The next time you’re chastised for heading out for a drink, bring up the story of Shea Martin, CEO of Brew Ninja. What started out as a casual interest in a friend’s craft brewing endeavour — including a sampler or two, we suspect — has turned into a thriving business.
This is merely the latest development in a varied career. Having graduated from Canada’s University of Saskatchewan, in Saskatoon, with a degree in Computer Science, Shea soon found himself working on gameplay at HB-Studios. If you played EA’s FIFA games or Madden back in the late 2000s then you may well have benefited from Shea’s work.
Following “a stint doing naval simulations with Lockheed Martin”, and a five-year period as Technical Director with a web apps company, Shea’s first exposure to the startup world was as the CTO of Barn2Door. “I learned a lot about what it takes to make a successful engineering team, the SaaS world, and all the other non-technical components of building a successful startup,” he told us.
Enough, it turns out, for Shea to turn a prototype into a company…
What’s your elevator pitch?
Brew Ninja is an end-to-end management system that makes life easier for all sizes of breweries.
What made you launch a startup?
I never meant to launch a “startup”. In fact, I am not even sure I knew what the term meant when I first started thinking about Brew Ninja. I had an ex-colleague start a brewery, and being interested in craft beer, I started dropping in to see how things were going.
I realised that some of the problems he was having, I had solved in other industries. So I built a prototype and showed it to him. After some time working through the kinks, I decided to turn it into a product and start selling Brew Ninja.
What problem are you trying to solve?
The problem we set out to solve was managing inventory for breweries. This led to managing sales, production, compliance and accounting for the brewery. The funny thing is that most of our customers state that the thing they like most about our product is that we solve their communication issues due to the fact that Brew Ninja is a central source of information about the brewery.
Can you talk us through your journey so far? What’s a major milestone you’ve reached?
We definitely focused too much on building the product and not enough on selling it early on. But it did allow us to hit the ground running when we started actually trying to sell the product.
It took us a very long time to get customer number two, but with each new customer, it gets easier to acquire new customers at a quicker pace. We have hit the 150-customer mark. We have doubled or tripled our revenues every year so far.
Who are your main competitors, and what distinguishes your startup from them?
Our main competitors are Ekos and Beer 30. These are good products, but they both have a slightly different spin from Brew Ninja. While Brew Ninja does have a strong production management module, our focus is really on removing the friction from the day to day of running a brewery, while our competitors are more focused on production.
We find that most of our customers are not struggling with making good beer but are struggling with keeping the accounting up to date, keeping the compliance trail up to date, and making sure special alcohol production taxes are done correctly. We solve these problems for them so they can focus on making beer, not administration.
How has the startup scene in Saskatchewan helped and/or challenged your own startup’s development?
When we started out, Saskatchewan was not known as a hot location for startups. Projects like the Cultivator and Co-Labs have done a lot to change that. But we have found that not being in a hot spot like Toronto or San Francisco means that we have less competition for resources; such as startup programming, media exposure and government funding.
What are the key factors contributing to the success of startups in Saskatchewan?
While the startup community is small, it is very tight-knit. The general business community is very accessible and willing to help out too. There is a talent shortage, but the talent we have acquired has been high on work ethic and low on entitlement.
What’s the biggest mistake you’ve made, and how did you overcome it?
The biggest mistake would be not being proactive enough with customer feedback. We had an onboarding specialist who was onboarding new customers. We started to churn new customers at a high rate, and when we investigated, it turned out that their onboarding experience was poor or nonexistent.
It was embarrassing that this had gone on for a few months without us catching it. After
that, we put systems in place to ensure that if someone was unhappy with their onboarding experience, we would know about it immediately.
Where do you hope your startup will be in ten years?
Brew Ninja will be the de facto software for managing craft beverage manufacturing facilities across the globe.
What advice would you give yourself if you could go back in time?
Be more careful with your feature selection. We developed a couple of large features that didn’t really gain us traction because we made large assumptions about our users without validating those assumptions.
What would you say to potential investors reading this interview?
The SaaS Food and Beverage market is up and coming. B2B SaaS is very sticky, and even though it may not have the upside of Facebook, there is a lot of opportunity in it.
What advice do you have for aspiring entrepreneurs and anyone looking to launch their startup?
Start selling your product early. Fall in love with your product but not the implementation. You will need the passion to get past the naysayers, but falling in love with the implementation and how you think it should work will lead to a product your customers don’t love or features that don’t get used, thus being a waste of precious manpower.
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