It’s a great pleasure to feature Tyler Gwozdz of Spiked Seltzer in this installment of our Industry Influencer Interview Series. Tyler and I met some months ago during the course of his launching the Nashville market for Spiked Seltzer. There are some great nuggets in Tyler’s story, enjoy!
Sherman: Tyler, thanks for joining me today. It’s a great honor to feature you in our Influencer series. Tell the readers about your background and what led you to the alcohol business.
Tyler: Sherman! The honor is mine, thanks for having me. As far back as I can remember, I have always been drawn to special people. In college, I chose to study economics because my Econ 101 professor was a seemingly cool dude, and my buddies and I agreed to stick it out together. However, fast forward 5 or 6 years later and I’m stuck pursuing a finance career that really didn’t fire me up. I wasn’t sure I was in the right place, surrounded by the right people. Growing up in Fairfield County, CT and living in NYC, most of my friends and contemporaries were in the same sector- so finding a way out wasn’t so easy. Then, I was introduced to Nick & Dave, Spiked Seltzer’s Founders, through a mutual friend. I didn’t even need to try their first formulations to know it was something I needed to be a part of. Didn’t need to, but definitely did.
Sherman: Your joining Spiked Seltzer had to feel like a significant risk. You were the third employee in the firm, is that correct? What was it like to be taking part in a beverage startup?
Tyler: On the surface, it would seem like a risky proposition. Leaving a steady income to join a beverage startup as the third employee and first salesperson? Pretty dicey. I didn’t see it that way. I saw it as a massive opportunity to do something new with some really great people- and maybe even learn a thing or two along the way. I consider it one of the best decisions I’ve made in a long, long time.
Sherman: Share some of the difficulties of those early days. Your role was that of the lead sales guy if I remember correctly?
Tyler: On my first day with SpikedSeltzer, I had no role. I had a million of em. And I truly loved it. I would clean the office, get coffee, all the classics. But at the same time, if we decided to sponsor a party in the Hamptons, or at a bar in Manhattan- I was there too. I was on Nantucket throwing SpikedSeltzer sponsored Figawi parties during Memorial Day weekend, and come Monday I’d be cruising to IKEA to get a couple new desks for the office. Even with instructions I swear those things are brutal. Between early marketing, taste testing, brainstorming, event planning and custodial duties, my day to day was never the same. I loved every single minute of it. Truly lessons that I will take with me for the rest of my life, sometimes I can’t believe how lucky I was to be able to grow a brand with such a cool team.
“On my first day, I had no role. I had a million of em.”
So far my answer doesn’t highlight many ‘difficulties’! I can assure you, though, there were many. The beer world, at the time, was still reeling from the craft boom. Small, locally owned breweries had been popping up all over the country. the Big Beer companies were experiencing decreasing sales in their ultra premium categories for the first time in decades. These craft beers were slowly taking market share, and the big breweries of the world were reacting by purchasing craft operations at an astounding rate. But at the core of all of these new beers was still one thing, beer. We had something entirely different, while legally and chemically it was a lager beer, the world had never seen anything like SpikedSeltzer. (Although distant memories of Zima were often referenced.) We had to convince wholesalers and retailers to change everything they thought about beer; who it was made by, and who it was made for. Generations of common beer knowledge needed to be thrown out in order to grasp what we were trying to do. Needless to say, it was a battle. How do you convince a guy who has been feeding his family by selling premium light beer for decades that he needs to change his game? It’s not easy.
Sherman: Your branding for Spiked Seltzer is stellar. The team must really be strong. Tell us about your founders?
Tyler: Great guys, plain and simple. Like I said, I was originally drawn to SpikedSeltzer by Dave and Nick. It only took a couple of days with them before I realized that I loved how they operated. Dave was a finance guy, and Nick has a food science background. Polar opposites in their mannerisms, but together they are unstoppable. I’ve never seen so much problem solving ability in one room. They might not know it, but their problem solving attitudes definitely changed the way I work. I find myself subconsciously consulting their attitudes and perspectives in daily decisions. They dedicated themselves entirely to the brand, and their passion was unavoidable. I don’t think it would have been possible to work for us in the early days without a total dedication to succeeding. For those guys, there was always a way. There was always something better, more efficient. If we had a goal, there weren’t many people, places or things that were going to stop us.
The branding has a lot to do with their and their wives’ passion for wellness. Both of them are avid rowers and pilots, so the nautical theme was perfect. Between their early designs and help from Lindsay Potter, our early marketing director- our brand was born. All the recent graphics and packaging is the brain child of Edward Garrity, a kid we hired out of school as an intern. We paid him in booze at first, and he’s become one of the most valuable pieces of our team.
Sherman: You fought the store to store, block by block battle for distribution and success. What was it though that really got the attention of the folks at Anheuser Busch?
Tyler: Money talks. Our growth rate was astronomical. The first year we were in the market we did somewhere south of 20k cases total, and only three years later we were sniffing half a million. I think from the time we started selling our first brew until acquisition, our total sales volume had increased over %4,000. The landscape was also changing rapidly, with the Spring/Summer of 2015 seeing the launch of 3 or 4 ripoff brands. AB wanted a player in the hard seltzer category, so why not go with the creator of it? It was a good match.
Sherman: You guys are rocking it in 2017. You’ve recently launched several new markets. What is on tap, so to speak, for 2017? Are you nationwide yet?
Tyler: Oh, man. We made the decision to go national in 2017, and it has been quite a wild ride. By the end of Spring we will be available in 50 states nationwide. Considering the fact that in 2013, we had a single distributor in one single county in Connecticut, its a lot to grasp. Thankfully, we have the help of some great people at AB who know a hell of a lot more about the national beer industry than I do! Look for us in MLB ballparks, NFL stadiums, concerts, festivals and anywhere beer is sold!
Sherman: What is the most satisfying part of growing a brand inside a big company like Inbev?
Tyler: It’s a pretty ideal situation, honestly. We still can maintain our core founding principles, the passion and fun that got us here. On the other hand, we have the resources and knowledge of the biggest and best brewery in the entire world. The guys at AB have forgotten more about brewing and selling beer than I could learn in a lifetime. I can’t wait to watch our brand grow to a national, household brand…and learn a lot while we do it. Watching somebody try SpikedSeltzer for the first time still makes me happy, and there’s about 295 Million of those left.
Sherman: If you could give a fledgling brand in the beer business any advice, what would it be?
Tyler: There are A LOT of laws, rules, and regulation in the craft beer industry. Don’t learn any of them.
Sherman: What experience did you have outside the beverage business that you think contributed more to your success thus far?
Tyler: I think working any service job is a great place to build a sales foundation. I’ve waited tables, was a golf caddy, a landscaper, hedge fund intern (gopher), camp counselor and a dish washer. Any of these jobs can teach you how important customer service is, and the beer business is no different. Nick & Dave taught me early on to always put the customer first. People reach for SpikedSeltzer in order to attain some sort of happiness, and when you can see the larger picture- the idea that your only job is to help them achieve that- the job becomes a lot more manageable. At the end of the day, you want the customer to like you just as much as the product you sell.
Sherman: What’s a typical day looking like for you?
Tyler: Great question. As I said earlier, that has changed drastically since the early days. After the initial year or so, I moved into a daily sales role. Early on that included pounding the pavement and selling cases out of my trunk to local retailers. I was begging and hustling cases on a daily basis, and that lasted at least two years. After we build a loyal fan base in our home market of CT and NY, I headed south to attempt to find a foothold in the southeast. Among other things, that brought me to Nashville! Moving into a new market really allowed me to branch out from pure sales, and slowly but surely I attacked the Nashville market from every angle. We were at every party, event, festival and sporting event. I had 4-5 sampling events at grocery and liquor stores around the county, and got samples into the hands of anybody I thought could help. With the help of some great friends and a fantastic wholesaler in Ajax Turner, growing the Nashville market has been one of my most proud accomplishments to date, it was really cool to watch it go from virtually non-existent to wildly popular within two years.
After the acquisition, I’ve taken on a bit of a different role. We are blessed to able to plug our brands directly into the national Budweiser sales portfolio, instantly growing our salesforce 10000X. However, in order to give AB salespeople around the country the knowledge and resources to successfully move SpikedSeltzer, we have to get in front of every distributor around the country and tell the brand story. I recently moved to Austin, TX in order to focus on the launch of South/ Southwest market. To give you an example of a week in the life, I was presenting in Odessa on Friday. Today i’m in Houston, tomorrow Austin, Thursday heading to Dallas to present, and New Orleans all of next week. Lot’s of hotels and lots of presentations, but I have a great story to tell and a great brand to sell. I’m the luckiest guy alive.
Sherman: Tyler, this has been great. I so appreciate your visit with me. What might I have missed? Is there anything you’d like to share prior to my letting you go?
Tyler: Anytime Sherman! I just want to re-iterate my excitement about the current health of the beverage industry. It might seem saturated, and the shelves are definitely cluttered, but I think we are right at the crossroads of wellness and some serious innovation. There are a lot of great products out there, and even more will be hitting the market in the next couple years. To anybody considering giving it a shot, do it. Hoping to get back to Nashville Mid-May, so expect to grab a brew!
Sherman: Tyler, thanks again and tell us how best should the audience connect with you and Spiked Seltzer?
Tyler: check us out on Instagram or Facebook @spikedselter and for direct contact feel free to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org