Mark Edelson: “You treat your partners like your spouse”

Sleepless nights — When the going gets tough, your employees can always go and get another job. You have your all your eggs in the basket and always have to find a way to persevere. As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the […]

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Sleepless nights — When the going gets tough, your employees can always go and get another job. You have your all your eggs in the basket and always have to find a way to persevere.

As a part of our series about entrepreneurs who transformed something they did for fun into a full-time career, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Edelson. Since co-founding Iron Hill Brewery & Restaurant in 1996, Mark Edelson transformed a personal home brewing hobby into an influential, award-winning career. He has been instrumental in securing 70 prestigious beer awards over the course of 23 years for the Wilmington, DE-based brewery and restaurant group. Edelson strives to ensure the continual integrity of the craft beer brewed throughout the company and maintains the reputation level of unsurpassed brewing creativity for the restaurant group. As part of his role, Edelson oversees all brewery operations including budgets and logistics of the group’s new and existing locations. He manages the existing team of regional and local brewers and supervises the annual beer calendar which encompasses an ever-changing variety of seasonal styles. Additionally, his role is critical to ensuring each restaurant adheres to the same standards in order to fulfill Iron Hill’s commitment and dedication to producing the freshest, highest quality craft beer on-site and enable diners with the most delicious, perfectly-brewed end result possible. With passion and expansive knowledge of brewing well beyond his home-brew kit, Edelson has guided Iron Hill to the top, earning awards at the World Beer Cup and the Great American Beer Festival (GABF), two highly coveted honors within the craft beer industry. Beyond obtaining numerous medals, Edelson was appointed a judge at the GABF and World Beer Cup and for a decade served as a member of the Board of Directors and Treasurer of the Brewers Association, whose goal is to promote and protect the U.S. craft brewing community’s interests. With a degree in chemical engineering from University of Pennsylvania, Edelson further honed his craft while attending the highly regarded Siebel Institute of Technology and World Brewing Academy in Chicago. When he is not brewing up award-winning beer, Edelson enjoys time dedicated to his children’s activities, including coaching soccer.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

I grew up in New Jersey and went to the University of Pennsylvania for undergrad. There I studied engineering and I started my career as a chemical engineer, which gave me a strong science background. From there I moved to Wilmington, DE.

What was the catalyst from transforming your hobby or something you love into a business? Can you share the story of your “ah ha” moment with us?

My business partner, Kevin and I, were home-brewing as a hobby, both of us working in jobs we didn’t love but we loved our hobby. For me my “ah ha” moment was when I was at a Penn alumni event Wilmington at a beer tasting and local brewer Jeff Ware of Dock Street Brewing attended the tasting and did a presentation of blueprints of a project he was doing of a brewpub in Philadelphia. The idea of a brewery and restaurant concept was fascinating to me and we decided to move into that direction.

There are no shortage of good ideas out there, but people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

This could go on for hours. I think one of the things is that we went out and started to get involved and meet people in the industry — we went to the Great American Beer Festival and we went to small brewer conferences (national and local) and were very inspired by them. A lot of the brewers were willing to share all kinds of information (as this was pre-internet) which forced us to go research, not google, at the University of Delaware library, looking up things like article research on microfilm. To get those contacts and learn from people who were already doing this and giving our information really helped push us in the right direction and really helped guide us.

What advice would you give someone who has a hobby or pastime that they absolutely love but is reluctant to do it for a living?

You have to do your research. A lot of people think about the hobby, but they don’t think about the business of the hobby — that is where people faulter the most. You need to dig in on how to monetize, how the business end would work — you need money for this to happen — or you need someone with money — that was where we found the hardest hurdle. You have to capitalize appropriately — you are always cash strapped — you have to make sure your significant other is deeply committed to this as well — you see how many divorces happen and this is something that can really catalyze that. I always give this advice

It’s said that the quickest way to take the fun out of doing something is to do it for a living. How do you keep from changing something you love into something you dread? How do you keep it fresh and enjoyable?

Well you have to love to build a business around the hobby, you can’t just love the hobby. You have to transition from loving the hobby to loving building the hobby — once you have a staff that relies on you for your hobby, it changes things significantly — unless you are passionate about building a business, it is going to be a dread.

What is it that you enjoy most about running your own business? What are the downsides of running your own business? Can you share what you did to overcome these drawbacks?

I constantly have that TGIM (Thank God It’s Monday) feeling, and I’m excited to go to work everyday. When you feel this way, it’s important, because it’s yours and you can run your business the way you want to, you have the freedom to run it the way you want.

The downside is that you can never get away from it — when you work from someone you can get away from it — when you run your own business, you can’t ever leave and go get another job — you are married to it — you can’t walk from it — cash flow woes are yours — your house and name are on the line — way more things keep you up at night — problems just become bigger — the upside is the success, the downside you still have to keep it running — this is the price you pay for a successful company

Can you share what was the most striking difference between your actual job and how you thought the job would be?

Since it’s 23 years later it’s not like I was envisioning what it would be — I maybe never imagined that we would be where we are now — the difference is that what we do now all is about growing the organization and have people execute what we used to do (brewing, being on the line, hosting) — now we have transitioned our position to our staff — I get a lot more out of growing and building an organization of doing what I originally did, and doing it well. It was a lot easier in the brewery when it was just me and I didn’t have anyone to manage, but to pass along that knowledge to a brewery side of 30 people and building the infrastructure of a staff that makes great beer and delicious food is very rewarding.

Has there ever been a moment when you thought to yourself “I can’t take it anymore, I’m going to get a “real” job? If so how did you overcome it?

I have never ever thought that — I never wanted to go back to my old job — I have the opposite dread, that something goes on that I have to do that and go back — I have nightmares about it still!

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?

We needed someone to wait tables and my business partner Kevin’s brother, Brian, was an assistant brewer at that time and we put him on the floor on a Sunday without training and it was such a disaster and we would never think of doing that today –he had absolutely no training — I was watching from the brewery and it was just bad — we would never think of doing that today — we had a lot of faux pas’s in the old days!

Who has inspired or continues to inspire you to be a great leader? Why?

Big fan of Jack Welsh as many business leaders are. Having worked in a large corporation for many years, it is astounding what he was able to do to focus and drive a legacy behemoth like GE.

How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

I think the community outreach from CureSearch for Children’s Cancer to local partnerships to Give 20 programs — giving back to community is important and with the business we can do a higher level. Our Triple Chocolate Hill initiative has been an extremely rewarding partnership.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Started” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. You never really leave work — When you own a small business, you are on call 24/7. The buck always stops with you.
  2. You treat your partners like your spouse — Partners are your other marriage. And it is critical to be successful at both, so you need to put the time in to both. My wife and I have been married for 25 years and my partners and I have been in business for 23 years.
  3. Political action is part of the job — Legislative action is going on constantly that effects your business both positively and negatively. If you don’t get involved, it will mostly be negative.
  4. Sleepless nights — When the going gets tough, your employees can always go and get another job. You have your all your eggs in the basket and always have to find a way to persevere.
  5. Forget about hobbies — In small business you constantly try to balance business, family and health. Not sure where hobbies fit in there. That’s why it is important to love what you do!

What person wouldn’t want to work doing something they absolutely love. You are an incredible inspiration to a great many people. 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.

If we all had a small garden, we could easily feed the world (our family has its own garden).

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“You create your own luck” — Luck does not randomly pick some of us to be successful. It is about having a plan and being ready in life as opportunities come up and seizing them. It is not about waiting for someone to hand you success.

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.

Dr. Frances Jensen, author or “The Teenage Brain — A neuroscientist’s survival guide to raising adolescents and you adults”. My wife and I are currently raising 5 adolescents.

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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