As part of our series called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Began Leading My Company,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff Hollander.
Based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, Jeff Hollander is a sales and marketing industry veteran with over 25 years of experience in sales, marketing and acquisitions. He’s a seasoned real estate investor and serial entrepreneur with an acquisition portfolio exceeding 165 million in volume. After his children were born, he decided to adopt a lifestyle absent of alcohol to ensure he was fully present for the mind-blowing joy of fatherhood. That’s where the idea for Hairless Dog Brewing was born. In 2018, Jeff and co-founder Paul Pirner joined forces to create truly alcohol-free craft beer, changing the game in the NA beverage industry. Jeff and Paul are proud of Hairless Dog’s status as the country’s first truly 0.0% ABV craft beer.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. I know that you are a very busy person. Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you grew up?
I grew up on a farm in rural Iowa, believe it or not! While I discovered at an early age the farm life wasn’t for me, I came from a long line of farmers that migrated over from Germany in the early 1900s looking for a better life. I come from a place where hard work is expected of people, so when I moved to Minneapolis right out of college, I found it fairly easy to work up the ladder at the places where I cut my teeth in sales.
What were your early inspirations that set you off on your particular journey?
My parents were both entrepreneurs. My dad bought into a company in the 1970s that made (and still makes) farm machinery, and my mom owned a porcelain doll factory. From an early age, I watched them forge their own destinies to support their family. I saw how it affected them when times got really tough, and I saw the good times, too. All in all, I liked how passionate they were about what they did. I learned that passion — living and breathing what you do — was critical to success and how rewarding it could be to love what you do.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Back when Paul and I first started the company, we were running some small batches and selling them in bottles around the Minneapolis metro area, and we decided to introduce a third style. We chose to go for an IPA and sent the recipe to our co-packer and asked them to run 500 cases. When the pallets arrived at our warehouse, it tasted nothing like an IPA. At first, Paul and I thought we were going to have to throw away the whole batch, but the taste actually grew on us. Since we were hand labeling at that time, we thought we should just consider renaming it and seeing what happens. We named it our ‘Summer Lager,’ and it ended up being a favorite and selling out right away. In early 2020, we decided to refine the early recipe and named it our Citra Lager. This is now one of our fastest growing and favorite styles on the market — and it came from a ‘mistake.’ The lesson I learned is that even mistakes can be repurposed to your company’s advantage.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Something my dad said to me when I was considering jumping into Hairless Dog full time has stuck with me and is important to consider. I was wrestling with whether or not to leave a very successful position and put everything on the line for the Hairless Dog brand and asked him, “Dad, what if I fail?” He looked at me carefully and ever-so-calmly said, “Son, I can think of a lot worse things than failure.” And you know, he was right. It’s so important to live out your dreams, take risks and find your passion — even if there is the potential to fail.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
It was a great problem to have but scaling production and distribution to meet demand as quickly as we had to was a huge challenge. We started out with a few thousand cases and put them out locally here in the Twin Cities. We sold out almost immediately and realized exactly what we’d started. We had to quickly find larger scale, capable partners (co-packers, suppliers, distributors) who could help us ramp up without losing the homebrew vibe we believed in. Be as prepared for success as you are for failure was the lesson there.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
I’ve continued to find inspiration from the vision we have for our company and from the knowledge that we are doing good work. Success doesn’t always mean dollars; it might not look the way you think it will. Driven business leaders carry on because there’s no other option, and they don’t want any other option. There are customers that love your product and would be heartbroken if you didn’t make it anymore. Knowing that your work is meaningful to other people keeps you driven even during the hardest times.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
We were a relatively unknown product before COVID-19, and people tend to taste a product like ours in a bar or a restaurant and then buy it at a liquor store, not the other way around. So, when the bars and restaurants closed, we were shut off from a significant segment of new customers. Simultaneously, we launched a new product — our Citra Lager — in March 2020. Essentially, we had to shift all our resources from bar-restaurant to ecommerce, immediately. That has worked out for us; since we’re a true 0.0% ABV product, we can ship anywhere. But, we certainly can’t wait to get back into the bars and restaurants to meet people and introduce ourselves in the environment we enjoy. In regard to the Citra Lager launch, that took a considerable amount of rethinking; away from “something to drink with your friends outside at a party” to “something to drink in quarantine without going nuts.”
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Hairless Dog Brewing Company is all about creating a bold and interesting craft beer experience that’s truly alcohol-free. A beverage that you drink for what it is, not what it isn’t. My co-founder, Paul Pirner and I were old friends and craft beer lovers who had each decided (independently of one another) to adopt an alcohol-free lifestyle. We reconnected at a party one day — the only ones with water in our hands — and discussed how much we missed a good craft beer. The flavor, mouth feel, finish — all of it. To us, NA beers in the market at that time missed the mark on a number of levels, and we wanted to make it right. We were also tired of feeling like we were missing out on some of the sociability of the craft beer scene because we were drinking soda or water. We met up for coffee a few days later and the idea for Hairless Dog was born.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
I make sure that I maintain a healthy lifestyle, physically and emotionally, including lots of time with my family and friends. At the end of the day, I’m only as effective an entrepreneur as I am a father, son, friend, all of it. So as difficult as it can be some days, I believe living a balanced life keeps me centered and able to lead the company as my best self.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Alcohol consumption has surged during the pandemic; however, a burgeoning “Sober Curious” cultural movement has begun to pick up steam among those who wish to be more intentional about how, when and why they drink. People who stop drinking can experience valuable health benefits such as improved sleep, brighter skin, a stronger immune system, reduced calorie intake and a new relationship with alcohol. Alcohol has always been considered a social lubricant, but a growing number of people are finding they don’t want the negatives that also come with drinking, whether it’s a health issue, a lifestyle or fitness choice, a necessity or they simply have something to do the next day. We have been pleasantly surprised by the number of pregnant women who thank us for being truly alcohol-free because they miss the taste of beer!
Wonderful. Here is the main question of our discussion. What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my company” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
There’s never a perfect time to start. Just do it already
If you have a good idea right now, there are at least ten other people sitting down with that same idea — monetizing it, perfecting it, putting their own spin on it. If you wait for every detail to be perfected before you go to market, those other individuals will get out in front of you and create such a difficult time for you to succeed. It’s never wise to rush, but it’s never wise to allow perfect to get in your way. A lot of your challenges that you will face haven’t even show up yet, and you can’t possibly think of all of them right now. Those are the ones you react to. You can fix on the fly once you get in the market.
Learn and use the power of your story
When we started the company, we had no idea how much the personal touch and our story would be of importance to the brand. It wasn’t good enough to just have a product that people found interesting; it had to be connected in a personal way to their lives. As two beer loving friends who wanted to quit drinking but not living, we found that story to be relatable by so many in our audience. It turns out that the story is possibly just as important as the product itself. Never underestimate the story that has gotten you to this point and its value to your brand.
Hire the right people, not necessarily the ‘best’ ones
When we started this company, we got a lot of people popping out of the woodwork wanting to help us with our journey. We were thankful to them then and are thankful to them now. Some worked out and others didn’t, but one thing I learned was to never invest in the star power of your employees. We had people approaching us with doctorate level educations and a wealth of resources available to them with the best resumes I’d ever seen, but when it came to completing difficult tasks, it served no purpose whatsoever. Some of the best people I’ve found had nothing more than a solid work ethic, a curious mind and a knack for problem solving. Paul and I are that way. We came into this industry with no experience and have learned everything on the fly.
Falling is not failing
The changes that come along that will hurt yet strengthen your company are many. It’s important to learn to separate a fall from a fail. Every day, I get bits of good news and bits of bad news. It seems like the bad news is the only thing on my mind when I try to fall asleep at night, but you have to train yourself to treasure the good news and celebrate the wins. The ways that you will fail, from letting someone down on your team to not knowing something you think you should know to miscalculating an important figure to your bottom line, will make you feel like you’re on the bench, but you’re still in the game. You will fall, but you have not failed. It’s part of your growth as a business owner and your growth as an entrepreneur. If I were to count myself out every time I fell, I would have achieved nothing.
Ignore the haters
Your friends, family and even strangers will all have ideas and opinions when you tell them about your new idea. They’ll be quick to mention all of the problems and pitfalls you’ll encounter as a business owner. You’ll be offered a host of opinions as to why your idea is brilliant and even more about why it likely won’t go anywhere. You still have to keep going and can’t allow the naysayers to determine your future or that of your business.
Now that you have gained this experience and knowledge, has it affected or changed your personal leadership philosophy and style? How have these changes affected your company?
As a leader who is several years into our company’s growth, I have learned to listen more than I speak. In the beginning, I felt like leaders should have all of the answers. I had the vision, but I definitely didn’t have all of the answers. My leadership style now is to truly make a decision based on the opinions of people that I trust, while I wasn’t able to do that before.
This series is called “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me”. This has the implicit assumption that had you known something, you might have acted differently. But from your current vantage point, do you feel that knowing alone would have been enough, or do you feel that ultimately you can only learn from experience? I think that learning from mistakes is the best way, perhaps the only way, to truly absorb and integrate abstract information. What do you think about this idea? Can you explain?
If someone had approached me at the beginning and told me that my journey would be too difficult, I wouldn’t have listened. In fact, many people in the beverage industry told us how innovative of an idea Hairless Dog was but discouraged us from pursuing our dream because of the challenges we would face. Nevertheless, I still had to go down the path myself to determine what I was capable of. I couldn’t take people’s opinions at face value — even those of people I care about and trust completely — because I had to quench the need to create this company and bring it to life. No amount of advice could have scared me off. I have been talked out of ideas in the past by “experts” and have seen others bring them to fruition. Hairless Dog wasn’t going to be another one of those times.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Just knowing that Hairless Dog is a part of a wellness movement whereby people are questioning everything they are putting into their bodies — including alcohol. Alcohol is the only drug that if you don’t do it, people want to know why. Whether you’re not drinking for the night, the month or for the long haul, just knowing Hairless Dog gives people an amazing craft beer experience that helps them accomplish that goal; it’s an amazing feeling.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Our website is drinkhairlessdog.com and features a weekly blog with news on our company. I also like to express myself musically and post a new playlist of music on Spotify every Friday.