"It isn’t hard to discuss the possibilities when your partner’s in the next room, but the homebrewers and craft-beer aficionados say working together is more like running a business with a best friend."
Suzanne Wilson and Ben Focht
It’s not easy starting a business in one of the worst economies in history. It’s not easy starting a business while working a full-time job. And it’s not easy starting a business while raising two children. But somehow, law alumna Suzanne Wilson (JD ’04) and husband Ben Focht, a DU assistant lacrosse coach from 2000–02, have found a way to do it.
The couple will set up shop at this year’s Great American Beer Festival to put their company — The Beer Stick — squarely in front of 49,000 beer lovers and representatives from 466 breweries attending the annual Denver event from Sept. 29–Oct 1. The stick’s schtick is that it’s a bottle opener that makes removing caps easier than a 12-ounce curl. The design is simple: an eight-inch-long chunk of North Carolina alder wood with a curved metal stud pressed into one end for cap liberation and a leather strap on the other end for stick storage.
During the day, Wilson — a Birmingham, Mich., native — is a partner with Raw Land Solutions, a real estate development consulting firm. Columbus, Ohio, native Focht works for a local biotechnology company in account management.
“You just have to prioritize and make sure the kids are taken care of first and do your other jobs as well as you can,” Wilson says. “It’s challenging — especially when we have a big order come in. We still both work during the day, so we take care of the kids after work and then burn the midnight oil to get the order done.”
Wilson and Focht use a small room in the basement of their Denver home to make the sticks — even applying a finishing coat of polish or tying on the leather straps from a couch in their TV room.
While they jokingly say they’ve found the one job people can do from a couch, it’s actually a creative way to reduce overhead and start-up costs. Because of the tight credit market, Wilson and Focht have had to self-finance the company.
“I tried to secure a line of credit last year, but it was a catch-22,” Focht says. “[Lenders] wanted to see two years of business history, and then the money was so expensive to borrow.”
While the start-up hasn’t been easy, the couple has sold around 4,000 sticks — enough to continue building the fledgling operation. They’ve drafted clients including beer brands such as Colorado Native and Coors Batch 19 as well as operations such as Location 3 Media and the Midwest Brewer Fest. Many clients purchase the sticks — which can be laser-etched to feature nearly any kind of logo or wording — as tradeshow giveaways or even wedding gifts. Individual customers use the stick in kitchens, home bars, and at the grill.
The couple got the idea for the business at a wedding in New Hampshire where attendees used a cruder version of the stick to open beers. Wilson and Focht noticed how most of the people who used the stick became fascinated with its design and novelty. That’s when they decided to spruce it up a bit and put it on the market.
The couple launched the company at last year’s beer festival, where they got feedback from patrons who, they say, wondered why the stick is any better for opening beers than a lighter or a truck bumper.
“Aside from dramatically reducing broken bottlenecks and deep cuts to the hand, the Beer Stick is an over-the-top tribute — you’ll get it when you use it — to the tasty brew you are about to enjoy,” Focht says. “And when we looked at how we are trying to position this — as a low-cost beer tool with quality — we thought it would fit into a $9-a-six-pack world.”
Wilson and Focht are working to expand the market for the sticks. For instance, they’re talking with a national fraternity organization to supply the sticks to members as a replacement for the more traditional paddles. They’re also working on a key-chain version they’re tentatively calling the “Beer Stick Lite.” While the sticks are currently made with wood from a sustainable Appalachian forest, Focht says they are working on a product that incorporates the wood from beetle-kill sites in Colorado.
“The polyester wicks away the moisture and the cotton breathes — so you’re getting the benefits of a Dry Max kind of situation.”
It isn’t hard to discuss the possibilities when your partner’s in the next room, but the homebrewers and craft-beer aficionados say working together is more like running a business with a best friend. Settling any differences over work responsibilities, company policies or expansion is easy, says Wilson, who sometimes introduces herself as Mrs. Beer Stick: “We just have a beer.”