An UMSL education has helped form many successful entrepreneurs through the years, not only in St. Louis, but also around the world. Diego Rodríguez, a 2008 UMSL graduate, is one of these successful entrepreneurs who turned a fun hobby into a growing enterprise. He is the co- founder of Cervecería Barbarian, a brewery that distributes craft beer globally and a pub chain, headquartered in Lima, Peru. Last week, I had the privilege to interview Diego about his entrepreneurial journey and the advice he has for UMSL students who want to cultivate their ideas into the next best thing.
Tamás: Could you tell us a little about your time at UMSL?
Diego: Sure! I was a Fulbright scholar, and studied International Business Administration and Management at UMSL between 2004 and 2008. I minored in Economics, held internship positions, but never got to use my OPT as the financial crisis hit the job market.
Tamás: How did the time you spent at UMSL help you?
Diego: The business education I received made me understand important concepts, and my financial education helped me tremendously when I entered the investment banking sector. On the other hand, the experience of being away from home was challenging, and helped me become who I am today. My involvement with the Honors College taught me how to see things from different aspects and how to coherently explain myself in papers.
Tamás: Where did the idea of launching your beer brewing company come from?
Diego: I have several close friends from high school, some of them became industrial engineers. We hang out after work, and spent way too much on beer. *laughs* I also travelled and studied in Germany, so got a chance to first-hand experience the local beer scene. We actually started out from a garage, where we started brewing our own beer, 1-2 gallons at a time.
Tamás: So how did you turn it into a business?
Diego: It was a hobby when we started, and it remained a hobby for 3 years. Then in November 2011, we made our first sale to a new bar that opened up and sold imported beer. They offered us to sell our craft beer from a tap. Approximately 6 months later our operation still located in the same space, but we brew 1-200 liters (25-50 gallons) a month, and production ramped up to 5-600 liters (130-160 gallons) a month after a few months. The fork in the road came around the end of 2013, when I quit my day job to focus on Barbarian. In 2014, we moved to a 500 sqm (appr. 5400 sqft) facility, and we started selling bottled beer, the first handcrafted bottled beer in Peru that reached the supermarkets.
Tamás: This is what your current operation looks like?
Diego: No, we bought a new brew house in 2015, which is 10 times bigger than the previous one. Today we serve 400 clients – hotels, gas stations, etc. – and produce around 25,000 liter (6600 gallons) beer a month. Part of our production is exported to Spain and Brazil. We also expanded into the service industry, when our first bar opened a year ago, and our second one is under construction. The period from 2014 has gone by really fast, and Barbarian now employs almost 50 people.
Tamás: What does the foreseeable future hold for Barbarian?
Diego: Our focus is on nurturing our relationship with our existing clients, and working towards becoming the most recognizable brand in Peru. By 2018, we would like to have 5 bars, and then turn this business line into a franchise in order to accelerate growth. One of our goals is to expand our exports to new markets as well, so Barbarian has multiple business lines to develop.
Tamás: That must require a lot of work! What is the allocation of labor among the founders?
Diego: JD is in charge of the brewery, Ignacio runs all things marketing, events and projects, while I’m responsible for the bars.
Tamás: So are you friends and business partners? How is that working out for you?
Diego: It has been important for us trying not to collide, as all three founders work for the company. We all love being entrepreneurs, but it isn’t easy even with friends. We had to learn how to manage our problems, which started out during the transition process when Barbarian turned into a business from a hobby. It happened organically, without any of us really realizing it. Barbarian pioneered the craft beer market in Peru, and we knew it, and got overexcited at times.
Tamás: But the evidence seems to indicate that you managed the challenges you faced well.
Diego: Yes, it has been great working together, we learned a lot about how to adapt to the constantly challenging environment. We know our market and the demand really well, and it is amazing to experience when something you created works, and when the people in the company grow.
Tamás: What was the most significant unexpected challenge?
Diego: Nobody teaches you how to be a leader and a boss, and sometimes you don’t even believe that you are one. It is also challenging to manage people, and make them as passionate as you are. Part of this process is delegating tasks to employees, but transferring power to them was hard sometimes.
Tamás: What is your vision for Barbarian?
Diego: On a personal level is to prove that our decisions are correct, and the company prospers while people grow along Barbarian. From a business point of view, our goal is to expand to other markets in Latin America and on a global level as well, but giving back to the communities where Barbarian operates.
Tamás: Do you have any advice for prospective entrepreneurs?
Diego: You never know until you try! It’s a rough path, especially in the beginning, but if you know what you love to do and you actually put in the work, it pays off over time! Also there is no better time to start than now!
Tamás: How can our readers get their hands on some Barbarian beer in the US?
Diego: We are working on some administrative issues, and hopefully we will be able to ship our beer to Miami sometime later this year, then we can expand our footprint to other regions in the US!