Entrepreneur Interview: Lester of BevShots.com

Even in these tough times, there are still plenty of motivated and passionate people taking risks and starting new businesses. One of these folks is Lester Hutt, who is the founder of BevShots.com, which takes microscopic photos of your favorite drinks and turns them into beautiful art. The piece shown above is English oatmeal stout. I know Lester through a long-time friend, and he agreed to share some of his business experiences as well as how it has affected his family’s personal finances.

What was your inspiration for Bevshots?
I was working as a business research analyst at Florida State University, and my job was to find possible business opportunities out of university research projects and patents. I came across the work of research scientist Michael Davidson, who took photographs under a microscope of a variety of items including DNA, biochemicals, and more. He also did cocktails, which he initially used for a tie collection.

I’ve never really understood abstract art, like a blue wall at a modern art museum that is supposed to express “man’s frustration with industrialization in the 20th century”. I thought that this would be a great opportunity to make a form of modern art that is affordable to the masses.

What previous experience did you find most useful in starting this new business?
For one, my time working for Apple taught me the power of good industrial design and creating a great user experience. In addition, I had just spent the last several years running every aspect of a small business, from product development to managing employees to sales.

How did you come up with the initial funding costs?
We used a combination of loans from family, personal cash reserves, and a revolving line of credit with local community bank. Thanks to my existing banking relationship from the aforementioned small business, it wasn’t difficult to secure a loan with relatively favorable terms.

How did this affect your personal finances?
It definitely affected us quite a bit. For one, we went from two incomes to having only income to support our family. We started looking for places we could cut back, including going out to eat, canceling our cable television, clothes, and travel. We’re also thinking of buying a used car as our next work vehicle.

Besides trimming expenses, we also found that we were unable to take advantage of other investment opportunities like real estate that we might have otherwise pursued. We do still maintain an emergency fund with 8 months of liquid cash. Even in a worst-case scenario for the business, we will still be okay.

More after the jump:

How did this affect your family life? What does your spouse think about it?
She is very supportive, as she has also been a small business owner and is looking to start a new business. On the personal front, she is great with Quicken and using it to help us manage our spending. For example, we set a goal of cutting back on restaurants by 50%, and we found it wasn’t that bad at all. We recently had a child, and that has also helped save money by keeping us at home more.

What was one thing you learned during the experience that you would want to pass on to other entrepreneurs?
I would say to keep your monthly operating expenses as low as you can, both for on the personal and business sides. But for the business in particular, many start-ups may go out and lease an office that often requires a long-term contract or hire too many employees too fast.

Instead, I decided to work from home and rented a P.O. Box for $10 a month. I hired a part-time Public Relations and Marketing Director, and brought on board 3-4 interns from FSU doing marketing and graphic design for free. I remember reading on your blog about the Ooma VoIP phone – we bought that and now have free unlimited phone use. (I’m talking to you on it right now!)

I’d also like to point out that our business model does not have large upfront costs. We have contracts with vendors for production, where each new purchase is made to order. We didn’t have to purchase any large equipment or lease manufacturing space.

What was the largest obstacle so far in your venture?
I think we underestimated how difficult it is to get the word out about your product nationally. Even though we are well-connected on the local level, it was very hard to expand past that. We avoided traditional media due to the high cost and worked hard at using social media, but it was no silver bullet.

So how are you advertising?
n general, we are trying to get “earned media” as opposed to “paid media”. We point out that we’re a start-up business created from innovation of a public university, that we kept the business local, and that the products are all made in the USA. We’re also trying to get on some “Unique Gift Lists” for Christmas, as we see BevShots as artwork that you can add to a man-cave or man-room above the stereotypical Bud Girl calender.

On the local level, we are sponsoring a beer-tasting event. As part of that, we get a lot of publicity on television spots, magazines, and newspapers that would otherwise cost up to ten times more if all of that advertising was purchased separately.

How did you set the prices on your product?
With BevShots, I am targeting a specific segment of the art market. I didn’t want to compete in the cheap poster market where the price points can be below $10, and I also felt that original art was too expensive for the mass market. Original pieces of modern art that are sold in galleries usually start at $500 for very small pieces and can go as high as $10,000 or more. I also took into account that it typically costs a few hundred dollars to get something custom-framed at a local shop. For the BevShots’ price points, I made sure to have framed pieces that started at the $199 mark and went as high as the 500′s for the largest pieces. These are price points that you would find at home accessory stores like Z. Gallery or Crate and Barrel.

– end of interview –

Recap
I’d like to thank Les for sharing his time and knowledge. Starting a new business can be stressful, and I think there were a lot of good tips in there. You can learn more about BevShots by visiting their website, joining their Facebook page, or following them via Twitter. They even have an iPhone app going.

If you’re an entrepreneur with a unique story and would like to be interviewed here as well, please feel free to contact me.

Past Entrepreneur Interviews:

Comments

  1. Hey,

    First of all, great interview. As someone currently thinking of dumping my day job to start my own business, I think this is really interesting and I’m glad to hear there will be more to come.

    I just have one question- maybe you can pass it on to Lester, or maybe he’ll see it here-
    Your business idea is brilliant and really well put together, I think (your website looks great and handles the up-front order taking and customer interaction, you have your suppliers all lined up, you know the importance of keeping your overhead low) but, at least from the outside, it seems like the only very time-consuming part of your job is the marketing- when an order comes in, you ship it off to the factory, then just follow up to make sure the customer was satisfied. So my questions are:

    1. Am I wrong about this? What takes up most of your time? What task takes up a lot more (or a lot less) time than you expected when you started your business?

    2. (Assuming I’m right about your day to day duties) It sounds like this is something that you could do in the evenings, or in your free time. Did you consider just running this as a business “on the side” of your career? If so, why did you decide against it?

  2. One more question- when we look at these pictures, what exactly are we looking at? Is this the molecular level? Some of them (English oatmeal stout) look almost like crystals? Or are these impurities in the brew?

    Oh, and I just wanted to tell you…I’m with you 100% on the modern art thing.

  3. The Frugal Immigrant says:

    I always enjoy your Entrepreneur Interviews – on topic and insightful. These are unique business niches that one rarely thinks of. Two thumbs up! :)

  4. Hi Justin,

    Thank you for reading the interview and for the compliments about the business. Here are some answers to the questions that you had posted above:

    1) You are right that marketing is one of the most time consuming part of my business. Since marketing is not my particular strength as an entrepreneur, I hired on a part time public relations/marketing director who really knows her stuff, and I’ve also brought on 4 interns from Florida State University– 2 are in public relations, 1 is in marketing, and 1 is a graphic artist. So as you can see, I have a lot of head count dedicated to marketing.

    The other area where I spend a lot of time is in sales, or closing the deal. Marketing helps get the word out, but I make a lot of calls and e-mails to finalize a sale. I am constantly experimenting with different routes to market too. For example, sales have been sluggish on the BevShots.com website, so we’re going to attend a tradeshow in Atlanta, GA for some larger wholesale orders to retailers and interior designers. I’ve learned that your first guesses at the route to market are not necessarily the ones that work in the end.

    Even though the operations and order fulfillment doesn’t seem like it would take much time with my model, it did take a lot of work getting things prepped. For instance, I had to visit with my vendors a few times to develop product and ensure that they understood the level of quality and service that I expected. I also had to do packaging and shipping tests to make sure that the product would survive UPS.

    2) You are correct that BevShots is something that I could potentially run in the evenings while I also had a full time career. However, I opted against this for two reasons. First, if I did this just in the evenings, BevShots would not grow as quickly as I wanted it to, and I wouldn’t be able to follow up with customers and vendors during business hours. Second, I wanted to leave my evenings available so that I could spend time with my wife and my son; I find that having balance in my life is very important.

  5. Justin, this is the answer to your other question about “What exactly are we looking at?” These are photographs taken under a microscope of crystals. These crystals were grown from each beverage on microscope slides. The light source for the microscope is polarized, and as this polarized light passes through crystals, it bends the light similar to when you hold a prism up to the sunlight. That is why these photos have so much color.

    Although this technique sounds relatively simple, it is actually very time consuming. The most difficult part is growing good crystals from the beverages, and it can take many months to grow a crystal of sufficient quality to make a beautiful BevShot.

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