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The Fall Founders’ Series: Meet Bill Shufelt of Athletic Brewing

If you’re unfamiliar with our 2022 Founders Series, you can read all about it HERE. We’re highlighting five founders and their respective brands to talk about values, entrepreneurship and the role of mental health. 

What started out as a journey to find a beer that wouldn't discount or diminish his fitness goals, Bill Shufelt, Co-Founder & CEO of Athletic Brewing, found himself walking down the (unexpected) path of entrepreneurship. Some say that the best businesses are founded by an individual aiming to solve a problem that they or others are facing and Bill has done just that. From a career in finance to dismissal from others in the beer industry, Bill has since created a brand and a beer that holds almost 50% of the non-alcoholic craft beer segment. From recognizing that alcohol no longer served him to create a brand to balancing his own mental health, this is Bill's founding story.

Where did the idea for Athletic Brewing come from? 

BS: I never thought I would be an entrepreneur, and the idea for Athletic Brewing emerged authentically from my lifestyle. I view myself as a modern, healthy adult. I love waking up early, exercising, and performing highly in everything I do. I strive to be mindful when I’m hanging out with my friends and family, and always want to feel as sharp as possible in my quest to live a long and healthy life.

About 10 years ago, I realized alcohol was no longer serving my lifestyle. It was an artificial ceiling on achieving all of my goals, so I decided to leave it behind for good. However, I still love socializing with friends and family. I love pairing great beer with delicious meals, and I love both relaxing and celebratory occasions. When I stopped drinking, I realized just how bleak the adult non-alcoholic beverage market was. So I set out to change that by creating a company focused on crafting delicious non-alcoholic beverages that didn’t anyone to compromise on taste or quality when choosing to abstain from alcohol.

What’s the “why” behind Athletic Brewing? 

BS: Athletic’s mission is to positively impact our customers’ health, fitness, and happiness while greatly impacting our communities and environment for the better. By including the nearly 50% of adults who don't regularly consume alcohol in everyday social occasions, and by making moderation both accessible and aspirational, we believe we can make a huge positive impact on tens of millions of people’s lives.

Can you recall one of the biggest hurdles you experienced while founding Athletic Brewing?

BS: Essentially everything. There is nothing easy about starting a small business and founders must wear so many different hats in the early days. One of our first big challenges was convincing angel investors to help us build the first dedicated non-alcoholic brewery and taproom in the U.S. We had over 120 meetings with potential angels before we identified an amazing crew of early backers who believed in our mission.

What’s the best piece of business advice you ever received? 

BS: Nothing worthwhile is ever easy, and if it's easy it won't be durable. So run right at the biggest challenges and make the hard decisions.

What’s the biggest piece of advice you’d give to a founder or young entrepreneur? 

BS: Stick with it. Every business would fail without persistence, but there is always a solution lurking right around the corner. If you can persevere through difficult times, and constantly look to approach problems from different angles, you’ll find success.

Entrepreneurship is often highlighted in a way that may skew what it looks like in reality. What are some of the hardest aspects of being an entrepreneur/business owner? 

BS: Entrepreneurship is not easy, no matter how glamorous some founders might make it appear on social media. Before embarking, I always recommend to early founders that they only pursue an idea if they can't stop thinking about it and are truly passionate about their concept. There are constant peaks and valleys, and it is important to share them with your team as much as possible. Unfortunately, everything is hard, but if you do the really important stuff right – like assembling an amazing team that you love working with, establishing a great legal foundation that can offer ongoing advice, and building a great mission and culture – you're on your way. Just keep moving forward every day.

How do you prioritize your mental health (now vs. maybe when you started)? 

BS: I'm a huge believer in paying close attention to your overall health and wellness. For me, this includes getting great sleep, working out, meditating, and eating as healthy as possible. Nobody runs well on bad fuel, and all these things are important. Working at a frenzied pace for too long and losing a sense of balance won't enable you to produce your best results or lead to sound decision-making when it counts the most. So take care of the basics and play the long game.

What are some things you’ve implemented or done to ensure positive mental health among your employees? 

BS: A recent Gallup Poll found that at least 50% of American workers are “quiet quitting,” and last year more than 47 million people in the U.S. voluntarily quit their jobs. That’s why we strongly encourage all Athletic teammates to strike a healthy work-life balance, which includes unplugging entirely when you’re not “at work.” We also believe that constant collaboration and communication with teammates – especially those who work remotely – is important for building a strong community. We give praise when people are up and help pick them up when they're struggling.

How would you say your mental health has impacted running a company? 

BS: In addition to eliminating alcohol from my life, I was very lucky to have two years of business planning before we launched Athletic. That was a great time to build a good business foundation and form strong mental health habits. It was during this time that I fell in love with meditation and eating healthy plant-based foods. In general, getting great sleep, meditating, eating healthy meals, and routinely exercising has helped me level out the peaks and valleys of entrepreneurship.

Do you have any tips or insight into how budding entrepreneurs can maintain their mental health while starting a business?

BS: I would recommend finding and engaging with a community of like-minded entrepreneurs. And this applies to all members of a team, not just CEOs and founders. I’m a huge believer in attending conferences, networking, and constantly learning. Finding people facing similar challenges in the business world will make you a better problem solver. It will also help you see from new perspectives and realize that you're not the only one going through challenges.

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