BrewDog CEO - My 10 biggest mistakes

Since Martin and I set up BrewDog in 2007 as 2 wide-eyed 24 year olds, it has been one hell of a ride. The business we set up in a garage now employs over 2,000 team members, has over 100 bars all over the planet, we are the most valuable independent beer brand on the planet and we are embarking on one of the most ambitious sustainability missions of our time.

However, it has definitely not always been plain sailing. I wanted to share the 10 biggest mistakes I have made so far on this journey, so that other business leaders could potentially avoid some of the pitfalls.

1) Pink IPA

The intention here was good, for International Women’s Day we wanted to highlight the gender pay gap of almost 20% and fight for more equality. We donated the profits to charities that fight inequality and we also sold the beer at a 20% discount to those who identify as female.

Despite the good intentions, our execution was terrible. The whole thing was meant as an overt parody on sexist marketing, but no one realised it actually was a parody. So, in effect, we just ended up looking like exactly the thing we were trying to protest against. The backlash was justified.

2) Lone Wolf

We had a trademark dispute in March 2017 with a bar called Lone Wolf, which is also the name of our gin brand. We took legal action against them on the name. This was a mistake on my behalf: there was never going to be any confusion between their bar and our gin, and I was completely wrong to take action.

I very quickly and publicly admitted the mistake, stopped the legal action and covered their costs and in addition we invited them to Ellon to make a special batch of gin together as an apology. I was definitely in the wrong here and the mistake hurt. Lesson learned.

3) Being Too Slow On Climate

We thought we were doing our bit for the planet, but the more we learned about climate change the more we realised that we were a massive part of the problem and that we had been for the last 13 years.

We are now carbon negative and we remove twice as much carbon from the air as we emit, all via our beautiful BrewDog Forest, and by 2024 we will have removed all the carbon we have ever put into the air since our inception as a business.

Whilst we are doing our fair share now, I wish we had been on this faster.

4) Team Troubles

A few years back, I very mistakenly believed the only way to take BrewDog to the next level was to hire an experienced and expensive senior management team. I assembled an all-star cast with impressive resumes and hearty paychecks but within 12 months we had parted company with of all 7 of them. Despite being fantastic people and leaders, they just did not integrate into our BrewDog culture. Furthermore, installing a whole new senior management team in one foul swoop was always destined to fail. It was an expensive lesson.

Now we have the BrewDog Salary Cap that means no-one can join our business and be paid more than 7 times the salary of the entry level position in our company. Because of this we have no option but develop the next generation of BrewDog leaders from within our own ranks and we are much stronger as a team and company because of that

5) Elastic Band Labels

Ironically the piece of packaging that we have won the most awards for was the one that performed worst commercially for us. When we launched our distilling business the labels were both super minimalist (no-one could even tell what the product was) and held on only by an elastic band. We were channelling our inner wannabe hipster pretty hard.

The labels kept falling off, our customers sent the stock back and after persevering for 8 months we had to completely change the branding and packaging.

6) Oversized Overworks

Sometimes it is really important to do things that just don’t scale. That should have been the case for Overworks, our sour beer facility. But we mistakenly misread the market for sour beers and put together an amazing facility that was simply far too big. Consequently, we were under pressure from the outset and ended up making far too many different sour beers than we could hardly even keep up with what was going on.

We are in the process of changing the Overworks set up and the new goal is to produce a limited amount of amazing beers every year with no intention to grow beyond that whatsoever.

7) Franchise Fiasco

Initially we were so enamoured that anyone would want to open a franchise bar internationally that we said yes to every single inquiry. We did not check to see if the partner could run a bar, if they had the necessary funds and we did not even have a proper contract. This led to some pretty mediocre BrewDog bars internationally.

We have since taken these prodigal sons back inhouse and now the international franchise bars that we do, we do with far more structure and diligence too which leads to far better customer experiences. Furthermore, we are working with some amazing new partners to bring you guys even more BrewDog bars internationally.

8) How Not To Do An Acquisition

We almost never do acquisitions. We usually have our hands pretty full with everything BrewDog. However, 2 years ago we bought Hawkes, an amazing craft cider business led by a brilliant entrepreneur Simon Wright. And then I ripped the soul out of the brand. Hawkes main 2 selling points were that is was made in London and the fresh apples were pressed on site.

After almost 18 months of making the cider in Ellon, we are in the process of expanding the London Cidery so that within 4 weeks all Hawkes ciders will once again be made in London from freshly pressed apples.

9) Hot Container

The very first full shipping container left our brewery in 2008, bound for California. It was the first time we have ever shipped beer to America. Unfortunately, we did not ship the beer in a refrigerated container and the beer sat cooking in a hot steel box all the way to San Diego. I arrived shortly afterwards launch BrewDog in America with some beer tastings and our beers tasted so bad I wanted to curl up and die. The importer refused to pay us and the whole thing cost us £30,000 at a time we had less than £10,000 in the bank.

Every single container has been refrigerated ever since.

10) Having To Sue The American President

We are usually control freaks. But in 2017, when Scofflaw was doing a beer event in our UK bars, we let Scofflaw and their PR agency handle the communications for the event. An individual at the agency went rogue and sent out a press release stating there would be free beer for any Trump supporter.

We immediately cancelled the event, the agency fired the rogue employee and we took legal action. Unfortunately (and bizarrely) the judge held ‘to say of someone was a Donald Trump supporter would not arguably lower that person in the eyes of right-thinking people generally.’

We strongly disagree and now we handle the communications for everything ourselves.


We have done some pretty cool things since 2007, and we have definitely messed somethings up too. I am sure that both I and BrewDog will continue to make mistakes in the future, as will every single business, but as long as we hold our hands up when we are wrong and continue to learn then hopefully the mistakes can help turn us into a better business.

Article courtesy of James Watt @ LinkedIn here