Dave Thibodeau of Ska Brewing on framing your day and the long road to success

by Patty Templeton

There are times when life feels stagnant, you don’t know how to fix it, and you’re afraid trying to fix it will maybe cause something worse than the blah that is already happening. You look around and your friends seem to be doing OK. They have good jobs or that badass apartment. Meanwhile, you’re mucking about in WTF-Am-I-Doing-With-My-Lifelandia.

What do you do to get unstuck? To move forward? To make decisions and find success? DGO talked to local leaders to find out. In the coming weeks, we’ll run a series of conversations with local leaders and success stories. We’ll start with Ska Brewing’s Dave Thibodeau, followed by La Plata County Sheriff Sean Smith, and former Colorado State Sen. (now Durango lawyer) Ellen Roberts to find out how they make decisions, tips on framing a day for prosperity, and what the path to success looks like.

First up, Thibodeau, president and co-founder of the wildly successful, hella creative, community-energizing Ska Brewing Co. If you don’t have any idea what you’re doing with your life, don’t worry, there’s hope. Ska Brewing wasn’t some big, grand plan from the start. It was punk rockers trying to get shmammered on the cheap and eventually attend beer fests for free. Here’s Thibodeau on when to go with your gut, how mistakes are opportunities, what he does to make each day successful, and how following your passion can lead to a solid career.

Your process can changeThinking about Ska, it’s been almost 23 years. The process I go through now compared to what it was 20 years ago is very different. I have two partners, Bill Graham and Matt Vincent, here at Ska. Twenty years ago, anything we put our minds to or anything we thought we wanted to do, even if it seemed risky, didn’t faze us in decision-making. The three of us were the only employees in the early days. That changed over the years … There’s approximately 70 people working here. Bigger decisions have an effect on so many more people, their lives, their families.

As far as fear goes, I don’t think I would say that I’m afraid to make any big decision. I would say that I put a lot more thought into how I come to make a decision.

When to go with your gutCreate a little bit of a gap between when you realize there is a decision to be made and when you actually have to make it. That’s contradictory to a gut reaction, but sometimes you don’t need an immediate reaction, you need to put some time in a decision and to involve people smarter than yourself.

What it comes down to is every decision I make here, the final factor is, “How is this going to affect the other people that work here?” and “Is it going to affect them in a positive manner?” It’s the same in my personal life, thinking about my family.

If it’s a decision that’s not going to have an effect on many other people, I’m a lot more willing to go with my gut.

You’re going to make mistakes Failures are learning opportunities. I think failing is as important as succeeding. It helps you succeed.

I had an idea to do a series of beers. We called them Seasonal Stouts. At that time, there weren’t a lot of canned stouts. I thought it would be good to do a series of stouts where each season was represented through different ingredients and the art on the can. It was an epic fail. There were too many parts to it. We put a ton of work into designing not only the beers, but the artwork and we did it for a couple years but it ended up being a bad idea that didn’t sell and cost us a lot of money.

There was a lesson there. It was, don’t over-think some things. I had put stories together in my head behind every label and it was just too much. Those were all the parts that made it seem appealing to me as an idea and a product for the consumer, but the consumer doesn’t care about that. They just wanna taste a good beer.

Something like that, sure, it costs some money, but that’s gonna happen, and you build that into the business model.

Stewing on failures versus opportunities to growIn the evolution of a business, every one of those failures is a learning experience. If you gain knowledge from it and move forward, it is hard to say, “OK, I failed. Look what it did to everybody,” because in the long run, I didn’t make that mistake again. I probably made a series of better decisions because of it.

I live that way in my personal life, too. Failing, even an epic fail, can still be looked at as an opportunity. The problem is if you don’t learn from it and you just do it again … It really is about changing your perspective and finding the process that allows you to do that.

When you recognize that you are blaming everyone else or that every situation that goes awry supposedly has nothing to do with you and you’re the victim of it all, once you see that you can change it. Realizing, “This is all about me.” You have the ability to make better decisions and to surround yourself with the right people, that’s your decision. Similarly, it’s a choice to look at a fail as a fail instead of an opportunity to grow.

Dave’s decision-making tipsYou can rank almost any decision. Ask, what are the benefits of me doing this? Is this the right person to hire for the job? Then ask yourself to rank the possible solution on a scale of one to 10, but you aren’t allowed to use a seven.

If you end up with a six, that’s barely passing. No way. The decision is no. If it is an eight? Pretty stoked. That’s good, not a 10, but it works. A seven? That is an easy place to go. Just don’t go there. If it’s an eight, it’s a go. Lower and it’s a no.

You can also bring other people into a decision. I bring in people with viewpoints that are related to the issue or conflict, but with an outside perspective. I try to listen more for a perspective that I haven’t thought of … If you have that group discussion and the group can’t come to an answer, maybe then apply the ranking to your decision, as a group. Ask people on the number line where they put their decision.

Finding a passion outranks chasing moneyWhen I was in high school, I was a total party kid – drugs, alcohol. We were punk rock kids, and we were all intelligent enough, but we drank so much. That’s how we learned to brew beer. We found a book in my dad’s bookshelves about making beer from the ’60s. We were like, “Oh, my god,” and realized he wasn’t adding in alcohol, he was making it (from) stuff he bought at the grocery store … It wasn’t because we had an appreciation for good craft beer, it was to get drunk. We started doing that and it could have been a life fail. But we took the knowledge we gained, developed a palate, learned to respect beer, learned to respect alcohol, and built a business out of it that I feel good about today.

My first year of college, I went to (University of Northern Colorado) in Greeley … I did pretty bad, had a 1.5 GPA. All I did was drink all night. I dropped out and I skied for a year. I had no idea what I was going to do at the time. I ended up graduating with a communications degree and we started Ska without any money. The bank wouldn’t lend us any money, the SBA (Small Business Administration) wouldn’t lend us any money, so we drove around and found equipment just like when we were homebrewers, but bigger equipment – closed down creameries and dairies on the Western Slope of Colorado. Finding tanks in fields and figuring out how to make beer and trading them for tanks that can make beer.

It developed into something pretty special, but it was a long evolution and the decisions we made along the way were for the business and not for us. We weren’t thinking we were ever going to make money or get rich. Originally, the idea was, we loved going to beer festivals, and if we could actually get a brewery up and running, we didn’t have to pay to get into the festival and they’d give us a hotel room. (Laughs)

Just don’t stopEach time we had to borrow a little more money or take on another partner, it was because we didn’t know what we were doing, but we believed in it and kept going. We realized early on that you just have to figure out what went wrong and why you had to borrow that money. Then ask, did we make a mistake? How do we not repeat that?

We had other jobs where we worked all day and then worked all night at the brewery. Both of us worked the whole first year full time during the day and all night at the brewery. Then the second year, we got our third partner and quit our other jobs. We didn’t pay ourselves a penny that first year. Zero pay. I was living in my car. (Laughs)

Success as a series of attainable achievementsSuccess was quitting our jobs at the end of that first year. We certainly weren’t thinking that Ska would ever be this, we just hoped, “Man, we might actually be able to support ourselves.” Doing that, making it through the first year, that was huge. When we started bottling beer – that was big.

Another one came when we bought our own building. The landlord did a really cool thing where he said, “If you guys ever wanna buy this building,” … he told us he was leaving to build another building for his business and said if we wanted to buy his building, “See what the bank will lend you and I will carry whatever is left.” He believed in us. He was a hardcore, blue collar farmer guy up at 3 o’clock in the morning. Still up at 9 or 10 at night. He would be there working with us in the middle of the night. He offered to do that and that allowed us to buy our first building, which was a big deal for us.

Then, constructing this building and the success we had after we built it, was also a big, big success for us.

Setting up your day for prosperityI have a full routine. I get up at about 5-ish. I meditate for 20 minutes. That’s clearing my mind. Then I sit in my hot tub. I go for a run. I’ll do a priming exercise that is a breathing exercise. It’s a total Tony Robbins thing. You think about what you’re grateful for and you set your breath. I ask myself, what am I grateful for? What do I need to achieve? I picture myself already achieving it and breathe through the whole thing. Then I’m into my day. I like doing all of that before the sun comes up and I do it every day. I sometimes blow it on weekends if I wanna lay in bed and read a book, but I’ll still get the exercise in. Weekdays I always do.

Finding inspiration in othersI’d love to talk to Tony Robbins, for sure. Tim Ferriss. I am interested in people who seek out experts in the subjects they don’t know.

I like talking to other entrepreneurs, anyone who has started their own business, because they each have cool ideas and there’s something to learn from them. I’d like to ask other business owners if they had a well-thought-out plan or if it was an organic experience.

Interview edited and condensed for clarity. Patty Templeton


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