do our full-time jobs. Now we’re back to working full-time and doing this at evenings and weekends, so personally I’ve had to dust off those time-management skills again!
(CM) Yes I agree! And now I really enjoy the different combination of physical things – work is not just sitting in office. We have to move big grain sacks, and brewing is a physical process in general, which is part of the draw (TM) for all of us! (CM) It’s creative and a work-out plus when you add the financial management, marketing, sales and more, it’s akin to doing the MBA. It’s all good stuff, and great to have a good balance with the physical and the intellectual.
(JC) To create a batch we have a brewing day which means an early start to get water boiling and grain dispensed and after many hours of effort you have flavoured sugar water! Then you have to wait two weeks for it to ferment before you can package it up and then two more weeks for it to mature in the bottle or in the keg before distribution.
(TM) It’s all done by hand – the bottling, the labelling, we even hand-stamp the best-before date. It’s really crafty, there is no automation (yet!) and we even try to deliver it ourselves too.
(TM) Next week we’ve got tastings with buyers to talk about the tasting profiles and to make deliveries.
(JC) In the near term we are planning a formal launch event and we are actively working with various venue owners across London, so watch out for details of that coming soon.
(TM) We recently supplied to a photographer for an event, so we want to do more of that sort of thing. The complexity is in finding time to do it all and not to let it affect your day job. We all live and work in different areas of London, and brewing is in another location completely, and storage yet another.
(CM) Logistics is fun 🙁
What has been your most rewarding moment?
(CM) For me it’s definitely seeing someone drink a beer with Elemental on the side.
(TM) At our launch party for the proof of concept at Shoreditch BL-NK, at one point we had the Mayor of Hackney and our beer on stage and he couldn’t stop drinking it! The event was great, we got feedback on taste and also tested our market position with a choice of two labels by going person to person. It was really useful feedback and our biggest event so it was great to be there personally.
(CM) Our first brew for the proof of concept was quite stressful! We did an American amber called Ombre, which is the same as we’re planning for the launch this time.
(JC) Chris and I have Engineering backgrounds so as youngsters we used to build things and then take them apart again to see how they worked and that was fun, but we are both now at that stage in our careers where it’s all about laptops, meetings and sitting behind a desk. At the end of the brewing day you feel shattered but you can also see all the beer you’ve just created, and that’s very cool.
(TM) We have tried to develop beer that satisfies all our palates. It’s great when you do a taste test with people and you say, drink this beer let me know what you think – and they say well, I don’t normally drink beer but I loved it! It’s really rewarding! We try to make beer people like rather than (JC) something like cardamom and clove! (CM) Maybe for Christmas (joke)!
(CM) I personally like what we brew these days, I’m not interested in really hoppy IPAs wars with everyone.
(JC) I’ve been trying to get Chris to develop a rice beer, (TM) Chris is our Master Brewer (JC) because there is a growing trend in China linked to President Xi’s ambition for China to be a sporting hub by 2025. The connection between beer and sporting events is well documented but if you want to drink Chinese-style beer, the flavour profile is one dimensional. Therefore we have a chance to develop and augment rice beer and introduce more structure and complexity to a very popular product.
(TM) The challenge is that our passion is making beer and for us it’s all about producing high quality product, but we also need to sell it. Currently we’re also struggling with doing our HMRC returns!
Do you have any advice for anyone looking to follow in your footsteps?
(JC) I came to the MBA journey quite late in my career. I’m definitely older than Tom and I do have regrets about not doing it sooner. You have to have the courage to take that leap. If you feel something is not quite right, all is not well at work, do some quiet analysis and if the solution is to go back and return to study don’t worry about the cost – it will happen.
(TM) Planning but never actually doing it is textbook!
(JC) People get stuck in the mind-set that they will do it next year, but there is always something stopping them – look hard enough and you’ll find a reason not to make that leap. Change your perspective and look forward, invest your time and effort and you’ll get your reward.
(CM) For me it’s about belief. Get an MBA, further yourself and start to create. Then you can better contribute and believe you can actually achieve something successful. For me it’s all about valuing your own time and your abilities
And finally, it’s the quick fire question round!
|Favourite place in London:||East London, I’ve lived there for 10 years||Blackfriars on a Sunday at 7am||Richmond Park|
|Favourite holiday destination:||Sicily||SE Asia, particularly Shanghai & Hanoi||Nepal|
|Must-check everyday website:||Twitter for sports news||Bloomberg||NY times|
|Dream travel destination:||South America||The 5 mile radius around my home||Everywhere! South America, specially the Andes|
|Cheese or chocolate:||Chocolate. Chocolate coffee stout is my favourite!||Cheese||Chocolate|