Building Partnerships at ZX Ventures

Pedro Earp, Chief Disruptive Growth Officer

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” (African Proverb)

No matter how many smart people we recruit, there will always be many more smart and passionate people out there. We believe in pairing up so we can achieve much more with our partners than we could alone. Everyone benefits: we can use our platform to help other people fulfill their dreams, and we learn from the passion and capabilities that our partners bring to the table. But who do we collaborate with, and how do we build those partnerships?

When we work with someone, our objective is to create a true partnership which leverages their passion and knowledge and gives them an opportunity to make a much larger impact than they would be able to on their own. We’re not out to take over other brands or breweries; we want to build a mutually beneficial collaboration that can help each side achieve their dreams.

Three key principles guide our decisions to create partnerships:  

First and foremost, we look for great people who share our underlying values and beliefs. Our culture is an integral part of who we are at ZX Ventures, and it drives everything we do. If we’re partnering with a brand or business, our initial interest is based on their passion and ability to do something better than us that we can learn from. But more than that, we want them to share our mindset and culture. To ensure the long-term success of a partnership, we look for partners that believe in building great teams, have an owner mindset, believe in meritocracy and have a constant desire to improve. In many cases, we’ve found that the people at small businesses sometimes live those values even more intensely than we do, especially when it comes to ownership. Having both partners share those values and expectations is essential to a solid, long-term partnership.

Second, the business must have a superior product with a sustainable competitive advantage. This differs based on the types of businesses we are considering for new partnerships. It could be a specific beer, a brewing method, or a technology product. Whatever the partner’s product, we want to see excellence and scalability.

Third, the business model itself must be sound. We are looking for equal partners, so we want to work with businesses that can generate sustainable, long term value creation opportunities. We want to leverage our platform to create long-term synergies on top of what that business can already do on its own. We aren’t interested in “cheap acquisitions” where we need to rescue or rebuild a struggling business from the ground up.

Over time, we have learned that successful partnerships have a few things in common. For example, both parties must have the conviction that they are better together than separate. The parties need to believe that each one brings something unique to the table that makes both of them better. Without that complementary mindset, the relationship won’t work. In addition, listening to each other and constant communication are key – we exchange ideas early and often, and our relationships often begin with site visits to better understand how our partners are currently doing things and where we can step in to add value. Finally, there needs to be an owner for every decision to be made. If everyone involved feels responsible for every decision, the relationship gets complicated and convoluted; no one knows who is in charge of what. Usually, the final decision needs to belong to the partner that is in a better position to make the decision (the one who is closer to the issue, has the most experience, has more at stake, etc.). All partners should have an agreement and understanding of who’s responsible for what.

A great example of this kind of mutually beneficial partnership was our first acquisition of a craft brewery, Goose Island. Both John Hall, the founder, and his son, Greg, are visionaries—they created a craft beer in Chicago and built a huge market for it when craft beer was entirely new to the U.S. But they were still a regional brand. Our partnership enabled Goose Island to reach a national market. We’ve helped them grow Goose IPA from the #15 IPA in America to the #2 top-selling brand today. Now we’ve expanded their beer globally to 7 markets and we have Goose Island brewpubs operating in different markets around the world. We’ve maintained their values and creativity while providing a platform that allowed them to expand and fulfill their dreams.

With each partner we bring on, our hope is that we can help them achieve their ultimate vision while also benefiting from their knowledge and skills. We look for partners that have big dreams, great teams, similar values and understand that we can be more successful together than we could if we stayed apart. At ZX Ventures we are very proud of the fact that only one of our many partners has left the business since they’ve started working with us. Our partnerships allow our partners and us to grow and learn while expanding great beer globally.

Advice for Prospective Employees

Gabriel Mello, Global VP of Specialty Sales

I’ve been interviewing a variety of people recently, so I’ve had the opportunity to think about what advice I’d give to someone who’s interested in working with us at ZX Ventures or AB InBev. I’m looking for people who combine ambition, openness, and a global mindset, whether they’re an experienced professional looking for a change or someone at the start of their career.

First, we have to have people who really want to make an impact and drive our business’s growth. In a meritocracy like ZX Ventures, where we promote ownership and provide constant growth opportunities, our employees must be internally driven. Second, by openness, I mean having an unquenchable desire to learn new skills and information. This business is changing so quickly that people who aren’t always growing their knowledge are falling behind. Even looking at my own profile, if I didn’t continually learn new things and advance my skill set, I wouldn’t have the right profile for this company within as little as 10 years! Third, we require people who are global citizens. I’m specifically interested in people who can live in and work with cultures that are dramatically different from the U.S., like India or China.

I can’t overemphasize the importance of that global citizen mentality. I’ve seen a lot of people come through the door who love the idea of being in a global company, but what they really want is to live on the “good side” of the globe. They’re excited about New York and enjoy traveling some, but they’re not actually comfortable living and working in a lot of different cultures. We’re looking for people who are mobile and truly global, and who at the same time want to leave—and live—their legacy. In fact, if I could revisit one part of my career path, I would have left Brazil sooner. I don’t consider it a mistake, because everything that has happened has led me to where I am today. But to really be leaders for our global teams, we have to understand the differences between markets and between countries. We have to know how to manage diverse people in various places who have different cultures and values. There’s no substitute for international experience to develop those skills.

Let me also clear up one myth. Sometimes that mobile, fast-growing, technology-oriented profile discourages people who are mid-career, who think I’m only describing people at the start of their careers. I need a whole range of people, depending on the roles I’m filling. If I have an open position in revenue and management, I may need someone with experience in those fields. I might need someone who can jump in and help me without having to learn and come up to speed. Or depending on the type of challenge, I may need a different profile, someone I can invest the time in to develop into a leader. It’s exciting to work with both groups: mid-career professionals with specific experience and skills and early-career talent whose careers can evolve within our organization.

Wherever you are in your own career, if you think you bring the right combination of drive, willingness to learn, and global citizenship, drop us a line!

Lessons Learned in the First Year of ZX Ventures

By Pedro Earp, Chief Disruptive Growth Officer

In the first couple of years of running ZX Ventures, we’ve already learned a lot of great lessons that are helping us grow and improve and that are also being applied at our parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev. Opportunities that we initially thought would work out very well turned out to be less successful, and options that seemed weak at first have worked out much better than we expected. These lessons have applied not just to products or marketing strategies but also to the way we organize our business and ourselves.

For example, when we first launched our eCommerce business, our assumption was that we would use some type of centralized model, like Uber or Google. We thought we could develop and market a uniform product and service that we could release at different sites around the world. Over time, we learned that consumers in different markets responded to different value propositions. In markets where craft beers are difficult to find, our customers wanted a platform that offered rare craft beers in a convenient way, where they could find and understand the different craft offerings, and then choose between them and access those beers. But in other markets, the value proposition is much more centered on convenience. People there didn’t care so much about specialty beers; they just wanted to have our most popular beer delivered within 30 minutes. These markets required a completely different approach.

What we learned from that experience is that our value propositions vary a lot more by market, and our teams working in those markets have to be able to make adjustments. That’s why we empower our local teams to move fast and make independent decisions based on what they’re seeing on the ground in their area instead of trying to centralize every decision. In today’s world, companies that don’t empower local teams to operate are not going to succeed. The world is just too big and too varied for one central office to know what’s going to work everywhere.

What we really want is the best of both worlds: making those agile market-specific adjustments in the appropriate locations but also leveraging our global synergies and learning from experiences around the world so we can apply that knowledge anywhere. We have some rituals to help us exchange that information, where on a monthly basis we’ll put our heads together and discuss the best practices we’re finding around the globe. For example, we’ve learned that in Europe, a lot of companies will do a special holiday package, such as a case of all different types of beer. We discussed where else that approach might also be successful, and this year, seven or eight markets are launching that as a new product.

For a company like ZX Ventures, our real competitive advantage is our global presence and our decentralized management. We’re doing our best to learn what’s valued and what works in each discrete market, and then we see where those ideas can translate into a different market. Every day brings new lessons, and that keeps our work fresh and interesting.

Product Development From Start to Forever

By Stefanos Metaxas, ZX Ventures Global Product Manager

Giving customers what they want isn’t important just in tech, but in industries ranging from consumer goods to hospitality. Product managers must constantly innovate to surprise and satisfy their customers. But how do we actually develop those products from ideation to launch and beyond? The tech industry has created an excellent process for innovative product development, but it’s surprisingly rare to hear a straightforward and helpful description of it. That can be frustrating as a new product manager, when all you want is a step-by-step guide on how to get started.

Below is a high-level outline of what works best for my team at ZX Ventures. This cuts through the fluff often found in tech articles explaining product development.

Identify a hypothesis for a user problem. What problems are people having? I identify problems in a variety of ways. For example, I may have a personal frustration in my daily life that I’m sure other people share. Analyzing disruptable industries and their sticking points can suggest new approaches. To generate ideas, I’ve often interviewed prospective users about product frustrations in their personal or professional lives. One example might be that pet-owners want to know if there are any GMOs in the packaged foods they buy for their furry friends.

Test the user problem hypothesis. Is the problem we identified one that other people care about? I use a combination of continued interviews, larger surveys, analysis of existing market research and data, and a low-cost signup form or landing page to test customer response to my hypothesis. Based on the results, I either go back to step one and try again or continue with the product development. In our pet-owner example, I might post a questionnaire to online communities of pet owners and people in the pet food industry. I can also create a landing page with an email signup explaining what I want to develop and advertise that through Facebook to gauge interest.

Design the minimum viable product (MVP). What is the MVP that will fulfill the user problem I’ve identified? I assemble my entire team as well as trusted advisors to brainstorm features that together will solve the user problem. Our team uses Jeff Patton’s book, User Story Mapping, as a guide for product feature development. All stakeholders should walk away in agreement on what features the MVP will use to solve the user problem. In our example, that might include the ability to scan barcodes and view a warning if the product contains GMOs.

Kick off development sprints. Focusing their efforts in agreed-upon sprint periods (e.g., two weeks), developers work on the back end to support the features identified in the mapping exercise. The design team creates wireframes that lay out those features and surveys potential users for their input. They then develop the full user experience (UX) based on iterative feedback from potential users. Once the UX is working, the developers implement it, and the designers move on to the next features.

Launch, gather feedback, and repeat. As soon as the MVP is ready, we launch it and collect feedback about its functionality. We use feedback to constantly evolve and improve the product with new features and refinements. Before we introduce or update a product or a feature, we always make sure we have metrics in place to measure its success. That way, the development continues, and the product grows! In our example, it could start as a simple scanning app, but could soon become a platform to order non-GMO pet food online or even open physical stores one day.

This process has worked to keep my team at ZX Ventures continually innovating and creating products that meet real customer needs and solve real problems. I hope it helps you as well, regardless of the industry you work in.

The compounding potency of unrelenting urgency

By Lex Solit

Imagine a corporate world where every employee attacked each project and each meeting with the urgency of Jack Bauer in 24.  While I prefer positive zeal to never-ending apocalypse-prevention, there is no denying that sustained urgency is a “top 5” source of competitive advantage.

Weightlifting is a great metaphor for business, in that once you work yourself into a certain condition, what was once an excruciating push can become “light work”.

Allow me to briefly expound on how I define urgency, crystallize the nature of its dividends, and lastly, share some thoughts on how to harness the power of urgency in a positive and engaging way in one’s organization.

What is urgency in a business context?

When people think of “urgency,” they often think of short sprints or fire drills. Every role or team has defined peaks when key outcomes are finalized or deliverables are handed up the chain. Urgency is all about turning on the after-burner when that big report is due for the big boss.

There are two flaws to this mindset. The first is that when you focus your idea of “peak performance” only on “peaks,” you miss optimizing impact on the 85% of non-peak times. Urgency, properly applied, is briskly jogging the whole marathon. The second is that “peak” periods are often cascaded down from more senior levels, meaning the “urgent spike” approach is a reactive response to an extrinsic demand. Urgency, properly applied, is like the joyously furious offense of Allen Iverson decimating the Lakers in Game 1 of the 2001 NBA Finals – it is an intrinsic desire of an individual team member to make each play count.  

Why is it so important?

The simple math of compounding returns. The results of an organization are a function of the aggregated actions of each employee in each second. Thinking in the speed/quality/cost framework, urgency, properly applied, can directly translate to increased speed with negligible (or limited) offsets. 

In my business (restaurants/retail), one of the biggest barriers to growth is the cycle time of expansion. The time it takes to find locations, negotiate with landlords, get permits, construct a place, and hire people necessitates an almost masochistic passion for the end product (which I fortunately - or unfortunately- have).

The most complex retail format I operate is the brewpub. Think 13K square feet, 250+ seats, a brewery on site. They are knarly but beautiful beasts.  The normal cycle time (end to end) for a project is 18 to 24 months. My team was able to open 4 brewpubs in 4 different countries in 10 months – doubling the speed of established operators while building a team from scratch. I’ll talk more about how we accomplished this in a future post, but just think about the value created by “getting in the game” one year sooner: the money, the learnings, the market presence, the people and infrastructure on which to build the next wave.   

How do you create/harness urgency?

As one of my recent hires astutely told me, “culture is just the way we do things”. Any leader in any organization has the opportunity and responsibility to shape the culture, like when Kanye dropped the Yeezy 2's.

1.)    Crank dat galvanizing mission

Few will stroll downhill to nowhere, many will sprint uphill for a pot of gold. To arm your troops with that “battery in the back”, I suggest framing the mission not just at the company level, but also at the team, project, and “quick sprint” level. There is glory to be had in the gargantuan and in the granular, and shortening cycle times between “accomplished missions” helps create the right dynamic. 

2.)    Grab the loose balls yourself

That leaders need to set the example is widely accepted for a reason. To create high-urgency teams, it is critical to not only expect speed from your teams, but to put pressure on yourself in a way that is visible to them. Set targets for yourself that are stretched. Commit to deadlines for specific items yourself and then show your team that you can consistently meet or exceed them.  

3.)    Coach for offense

Defense = “we have the monthly performance review, scramble and get the numbers and get me some pretty pictures!!”

Offense = “What do you believe you can achieve on this in the next 60 days? Are there any other ways you think we can drive XYZ metric? If you had to what you just said in the next 30 days, what would you need to change?    

In reality there will always be a combination of the two, but it’s all about the skew.

4.)    Remove the blockers, provide the enablers

Urgency is of no value until it turns into speed. Unblocking barriers to execution can sometimes mean streamlining decision-making processes or even re-thinking policies - where the cost exceeds the benefit. When your team sees you unblock barriers, it has both a practical and symbolic effect.

Enabling people in this context means more than autonomy and coaching – when it comes to moving really quickly, great leaders should collaborate upfront with team members to identify project-specific resources or tools that will reduce friction.  

Thanks for reading, and I welcome any thoughts or comments. Unfortunately, I must tend to some urgent business!

Our Culture in Action

Check out some recent videos from our leaders discussing culture at ZX Ventures.

René Paula, Global VP of Legal, explains why joining ZX Ventures gave him multiple opportunities for growth.

Alex Nelson, Global Head of Product, discusses pushing the boundaries with her team.

Alex Nelson, Global Head of Product, discusses the value placed on ownership across all levels at ZX Ventures.

Sergio Esteves, Global VP of Brand Experience, discusses the importance of hiring the best people and keeping our teams diverse.

Sergio Esteves, Global VP of Brand Experience, reflects on accomplishing what was deemed impossible by others.

Using Customer Feedback Loops at ZX Ventures

By Alex Nelson

In an ever-changing market, where technological advances and paradigm shifts happen daily, how do you make sure your products stay relevant? How do you stay on point when your market is an ever-evolving, moving target? At ZX Ventures, we have learned the importance of staying close to our customers and letting them drive our innovations, from the outset of a new product all the way through to its realization. Customer feedback keeps us focused on our most important goal: ensuring that our products are helpful and useful every day.

We start getting customer input at the very beginning of our product-design process. We set up initial face-to-face learning sessions with our end consumers to help us design products that they actually need and want. When we’re first launching a product, that level of in-depth customer access helps us to understand our users’ concerns. Our approach also allows us to observe our users’ current solutions so we can learn about the problems they have and why they’re dissatisfied. We then iteratively use that information to design a better product, observe our users’ trials with the new product, and get immediate user feedback on how well it works.

As we move from initial plan and design into scaling up a new tech product, we use metrics to help us keep a finger on the pulse of our customers’ use experience and to measure their overall satisfaction with our products. Net Promoter Scores are the primary metric for tracking customer satisfaction and potential business virality. We also use other metrics for tracking customer behavior, such as one-click surveys, page view counts, and search term analysis, to develop deeper business insights.

One of the easiest ways we build customer feedback loops is through traditional customer service contacts. Accessibility is the key. Online chat windows are standard practice, but we also ask, in every email or contact with our customers, for their feedback on how we’re doing. Users can respond to all of our business emails so we don’t miss out on these direct means of getting feedback! Social media comments are another straightforward way to monitor how our customers feel about our business and about our competitors. We track consumer sentiment and respond rapidly to complaints or concerns, allowing us to keep a pulse on our users. We also assemble panels of our top customers—our most loyal fans—and rely on their feedback for new business ideas.

We stay involved with customer feedback loops by making our customer service team an integral part of our organization. We want to know that our customers’ top issues are on everyone’s radar. Our product team spends time every week working directly with customer service, reading emails, chat histories, and other comments. Because our team members stay close to the customers and hear about their issues firsthand, they can be responsive to our users’ needs.

What we learn from our customer feedback loops directly influences our product strategy and our development road map. Did our competitor just launch a new feature? What are customers saying about it? How can we offer them something different and stay relevant? Making sure our customers have ways to reach out to us, and that everyone on our team hears what they’re saying and responds to it, is how we evolve with a changing marketplace.

From Clydesdales to Unicorns: Bringing a Startup to Life

7th FLoor Group.jpg

By Sergio Esteves

AB InBev prides itself on being as quick and efficient as a much smaller company. The culture is surprisingly similar to that of a nimble, young startup business—but at a tremendous scale. Still, AB InBev realized that prioritizing creativity and growth—not to mention disrupting existing practices—would be easier in a separate, compact startup. Thus, the genesis of ZX Ventures.

ZX Ventures was created to disrupt AB InBev’s core business by prioritizing different things—creativity, outside-the-box thinking, and rebuilding from the ground up. It’s hard, in a big company, to create a new way of doing things or a new business or service. Those are tasks we can focus on here.

I still think of ZX Ventures as a crazy dream, even though I’ve been working here for almost a year. We bring to life the incredible vision of our founders: to put great people to work in a tiny “think tank” and incubator environment, where we get to pursue wild ideas and experiment with small changes (and sometimes big ones), sailing uncharted waters.

I was always empowered to be creative and innovative at AB InBev, but it’s leveled up at ZX Ventures. We’re so small that we can try out a crazy idea from left-field, and if it works, that’s great. If it doesn’t, we haven’t lost much because implementation was inexpensive.  We can test out ideas without fear of failure and without needing to compete with huge brands. Maybe we’ll find some solutions that will apply to AB InBev’s core businesses, or maybe we’ll expand the market!

I like to say that we’re creating unicorns at ZX Ventures. We’re already creating magical results from our weirdest, most out-there dreams. Even I don’t know what we’ll come up with next—but that’s the advantage of running a small startup company within a large business.