As part of our fonder series, we are sharing the behind the scenes stories of top businesses and startups. Today we have the pleasure of introducing you to Alicia Valenski and Melanie Fox, co-founders of Work For Your Beer.
Alicia Valenski and Melanie Fox are the co-founders of Work For Your Beer, the ultimate guide to interactive brewery events in Charlotte, Asheville, and Richmond (with other active, beer-centric cities on the horizon).
What is your superhero origin story? Please, do let us know what your superhero nickname would be as well, in case you have one!
Alicia: Flashback to college. We’re at Penn State. It’s in May 2012. The blog I write for is hosting its end-of-the-semester awards banquet, “The Snarkies.” Party music is blaring. The smell of cheap domestic beer fills the air.
We’re in the apartment of Melanie Versaw (now Melanie Fox). She is a senior and the photography editor for the blog. I’m a freshman and a contributing writer. We are bonding over my Snarky award, bestowing upon me the title of “Onward State Cheerleader,” a position which Mel herself has held for the duration of her tenure at the blog. We embrace, and she ceremoniously passes me the “Cheerleader” torch before she graduates.
Little do we know what the future has in store for us both, together and separately.
This is only the beginning.
Mel: After Alicia graduated in 2015, she decided to visit me down in Charlotte. She loved the city so much that she and her boyfriend (now husband) decided to move down South.
Alicia started looking for ways to be active and meet new people. She ended up attending the largest beer yoga event in the city and loved it so much that she encouraged me to check it out one week. I was immediately hooked. We heard about new events from other beer yogis or by seeing a flyer in the brewery bathroom. But we wanted more. And this is how Work For Your Beer was born.
What was your eureka moment, and how did you test your idea?
Mel: I had been photographing some beer yoga events in exchange for attending the events for free at this point. But I knew there was more opportunity to get involved in the space. Alicia had created a spreadsheet to keep tabs on the different classes, and the list just kept growing. Then one day it hit me. “BUSINESS IDEA!” I sent to Alicia via text. “What if we consolidated all of the beer yoga classes in the city on one website so that people can easily find this information?”
It then began to grow from there. We uncovered run clubs, boot camps, and even dance classes that were also occurring at breweries. We began to build a website with all of the information, came up with a name, and it was off to the races!
Alicia: Once Mel sent me that text, we knew it was time to do some testing to see if our target market would be excited about what we were doing. We launched an IndieGoGo campaign to gauge community interest, and we were thrilled to see that total stranger were willing to invest in our idea. After surpassing our initial goal, boom: suddenly we had the funds we needed to launch a website and begin building a brand. We began to organically grow our audience on social media, our website viewership, and our merchandise sales — and our business took off from there.
What’s your competitive advantage when it comes to the industry?
Alicia: I think it’s really just that no one is doing exactly what we’re doing. If you’re lucky, a brewery is marketing the events they host with Facebook Events (and if you’re unlucky, you’ll only know what they’re up to thanks to the flyers in their bathroom stalls). Some local news outlets will have events calendars that include these sort of activities, but they usually don’t have much detail — other larger-scale events tend to be their priority.
Beyond that, I think our other competitive advantage is just how much we care. We care about helping our audience find these types of events so they can work out, drink beer, and make friends. Helping breweries grow their class attendance and beer sales by hosting these types of events is important to us. We care about supporting instructors and helping them to grow their audiences. We truly just want to support all of the people who make these activities possible so we can keep growing this weird, wonderful niche of active beer-lovers nationwide.
Mel: I think we are fortunate in the fact that there are already people who work for their beer and want a community to share those two hobbies with. When we meet people out at beer festivals, we always hear, “Oh my gosh! I always work for my beer! Do you know about *insert beer fitness group in the city*?”
We also receive a lot of, “Wait, what IS this?” remarks. We are interesting to people who like beer and to people who love working out. There is just a ton of overlap in that space, and we were able to create a community intertwining those interests.
Can you share a story about the biggest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Mel: Reiterating from another interview we just had. When we first started Work For Your Beer, it was just Alicia and myself. When people would ask to get involved, we would laugh and say we couldn’t pay them. But then a handful of people still wanted to join us in spite of that. This helped us grow our team pretty quickly, but it also led us to believe that people would be as dedicated (and, well, as obsessed) with growing the business as we were.
Since we have high expectations for ourselves, as well as others, we may have overwhelmed some people who wanted more of a fun, side hustle vs. being a part of a growing start-up. A lot of the time it’s not sexy, despite our business revolving around beer and fitness.
We spent quite a bit of time training individuals who ultimately didn’t work out as a part of the team, and I think that taught us a lot about how we wanted to run our business moving forward.
At the beginning of this year, Alicia started Work For Your Beer full-time, and our team has remained lean-to support our major initiatives. I think we learned more than anything that passion, dedication, and self-starters are the personality traits that will thrive in a start-up environment, and while sometimes we think more people is better, that’s not always the case.
Alicia: I always say that our biggest mistake, in the beginning, was being “yes” people. We grabbed at every single opportunity that came our way — whether people were asking us to host events, offer free photography services, write content for them, or anything else, we just nodded and figured out how to get it done. We stretched ourselves thin trying to juggle all of those responsibilities, rather than focusing intently on our own goals to grow our business. It definitely helped us to get our name out there and to make connections don’t get me wrong! But I think now we are much better at evaluating opportunities as they come our way and knowing our value to our partners.
What role has social media played in your success?
Alicia: A HUGE role! Instagram, in particular, has driven so much of our audience growth. Thanks to Mel’s incredible photography skills, working with a visual platform like Instagram has been the easiest way to demonstrate who Work For Your Beer is and what we’re all about. Doing things like hosting weekly giveaways, featuring weird and funky beers, and promoting events that our community would be interested in has helped us to grow our reach organically over the past two and a half years.
Mel: Our social following is what makes us so appealing to our partners. Alicia crafts the messaging, and I provide the media. We are so fortunate that we complement one another in this way because it makes us a powerhouse on social media.
When partnering with fellow companies, creators or influencers, what criteria do you look for?
Mel: Collaborators. There are so many people who want a “one and done” type of relationship, and we truly value relationships. We always ask how we can help partners meet their personal goals and how we can support them in the future.
Alicia: Authenticity. We only want to collaborate with people who genuinely believe in what they’re doing, who are real with their audiences, and who we know the Work For Your Beer community can trust. Of course, we’re also looking for folks whose demographics align with ours and who promote living a healthy, balanced lifestyle — but we only begin checking off those boxes once we’ve confirmed the company, creator, or influencer’s authenticity.
Who is your ideal collaboration with?
Alicia: I think Untappd is a no-brainer. Our audience is already there to check out beer lists and learn about what breweries have to offer. Why not also have Work For Your Beer event listings there for each brewery, too?
Mel: ELLEN DEGENERES. We have a vision board for Work For Your Beer. Right in the centre, it’s us sitting on Ellen’s couch talking about the Work For Your Beer community.
None of us is 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?
Mel: Alicia and I constantly joke that we are married, but obviously Work For Your Beer wouldn’t exist without her. She truly is my other half in a lot of ways. The fact that she even entertained the idea of starting a business with me is amazing to me. Her confidence is radiating. She’s bright, hard-working, and tremendously organized. I absolutely lucked out in the business partner (and friend!) department on this one.
And then there’s my husband, Alan, who deals with me and my chaotic life on a regular basis. I’m fiercely independent, I work a lot of hours, and I can admittedly get hangry at times. But having his support means everything. He’s modelled for me, played photographer for me, and MAN he crushes the merch sales game at beer festivals.
Thank goodness for both of these amazing humans. Couldn’t do it without either of them.
Alicia: My first answer is always Mel. Without her, this business wouldn’t exist in the first place — and it certainly wouldn’t have reached the level of success that it has in such a short time without her determination, skill, intelligence, and perseverance. Mel is such an inspiration to me, and I could not be more grateful to work alongside her as we grow this business and the Work For Your Beer community.
But I also wouldn’t have been able to achieve success without the love and support of my husband, Andrew. He encouraged me to pursue Work For Your Beer full-time when I wasn’t sure if I could do it, he listens to my questions and concerns and offers constructive feedback, he works all-day events alongside Mel and I (and does it with a smile on his face!), and he promotes our brand to everyone we come in contact with. Andrew reminds me to make time for relationships and self-care so that I don’t burn out. He believes wholeheartedly in my dreams and talks with me about how to make them come true. He’s my rock, and I wouldn’t be where I am without him.
What is the most worthwhile investment (time, energy, money) that you have made?
Alicia: I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: THERAPY! I’ve learned so much about myself through therapy in the past year and a half — like what motivates me, how to communicate better with those around me, and how to trust myself and others, to name a few. Therapy has made me a better wife, friend, sister, daughter, and business partner. It’s helped me find my purpose, get clear about my goals, and be a happier, healthier person.
Whether you’re struggling with your mental health (like I was) or not, there’s nothing I recommend more than finding a counselor who you feel comfortable confiding in and learning from, so you can become the best YOU that you can be.
Mel: Last year I added a “Personal Care” line in my budget. It’s hard to thrive when you aren’t taking care of yourself. Things like facials and nail appointments live in this budget, but so do my late cancels at the gym (seriously, sometimes my body needs a break and it’s better to lose $15 to my personal care budget versus hurting myself) and wine nights with my gal pals. This has helped to keep me sane during some particularly chaotic weeks.
What piece of industry advice do you often hear that you disagree with and why?
Mel: Get investors early. Listen, we’ve had offers from individuals who wanted to invest in our business. And while it would certainly help us grow faster, we were too young to even know what we wanted to evolve into (and we knew that the investors weren’t on the same page as us). I’m glad we’ve taken our time and bootstrapped our way through our first couple of years. I feel very proud of us that we were in the black our first and second year of business, despite the fact that we’ve pivoted our business model. I think eventually we could look for investors, but it’s been very rewarding growing on our own.
Alicia: People say that you shouldn’t go into business with a friend, and frankly, I think that’s bullshit. It’s certainly a complicated thing to navigate, but I really think that being friends with your business partner helps you to understand their point of view and respect their wishes in a way that can be difficult with folks that are strictly your business associates. We know so much about one another, and we are able to communicate so much more clearly, as both friends and business partners. I know that Mel supports me wholly in every part of my life vs. just in my business endeavours, and she knows I feel the same way. We are each other’s champions, and I can’t imagine it any other way.
What advice would you give someone thinking of starting a business on their own?
Alicia: Get very clear on what your business can offer that no one else can, who your target audience is, and what your goals are in the first three months, six months, and year. That’s the key. So many people have a great idea, but no clue how to turn it into a reality — and even if it is a reality, so often they don’t know how to market it or measure its success. Start there.
Mel: To Alicia’s point: how are you different from anyone else in the space? We found a SUPER niche that no one had really tapped, and it’s opened up a lot of doors for us. If you can’t actively understand your differentiator, you need to figure out how to add the most value possible to your potential customers. It’s not easy, and that’s the fun of navigating through entrepreneurship.