Millennial Entrepreneurs Drawn To Starting Craft Businesses

By Dmitriy Shapiro
The Daily Telegram, Adrian, Mich.

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) Craft-focused businesses have been making a comeback in small towns across the country. And many of these local, craft-focused startups are owned by millennials.


In almost any developing town one looks at today, officials can point at the shiny new brewpub or independent coffee shop in their downtown.

These, as well as independent craft distilleries, bakeries and other crafts have been making a comeback after nearly being wiped out for more than half a century.

Not just in Seattle or New York, these craft-focused businesses have been making a comeback in small towns across the country.

This rebirth has been happening in Lenawee County: Maggard Razors in Adrian, which produces its own line of craft grooming products; Cotton Brewing Co. in Adrian; Tecumseh Brewing Co.; and the future Atlas Distilling Co. in Clinton are just some of these businesses.

And almost all of these local, craft-focused startups are owned by millennials.

James Hill, instructor of business management at Siena Heights University, said that he doesn’t see any difference in aspirations from previous generations of entrepreneurs but that today’s young entrepreneurs seem to see fewer reasons not to take that kind of a risk or the same roadblocks.

“I was entrepreneurial then, and I think people are still entrepreneurial now. The difference is they’re starting in their 20s rather than in their 30s and 40s,” Hill said. “Are they better risk-takers or more willing to take the chance? Maybe they don’t have as many choices as we did.”

Hill said when he left college, there were plenty of job opportunities.

“And there wasn’t as much competition as there is today. Today there is,” he said. “Not only are the graduates, recent graduates, that I work with competing against other graduates here in Michigan or the U.S. … but the people in China, Eastern Europe, Russia — they have the same technology, they have the same skills, they have the same knowledge. That’s who many of them are competing with.”

Also, today’s customers are seeking out more individualized products, Hill said.

“Back in the day, if you wanted to sell beer, just make as much as you can (and) it was going to sell. It was all about mass. Today it’s much more local, much more custom, much more doing stuff for people you know,” Hill said.

“The market has fragmented and people appreciate individual differences now. Customers are different and who they buy from is different.”

“I think the era of being able to buy something and resell it is kind of over. I think you kind of have to have some kind of value-added process,” Brett Cotton, 37, of Cotton Brewing said. “In my opinion, I think Amazon and online sales kind of destroyed just kind of being able to buy in bulk, break it down and resell it and make a profit. Because now you can just buy straight from the source, one item at a time. Shipping now is so cheap and so fast, you don’t really need to go into a major warehouse to buy a basic item.”

He, along with his wife, Krista, 34, started Cotton Brewing and are now working on opening their Rice & Barley restaurant in downtown Adrian. It will be another location for serving their craft beer, as well as liquor, sodas and other items along with a Pan-Asian menu.

“I think it’s in large part a response to what consumers want. People are kind of getting back to, I guess if you go back far enough, what’s happening today is what traditionally happened here,” Cotton said. “People are getting back to knowing where their food comes from, knowing where their beer comes from. And I mean not just that but kind of the artisan feel, the feeling that you’re getting something unique. That you’re not just getting the mass-market stuff that everybody has. That you might be getting something actually special, something made by hand.”

Social benefits
Millennials, described as those who were born starting in the early 1980s until the mid-2000s, began their life watching their parents work for large, international companies.

The older millennials, who started their careers in the late 2000s, had the start of their working lives stunted by the Great Recession.

It all started 10 years ago for Arlo Brandl, 30, of Tecumseh, a pastry chef who is the owner of Tecumseh Bread & Pastry. To please his family, he was studying nursing at Michigan State University when he discovered that, while a noble profession, he didn’t get the same satisfaction from it as he did from baking bread.

He decided to go into the baking business “knowing fully that I wasn’t going to make a ton of money, but I was at least going to be doing something that I could come home really proud of because of the hard work that was put into it.”

“I don’t know what’s going on … but it’s great,” Tim Schmidt, co-owner and brewer of Tecumseh Brewing, said.

“It’s kind of like Old World stuff coming back around. It’s more labor intensive and things like that. I think people just appreciate that more and more.”

“For me, a desire for flavor and different kinds of beer was the first thing that got me into craft beer,” Schmidt said.

Schmidt, 36, went to Western Michigan University for two years, but said that he didn’t last there, instead coming back to Tecumseh and working at Evans Street Station restaurant. By the time he left, he was a bartender. He worked as a bartender in Ann Arbor, working mostly nights.

He started home brewing and applied for an assistant brewer position at Grizzly Peak Brewing Co. in Ann Arbor. After working at Grizzly Peak for a year, he took two 12-week courses in brewing in Chicago. He was hired at Blue Tractor BBQ and Brewing in Ann Arbor and worked for five and a half years before opening TBC with his friend and co-owner Kyle DeWitt.

“I like the process. I still say I like the smells that go on when you’re brewing beer,” Schmidt said. “Obviously, the work that you put into it is rewarded with good beer if you do it right.”

Quality of life
Nearly every business owner and craftsperson interviewed said that their current path was not the one they originally set out upon after their schooling.

Brett Cotton holds a bachelor’s degree in business and a master’s in organizational leadership. Krista Cotton has a bachelor’s in accounting and a master’s in organizational leadership.

Krista Cotton worked as a certified public accountant for a firm and as a controller at an industrial contracting company. Brett Cotton left to work at Sprint in Washington, D.C., before leaving in 2013, coming back to Lenawee County where he worked a very different job overseeing production at a local drill bit manufacturer.

“The telecom industry was exciting when it took off in the early 2000s. Everybody was excited to have something new and innovative in their hand and every year something new would come out and people got excited,” Brett Cotton said. By the time he left, “everybody had a cellphone, everybody hated their cellphone and everybody that came in told you that they hated their cellphone. Even working at the corporate offices in D.C., it still all came back to customers purchasing phones and buying air time and keeping them happy.”

“We both got burned by corporate America pretty bad,” Brett Cotton said. “We both did a master’s degree for corporate America and when things were bad, we got cut.”

“But that, actually, made (starting our own business) a lot easier to decide,” Krista Cotton said. ” ‘Well, we have nothing to lose, let’s do it.’ It takes away that fear.”

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