'It has been challenging but also very exciting'
It started as a catch-up between friends, but it is now a company with a turnover in excess of £150,000 in less than a year. Ireland Craft Beers, which began trading in 2015, was set up by lifelong pals Shane McCarthy, Liam Brogan and Colin Brannigan. The firm, based in Belfast city centre, exports, distributes and markets products created by craft breweries across Ireland.
So far, the business has worked with 15 breweries, is currently expanding into the US and plans to have a £5m turnover by year six, £3m of it coming from the States.
Chief operating officer and co-founder Liam said: "The three of us have been friends since primary school, then myself and Shane did finance at Queen's.
"I was doing chartered accountancy in Belfast, Shane was working in finance in Wall Street, and Colin was also living outside of Northern Ireland, but they were both moving home again.
"We met up at Christmas and got talking about craft beer and how it is a bit of a revolution in Ireland. Then we came up with the idea of setting up the company.
"We thought it'd be a great idea to bring Irish beers to New York, and the idea just grew from there.
"From then, the next nine months were spent planning the business and getting it going."
While none of the friends had started their own business before, Shane and Liam had a background in finance, and Colin had been working in marketing.
"It was in my head that I would like to start up a business at some stage, although it was a big gamble, I suppose, as I was leaving a job for a start-up, and everything has been on us to make it a success," 30-year-old Liam said.
"I did have some experience of start-ups through my accountancy work. I knew how to set up a limited company, open bank accounts and things like that, but it was the first time we had done it ourselves. I do think we complement each other, however.
"I would say it has been more difficult than I thought, but it is exciting and challenging and definitely worthwhile. We spent six to nine months planning, not just preparing the business plan, but looking at the whole process from how to get customers and how all that works."
A lot of time was spent ensuring the company was compliant with HM Revenue & Customs regulations. Recruiting breweries was an important part of building up the business, as was working with them to ensure they tailored packaging to each specific market.
"The UK market is quite different from the Irish one, for example," Liam said. "I suppose that in Irish breweries a lot of them go with 500ml bottles, but in the London market they seem to use the 330ml bottles.
"The branding and marketing in the UK uses quite bold and strong colours and images to get their beer to stand out.
"There are lots of new and exciting breweries coming out with really interesting concepts, and we have to make sure the breweries we are working with are marketing and branding their products properly.
"We have worked with 15 breweries, but we don't have them all listed at once. We currently have about 10 on the website.
"We hosted an event on St Patrick's Day where we had 36 different beers from 10 breweries.
"We use these events to raise the profile of breweries and growing their reputations."
However, he said that sales has been the most challenging aspect of the process.
To this end, they have employed a sales representative in London and are in the process of appointing a US-based sales representative.
"For the like of the US market you definitely have to have a presence on the ground," said Liam.
"The New York market has 5,000 different beers floating around. It is very competitive."
They also travelled to the US to carry out market research and meet with distributors and potential clients.
Throughout the process, Liam said they have also discovered the importance of being willing and able to change plans quickly.
The firm also supports the breweries to meet the demand of customers.
"They maybe have 30 days to meet an order but don't get paid for 60 days and we are bridging that gap, so it is very much about managing growth and planning for the financial aspects of that.
"We're quite pleased with the progress so far, we are all agreed that we want to keep going, pushing on, we're all committed to work hard over the next five years to achieve our goals."