Sean Lilly Wilson | Crain's Charlotte

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Sean Lilly Wilson


Durham, North Carolina's Fullsteam Brewery makes "distinctly Southern beer" from local ingredients.

The Mistake:

Hiring based on need rather than culture and not establishing culture quickly enough.

I think when people think of a mistake, it’s often a notable blunder that happened in a moment of time – something with a date stamp. But I don’t think that’s always the case. When businesses recognize that they’ve made mistakes and look back it can be a slow path and, sometimes, a slow corrective one. So, the mistake might not be rooted in a moment, but it’s more of a realization over time as business ebbs and flows.

For me, it was having an idea of starting a brewery in 2010 and knowing that I wasn’t a brewer. That wasn’t my background. I was bringing people on to get us open and move us along, but I was failing to build a culture around a team. I was hiring out of need, which was compounded by the problem that I had a mentality that there was a front-of-house and back-of-house distinction, like in the restaurant business. I didn’t look at the team holistically, but more compartmentally.

We’re a growing company and if we want to grow, it starts with the foundation of your core values.

The Lesson:

The front-of-house and back-of-house mentality shaped a cultural divide. It was a struggle. I know I’ve made mistakes in being too passive and allowing that mentality to shape culture.

We realized we weren’t a scrappy startup just trying to get by. We’re a growing company and if we want to grow, it starts with the foundation of your core values.

That was definitely a realization and a framework for us.

Now, I feel a lot more well-versed in our culture, but we had to establish that. We’ve worked hard to establish five core values and we hire and, sometimes, dismiss, on culture. Our mission, our values, our 10-year plan – all of these elements help engage employees and make them feel more part of the process. It’s in our ethos and it’s a way to define who we are and differentiate who we are.

For example, we’ve been chipping away at how we communicate and how to do it better. We integrated a communication system for pertinent information. There was a rampant improvement in communication so that people weren’t lost and wondering what we were doing. Early on, there were legitimate complaints that management and leadership didn’t share plans with the team.

We now communicate our mission and our purpose. The schisms I thought were endemic to the nature of the business just eroded way. Not only do we now see better sharing of information, but we have that cross-pollination of brewers coming out to events that were historically for front-of-house or events employees.

Sean Lilly Wilson is on Twitter at @seanlillywilson and Fullsteam Brewery is at @fullsteam.

Photo courtesy of Fullsteam Brewing.