Some of the best friendships have been formed over common interests, and for Mike Manning and Greg Heller-LaBelle that common interest was mead. The fact that many people did not commonly know about the niche beverage at the time may have strengthened the bonding. It was on the cusp of resurgence, something the two Lehigh Valley men saw potential in and hoped to take advantage of.
What started out as two strangers sharing a love of mead has today become the successful Colony Meadery located in South Allentown’s Bridgeworks Enterprise Center.
Making Bridgeworks their home
When Bridgeworks Enterprise Center Program Manager Anthony Durante first talked to his good friend Greg about starting a meadery, Durante thought it was a bad idea.
“I’d tasted meads made by other companies in the past and they were always awful!” Durante recalled. “But when Mike and Greg gave me samples of what they were producing I was very pleasantly surprised at how good they were, as well as how creative the flavors were. It was a game changer. I wanted them in our incubator program right away.”
“Bridgeworks really made it possible for us to open the meadery,” Heller-LaBelle said. “The shared amenities like the fork lift, loading dock, and front reception, and the educational programs for tenants and flexible lease terms were just what Mike and I needed to get started. Plus I happen to like old buildings!”
The Entrepreneur Roundtables that Bridgeworks holds with business consultant Stephanie Olexa has been extremely beneficial to Heller-LaBelle. “Being an entrepreneur is stressful and lonely at times,” he said. “It’s helpful to have a safe environment at which we can discuss key challenges we’re facing and get the group’s input. Plus everyone in the room has different career experiences which is very helpful when it comes to getting advice.”
Earlier this year Colony Meadery was the first client to apply for and receive a microloan from the new Bridgeworks Enterprise Center Revolving Loan Fund. The loan went toward the purchase of additional equipment to help it expand production capacity. The simple revolving loan fund is exclusively for business incubator clients and lends up to $10,000 to finance small projects that usually can’t be financed through larger, traditional financing outlets like banks.
If only they had a crystal ball…
When asked what have been some of his biggest challenges in its past three years of operation, Heller-Labelle said: “We spend a lot of time educating people on what mead is. Many haven’t heard of it, or they have heard of it but never tried it. It’s a different experience from wine or beer. Mead is its own thing.”
“Also we do much more in sales and tasting at our Bridgeworks facility than we ever thought we would. And since craft distributors have begun limiting the product lines they sell, it has made adoption in other markets more difficult. There are too many brands per distributor making it harder to cut through the clutter.”
Advice for other startups
Heller-LaBelle said he gets asked for advice all the time from people thinking of starting a winery, brewery, meadery, or distillery, and he tells them all the same thing – it’s okay to start your business as a hobby, but in order for it to grow you need a business partner that does it full time.
When he and Manning first incorporated the business they each maintained full-time jobs during the day and worked on perfecting their meads at night and on the weekends. Once they began operations, both men relinquished their day jobs and dedicated themselves to the meadery full time.
When the business started operations, he was full-time from the beginning, with Manning joining him as a full-time employee a year later, as soon as the business could support it.
“But your business is not going to grow without someone pushing it full time,” observed Heller-LaBelle. “Plan for that from the get-go. One of you has to give up the safety and security of your full-time job and dedicate himself or herself to your new business venture full time.”
His other advice to entrepreneurs includes:
- You’ll spend a lot of time trying to anticipate costs in your business plan, but you can’t truly anticipate them accurately,” he said. “They are more like an educated guess, so just try to go with it.”
- Don’t worry so much about the price per square foot when renting a space. You are basically going to live in this space every day, so pay attention to how much you like being there and where it is located.
- Know going in what your goals and ambitions are with your business partner so you are both on the same page. Your partner must share your vision. Don’t go into business if you don’t agree 100 percent at the outset.
- Different areas of expertise complement each other, so don’t be afraid to partner up with someone who has different career experience than you do. And know when to ask for help and advice from others who have it to give.
- When it comes to relationships your spouse is as much married to your business as you are. He or she needs to support you and your business and know where your priorities lie.
Colony Meadery still has a few years left in the business incubation program, with most new companies staying in it from five to seven years. And the meadery’s product distribution in the Mid-Atlantic has been steadily growing.
“We’re excited to have just expanded into New York,” said Heller-LaBelle. “We have formed a partnership with Remarkable Liquids for mead distribution throughout New York state. Remarkable Liquids is a craft distribution and importing company specializing in meads, ciders, and top level craft beers.
“Regulatory changes in Pennsylvania are making it much easier than before to sell, distribute and ship our mead. But it is also creating more competition in the state which will be an interesting but we welcome challenge moving forward.”