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Entrepreneur Profile: Sean Lilly Wilson
Entrepreneur Organization: Fullsteam Brewery
Sean Lilly Wilson officially opened Fullsteam Brewery in 2010. Sean began his career in the craft beer industry by working on the Pop the Cap legislation, which helped lift the alcohol by volume cap on beer in North Carolina. Sean realized that a southern beer tradition did not exist and he wanted to create a culture for it by utilizing local ingredients and supporting the local beer economy. Moreover, he truly desired to create new products, new concepts, and new flavors of beer. His guiding principle is to make well-crafted beers that are distinctly southern.
Sean has known for some time that he wanted to eventually become an entrepreneur. In his current role, he utilizes his undergraduate degrees in sociology and communications, as well as his dual Master degrees in public policy and business, to focus on the idea of ‘people. ’ In the past, he has gained experience by working for other start-up companies and was able to learn how a business operates. Sean’s optimism is one of his most entrepreneurial qualities. For example, he believes that beer is the “beverage of the community, of celebration” and that “people want to have fun.” This viewpoint has helped him to quickly propel his business to where it is today, in a little over three years. Other qualities that have made him successful in his current endeavors are innovation, being strategic, and the ability to win others over.
Still, Sean faces challenges trying to maintain and grow the business. He believes he needs to record his marketing plan, and he’d like to find a way to outsource some responsibilities because he is doing so much of the work himself that he feels he is slowing down progress. He would also like to be able to coach and navigate customers towards trying certain beers brewed at Fullsteam. He acknowledges that because Fullsteam is a three-tier system, in which they manufacture, distribute, and sell retail, there is potential for unique challenges during each of those processes. He also recognizes that his type of business is an expensive one to start and maintain. They have to rely on loans, specifically loans for expensive brewing equipment. Sean believes that one of the greatest challenges he has to face is one that is out of his control. He has a difficult time accepting that not everyone will like Fullsteam beers, and admits that he is uncomfortable with negative reviews. Sean feels that one very positive attribute of his business is that they are very tuned in to customers; however, this makes it difficult to ignore things that he cannot change.
Sean is inspired by the integrity of his product and his beer, and believes wholeheartedly in establishing value and maintaining it. He is passionate about Fullsteam Brewery being authentic, and enjoys saying “this is who we are and this is what we do” and sticking to that regardless of external pressures.
Sean believes that there is a great entrepreneurial climate in Durham, and the location has been perfect for Fullsteam. He has had great support from members of the City Council and many other members of local government in the area. Sean says they have been accommodating, easy when interacting with him for business, and welcoming. The support for Fullsteam in the community has been obvious in that they have won several awards organized by The Independent, such as “Best Neighborhood Bar,” Best Place to Chill in Durham County,” and “Best Brewery.”
In the beginning, Fullsteam used social media such as blogging, Facebook, and Twitter in order to share their story and concept. Currently, Fullsteam has 13,000 Twitter followers. Additionally, Sean utilizes Yelp and other online reviews in order to increase his customer base. In order to attract customers, Sean strives for Fullsteam to be a community gathering space with an inclusive and welcoming environment. He wants it to be a come as you are, family-friendly, and dog-friendly kind of place. He has fantastic customers who often bring their family and friends to Fullsteam to share in the experience. Sean is interested in attracting all kinds of beer drinkers, including those who think they don’t like beer but just may not have yet found the kind they like. He also has an interest in food enthusiast customers and people who support local products.
Sean has an extensive network that has helped him grow his business over the last few years. He is on the board of the North Carolina Brewer’s Guild and has worked on legislation that has allowed breweries to sell directly to customers at farmers’ markets and festivals. He also collaborates with food trucks and the music venue across the street from Fullsteam, as well as like-minded food-related entrepreneurs in the Triangle. He relies on the Executive Director of N.C. Brewers Guild for advice and information, and also obtains exchanges ideas with Erik Myers, the founder of Mystery Brewing Company, and Sebastian Wolfrum, the Director of Brewing Operations at Natty Greene’s. Sean also has a good friend and mentor, Daniel Bradford, at “All About Beer” magazine. He also credits a well-known chef, Sean Brock, as being a big supporter. He acknowledges that he utilizes the Brewer’s Association at the national level for advice, support, and marketing materials. Lastly, he has employed several interns at Fullsteam, and would like to start working with other wholesalers in Charlotte, Charleston, and South Carolina.
Sean prides himself on using local ingredients in his products. Furthermore, he will buy the excess of some products to use in his beer, which not only supports the local producer but also prevents that product from going to waste. Sean is excited about his 100% North Carolina grain beer and states there has been great support for it. Fullsteam has limited air conditioning, which is environmentally friendly, but also adds to the experience of drinking a refreshing cold beer.
Sean wants Fullsteam Brewery to be a landmark brewery in the south, and he says they are currently at a fraction of the size he would like it to be. Sean expresses an interest in having Fullsteam’s market span throughout much of the Southeastern U.S. within the next 10 years. He recently signed on distributors in Charlotte and Charleston, SC. He aspires to continue to be an innovator and pioneer, and wants to “make sure we’re at the leading edge of what we do on the beer side and the community side to be at our best.”