How two competitors joined forces to bring technology to craft beer

Greg Forehand had just made one of the biggest decisions in the life of his company: He was going to turn his broad-based software development company into a highly specialized one — focused on building technology to power the craft beer industry.

There was just one problem: Someone else was out there, trying to do the exact same thing at the exact same time.

Forehand would meet with prospective clients, only to find out this competitor had locked them in to a deal just a day or two before. He seemed to be perpetually one step ahead, and he became known around Forehand’s office as “the Rogue.”

When he tells the story now, four years later, Forehand laughs. “The Rogue” — real name: Josh McKinney — is sitting right next to him. The competitors are now co-founders of Ekos Brewmaster, which builds business management software for breweries, cideries and — coming soon — wineries.

By all accounts, partnering up has paid off. McKinney joined Forehand in 2014. By the end of that year, Ekos had just under 100 customers. Now, it has more than 1,300 in 40 countries around the world.

“We are very comprehensive. We do everything that you need to operate your entire business, but we do it in a way that’s approachable by anybody in the business — even the guys out filling kegs,” Forehand explains.

You don’t have to be a beer drinker to know the brewery scene in Charlotte is big. There are more than 40 breweries in the metro area. And North Carolina has the most craft breweries in the South — more than 260, according to the North Carolina Craft Brewers Guild. That mirrors explosive industry growth across the country: At the end of 2017, there were nearly twice as many breweries in the U.S. as there were in 2013 — about 6,266 in total.

What those breweries needed, Forehand and McKinney discovered, was technology.

Forehand came to that conclusion after running his software development company for 12 years.

“It was a great business, but we really wanted to focus on a single market we could become an expert in,” Forehand says. “[That market] needed to be underserved in technology, and it needed to be an industry where we could develop a platform that a majority of the users could afford.”

He started exploring agriculture and, specifically, hops, which led him to breweries.

McKinney, meanwhile, had gotten deeply interested in craft beer and breweries while working for a software company in Charleston. When he got to know the industry in greater depth, he too realized the gaps technology could fill.

After their initial meeting in 2014, the two talked for months to feel each other out. As the potential became more evident, they joined forces. Now theirs is a story of competition turned successful collaboration.

“Most software is designed for the back of house. It isn’t designed for the person in front who is putting grain in the brew house and packaging kegs, and that’s where we started because, when breweries are starting up, they are doing all of it,” Forehand explains. “So we had the goal to make that easy.”

Part of making it easy meant creating software that manages everything for breweries — from accounting and inventory to the actual process of brewing the beer.

Another part is making it user-friendly. That’s why Ekos customers can log into the platform and see the exact layout of their particular brewery online, giving them the ability to visualize how all the systems — front and back of house — connect to one another. To do that, part of the Ekos customer onboarding process includes uploading a sketch or architectural drawing of each brewery into the system to create a digital representation of it — like looking at the floor plan of a home online.

Noda Brewing, Triple C and D9 were among those who took the leap with Ekos when it first launched. At the same time, word started to spread well beyond Charlotte, and it wasn’t long before Ekos was getting calls from international brewers.

That demand required rapid scaling. In the past four years, Ekos has grown its team from four to 31, with plans to hit 40 full-time employees by year’s end. It’s moved offices four times and is now on the hunt for its next and largest space to date.

The company is also growing beyond its core focus on craft beer. It has already branched into cideries, and Forehand and McKinney recently wrapped a two-week trip to Napa Valley to investigate the software needs of wineries.

Eventually, Forehand says, the plan is to expand beyond alcohol into other markets, such as coffee or kombucha. And while that may seem to run counter to the company’s initial focus on beer, Forehand clarifies that the focus was never beer to begin with.

“Our focus is craft,” Forehand says. “We knew who we were when it was the three of us, and we’ve tried not the change that as we have grown.”

That said, it hasn’t always been easy. McKinney recalls the time when a big, well-known brewery approached Ekos to build something custom. It was a huge opportunity that could have brought with it serious money, name recognition and opportunity. But the Ekos team turned it down because it strayed too far from the company’s core.

The same goes with investor money. The team gets approached by investors often, but Ekos has consistently passed. As McKinney explains it, there’s a lot the company wants to do and a very specific vision it wants to pursue, and outside funding, which inevitably comes with investor input and pressure, could jeopardize that.

“We have had numerous times in the past four years where we could have done something else or done too many things that would have derailed us,” McKinney says. “It’s hard to say no, but we are doing our best to stay focused.”

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