What motivates you? Career-wise, that question has always been a moving target for me. I’m a big believer in capitalizing on the opportunities that come my way and allowing fate to have a grip on the steering wheel. While I've never tried to stay any preconceived path, I do believe that you make your own luck.
Since back when there were only 4 or 5 breweries in Chicago, I wanted to work in the beer industry. In early 2013, I thought I finally caught my break after a long job interview process. The opportunity was so close that I was even whispered to that an offer was on the way. I later found out I didn’t get the job after all. The disappointment and feeling of being back at square one was hard to come back from, but ultimately made me want it even more. One month later, I started a new Instagram account called @beeraficionado.
Creators Vs. Influencers
There’s a distinction that I’d like to begin by drawing. The term influencer is widely disliked at this point, and I get it. But there’s this unfair association with talented people who I prefer to call creators. Similar to how you may like to read books, watch Netflix, or ride your bike, creators like to, well...create. They could be a professional, aspiring, or hobbyist photographer, artist, illustrator, storyteller, musician, or some other type of creative. These individuals often curate a well thought-out Instagram page that other dreamers subscribe to for daily, bite-size enjoyment. In most cases, creators on Instagram are motivated by sharing their images and videos, much more so than the underlying message. That can evolve over time as their account amasses a following. Eventually, creators may use their audience as an opportunity to complement their posts with insight, or a secondary mission that forms along the way. Creators have their own ambitions and the ability to inspire or kick your own motivations into action, much more so than they are driving sales for breweries.
Influencers, in my experience, are less motivated by curation, and are more into sharing their decisions, experiences, and opinions (reviews), while shaping the behavior of their followers. They’re more driven by being considered an expert, a reputation which is only achieved successfully by establishing credibility in an authentic manner, usually over a long period of time. The best influencers didn’t set out to become one. Instead, they made the decision to be genuine, forthcoming, and honest which lead to the slow organic build of an audience.
We’re starting to see a lot of conflicts and negativity arising in craft beer by taking both creators and influencers, the best ones and the worst ones, and speaking about them as if they’re all the same. I’ve seen people who call themselves an influencer, who aren’t influencing anything. Then I’ve seen people positively impacting thousands of people on a daily basis, who would cringe if they heard themselves called one. There’s a lot of talented people out there whose vision, art, advice, and hustle are a journey worth following, to help shape and inspire your own.
Here are two of my favorites:
The Craft-Insta Boom
Instagram’s rise in 2012-2014 coincided very closely with craft beer’s. New users were jumping on by the tens of millions, each seeking interesting accounts to follow and fill up their feed each day. Breweries who understood the value and potential of Instagram had an opportunity to build a very important, free(ish) advertising platform for the next decade+. Investing in a decent camera/lens combination and an employee with a creative eye got breweries like New Belgium, Dogfish Head, and Allagash off to hot starts. Timely updates about what’s new and special releases would put gasoline in the fire. The land grab for followers was on, but it wouldn’t last forever, and would be impossible to replicate today with user engagement having long been on the decline and platform growth slowing down considerably.
Instagram provided the current generation of beer consumers with a home for all their beer-related experiences and the ability to share them with any friends who wanted to follow along. Untappd had its own unique value proposition, but Instagram provided an open canvas that allowed the user to capture the entire lifestyle, with very few parameters, while reaching and impacting those who would never use Untappd. It wasn’t just breweries that were attracting a following. A natural demand formed for more independent reviews, recommendations, and personalities. Phone camera quality was weak at the time, resulting in poorly lit, low quality images being shared across the platform. It didn’t take much effort to stand out from the pack. Consistently posting attractive photos of new or sought-after beers was enough to net you a couple thousand followers in short order, especially if accompanied by thoughtful or helpful commentary. The platform was growing like wildfire with users joining faster than meaningful or influential content was being produced.
After striking out on that job opportunity in 2013, I sulked for a week or two, then refocused. I had been following a couple beer personalities on Instagram and wanted a page of my own to interact with them and demonstrate my like-mindedness. I wanted to be in their club. My mindset was the same as it is today, which was a belief that if I dedicate myself to something for long enough and put my positive attitude behind it, good things would come. So my agenda on Instagram was very simple. Show how damn much I love the beer industry, learn as much as possible, and meet people along the way who share that same passion.
The early posts were really bad, but quickly inspired a photography and photoshop hobby. After a year of my wife teaching me how to use her Canon Mark iii 5D and searching youtube for countless “How do you do XYZ in Photoshop” videos, I suddenly had more followers than any independent Chicago brewery. My confidence was back and I was ready to make another push to get into the industry. But an accounting/auditor background, a newfound photography hobby, and a bunch of Instagram followers didn’t include a roadmap to success in this wild wild west of a craft beer industry.
I had two ideas. One involved starting a Mobile App that to this day, I still think is a great idea, with an amazing free service that any beer fan for would want, along with a B2B revenue model that 5 years later makes as much sense as it did back then. But I was too risk averse and too loyal to the second tier, so I went with my other home run swing. I told my boss directly that I was ready for something different and pitched a job and concept that didn’t exist, and still doesn't. He was on-board, but that was only the beginning. I pitched his boss, who liked what I had to say as well, but there was still a ton of work left to do and people to convince. The process of pitching this self-created opportunity lasted over six months. I considered that a good thing, because it was staying alive. I made my presentation 7 times. Leadership changes would send me back to the beginning of a level, but the momentum continued. Everyone said the same thing, "you're onto something." Then one day, I was told it was dead.
This one stung exponentially more than the first because I had put one year of my life into the research and presentation. But looking back, they made the right call. Not because I was wrong necessarily, but knowing what I know now, I could have made a much better pitch simply by narrowing my focus. I tried to solve too many problems simultaneously that I over-complicated the plan. Two or three points of emphasis with a constant callback to ROI may have gotten the job done. We’ll never know. So in June of 2015, I started building the databases that I would need to power the Mobile App idea. Without sufficient help, it was going to take forever, so in the meantime I launched BeerCrunchers.com in October 2015 to complement my journey through the App's development.
The Contemporary Resume
A social media feed or a blog has the ability to cost you a job (I’ve seen it happen), or springboard you over other candidates (seen this as well). The type of content that a potential employer would love to see, especially in the beer industry, can be the same type that generates a strong industry following as well. I’m talking about feeds that demonstrate expertise, have an educational component, a great attitude, inspire, can be funny, and most importantly, are genuine. All industries needs champions, and what better type of person to bring into your organization.
In the last 11 years, I’ve had to look at a lot of resumes. I’ve hired many positions of all kinds, lots were successful, others were not. There’s nothing that gives the hiring manager more confidence than when a source outside the traditional resume can provide more convincing insights into what this individual is truly all about. Do they have good values? A positive outlook? A good sense of humor? Are they creative? Receiving a candidate who breaks up the monotony of reviewing traditional resumes can push them immediately to the top of the list. This doesn’t have to be limited artists and designers, it can be anyone who is passionate about what they do. While I didn't realize it as it was happening, when I started BeerCrunchers.com working as an auditor, I had created a new resume tailored to where I where I wanted to go, not where I had been in the past.
There's still a recipe for success, but now that the landgrab is over, winning on Instagram requires an entirely different mindset. It's certainly not through buying followers/likes, using bots, nor participating in Pods. The solution is not through asking a question just to get comments, nor is it saying something controversial just to get a reaction. For a few years now, the struggling influencer has been blaming Instagram's algorithmic changes for their content losing relevancy and an inability to adapt to 2019. New York Times best selling author, speaker, internet personality, and wine critic Gary Vaynerchuk said it best, "fuck the algorithm".
Stay tuned for Part 2...