The Secrets to Running an Ontario Craft Brewery
With Naughty Otter Co-Founder Ryan Peterson
Ryan Peterson is one of the brains behind Naughty Otter, a craft brewery that’s the perfect blend of playful and playbook. He shares his secrets to growing a successful business, the most valuable lessons he’s learned, and ways to fuel your entrepreneurial hunger while still having fun. Like, University levels of fun.
In a nutshell, how did you end up doing what you’re doing today?
Growing up I always had a passion for entrepreneurship. Lemonade stands evolved to handcrafted wooden gifts, then snow removal, and eventually a landscaping company with 10+ employees. When I graduated University, my partners and I wanted to join the corporate business world, but we also wanted to continue to fuel the entrepreneurial hunger we had. Naughty Otter was an opportunity that allowed us to achieve that!
Tell us about your co-founders. If you were in an Ocean’s Eleven-style heist, who would do what?
Our ownership team has grown since inception, but let me focus on the core five founders:
Cord McGee: best friends since high school, Cord and I have partnered on many different businesses over the years. Talk about a rock-solid business partner; this guy is motivated and tough. If we’re taking down a casino, Cord is the muscle.
Scott Peterson: Poor Scott was roped into this project and has been a huge contributor since day one. Scott is our lead handy man who makes handcrafted bars, coasters, tap handles and pretty much anything else we need to bring our brand to market. Scott’s our utility man; he can wear any hat and wear it well!
Robbie Mitchnick: One of the smartest guys I know, Robbie can solve any strategic challenge thrown at him and has more drive than he knows what to do with. He and Cord often compete for the most all-nighters in a row. Robbie is our Danny Ocean.
Donald Gawel: Donald knows his way around an Excel file. From production models to automated POS interfaces, Donald elevates our sales game with first class analytics. It might not be a glamorous job but we need Don in the van cracking codes and overriding the security system.
If you had a time machine to go back and do things differently, what would they be and why?
Don’t do it. Just kidding.
Align with the right producers and suppliers. We had issues early on with some suppliers and it cost a significant amount of time and money. Perform appropriate due diligence on who you’re going to be working with.
Pay attention to your branding and regularly evaluate if your promotional mix is consistent with the message you want to convey. Upon reviewing some of our promotional and social media content, early on in the business, we realized we were sending some messages that weren’t necessarily aligned with the brand.
You’re going to need more money than you thought. Don’t let that discourage you, just plan for it and be resourceful.
Were there any moments when you felt like you had no idea what you were doing?
Of course! You get very familiar with that feeling in the first couple years of running a business. You won’t always be an expert in every scenario.
Tell us a bit about Naughty Otter. Why the name? What makes it different from other craft brews?
Naughty Otter is a brand that stands for fun and playfulness. A lot of beers out there have great names, but we feel that ours represents some of the mischievousness that makes you feel like you’re back in university again. Our focus is to create beers that appeal to a broad range of consumers. Craft beer doesn’t have to be too serious, we try to enjoy the simplicity of it and make quality beers that everyone will enjoy.
"Stay in your own lane; leverage your partners or business connections to help with challenges that are outside of your wheelhouse so that you can focus on what you do best!"
What are some of the biggest lessons learned in the first year of business?
Too many to count!
Focus on the people first. In our first year we experienced the highs of working with some really great people and the lows of working with people who didn’t live up to expectations. Build the right team and you will succeed!
Be ready to make contingency plans on a regular basis. Things will rarely go according to plan, and fortune favors the entrepreneur who can turn a challenge into a new opportunity.
Don’t assume you know who your consumer and target market are if you haven’t done the research. Get out there and learn what makes your consumer tick. After all, they are the lifeblood of your business.
Cash is king.
Understand your regulatory environment. This can be an area with potential unforeseen obstacles and costs that you may not have baked into your business plan.
What had you set out to do when you first started this business?
We set out to add value in the beautiful world of craft brewing. We wanted to create more work for farmers, suppliers, distributors, and most importantly, our employees. Creating career opportunities for passionate people was very important to us.
And let’s be serious, it’s a brewing company – we set out to have some damn fun!
What’s next for Naughty Otter?
We are just getting started! Our goal is to continue to build our product portfolio and expand our distribution beyond Ontario. The dream would be to eventually acquire other beverage companies and further expand our footprint.
What was it like creating a product for the first time?
At first, there were a lot of tough decisions and anxiety. We launched with just one product in the LCBO; the flavour, alcohol %, colour, and carbonation all had to be exactly right. But let me tell you, when we poured the first glass of the final Naughty Otter Lager recipe, it was a pretty satisfying feeling. Even 4 years in, seeing your brand being consumed at a party or bar by complete strangers still puts a smile on my face every time.
What do you love most about your product/business?
My favourite part - we don’t take ourselves too seriously. Our brand was built on the never-ending belief that good beer is meant to be fun. Loosen up, and live a little! Trying to live that lifestyle along with my business partners is what I love most about the Naughty Otter brand.
What is great about being on Ontario Brewer?
The best thing about this group is how supportive the culture is. Collectively, Ontario Brewers have a true passion for bringing unique, quality beers to our consumers. Sure, competition is tough, but this really is a brotherhood and not just a battlefield.