Selling Out

Management has had an interesting week.

The ball got rolling with Beyond the Pale, Ken Grossman’s book about starting, growing and running Sierra Nevada Brewing, probably one of the greatest breweries in the world. Really great read, with – as Salinger would put it – Lots of Squalor. There was a fair amount of hand-to-mouth in Sierra’s early days, lots of seven-day twelve-hour-a-day workweeks, lots of substandard housing, lots of stuff nobody would ever put up with from an employer, but some people would cheerfully endure in service of a dream.

Folks who start businesses from scratch are a different breed altogether, folks who start capital-intensive businesses like breweries are a different strain of that different breed, and folks who started craft breweries back in the eighties, when nobody knew what craft beer was, are what plant breeders call “sports” – anomalous beings who function Beyond the Pale, as it were.

Very interesting passage in Mr Grossman’s book about “Project Ocean,” his study group devoted to selling Sierra to the highest bidder and buying a nice house on the ocean. Apparently, he gave quite a bit of thought to cashing in his chips and letting go of his inanimate child, but ultimately thought better of it. We’re all glad, I think, that the Grossman family continues to run Sierra. They’re the classiest act in a classy industry, and Ken’s son Brian will be running Sierra’s new plant in Asheville. Sticking with it and making it better.

Later in the week, we got to see the Pixies here in Asheville. A really good, really loud band, playing their music their way, giving a great show, letting their audience know they’re appreciated for coming out. I’m sure simply signing contracts and licensing tunes as advertising jingles is tempting, but they seem to actually enjoy playing music together, and seem to be making a decent living.

And, the week was capped off with the Stupor Bowl halftime show. We’re too old to know what a Bruno Mars is, but remember the Red Hot Chili Peppers from back in the day. A facsimile of that band performed with Mr Mars in what could be termed a “mash-up” of some kind. It probably paid very, very well.

Making a product you believe in – whether it’s music, beer, or ceramic tile – is a very interesting thing. There’s a lot of information that takes the form of a product, information that can be condensed, pasteurized, fiddled, and produced in volume, resulting in a reasonable facsimile of what the product once was, and some really fat checks for a few people. When the checks get to be a certain size, the word “interesting” tends to disappear, though. We like interesting, and want to keep it around. If we move to a glitzier neighborhood, interesting might get lost, resulting in some sort of Incredible Journey odyssey, as interesting searches – perhaps in vain – to find French Broad, its loving family. We’re not willing to lose our precious, our interesting, so we’re not leaving our barn beside the stream, although those Tesla cars are really cool.

So we keep getting a little bigger every year, in spite of the fact that we don’t really market our product, other than working to get people to try our beers. That simple act – try this! – actually seems to work pretty well, in spite of the fact that our labeling lacks “unity.” Our labels are snapshots of where our collective heads were at when each beer was created, which artist we were grooving on when it came time to design said label, etc. Similarly, we’re clueless about our “demographic,” one of the fundamental building blocks of “marketing,” nor do we seek to understand the anxieties and aspirations of the folks who drink our beer, the better to offer our product as a placebo, a salve, a status icon, a lie.

It’s a hell of a way to run an airline, as they say.

But you see, we’re not an airline. We’re the kind of business you can actually like.