You might recognize Steve Young, founder of the Synek Draft System, from a Kickstarter campaign last year which raised $648,535–over double their original goal of $250,000. Similar to a Keurig for beer, the device allows customers to dispense draft beer straight from their homes, and still reigns as the most successful Kickstarter campaign to have ever come out of St. Louis. “We’re a completely new product that’s never been done before, in a traditional industry that hasn’t seen innovation in over a century. Aluminum cans were made three decades before the moon landing. That’s the last innovation that’s happened in beer,” says Young, engrossed in pressing Reese’s Pieces into a Rice Krispie treat. When complete, he perches it on the blue cellophane wrapping and admires his handiwork. “I’m just going to stare at this for a minute,” he says, quickly brushing his hair out of his face. He’s grown it out long and jokes that it’s an homage to his man crush, Bradley Cooper, whose coif he wouldn’t mind having. “I wish I did. I tried so hard,” he says, laughing. “Or Brad Pitt when he had his longer hair–like in ‘Troy.’”
Today Young is joined by Eric Stoddard, the company’s director of customer engagement, at their office in St. Louis’ Cambridge Innovation Center in the Central West End. As fellow entrepreneurs and creatives pass by in the large coworking space, Young and Stoddard constantly crack jokes. “We locked eyes to that Whitney Houston song, remember?” Young says of how they met. “The rest was history. I said, ‘Let’s work together.’ No–I met him through a program at SLU. The first time I talked to him, I was like–come work with us.” Stoddard first came to St. Louis to attend Saint Louis University, where he studied entrepreneurship. One of his early ideas was a social media application that would allow users to send out a question to a user network, attach a photo, and get feedback. “It was essentially Snapchat plus polls,” he explains.
Originally from St. Louis, Young attended Case Western University, where he started out as pre-med before affirming he didn’t want to work 90-hour weeks. He then switched to a major in finance and helped start a dot-com, iRentToOwn.com, that spun out into a multi-million dollar business. However, he left the business before it sold, as he was still in college at the time. “I focused back on school, and then two years later the company sold for like, $100 million or something. I was like– ‘Fuck.’ But it was good for me,” he says. “That stuff’s possible.”
After graduating, Young first worked as a stock analyst at a firm in Cleveland, where a bad estimate could result in losing huge companies millions of dollars. “If I were to make a stock call to Walmart and say, ‘Hey, the stock’s doing well,’ and then it goes down, someone calls me up and says, ‘Hey, you lost me $400 million.’” The first month he was on the job, the firm made the worst call Young saw the entire duration of the time he was there. “We said the stock was going to be way up and it was way down. We were on the road the very next day meeting with our clients face-to-face,” he remembers. “Luckily, I was with my boss … they yell, they throw things, they call you pieces of shit, they say they’re going to sue you. Everything. It’s money, it’s business. You’re losing people money, and they’re taking heat from their investors.” He stops for a moment, sipping decaffeinated coffee out of a paper cup. “I left the meeting and I was petrified.”
One night at a bar, Young approached a senior analyst and asked him how to become proficient in the field. “He said, ‘You want to get good? Here’s $100. Go around and try to buy a drink for every single girl at the bar.’” Several of them were with their boyfriends, and the analyst replied, “I don’t care. Just go talk to them,” Young remembers. “I got rejected by everyone. He was like, ‘How does that feel?’ I said, ‘Like crap.’ He said, ‘Good, get used to it. That’ll go away once you do it enough.’”
It was through difficulty and failure that Young began to mature. “The point was to do it enough so you get used to it, and it doesn’t affect your mentality,” he says. He admittedly snoozed through most of his college classes, but this was different. “I mean, I never–I never took life seriously, because I wasn’t challenged. When I was at my first job, I was incredibly challenged, and incredibly over my head. I was a 21-year-old talking to CEO’s and hedge fund managers–really important people that I shouldn’t even have been in the room with. So that was the fire under my ass, and I had to get serious real quickly. It was also a wake-up call that people my age who I was working with were a lot smarter than me,” says Young. When he went to work, he was frequently told his stock call would likely be wrong and that he’d end up losing companies money. “I learned from the get-go to have a thick skin.” This came in handy when not a single investor saw the vision for what Synek could become, at first.
It was during his time back in Cleveland that he first became interested in the craft beer industry–he saw it growing, and wanted to understand why. Before the idea for Synek had even crossed his mind, he began talking with brewers about their primary challenges without any expectations of what they might say. “An underlying theme spawned from every brewery: it’s hard to get it into people’s homes. And the number one reason was packaging. Over half the brewers in the industry can’t afford bottling equipment. So the majority of the beer just sits in the brewery,” he says. Even the biggest brewers struggle with it–Schlafly, for example, makes over 40 different brands of beer a year, and customers have easy access to only a fraction of them. “Even the biggest ones struggle with it,” says Young.
After working in stocks for four years in Cleveland, Young decided to quit his job and move to Hong Kong. “I quit that job because I knew I wanted to do something different,” he says. “Some pursuit-of-happiness type of deal.” His father, who runs Ittner Architectural Leadership in St. Louis, was notably concerned. “He freaked the frick out when I quit my job and I told him I was going to be an entrepreneur. But I can see why,” says Young. He continued to work in finance in Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Australia, all before he had the idea for Synek.
Young eventually returned home to St. Louis from his adventures abroad to live with his father, where he stayed for nine months, and helped him work on the architecture firm. Young’s brother also recently caught the startup bug, and just recently quit his job as an electrophysicist for Boeing to begin a service called BuckUp. It’s similar to Groupon, but protects customers by ensuring each participant has to pay their own way within the group, whether it’s for skydiving or group manicures. The idea sidesteps the fatal flaw of the current Groupon model, which charges the organizer of the group if one person doesn’t pay. “It’s a better idea than Synek,” says Young, laughing.
One day he was listening to Pandora when an ad popped up for an Anheuser-Busch product that was similar to what Synek is now: it allowed customers to dispense draft beer from their homes, but would only work with Anheuser-Busch beers. “You could only have access to five different types of beer that you could already get in cans. The technology was brilliant, but the application of it sucked,” he says. “That was the ‘Ah-ha’ moment where it was like, ‘We could apply this in a completely different way.’”
He initially posted the idea for Synek on Kickstarter during the summer of 2014, but within the first week they’d only raised $30,000 of their $250,000 goal. “Out of that $30,000 I think I knew $26,000 worth of those people–my family and friends,” says young. “The reason people didn’t buy it was because we had launched Synek as a homebrew device–a way that you can better package your homebrew, trade with friends, dispense from your kitchen countertop. But what people really wanted were brands.”
Their options were to evolve the concept into something else, or cancel the campaign altogether. “If we pivoted and it still didn’t work, then we’d look like idiots. But if we cancelled, we’d look like quitters.” They decided to pivot, aiming the product at all craft beer lovers as opposed to just homebrewers, which was a game-changer. Within 48 hours they met their goal of $250,000, which they’d eventually double. “[Stoddard] was one of the key people during the Kickstarter, who said, ‘We’ve got to pivot,’” says Young. “It was amazing just how quick we exploded. Then we were in Time magazine, 400 articles about us worldwide. It was like– ‘Holy shit. That really happened.’”
He recalls being laughed out of investor meetings and told the idea was a stupid gimmick. “The real verbiage was one investor said, ‘Fuck off. I can’t believe you wasted my time.’ I have a unique pitching style too, and some investors don’t like that,” he says, noting that most of them were discouraged because he’d explained the idea for a model, but didn’t have it built. “[St. Louis] is a show-me type of city. People wanted to see it,” he says. “I get it. If you told me you have some crazy idea–even if I believed in your vision, I might not believe in your ability to execute or make the product happen.” This is the “weed-out” course for startup entrepreneurs: continuing to believe in your idea, even if no one else does. “It is a little discouraging when you’re asking for people to believe you and nobody does. Literally nobody was like, ‘That’s awesome.’ Consumers were like, ‘Yeah this could be cool.’ But nobody on the investor side.”
While traveling the world, Young never considered the possibility of starting a business in his hometown. “I was like, ‘Absolutely not–I finally have this international job, I’m going to be doing my own thing.’ I’m a little bit liberal–out there. I think about things differently, and St. Louis likes you to fit in. They don’t celebrate the misfits–like Eric. I took him in, gave him a home. Synek: Home of the Misfits,” he jokes. “He’s killing it. We just keep piling bigger and bigger stuff on his plate.”
Since returning to his hometown, Young’s views have continued to evolve. “Being back here was actually a darn good fit, because it’s a very collaborative environment. People help you a lot. There’s not a lot of roadblocks, and it’s a big beer city.” As an entrepreneur with a beer product, this came in handy–especially the excess of ex-Anheuser-Busch executives. “There was a crap-ton of Anheuser-Busch talent that was floating in this pool. So I could just say, ‘Hey, come out to lunch with me and let me pick your brain.’ And they would regurgitate unbelievable amounts of–”
“Food,” says Stoddard.
“–quality information,” Young finishes. He looks at him, laughs, and gives it back to him in equal measure while describing a typical day at Synek. “Eric strolls in at like 1 pm, already drunk. Then he takes his lunch break,” Young jokes. “No, we have a pretty consistent workday–I think we all do the same thing. We roll in at 8:30-ish, and then from there we all have our set of priorities and tasks,” he says–which might keep them at work until Friday night at 10 pm. Surrounded by other entrepreneurs at CIC, they wouldn’t be the only ones.
Typically they settle constructive disputes over a game of ping pong, as CIC has a table just for that purpose. “We get loose, we’re talking, we’re sweating, we’re crying a little bit,” says Young.
“That’s where ideas get spawned from.”
“I always win,” Stoddard laughs.
“He always beats me,” Young acquiesces.
To finish up today, Young and Stoddard root out a ping-pong table nestled in a darkened corner of CIC. Wooden paddles in hand, they begin to play. There’s no immediate dispute, and this simple activity, bouncing a plastic ball across a table between two paddles, isn’t something they have to take seriously right now. Soon they’ll return to their office space behind a glass-doored corridor, where the pursuit continues. “It’s one thing to have an idea–it’s another thing to make it happen,” says Young.
For more information about Synek, visit www.synek.beer.