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No Small Beer

Fast Company is an ideas-driven magazine and every now and then readers report back on how those ideas are working in practice. In the spring of 2002, Liam Mulhall and his pals had called time on plans to quit the ailing Australian tech sector to buy and run a pub in Sydney. New laws permitting gambling in bars had sent pub prices rocketing beyond their means. The trio had also considered brewing their own beer. But what could they offer lager-loving Aussies that hadn’t already been done?

Fast Company is an ideas-driven magazine and every now and then readers report back on how those ideas are working in practice.

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In the spring of 2002, Liam Mulhall and his pals had called time on plans to quit the ailing Australian tech sector to buy and run a pub in Sydney. New laws permitting gambling in bars had sent pub prices rocketing beyond their means.

The trio had also considered brewing their own beer. But what could they offer lager-loving Aussies that hadn’t already been done?

The friends were about to give up their dream when Mulhall happened upon the Fast Company website and read “Who Runs This Team Anyway?” – the tale of PK-35, a soccer club in Helsinki, Finland that handed control to fans, allowing them to vote and influence tactics by texting the team coach via their mobile phones.

The report got Mulhall thinking: What if customers got a chance to design a beer themselves? Within weeks of pitching the idea to 140 friends and associates, the friends’ start-up, Brewtopia, had more than 10,000 people on a database. Through a website, these ‘members’ created a beer, voting on everything from its alcoholic content to the design of the bottles. In return, members received ‘viral equity’ that pays dividends depending on how well the beer sells.

With no marketing or brewing experience, Mulhall and his chums created demand for their Blowfly beer long before it was brewed and launched at the end of 2002.

Brewtopia now sells Blowfly over the Internet to more than 44,000 shareholding customers and is in talks to supply Trader Joes and Ralphs Supermarkets in the US. “The beer industry is very antiquated,” says Mulhall, “but we were convinced there had to be a way of cross-pollinating brewing with the Web.”

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Unfortunately, Jussi Rautavirta – the entrepreneur behind the Finnish ‘Club Manager’ service – found soccer equally conservative. By the end of the 2002 season, PK-35 had narrowly avoided relegation to a lower division, the coach was sacked and Club Manager scrapped. But Rautavirta hopes to revive the concept, maybe with a women’s soccer team. “Things got a little tense when the side was losing all the time,” he says. “People in sport need reminding they’re in the entertainment business.”

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