We truly value our customers here at FreedomVoice, which is why we like to shine the spotlight on one of them from time to time and share their story with the rest of our community. From these spotlights, we hope you can learn something useful that can be applied to your own business, as well as connect with another entrepreneur.
We are featuring Albert Ciuksza Jr. of Portabeer.com.
Tell us about yourself.
Albert: I’m a beer-lover who happens to have entrepreneurial experience. I was raised in El Paso, Texas, went to the University of North Texas for two years, then completed my degree at Saint Vincent College in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Much of my extended family is in western Pennsylvania, so it was a natural fit for me to move here.
I found a job in Pittsburgh after graduation and have worked for a few different companies in wildly different industries. I really love this city — we have been voted “Most Livable” by Forbes magazine and a few others and I couldn’t agree more. Today, I’m happy to be directing a business growth initiative full-time for a well-recognized economic development organization as well as pursuing my MBA at the Katz Business School at the University of Pittsburgh.
What are your hobbies?
Albert: I haven’t had time for hobbies for the last couple of years between my career, outside projects, school, and other obligations. However, I really enjoy golfing, homebrewing, graphic design, tailgating (with a fanatical devotion to Pittsburgh sports teams), and camping. Plus, I love my job, I love school, and I love the start-up projects – they all feel like hobbies.
Albert: The company grew out of a “man-weekend” camping trip in the summer of 2009. Four of us decided that we needed to get away, which happened to include taking a quarter-barrel of beer and a rigged CO2 pouring system. Our homemade solution failed, which inspired us to search for something more suitable. After coming up empty, we decided to attempt to build something on our own. While it started as sort of a joke, we realized that we were onto something when friends and industry veterans encouraged us to pursue it, further reinforced by a few successes in business plan competitions.
While developing the CO2 pouring system and building relationships in the industry, we saw an opportunity in high-quality, innovative beer accessories. Deciding that we could leverage our collective graphic design, photography, writing, operations, and fulfillment backgrounds, we decided to seek out specific products that we loved to use ourselves and sell them to others just like us. In November 2010, we launched PortaBeer.com as a retail site. Knowing the importance of customer service, especially with a new e-commerce site, we wanted to make it simple for customers to contact us. This led us to FreedomVoice and the perfect vanity toll-free number (855.PortaBeer [767-8223]). After more than a year of operation, our Sentol Bottle Opener, which makes you want to open an entire 12-pack because of how much fun it is to use, is our top-seller.
As for the CO2 pouring system (now named the PortaKeg), we’re in the final stages of development and are shooting to launch it in late spring/early summer of this year. We’re very excited by the feedback, both from potential consumers and commercial users, and can’t wait to see how the product does in the market.
How is your business structured? Family, friends involved?
Albert: Currently, we have four partners in PortaBeer LLC – a few of the original “campers” and a mechanical engineer, without whom we would have been sunk long ago. Todd Barnett is a friend from college with skills in photography, operations, and market research. Another partner, Mark Setto, is involved with another company that I had a chance to help get off the ground and has been critical in operations, product development, and fulfillment. Ray Robbins, who founded his own engineering company (Inertia Machinery), has become a friend through the challenges of building a new product from nothing.
How did you find out about FreedomVoice?
Albert: We found you via Google. After doing some research, it seemed that FreedomVoice gave us the simplest and least expensive way of implementing a toll-free number for our company.
What are your goals?
Albert: “Your Beer. Anywhere.” We came up with this after scanning the landscape and realizing that enjoying one’s favorite beer isn’t all that easy to do outside of home or at a bar (for instance, most tailgating venues limit people to cans or kegs, making it difficult to enjoy craft beers since they’re usually only available in glass bottles). Long-term, we aim to be the leader in developing and marketing beer-related innovations to the individuals and companies who enjoy beer as a part of their lives.
How is your virtual phone system helping you accomplish those goals?
Albert: We don’t have a standard office and we all are working full-time, making the responsibility of assisting customers more challenging than most companies. We’ve been able to use FreedomVoice to split the responsibility between us so that we can make sure to answer the phone when someone gives us a call. That has made a difference in several instances where a customer might be confused as to what product would make the most sense for them, which has sometimes meant making a referral to another company.
How is your virtual phone system set up? Which features do you use?
Albert: We use mailboxes and call-forwarding so that any one of us can answer the phone while on the run. Between FreedomVoice, our email system and video conferencing, we rarely need to meet face-to-face to get things done.
Do you have remote employees?
Albert: We don’t have remote employees, but one of the principals, Ray, lives about 2,100 miles away in northern Nevada. Having an ability to communicate remotely has been the only way we’ve been able to move forward with the project. And, apparently like 20% of the couples getting married, we met him online.
How are you reaching out to your customers?
Albert: We employ some standard marketing techniques, such as a rather robust social media campaign (twitter.com/PortaBeer, facebook.com/PortaBeer). We also use email newsletters on a non-spammy basis to let our past customers and friends know about promotions, new products and new developments within the company. We’ve also made a very strong commitment to a non-profit organization called Operation Once in a Lifetime, which offers support to U.S Service members, their families and veterans regardless of rank, deployment, physical condition or branch or service.
What were your challenges getting started?
Albert: In many ways, we’re still getting started. However, once you have a great team, I think it comes down to having adequate resources (time, energy, and money) to make everything happen. A close second would be the challenges associated with establishing intellectual property rights – for most small companies just getting off the ground, it can be prohibitively expensive.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to start their own business?
Albert: Don’t be a jerk. Don’t be greedy. Don’t be paranoid. Unselfishly share contacts and make introductions when you recognize an opportunity for two people help each other personally or professionally. Be audacious and ask prominent people in your industry for advice. Always look for an opportunity to get someone interested in talking about your company or product. Say “I’m sorry” when you make a mistake and back that up with action. Give back the time and energy others have given to you. Finally, find talented people who can help you since there’s no way any one person has the time, energy, and smarts to do it on their own forever.
Is there anything else you would like to share with our audience?
Albert: Sure! Keep track of what we’re doing at our blog: Have Another Round. And don’t be afraid to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.