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SAP Business One and Beer: An entrepreneur's journey

With the help of SAP Business One, Ryan Hilliard went from being a flight instructor to founding and running his own brewery.

Ryan HilliardRyan Hilliard, Hilliard's Beer

Ryan Hilliard wants to minimize the time he spends dealing with IT systems, despite prior stints as a tech entrepreneur, de facto systems integrator and help desk administrator for his family. He's turned to SAP Business One to free up more time for what he wants to do -- brew beer. Lots of it.

"I don't want to be sitting back and writing queries," Hilliard says. "I want to brew beer."

As its co-founder and current CEO, Hilliard oversees Hilliard Beer's business operations and 7,000 square foot brewery, all of which are located in a working- class neighborhood of Seattle called Ballard. Now, approximately one year after the brewery's launch, Hilliard's Beer does about $1 million in annual sales. But before starting the company and becoming a reluctant expert in SAP on-demand ERP software such as SAP Business One, Hilliard gained his experience from a wide range of occupations, many of which have shaped his current business philosophy.

"I've done a lot of different projects," Hilliard explained about his prior work in construction, finance and flight instruction.

Done with IT

Growing up, Hilliard said he was fascinated with computing, and by the time he made it to high school he was programming code.

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In 1990, Hilliard started an early dial-up ISP company called TwoAlpha. He later sold the business, which at that point had grown to include more than 1,000 subscribers.

His work with TwoAlpha taught him about software and system integration, maybe more than he wanted to know. "I did some of that work," Hilliard said. "I know how hard it is. He oversaw the transition from Intuit’s QuickBooks to a small software package designed especially for ISPs. "It took me six months to get it working, and an untold amount of hair pulling to make it all actually work."  

At the same time, Hilliard became a reluctant resource his family members would call when they had problems with their own computers, he said.

"I don't want to do that," he joked. "Don't call me with your questions."

The birth of Hilliard's Beer

One of Hilliard's hobbies had always been home brewing. He entered some competitions and did pretty well. Meanwhile, Hilliard was spending most of his time as a flight instructor for a private school that operated at Boeing Airfield, some 15 miles away from Ballard.

In the end, he decided that becoming a commercial pilot, which had been his ultimate goal, wasn't all it was chalked up to be. "Pilots are not paid well, and they work really, really hard, and they're never home," he said.

So when Hilliard's friend told him he should start his own company, he gave it serious thought.

"He said, 'Why don't you go and start your own brewery?' So I did," Hilliard said. "I don't think he thought I really would."

Taking inventory of technology

Going into business meant using QuickBooks once again, something that proved to be an even more awkward fit than with AlphaOne, especially once Hilliard's Beer began growing.

"We were just [running our business] using QuickBooks and [Excel] spreadsheets," he said of the first six to eight months of being in business. "It went poorly, very poorly."

One primary reason is that QuickBooks wasn't really designed for handling inventory, he said.

"QuickBooks doesn't do manufacturing very well," Hilliard said. "We have a certain inventory that changes cost every time. When we make the beer, because our raw materials vary every time, our recipes vary every time. QuickBooks doesn't accommodate that."

Hilliard said they finally gave up on tracking inventory. "It was pointless," Hilliard said. "It was never accurate. If I needed to know what was in stock, I had to go back and look."

SAP Business One with OrchestratedBeer

Hilliard said that during those struggles, he ended up going to a craft brewer's conference and ran into representatives from Orchestra software, a Portland, Ore.-based company that specializes in industry-specific add-ons for small- and medium-sized businesses.

Orchestra offers OrchestratedBeer, a specialized application that runs on SAP Business One OnDemand. The vendor claims to be unusual in providing enterprise-class software for the industry, something that Hilliard said interested him immediately, and ultimately convinced him to deploy both SAP and Orchestra's software.

The fact that it runs in the cloud spoke to his desire to have a system running in a short amount of time, with fewer complications than an on-premises system and without needing an IT department.

Hilliard said that despite his struggles with QuickBooks, he might still be using it had he not found out about SAP.    

"I don't know that I ever would have looked at SAP. That's for these big companies, Fortune 100 companies," Hilliard said. "Granted, I want to be a Fortune 100 company one day, so I want to go that direction." 

Hilliard said SAP Business One can be difficult and maybe not as intuitive as he'd like. Even so, he's been able to shorten preparation time for the federal reports required of brewers.

"It would take me a day and a half to go through all of our production records and our sales records to come up with all the data on the federal reports," Hilliard said. "Now that we're on SAP, they have a query that does everything. I press 'go' and give it a date range, and it gives me the report. And that's it."

Most important, he said, is that SAP Business One with OrchestratedBeer allows him to juggle costs and production schedules, maximizing the amount of beer he can brew with the equipment he has, which is no small feat given that different types of beer require different recipes, brewing procedures and time requirements.

That data is tracked in SAP, he said, down to smaller details like whether it's cheaper to go with bags of malt as opposed to buying it in bulk. "That's the visibility that a lot of small breweries just don't have," Hilliard said. "It's impossible to do on a QuickBooks kind of scale."

This was first published in January 2013

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