Courtesy of Founders Brewing Co. ( Nathan Yoder)
When Dave Engbers and Mike Stevens started their beer company, Founders Brewing Co., craft brew wasn’t as popular as it is today. That made the first 10 years of business difficult, bringing the co-founders close to bankruptcy several times.
“Everyone did similar things and our business model wasn’t working,” says Engbers, 46, who is co-founder and president of Founders. “Our business looked like it was going to fold, and we said, ‘If we are going to go out of business, let’s do out on our terms and brew beer we want to drink.'”
That was the beginning of change for the business, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on Monday. But the entrepreneurs aren’t ignoring their hardships, they’re instead turning it into art. To commemorate its birthday, Founders asked seven artists from around the world to visualize the brewery’s history — from the struggles to the success.
The Zero Regrets Artist Series interprets those entrepreneurial challenges through pieces titled “Chasing a Dream,” “Tough Decisions,” and “Following Instincts.” In one piece called “Whatever It Takes,” (pictured) two figures are shown bent over beer bottles, with the words–in all caps– “hard work, true grit” over them. The image depicts a time when Engbers and Stevens worked the bottling line for 18-hours straight to make sure the first batch went out the door.
The co-founders launched the brewery in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1997 with four different beers. Business was slow at the start and Engbers says “the market just wasn’t there.” After several difficult years, Engbers and Stevens decided to become a product-driven company and make something that didn’t compete with anything else. That is when Dirty Bastard was born.
The malty and hoppy beer came out in 2001, but put Founders on the map a year later when it debuted at the Extreme Beer Fest. Even after Dirty Bastard’s recognition, the company took another five years to become profitable. But patience and perseverance paid off: Founders now offers 26 beers, including the limited and seasonal series.
“I think it’s important for people to realize that Founders was not always hugely successful, we took a lot of risks,” Engbers says. “We built out an entire business around that model about zero regrets and hopefully inspire people to go for it.”