Former Amazon engineer Gráinne Walsh left bare metal for beer suds, and she is now sating the thirsty ambitions of the tech world in a different way.
As start-up stories go, Gráinne Walsh’s is different to most. She left a high-flying tech career to pursue her passion for beer and she is now co-founder of Metalman Brewing, the brewer of choice for Ireland’s tech scene.
“It’s a good time to be a beer drinker in Ireland,” Walsh jokes merrily. There’s a kind of craft-brewing renaissance occurring, where zanily titled beers from IPAs to porters are springing up in every county in Ireland.
‘When you are starting up, you need to realise that a bit of blind optimism will get you a long way’
– GRÁINNE WALSH
Metalman Brewing in Waterford is a microbrewery enjoying a roaring trade, and has just entered the UK and French markets.
The beers are quite popular in the tech community, not only savoured by former colleagues at Amazon, but they also adorn the fridges at Airbnb, for example, while rabble-rouser Paul Hayes of Beachhut makes it the tipple of choice at his events.
Walsh will be appearing on stage at the next Startup Grind event backed by Bank of Ireland at Google’s Foundry in Dublin on Tuesday 25 April.
Six years ago, Walsh was at the peak of her game as a tech engineer working at Amazon when she made the decision to strike out and set up her own company.
A maths graduate from University of Limerick with a master’s in theoretical physics, Walsh fell into the tech industry after being lured in by one of the milk rounds in the late 1990s.
Before she knew it, she was at IBM working on Y2K projects as well as mainframes for Bank of Ireland.
She then migrated into IBM’s customer networking team and rolled out the first Cisco routers across the company’s network. “I found the work offered variety and I loved learning, but I have to admit I found it hard to settle in the tech industry. I just wasn’t as geeky about the tech as some of my colleagues.”
The grain of an idea
After a few years, Walsh and her partner Tim Barber (now her husband and fellow co-founder) decided to take time out and go travelling.
They bought a camper van and took off on a circuitous route of Europe with Oktoberfest in Munich as the final destination.
“It was the beginning of a slippery slope that only encouraged our love of brewing,” Walsh recalled.
The year out became years out, as Walsh and Barber went on to live in France, Slovenia and Italy. They had various jobs, including working as walking guides in the Alps, before returning to Ireland.
Walsh fell back into tech and worked in a few different companies. “I found it hard to settle, I either didn’t get along with the people or I disagreed with the direction of the company, but when I eventually found myself at Amazon in Dublin in 2007, I began to fit in.”
Walsh’s first role at Amazon was to build an operations team and an infrastructure organisation. She then went on to create other groups for Amazon, including a network automation team, software development teams and a retail operations platform.
Hopping into the IPA revolution
It was while working at Amazon, with regular visits to Seattle, that Walsh realised there was a massive revolution happening in American beer. “I was being exposed to all these amazing, original and locally produced IPAs.
“When we got back to Ireland after our travels, we were shocked that all you could get in bars was the usual Heineken, Budweiser and Carlsberg. Remember, in 2007, the Celtic Tiger was roaring and some people were actually splashing out on Bollinger but, in terms of craft beers, the scene was non-existent except for maybe some bars in Dublin.”
Like most young tech workers who already earned their spurs, Walsh began to feel the entrepreneurial pull.
“Around 2010, I had the idea to build a brewery in Waterford. My trips to Seattle inspired me to try brewing beer at home and while we got more experienced, I got emboldened and decided to give it a go.”
In October 2010, in the middle of a team-build, Walsh gave her manager a few months’ notice.
“I began rounding people up in the canteen to try our new home-brew IPA and their feedback was encouraging.”
But was it hard leaving the multinational world with its various perks and jobs security? “I just dived right into it. My last day at Amazon was 31 January 2011 and the first batch of Metalman Pale Ale was brewed on 4 February 2011. Before we had our first brewery built, we contracted White Gypsy brewers in Templemore to make our beer for the first 12 months.”
Brewing up a storm
The realities of running her own business were apparent from the get-go. “Everything takes twice as long to do when you run your own business. But it was still an opportunity for me to be creative, which is what I craved.”
While the tech world has an abundant appetite for beer and is an accessible market for Metalman Brewing, the company has been finding its feet in the wider economy. It has just secured a deal to supply its four flagship brands to 115 Tesco stores around Ireland, it exports to the UK, and has just signed a deal with a distributor in France to have its wheat lager distributed across Paris.
“I think the tech industry is a really nice fit with the craft beer industry. It is all about being geeky, not mainstream, and having a depth of interest in something. It is in the same way techies love their coffee, it is off-kilter. And it works because we make these weird beers – the last one was a sage and white pepper caisson – and people in tech love trying new things.
“We have four main beers in our core range: an American-style pale ale; a wheat lager brewed with sun-dried orange, lemon and coriander; a smoked chilli porter; and an amber IPA. As well as this, we have a bunch of seasonal beers and limited releases.”
Metalman Brewing has grown to employ eight people at its brewery in Waterford city.
“When I left tech, I really missed the people and went from a hectic and friendly environment to working mostly alone.
“But I decided that this was real life for me, and I kept myself in the loop by supplying beer to various techie events.
“Beer is just a different kind of start-up. When you are starting up, you need to realise that a bit of blind optimism will get you a long way.”
But there are plenty of slips and spills (pardon the pun) to be aware of.
“By all means do your homework, but do not fall into the trap of ‘analysis paralysis’, where you have over-researched something to the point of not doing it because you are never going to know everything until you try. There is always going to be something to learn.
“Sometimes the hardest part is just starting. When I look back now, I hadn’t a clue. I had done a good deal of research and built what I thought was a really in-depth plan to start with, but it turned out to be just 10pc of what I knew after the first year. You learn by doing.”
Her other piece of priceless founders’ advice is to learn how to manage resources and, if you don’t know how to do something, pay someone that does know how to do it.
“There are things that you will be able to do. There are things that you will want to do. And there are things that you shouldn’t be doing. Understanding the difference between these things is really important.
“What is applicable to tech as well as to beer is storytelling. So many people get into brewing or start-ups because they are passionate about it. But they need to get out there and tell people ‘why’ they are doing it.
“If you have a great product and no one knows about it, then no one is going to buy it. Just get out there and tell your story,” she urged.