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Success Stories: Lonerider Brewing Company

Sumit Vohra

Title:  CEO and Chief Drinking Officer, Lonerider Brewing Company
Location: Raleigh, NC
Other Affiliations: Board Member, Nourish International and North Carolina Brewers Guild

Education and Degrees:
UNC-Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School, MBA 2007
Georgia Tech, M.S. Computer Science
University of Alabama at Birmingham, B.S. Computer Science

If you can, tell us a bit about your story. What led you to start this company?
Work drove me to drinking (chuckle), just kidding. Essentially, I was working at Cisco with several friends of mine and we liked to home brew. We had the opportunity to purchase some brewing equipment in South Carolina and decided to take the plunge. The equipment sat in storage for awhile but during this whole process I was in Ted’s Launching the Venture class and I wrote a business plan for our venture idea. We hadn’t officially launched but we were getting to the point where we were eager to figure out what we were going to do. Launch validated a lot of things for me that I wanted to take a look at and so we found warehouse space to house the brewing equipment and started the company. When we had enough capital to make it a reality, we said 'let’s go for it'. There’s no turning back at that point. Once you have other folk’s money and they’re depending on you to return it, you have to move forward. We took things slow because we were working full-time so we didn’t run out of capital. Over time, I slowly transitioned to my work at the brewery. Lonerider officially opened its doors on January 23, 2009.

What were some roadblocks you ran into along the way?
The biggest roadblock for startups is of course capital. The other one is always knowledge. You are learning EVERYTHING. I mean, I was a computer science guy and what did I know about running a large-scale brewing operation? It was just a passion so we did it, but we learned a lot along the way. Currently, the challenges are different. The company is established, we have a number of different accounts, and we have really great people working with us. Now it’s more of a matter of process and implementation--how to take one step after another to make it a really successful company.

What is your current roadmap for Lonerider in terms of growth?
We are doubling our brewing capacity by the end of August. We’re still trying to be frugal, frugal is very important. We spend money where we should but we’re also not shy of growth. Our current distribution is all across North Carolina—in fact, we’ve been at capacity for the past year now.  I describe it to folks as “driving a car with the brakes on”. It's such a good environment for craft beer now…the people in this area are really awesome.

Why craft beer?
Let’s say you went to Italy and you had THE best pizza of your life. And when you came back, imagine the pizza you had in Italy was available right next to a large value chain (e.g. Dominos) but was only $2 more.  Where would you go? That’s what it's all about.  Not saying that there isn’t an important place for those value chain places, but it is easy to upgrade a taste, it’s very hard to downgrade it back.

What have you found to be the most rewarding thing about starting Lonerider?
The most rewarding thing is the conversations I get to have. You get to meet so many people who are enthusiastic about craft beer. I'd also say having the opportunity to give back and support non-profits like Nourish International. One thing that I don’t like is I’ve gained 35 pounds since I started the company!

Do you have any words of wisdom for aspiring entrepreneurs about how to achieve success?
Don’t ever be afraid to ask stupid questions. Wisdom is weird; I’m not wise I’ve just been hit a lot and I’ve learned from my mistakes. At the end of the day, it comes down what you know and who is helping you.

What’s your favorite Lonerider beer?
You can’t ask me that—that’s like asking which child is your favorite! It’s about the mood you’re in—right now, I’d probably have a Shotgun Betty Hefeweizen because it’s a beautiful sunny day outside.  Later, during the evening I’d probably go for a Sweet Josie Brown Ale.  It just depends—everybody has a story and an affiliation to the beers they drink so it’s hard to say. I wouldn’t make beer for a living if I didn’t feel this way.

What does entrepreneurship mean to you?
I think that reflects on my company’s philosophy—“affect change, don’t be an audience. Walk your own path, and instead of thinking outside the box imagine if there was no box.” To me that’s entrepreneurship. Pick something you believe in and take action.

What was the best part about Kenan-Flagler?
It made me see what was possible. It made me realize that if I really want to do something, it can be done.

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