We got the idea for the PortaKeg
company while on a guys’ weekend camping trip, originally scheduled to give us a break from another startup on which we had been working. Since we have a home draft system for our beer, we thought it would be easy to build something similar that would work for the vacation. Feeling optimistic, we took a quarter-barrel of beer with us. About $50 bucks of ice and countless pitchers of foam later, we realized our idea for a system was a failure. There had to be something better out there.
Returning from our trip, we searched everywhere to find a simple, portable draft beer system, with wheels, a collapsing luggage handle, and a CO2 system like we had at home (and what most bars and restaurants use). Our closest match was a trash can strapped to a hardware store dolly, which sold for almost $1,000.
We--Todd Barnett, Ray Robbins, Mark Setto and me-- decided to tackle the problem ourselves. But to our surprise, we didn’t have to go it alone. From this point forward, the power of Pittsburgh took over.
We began sketching out rough ideas of what the portable keg product would look like and how it would function. We gave it a name, PortaKeg, and started talking to our friends about this crazy beer idea we had. The response was unexpectedly and overwhelmingly positive.
First, as MBA students at the Katz Graduate School of Business at Pitt
, we met with the Institute of Entrepreneurial Excellence, whose staff strongly encouraged us to enter our rough concept into its annual Big Idea Competition. At the same time, another partner was finishing his MBA at Point Park and submitted it to the business plan competition there.
Much to our surprise, we were finalists in both contests and, along with the cash prizes, we had all the validation we needed to keep moving forward. Moreover, we were able to work with a team of students from Pitt’s Swanson School of Engineering, who helped us get the rough design into a 3D model.
With resources being scarce, we began reaching out to different folks in Pittsburgh to get advice as to how best to move forward. We contacted Mark and Maria Dudash, the founders of the newly-reborn Duquesne Beer,
who were incredibly helpful in sharing contacts and giving us sound advice about how to approach the beer industry. Their insight also helped us to launch our retail site, PortaBeer.com
, in November 2010. (They’re also some of PortaBeer’s best customers.)
We were introduced to Frank Fuhrer III, CEO of Frank Fuhrer Wholesale
, which is one of the largest beer distributors in the country. He kindly took the time to listen to us and, even more helpful, offered to let us work with his draft technicians, who help to build and repair draft systems in bars, restaurants, stadiums and at beer festivals. We never could have developed the tap system without Frank’s (and Flash’s) help.
Countless others in Pittsburgh have supported our company. Chris Dilla of Bocktown fame has been helpful in promoting us to her extensive social media fan base. Scott Smith from East End Brewing was kind enough to allow us to use his brewery as a backdrop for a video we were producing. Tom Hoffman from Pittsburgh Brewniversity has been helpful in promoting the company at his constant educational beer events and introducing us to retailers in the region.
Even the charity we support has a Pittsburgh connection. From the day we launched PortaBeer.com, we committed to donating 5% of our revenues to Operation Once in a Lifetime
, a non-profit focused on assisting soldiers and their families. Despite being based in Dallas, Operation Once in a Lifetime is hometown hero Troy Polamalu’s favorite charity.
After three years, countless hours, and with hundreds of Pittsburghers supporting us both as advisors and customers, we’re ready to embark on a new chapter: The launch of an IndieGoGo crowdfunding campaign
to bring the PortaKeg to market.
We’re working to raise $50,000 over 30 days to pay for the plastics molding and to build the first run of units. Once the campaign is completed, we will immediately go to production, manufacturing the coolers and assembling the units in western Pennsylvania. We fully expect to have units for our launch party for the Steelers-Ravens game on November 18th, and will be ready to ship units in time for Christmas.
We know that we couldn’t have built this company in any other city but Pittsburgh. We’re so fortunate to have so many people who are willing to support our crazy idea, and we can’t wait to raise a glass with you once we launch the PortaKeg in November.
Albert Ciuksza is a 2012 Katz Graduate School of Business grad who works at the Pittsburgh Regional Alliance. As it says on his Twitter account, he is "someone who is making a career out of loving Pittsburgh and entrepreneurship.
Captions: Three partners behind PortaKeg, Mark Setto, Albert Ciuksza and Todd Barnett. (Ray Robbins, the other partner was out of town); a rendering of the PortaKeg. Photos were taken in Albert's third floor party room.
Photos by Tracy Certo