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At the beginning, the non-alcoholic beer company bootstrapped instead of courting investors, a strategy Ted Fleming says paid off as the company grew

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Candice Ward/The Globe and Mail

When Ted Fleming was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease in 2005, he stopped drinking alcohol, including his beloved craft beer. What followed was years of trying unsatisfactory non-alcoholic beers—at the time, there just weren’t many alcohol-free brews that tasted like the real thing. But eventually, Fleming had enough. He missed the experience of enjoying a drink with friends and he believed there were more people who wanted tasty non-alcoholic options out there. He decided he would figure out a way to bring non-drinkers a high-quality beverage.

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“I took my first step towards where I am now by starting an online store and importing some products from Europe,” Fleming says. “In so doing, I learned how big of a community we [non-drinkers] were.”

What started as a side project intended to solve a problem—poor tasting alcohol-free beer— became a business opportunity. Fleming’s online store received such great feedback that he decided to make his own first batch of alcoholic-free beer. That decision led to what is now Partake Brewing.

The company has since evolved from that single batch into a craft brewery with IPAs, stouts, blonde and pale ales available in liquor stores and retailers across Canada and online. In 2020, Partake announced it had raised $4-million in funding to enter the U.S. market, and in March, the company said it was expanding even further into the country.

Ted’s best advice for entrepreneurs

Make sure your business has a purpose

Fleming says looking to solve a real problem is key. “If you're solving a problem someone genuinely has…you're 90 per cent of the way there,” he says.

Don’t expect success to happen overnight

There are many ups and downs in starting a business and it’s normal to learn as you go. “Work at it incrementally every day; you're not going to hit a homerun in your first year. It's a long game,” Fleming says. “You have to have the stamina to show up every day and go through some of those early times where things are still being figured out.”

Fleming says the fact that Partake was bootstrapped showed potential investors that he was disciplined and knew how to build a business up. “It’s allowed us to raise money from some pretty high-profile investors,” he says.

“We get so much passion and feedback from our current customer base, which is many times larger than it used to be, and we use them as a guide to bring in new innovation,” Fleming says.

But Partake’s growth didn’t happen overnight. Fleming made the intentional decision to bootstrap his business and not take funds from investors at the start. He believed that learning how to run a lean company would serve him better in the long-term. It also meant he could release batches of beer, get customer feedback, and tweak recipes — something that was key especially in the early days.

“We have people that say, ‘Could you bring this style?’ and usually within six to eight months, we’ve launched something like that,” Fleming says. “So, it’s really a communication process with our community as much as it is a decision about commercial viability.”

Interest in Partake’s beers reflects the societal enthusiasm for good-tasting, booze-free drinks in recent years. The shift towards non-alcoholic beverages and healthier lifestyles alongside the rise of the “sober curious” movement, an ideology based in limiting alcohol consumption for health purposes and consuming mindfully, has helped generate interest in companies like Fleming’s.

There’s also been more conversations around the health repercussions from drinking alcohol, and the danger of regular—and over—consumption. Recent research has found that no amount of alcohol is considered safe, and drinking is linked to an increased risk of cancer.

Fleming sees first-hand that many people choose to skip on alcohol for a variety of reasons, not only due to a medical condition. The reality is many people just want to be healthier and feel better while still enjoying a beer.

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Candice Ward/The Globe and Mail

“There’s such a strong health and wellness trend going on, particularly with Gen Z and millennial consumers,” he says. “There’s kind of this cultural pushback against the messaging of Big Alcohol saying ‘You have to drink to have fun and be included.’”

That’s not to say that some of Partake’s clients aren’t like Fleming, and consume non-alcoholic beverages for medical reasons. He says people with diabetes, for example, can enjoy a can of one of his beers because it’s only 10 calories and has a low carb count, unlike regular beer. Regardless of someone’s reasoning, he takes pleasure in knowing he’s delivering an experience of a full-flavoured drink.

“Every day, we get at least one, sometimes three or four emails, from people saying, ‘I just discovered your product. It’s a game changer,’” he says.

That positive feedback keeps Fleming motivated and gives him confidence in his product. But running a business is hard work, and happy consumers are only part of the puzzle. So how else does he stay excited by his work?

“We have a fun culture,” he says. “I enjoy showing up to work every day. Whether I was the CEO or not, I think Partake is a great place to work.”

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Advertising feature produced by Globe Content Studio. The Globe’s editorial department was not involved.