Steven Yeng — Find ways to enjoy each other. Running a business can be all encompassing, especially when you live with your business partner. We try to keep a pulse on that and when we’ve had a particularly bad day or week, we set up as much time as we can spare — even if that’s a few minutes or an hour — to focus on something positive in our lives. Sometimes that just means dinner with the family where we aren’t allowed to discuss business.
Brittany Merrill-Yeng — Respecting each other’s time alone. With the pandemic, everyone is seeing that there is such a thing as too much time together. It is so important to have time to do something for just yourself. In the evenings, we take turns giving the girls a bath while the other has time to reset.
As a part of our series about lessons from Thriving Power Couples, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brittany Merrill-Yeng and Steven Yeng, co-founders of Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey, the original peanut butter whiskey. This husband-and-wife duo spearheaded one of the fastest market rollouts in the history of the spirits industry and have transformed their small family-owned company into an award-winning, international sensation.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you two to your respective career paths?
Brittany Merrill-Yeng: While I was in college, Steven worked with his family to develop a restaurant and bar. The only way for us to spend time together was for me to help him on this project. So, when I wasn’t at school or working, I’d be volunteering my time helping him build the restaurant.
Steven continued to build more restaurants that were featured on Food Network and TruTV while I continued my education receiving a master’s in chemistry and a law degree. I moved on to practice as a pharmaceutical patent litigator for one of the largest firms in the world.
At the restaurant, Steven developed many great cocktail recipes throughout the years. Peanut butter whiskey became his signature cocktail, and we knew there was something there.
Steven Yeng: From a personal perspective, we were ships passing in the night with me getting home just before sunrise from the bar and Brittany leaving at the same time to start work on east coast hours. When our daughter was on the way, we wanted to do something that would bring us together, so we jumped all in and created Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you two got married?
BMY: We’re in the middle of it right now. We’ve been in this whirlwind of building this brand for the last few years and every time we get a chance to step back we just say — we’ve got to write a book someday. There is too much to do any of it justice right now. (And we don’t know how it will end yet!)
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
SY: In our first distillery, we had to climb in the tanks to clean them. Never afraid of getting my hands dirty, I jumped in without hesitation. I was immediately hit with all the alcohol fumes. I was about to pass out and I hadn’t done a pull-up in years, but I mustered all my energy to pull myself out. Needless to say, I learned to air the tanks out before cleaning them.
BMY: The mistakes that you learn the most valuable lessons from are hard and painful ones that you will not look back and laugh at. We’ve made many of them, but it’s made us so much better.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
BMY: Standing out is in our DNA. Our entire brand embraces the qualities that make you stand out. When we started there was no such thing as peanut butter whiskey on the market. No one thought there was a market for it, especially not at a premium price. Steven and I did not have the typical background in the liquor industry and the list goes on of the reasons why Skrewball shouldn’t have worked. We owned all of that — creating a brand that celebrates us going out on a limb. Now, there are dozens of companies trying to get a piece of the category we created. We continue to connect with our customers because we developed an amazing product with a brand they can relate to and a real story and people to connect with.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
SY: We’ve been working on bringing Skrewball international. As we expand our footprint, we hope to be able to expand our charitable efforts as well.
What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?
BMY: Help build their resume. I know it sounds counterintuitive, but we believe this keeps people engaged and growing in their current position. We want people to stay because they are learning and growing with us, not because we’ve pigeonholed them into one task. When they feel like they are making a meaningful contribution, it’s a win for everyone.
How do you define “Leadership”?
Both: Leadership comes from people wanting to join you — not a title or force.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
BMY: We have always said that meeting each other so young has allowed us to focus on building something greater. We started dating in high school, so we did not have to worry about dating and all the drama and could focus on school and work. But, more importantly, we’ve constantly had someone beside us to ground us and tell it to each other straight.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
SY: A huge part of our inspiration was to enable us to give on a bigger scale. When we owned bars and restaurants, it was always important to us to donate and work with local organizations to give back. When the shutdowns began at the beginning of the pandemic, we naturally donated everything we could to helping the bar and restaurant community. For us, it we did not just want to write a check. We used connections to get a hold of much needed supplies to give to those in need and went on the road donating to various organizations and trying to bring back a sense of community. We look forward to expanding these opportunities as we grow the brand.
What are the “5 Things You Need To Thrive As A Couple”? Please share a story or example for each.
SY: Find ways to enjoy each other.
Running a business can be all encompassing, especially when you live with your business partner. We try to keep a pulse on that and when we’ve had a particularly bad day or week, we set up as much time as we can spare — even if that’s a few minutes or an hour — to focus on something positive in our lives. Sometimes that just means dinner with the family where we aren’t allowed to discuss business.
SY: Letting each other shine.
Each of you are both the star and the supporting actor — just not at the same time. We have a very complimentary skill set and fully leveraging that has been the key to our success. As we grew the business, we saw which areas each other excelled at and allowed that person to lead that department. For example, Brittany had a natural handle on the marketing, while I gravitated towards sales. We both challenge each other to be better in our respective areas, but ultimately let the decision rest with the leader of that area.
BMY: Be flexible.
We have divvied up tasks to keep everything running, but sometimes plans change and you need to take double duty. I usually get our girls ready in the morning, but sometimes there’s an early morning conference call and Steven (or Grandma) need to step in to fill the gap. We try to keep an open mind and not tally these as long as on a whole everyone’s contributing.
SY: A Great Support System.
Just like our business, going it alone will only take us so far. We need a support network that includes helpful family, friends and outside help to keep our house running smoothly. We typically travel a lot, which would normally mean a lot of time away from our young girls. We are so fortunate that Grandma is willing to travel with us to allow our girls to join us on the road so that we always have dinner together as a family.
BMY: Respecting each other’s time alone.
With the pandemic, everyone is seeing that there is such a thing as too much time together. It is so important to have time to do something for just yourself. In the evenings, we take turns giving the girls a bath while the other has time to reset.
You are people of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
BMY: Finding real joy and happiness through embracing yourself — “flaws” and all. We are lucky to live in a time where we recognize the importance of accepting others and embracing their differences, but real happiness and change will come when we learn to truly embrace our own perceived failures and shortcomings. This is what I had in mind when I came up with the Skrewball brand. It’s about having fun and being your real self — the one that attracts real friends and makes us live life to the fullest. In fact, when I met Steven, I saw the epitome of someone owning one’s Skrewball qualities and saw how attractive and refreshing it can be. It was only fitting to capture that in the brand.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
BMY: “Your real friends are the ones running in to help you as everyone else is leaving the room.” We have seen the best and the worst in people as we have grown this business. Everyone has your back when things are good, but when things take a turn you find out who really had your back the whole time. While there are ups, there have been many headaches, setbacks and challenges along the way that have shown us other sides of people.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them 🙂
BMY: We would love to meet with Bill and Melinda Gates to thank them for all the work they have done to eradicate polio. Having seen firsthand the impact that polio can have (with Steven having caught it as a young child) we would not want any other families to have to suffer for a from a preventable disease.
How can our readers follow your work online?
SY: Please check out skrewballwhiskey.com or follow us @skrewballwhiskey on Instagram, Facebook and TikTok.