In Bend Oregon, Nicholas Hill and the ever growing team at DrinkTanks design and assemble stainless steel growlers that are unique and built to last.
The company has evolved from sketches on a napkin to an 18,000 sq. ft. production facility. Nicholas and the team have stitched together an entrepreneurial journey that has balanced life events, crowdfunding, and rapid growth in order to create a sustainable business in Central Oregon.
Nicholas, a Bend native, was running Pacific Line Promotional Company when his father Dr. Tim Hill joined him on launching a water bottle company. The company looked to leverage their combined experience in Food and Beverage and brand product marketing.
They named the company Pistol Creek Water Bottles and looked to create a line of bottles that reflected their passion for the outdoors. They were set, and had an idea as to what they wanted to create. That was until a trip to a conference in Las Vegas.
“In 2010 at the Mandalay Bay seafood buffet, my dad and I started to draw some ideas for a new product focus. What if we did something based on the initial double-walled water bottle idea, but made a product that kept your beer cold.”
It was a subtle change of focus, but one that opened up new opportunities.
Not surprisingly, the first ideas were based on the water bottle design. They had already dialed in the design and sourcing, which is extremely important to product companies – especially young ones. And this would have provided an easy transition if they followed a similar process, but that was not the case.
“ As the product design unfolded, we decided to put a focus on the engineering, and as opposed to the previous pre-made Pistol Creek bottles, we made the leap to a unique and custom design.”
And just as things began to get ramped up, Nicholas’ father passed away. He was left running Pistol Creek and Pacific Line at the same time. His father’s influence to design a truly unique growler was instilled in Nicholas, and so he made the decision to sell Pacific Line and focus on Pistol Creek. It was about this time when they made the decision to change the name to DrinkTanks, a name that better described the vision they had for the product line.
Kicking things into gear
Nicholas and his dad had worked on a few designs for the tanks, and after some trial and error, John Herrick of Herrick Product Development joined the DrinkTanks team to help fine-tune the design. John was the perfect match to take the original vision forwards. They spent the next 9 months working on prototypes and designs with a first focus on strong functionality.
As the design began to get closer to the final form, the team at DrinkTanks started to ponder doing a Kickstarter campaign, and before the launch worked on some initial analysis of their own.
“We started talking to factories and doing consumer analysis, including going around to the bars and brewpubs here in Bend and talking to the patrons. The feedback we received was very valuable, including feedback on the name.”
So with a super glued together prototype, they launched a campaign in 2013 with a goal of $30,000. The campaign was a huge success, with 2,076 backers pledging a total of $304,142, with the most valuable aspect being the knowledge that there is a market for their product. The team had also taken PO’s prior to launching the campaign, so by the time of the launch, they had dialed-in production and fixed mass production errors.
“Although the amount raised on Kickstarter didn’t solve all of our money problems, the fact that we had spent the time to figure out the tooling and inventory processes prior to launch allowed us to to get a running start on building the company and sales pipeline.”
After they made sure the backers had their DrinkTanks, they turned their focus to the craft beer industry to build up sales. There were numerous challenges, from being a new technology and brand to also being the most expensive growler on the market at the time. But with Nicholas’ promotional company experience, they pursued the co-branded path to help them get both noticed and to shore up the initial validity. In addition to the craft beer market, they put effort into the outdoor industry vertical where the tank’s design and functionality was a welcome addition.
The sales pipeline picked up, as well as the operational challenges. Nicholas is from Bend and had an innate passion to build the company in Central Oregon. They began production in a 4,400 sq. ft. facility that they quickly outgrew. The company moved from that initial facility to a current footprint of 18,000 sq. ft. to accommodate production and employee growth- the team nearly doubled from 18 to 35 people during just a 60 day period in 2016.
But with expansion also came the need to raise additional capital to allow for the growth to continue. Nicholas raised some money from the original shareholders and also received $250,000 from the Grow Oregon program. They also found local support from Mid Oregon Credit Union who also played a large role in the capital support.
The capital infusion has allowed DrinkTanks to continue on its strong growth trajectory, but other challenges are always on Nicholas’ radar.
Building a product company that has direct ties to the lifestyle of the community – beverages and outdoors – has been a huge positive. The community has been supportive, but the local pool is small for employees and executive talent. In addition to the talent challenges, managing the logistics of growth will also play a critical role. Each tank has 18 different and unique parts, all supplied by different manufacturers.
But those challenges are part of DrinkTanks’ current wild ride. The next 12-24 months will see new diversity in regards to their product offering, but the core focus will not change.
Nicholas has enjoyed the journey from a napkin drawing to an 18,000 sq. ft. facility, and wouldn’t change a thing. However, if we could offer his former self some advice it would include being intentional about surrounding yourself with smart people, learning to delegate earlier, and making the transition from founder to CEO at a quicker pace.