By: Becky Garrison
Since its founding in 2013, Seattle-based Copperworks Distilling Company developed an award-winning portfolio of spirits with accolades such as the 2018 Best Distillery of the Year award from the American Distillery Institute. Yet, according to Jason Parker, Co-Founder and Presi-dent, they found themselves at a crossroads in growing their distillery last year. Even though they had more than 260 barrels of whiskey aging in inventory, the current demand for their American Single Malt whiskey exceeded their supply of mature whiskey.
“The only way to win sales in the whiskey market is to have whiskey to sell,” Parker told Beverage Master Magazine. “If we are only growing through cash flow generated by vodka, gin and a little bit of whiskey sales, we won’t have the whiskey to compete in the market against those businesses who received capital investments to produce whiskey. In essence, we must produce whiskey faster than our current cash flow will allow.”
Rather than resort to traditional ways of generating capital, they wanted to explore a way to ex-pand their business that would get their friends, family, customers and other supporters involved as brand ambassadors. “We wanted to give them an opportunity to own a little piece of the work and be with us as we grow,” said Parker.
Choosing Equity Crowdfunding
Copperworks decided to raise money via equity crowdfunding through the WeFunder website. In Copperworks’ estimation, this approach enables individuals to become part-owners of a privately held company by trading capital for equity shares. This method of generating capital became available in 2016 with the passage of a new law called “Regulation Crowdfunding.” This shift made it legal for anyone to invest small amounts of money in startups.
Copperworks chose equity crowdfunding over more established crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter, Indigogo or GoFundMe because, with equity crowdfunding, a company issues equi-ty, such as shares of company stock, to participating investors. A company like Copperworks may also choose to offer perks, but the major incentive is the opportunity to become shareholders in the company.
In comparison, traditional crowdfunding is more rewardsbased, whereby those who contribute to the campaign receive a perk, such as a discount or an advance copy of the product, but they have no equity in the company. Furthermore, a traditional crowdfunding campaign often offers their products at a discount to generate interest. Should the campaign take off, companies can find themselves unable to meet market demand at this low price point.
According to Parker, a key advantage of equity crowdfunding is the company’s opportunity to utilize its investors as brand ambassadors. While this component of Copperworks’ strategy has been put on hold due to COVID-19, they are currently in the process of building a brand ambas-sador kit for their investors. In this kit, investors will be given the details of how to approach a restaurant, bar, grocery store or liquor store on behalf of Copperworks.
Challenges of Using Equity Crowdfunding
Parker acknowledges the need for a distillery to ascertain if equity crowdfunding is the right ap-proach. For example, this approach to raising funds may not work for a business that has only been around for a year or less and has yet to build up a loyal following. “Equity fundraising is a good thing when you’re mature enough for the company to attract the appropriate investors for the valuation,” he said.
From a company’s point of view, equity crowdfunding requires more upfront costs and financial discipline. The company’s records need to be reviewed professionally, an expensive process that took Copperworks three months to complete. In addition, WeFunder takes 7% of the funds raised, unlike a bank loan where one receives the entire amount upfront and then pays interest over time. Depending on the terms of a loan, a company may pay more in interest through a traditional loan. However, for those companies needing the full amount upfront, a bank loan may be their best option.
Also, with equity crowdfunding, Copperworks had to be totally transparent with their financials, a process that included having this information readily available for public viewing. For Parker, this transparency fits in with their business model. “We believe transparency is one of the things missing in businesses today, so we want to model that behavior.” In the issue of transparency, they chose to share with their investors why they needed to raise money and how they intended to use these funds.
Promoting and Implementing the Equity Fundraising Campaign
Copperworks promoted their campaign through their mailing list of 12,000 individuals. In addi-tion, they reached out to the 3,600 folks who liked their Facebook page because they had a high rate of customer engagement on this platform. They were also featured for five weeks in the American Distilling Institute newsletter. Their campaign, which ran from the end of February to April 2020, netted a total of 409 investors and $776,480 in funds.
Parker admits to the challenges of raising funds right as COVID-19 began impacting the econo-my starting in mid-February. “It’s not very easy to ask people to spend money on a company when they may not have a job, their life savings may be losing 30% of its value, and they don’t know who around them is even going to be alive in a few months.”
However, he said that since Copperworks had been around for a long time, many people emerged who really liked the company and their products and were looking to support something they cared about.
Regardless of the amount of their investment, each investor receives an annual report along with an invitation to every quarterly meeting. For those who invested $1,000, they get 10% off all Copperworks goods for life. Other perks were offered to those investing at higher increments, such as an offer to pick a single cask whiskey, a free event rental or an invitation to be on the board of directors.
As per the SEC regulations, Copperworks disclosed to their investors the risks associated with capital works. While some of the risks noted are associated with investing in any company, others are specific to the distilled spirits market or Copperworks in particular. For example, the cur-rent distilled spirits market growth could slow or stop in the future. Along those lines, due to the threetier distribution system in the alcohol industry mandated by U.S. law, Copperworks is reli-ant on distribution companies. The distribution system has experienced consolidation in recent years, and should this consolidation continue, distilleries may face difficulty in expanding the distribution of their products.
Outcome of Equity Fundraising Campaign
Copperworks successfully raised enough money to continue production during the COVID-19 shutdown and produce whiskey at their all-time maximum rate. All employees kept full-time hours, even though the tasting room was (and remains) closed. Therefore, the distillery could de-vote some of its resources to producing hand sanitizer, a product badly needed at the start of the pandemic.
Even better than simply raising money, which a bank loan could have accomplished, Copper-works was able to fully engage the support of their loyal fans. Customer engagement through social media, email and quarterly calls increased the opportunity for Copperworks to share their story and their customers to become brand ambassadors. New customer acquisition, which is much more difficult while the Copperworks tasting room is closed, increased through word-of-mouth, and online sales increased due to these outreach efforts.
As Copperworks looks to expand their production area and event space, they have solicited their new investors’ network to help them find even more opportunities to grow their business. Copperworks is truly building an army of brand ambassadors and getting new talent and ideas through the use of regulation crowdfunding.