The Long Short Path


MATTHEW KURTZMAN
CO-FOUNDER – SHORT PATH DISTILLERY

Reading Time: 13 minutes

Im not sure how it happened. I was a mediocre student, horrible test taker, and the ADD poster child, but somehow I was accepted to Northeastern University to study business. In late summer of 2002, I found myself immersed in the rich academic culture that Boston holds dear.

While most college experiences last four years, Northeastern has an interesting curriculum that spans five, during which you give up summer vacations to participate in paid internships (called co-ops) based in the field you are studying. I didn’t realize it at the time, but it was these co-ops that proved to be academic gold for me.

During my first semester, I decided to major in supply chain management because it seemed the easiest. I figured if I could get a degree in “how to move stuff around” then I could graduate without exerting too much effort. This gave me plenty of time to meet people, party, and enjoy the non-academic aspects of college life.

My first co-op was in June of 2004 for a company in St. Louis called Tyco Healthcare. It was for a division of the business called Mallinckrodt, which manufactures pharmaceuticals like methadone. I was hired as a customs compliance associate. This was my first foray into corporate America, and it was god-awful and amazing at the same time.

On one hand, I had my own apartment, got paid $16 per hour (which, at 20 years old, was like winning the lottery). I also got my first taste of that sweet, reliable corporate paycheck. On the other hand, the job sucked because my boss was not very nice and it was really boring.

It was the catalyst that taught me the most important lesson of my life: knowing what you don’t want to do is as good as (if not better than) knowing what you want to do.

My second co-op was for Bose in a procurement role supporting noise-cancelling technology research and development. Bose engineers working on the next version of noise-cancelling headphones would reach out to my group to order parts for a prototype. In this job, I learned how to use Microsoft Excel, which set the foundation for my future analytic career. This co-op started out as a 6-month commitment, but I ended up continuing to work while going to school full-time for another year.

Early Spring of 2006, I already had two years worth of corporate experience under my belt, with one co-op and one semester remaining until graduation. For my last co-op, I applied for a role as a transportation analyst for 7Up Bottling Company in Lagos, Nigeria. That summer, I would ship off to Lagos for my last internship. The company was going to put me up in an apartment, with a maid, a driver, and give me a per-diem salary. In my head, it seemed so easy to get a job.

Companies like GE, Bose, Pfizer and Staples had already given me offers for post-graduation, so I did not feel encumbered by financial responsibility. In fact, it was at this point in my life that I kicked off a credit card spending spree that ended up costing me tens of thousands of dollars, all starting with a lavish send-off party that I threw myself before leaving for Africa. Let me remind readers that “lavish” to a 22-year-old is “ridiculous” to basically anyone else.

This going away party for college students included personalized USPS-delivered invitations with a wax seal closure, a formal dress code, $1,500 worth of booze (including a piñata filled with nips), a mariachi band assembled from local Berklee College of Music students, a traveling petting zoo complete with pigs and goats, a head of lettuce eating competition, a rock-em sock-em robot tournament, and a bushel of corn (I wanted people to focus on drinking and not eating, but did selfishly offer corn on the cob to create content for my yet-to-be famous corn-book.)

The party was amazing, and then off I went to Lagos. Nigeria is beautiful country; rich in culture, with delicious (and very spicy) food, a hot and humid climate, and full of people who are closer to their family, friends, and religion than any collective group of people I had ever met.

Working there was interesting; I was tasked with analyzing the fleet of trucks that transported cases of Pepsi from the bottling plant to the various distribution centers located around Nigeria. It was at this job I learned another very valuable life lesson: if you can be successful with minimal infrastructure and resources, you can be successful anywhere. I was constantly reminded of this when the power went out when in rained and it took two hours to drive three miles. Despite some of the challenges, the work I was doing was interesting and meaningful, but I was distracted. I was falling in love with my long-distance girlfriend, Natalie, who stayed back in Boston while I was in Africa.   

Only two months into my Nigerian adventure, I was so lovestruck I had to go back to the US to see Natalie. Her birthday is in mid-August, and provided the perfect excuse for me to surprise her. I found a flight on North American Airlines for $1,400. It flew direct from Lagos to New York in just under 13 hours, which was ideal because connecting through Europe would have taken too much time on my short weekend away. I booked a connecting flight from New York to Boston and my transportation was squared away. I had moved out of my apartment in Boston and needed a place to stay. Why not the Boston Park Plaza? For only two nights, so $300 per night was totally reasonable. With the hotel booked, I had to figure out what to do for Natalie’s birthday. “What about a romantic, private, hot-air balloon ride?” I thought. After some online research, I found a company in New Hampshire that took credit cards, booked a rental car to New Hampshire, bought a bottle of Champagne in duty free and was ready to go! The weekend was magical, and after another couple hundred bucks (after I missed my flight in New York), I was back in Africa. I only had to pay a minimum of something like $80 a month on the credit card, which was perfect because I didn’t have nearly enough to cover the balance, which was close to $10,000.

At the time, Nigeria did not offer six-month work visas, so I had to leave the country after three months and re-enter on a different three-month visa. Since I had to leave Nigeria, why not explore other parts of Africa? It didn’t take long to book a private safari in Kenya and Tanzania for myself and my colleague. I could have easily and cheaply flown direct from Lagos to Nairobi, but I took the flight that connected through Dubai with a four-night stopover. After my time in Dubai and an amazing Safari, I decided that instead of flying back to Lagos, I’d pop over to France to meet up with Natalie who was there visiting her grandparents just north of Bordeaux.

I wrapped up my time in Nigeria by late November of 2006 and found myself back in Boston for my last semester at Northeastern. One credit short of being able to graduate, I signed up to take a choir class which Northeastern offered for free. “This is going to be so easy,” I thought to myself. It might have been if I made it past the audition. The professor said there was no room for tone-deaf participants who were more interested in the free credit than singing. Ouch! I ended up having to do an independent study to get the last credit, and then ceremoniously graduated on Cinco de Mayo of 2007.

“It was the catalyst that taught me the most important lesson of my life: knowing what you don’t want to do is as good as (if not better than) knowing what you want to do.”

Welcome to the real world. Time to buckle down and start my career. Because of the co-ops, I had gained about two-and-a-half years of corporate experience by the time I graduated, which helped me land a great job right out of school as a senior transportation analyst for Staples. Two years into that role, I earned a lean six sigma black belt which sparked my interest in statistics. After about a year designing A/B and multivariate tests to optimize revenue on Staples.com, I received a call from TripAdvisor expressing interest in my ecommerce analytic skills and stats background. I left Staples after 5 years and joined TripAdvisor in 2012 as a member of their sales analytics team, designing models to predict where people would click on their website.

I absolutely loved the culture at TripAdvisor, but didn’t find the work that meaningful. The pay was decent, which allowed me to start paying back some of my credit cards and provided a means for me to be introduced to the amazing world of distilled spirits. While it was not practical for me to buy a $500 bottle of Scotch whiskey for myself, by leveraging the purchasing power of a few good friends, we were able to buy and then taste some amazing, rare, and expensive whiskey. “Scotch Night” (as it was dubbed) was born, and almost every month for a year, about a dozen of us would get together, pitch in $50 or $60 dollars, purchase a bottle or two of expensive whiskey, and drink it. One night, myself and two of my friends were so impressed with what we were drinking, we collectively decided that we wanted to try and make it ourselves. A hobby was born. I had only been at TripAdvisor a little over a year before I received a call from Boston Consulting Group. At TripAdvisor, I was dealing with some massive amounts of “big data” using SQL, and it just so happened that BCG was assembling a team of specialized consultants with a focus on the same topic.

I don’t have an advanced degree, and as a solid B student, getting a call from BCG wanting to talk to me about a consulting job was most likely an egregious error on their part. Buy hey, I was not about to turn down an interview. One interview turned into about 10 over the course of a month or so, and after presenting my findings during the case-study portion of the interview, I got an offer to join BCG in January of 2013 and help build out their advanced analytics group, which is now called Gamma. I was one of the first four people to join this group, and in terms of career advancement, this was next-level. I was part of a tiny group of consultants that specialized in customer analytics, and I spent the next four years traveling the world and building models to analyze how customers interact with loyalty programs and promotions.

“It was at this job I learned another very valuable life lesson: if you can be successful with minimal infrastructure and resources, you can be successful anywhere.”

During my time at BCG, my hobby as an alcohol manufacturer went through quite the metamorphosis. My friends and I went from just spending time on the weekends exploring new recipes and building our own equipment to getting together almost every day after work. At this point, a hobby turned into a super-hobby, and we started thinking about ways to take our passion for making spirits to the next level.

We spent the better part of 2013 fine-tuning our gin recipes, and researching what it would take to turn a backyard hobby into a full-fledged business.

This included a deep exploration of the permitting and licensing that was required, developing projections for operating costs and revenue, selecting sources for suppliers, professional services, ingredients and equipment, and most importantly, figuring out how we were going to pay for it all.

Throughout the whole process of building the business plan, there was a common theme surfacing. My two-friends and I were pouring our hearts and souls into the creation of this entity. It look a ton of time, passion and energy and we knew that it would be very difficult for anyone outside of the three of us to be as emotionally connected to the company as we were.

The brand that we were incubating was an expression of ourselves, and our thought process was that if other people wouldn’t or couldn’t be as connected emotionally as we were, why should anyone else have any control of the decision making process? This created an interesting predicament. Typically, when you ask people for money to start a business, you offer to give them some equity in exchange for the money. When you give up equity you give up control and this concept was very unsettling to us and forced us to think creatively about other way to get the money without giving up any equity.

shortpath-4

It wasn’t long into the thought process when we decided that instead of equity, that we would offer high-interest loans to investors in exchange for investment in the company. We received between $1,000 and $30,000 from 50 of our closest friends and family members which got us to the $250,000 that we needed to cover our build out costs and operating expenses for the first year.

As soon as we received the commitment from our investors, we kicked off a hunt for the perfect building to house our distillery. We searched for quite a long time before we found a little, fire-damaged, abandoned rubber factory in Everett, MA. It had exposed-brick walls, wood-beam ceilings, room for expansion and a ton of character. Before the building was abandoned, it was occupied by a company called Rubber Right Rollers that manufactured the little rubber rollers that move paper around various areas of a copying machine. About a year before we found the building, there was a fire that broke out and forced the company to cash in on their insurance policy, and lock up with everything still inside, including tons of beautiful old machinery bolted to the ceiling.

The place was a mess, the windows were boarded up, there was grease and trash everywhere, and tons of fire and water damage. Even in such a state of disarray, we saw through the damage to the potential and character shining through. We signed a lease in October and started the very long and tedious cleanup and build-out process.

While our ultimate goal was to have a bar to sell cocktails made with our spirits, the first order of business was to build out our manufacturing capabilities. Obviously you need to have liquor before you can have cocktails, and to be honest, we didn’t plan on having the bar until after the start of the second year.

We set a tentative opening date of June 27th, and just like that the process started. We cleaned, ordered equipment, power-washed every square inch of the building, applied for licenses and permits, installed lighting, upgrading plumbing, put in gas lines, ordered raw materials, painted, dry-walled and power-washed some more. The entire build-out process was captured on social media so people could follow our progress, and by early spring we were way ahead of schedule and had finished building our manufacturing capabilities.

With just three months until opening, we started distilling gin and rum and realized that we would have enough time to build the bar. In that short time, we built and furnished an 89-person capacity bar and received our final permit the day before we opened to the public.

Opening day was insane. We had spent a great deal of time publicising the Short Path opening day and had people lined up for hours around the corner waiting to meet us, see the distillery, and try our spirits.

We made something to the tune of 1,000 cocktails in that one day, and the rest is history. We started with quite literally zero help, the three of us wore all of the hats. For months, the three of us assumed all of the responsibilitieseverything to making gin to cleaning toiletsand it was all amazing.

Granted, we each only had one weekend off every month, but it didn’t even matter. We were getting terrific feedback about our brand and our products and loving be able to be creators of things people enjoy. Eventually, we realized that it was impossible to grow the company with just the three of us, and now we have about 20 people on payroll, produce about 2,500 bottles of spirits each month, distribute our products to about 100 bars, restaurants and liquor stores, and serve about 1,000 cocktails a week to patrons that visit our bar on Wednesdays through Sundays.

It has been a truly wild, amazing and rewarding journey.

My son was born in June of 2016. It was not much longer after his arrival that I realized I could not keep up with the crazy BCG travel schedule AND spend time with my family AND spend time at the distillery.

In February of 2017, I quit BCG, with the hope of focusing on spending more time with my family and building out Short Path with my partners. It was the right decision. Working for myself offered the amazing luxury of controlling my own schedule and being the only person accountable for my success. This was an amazing personal achievement.

One of my biggest fears is succumbing to the status quo. I tell myself everyday that consistency breeds complacency and I use this saying to make sure I never lose sight of the thrill of learning something new.  

Facebook Comments

Ads

You May Also Like

A Simple Pivot

Businesses need to pivot to keep up with the changing times. What often isn't ...

Measure Twice, Pour Once

From an eighth-grade science project to a full-time brewer, Alex Rabe reflects on the ...

Brewing Perfection

Brewing is something I've been doing since high-school. However, the better I got through ...

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team.

You have Successfully Subscribed!