Brooks Powell

CEO of Cheers

Brooks Powell is the CEO and founder of Cheers. Brooks is a graduate of Princeton University, where he first started Cheers, and later won the University’s inaugural Tiger Entrepreneur Award. While at Princeton, Brooks presented at TEDxPrincetonU on “Taming Alcohol’s Dark Side,” which discussed the intersection of alcohol ethics and the use of DHM-based products. In less than three years after graduation, Brooks appeared on Shark Tank, built Cheers into a profitable business of more than $25 million in revenue, and shipped over 13 million doses. Brooks has also strategically partnered with his professors through sponsored research agreements (SRAs) to develop a patent-pending permeabilizer technology for DHM that can significantly boost bioavailability—which Brooks later negotiated an exclusive license on from the University.

Where did the idea for Cheers come from?

I was at the right place at the right time. When I was a sophomore at Princeton, there were new academic discoveries about the positive effects of a natural plant extract called Dihydromyricetin (or DHM) on short-term alcohol withdrawals (also known as GABAa rebound) in rats. The studies were primarily focused on the potential usage of DHM for alcohol use disorders (AUDs). However, the studies also showed that DHM reduced hangover symptoms in animals. What was so interesting is that the way in which DHM reduced the likelihood of animals increasing their alcohol consumption habits over time was the same mechanism behind why they didn’t show signs of hangovers. In my mind, DHM had a potential dual effect. It wasn’t too unlike sunscreen. Sunscreen not only prevents sunburns in the short term, but also reduces risk of skin cancer. DHM was like this in the sense that it might be able to reduce hangovers, but also put the user at less risk for increasing their consumption habits over time. Think about it, if you have less of a hangover, you have less need for a Bloody Mary.

These findings stuck with me so I started looking at it from a commercial perspective. A product containing DHM could help people experiencing GABAa rebound so much more than a simple electrolyte beverage or a Bloody Mary—which is great… if you never want to stop drinking, but that’s a terrible long-term strategy. I continued studying the benefits of DHM and worked with professors at my university. We found there is a stable history of DHM’s long-term benefits as it relates to liver health so we embarked on a human study of DHM combined with cysteine. After taking our formula, study participants on average felt 50 percentage points better the day after drinking alcohol.

Once we confirmed the benefits of DHM through a human study and sampling programs, it took two years to launch the brand and we officially established the company in June of 2017. I had to build the business from bottom to top, which included things like supply chain management, importing ingredients, ensuring safety and efficacy, legal, marketing, and raising capital. I started with $20,000 in initial money from my grandfather who passed away and later raised $200,000 from an angel investor in the pharma space as I was graduating from Princeton.

What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?

I am generally a late riser and usually don’t wake up until after 8 a.m. In my first hour, I’m basically a zombie. I feed the cats, get dressed, jump in the car and drive 20 mins to work. Upon getting to the office, I typically have two cups of coffee, some Cheers Protect, and no breakfast. I enjoy some “white-space” time from 9 to 11 a.m on days that we do not have a morning team meeting. This is a period of my day I try not to have anything planned. I use this block to answer emails or to meet with other members of the team or I’ll focus on creative strategy, planning and developing new products.

After 11 a.m., I jump into a world filled with meetings and emails pretty much until the end of the traditional work day. From 5 to 7 or 8 p.m., I am working on action items that came out of those meetings.

After I wrap up at the office, I go home and have a cocktail or two with my wife while cooking dinner. We’ll watch an episode or two of TV before heading to bed and then I do it all over again. Oh, and of course, I have my Cheers Restore before bed!

Although my routine is set around the conventional Monday to Friday, 9-5 schedule, I have discovered over the years that I am personally the most productive outside of the normal work day. When there are no emails, meetings or interruptions, that’s when I find dedicated time to focus on big vision initiatives. Finding productivity in evenings leads to a lot of late nights, but there’s a calm that I feel outside of working hours. The happiest times in my life are when I embark on the project that so consumes me that working late into the evenings doesn’t even feel like work.

I have also encouraged my top lieutenants to follow a similar pattern of working when they feel most productive. For example, our Creative Director starts at 7 a.m. (or earlier) and leaves at 5 p.m. sharp. She uses the time when she’s alone in the mornings as her opportunity to get things done without the distraction of “normal” working hours.

How do you bring ideas to life?

I have a ton of ideas, but most of them are really bad and only a few are really good. Generally what I do is, if I come across an idea I think the company should consider pursuing, I explore it on my own for a while, then create a proposal with my research and pitch it to the team. More often than not they convince me it’s a bad idea, but other times you look around and see an excited reaction like, “Oh my gosh, this is crazy, but it just might work.” Those are the reactions that get me excited and keep me motivated as an entrepreneur and a leader. When I get positive feedback, we’ll start to explore the idea as a team—we really are a family at Cheers and unite as one. It’s one thing I’m most proud of. Occasionally, the ideas fizzle out once the team begins workshopping them, but other times, we’ll find that we have a concept worth pursuing.

What’s one trend that excites you?

I’m obviously pretty biased here, but I think one trend that is very exciting is that there’s a newfound health-consciousness when it comes to alcohol consumption. The first major move started in the 1980s when companies such as Budweiser made Budweiser Light (later rebranded to the Bud Light you know and love today) as people got more interested in fitness. Then, for the most part, other than the launch of Cheers into the market, nothing has happened until recently in 2020 with the explosion of the hard seltzer and kombucha products. For the first time since the 1980s, people aren’t throwing their health-consciousness out the window anytime they reach for a drink. While that applies heavily to the product’s calorie count, we’ve seen this carry into their general concern about still wanting to consume alcohol, but do it in a “healthier” way. That’s where something like Cheers is a great fit for them. We are quite excited about this trend and believe that it’s here to stay.

What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?

I have an intense skepticism when someone tells me that something is or is not going to work. I like to make my own conclusions and don’t believe you need to accept what someone else tells you—whether it be an investor, mentor, friend, etc. By not accepting the status quo, our company has made a lot of decisions that led to our organization’s success and made us more profitable.

There’s this common societal belief that “experts” should be the final word on every decision you make. I couldn’t disagree with this more. Sometimes we’ll go with a recommendation if we independently reach a similar conclusion. Sometimes we won’t go with a recommendation and rather go with the independent conclusions that we reached. In terms of productivity, chasing the right things rather than the wrong things is more valuable than the speed at which you move. One hundred mph in the wrong direction is fast…but it’s still in the wrong direction.

What advice would you give your younger self?

I would tell myself to trust your instincts more than you think you should. You’re young, not stupid. Warren Buffett talks about “the institutional imperative” being loosely defined as no different than middle school peer pressure applied at the MBA level.

To me, this insight means that the opinion of an MBA or other “expert” holds no more weight than someone without that level of education. They might think something is a good idea or not, but there is a majority of people that make a ton of mistakes just because they see other people following those “experts.” Pay attention to trends, but be confident in making informed decisions based on your business model and employees. Stop following or copying for the fear of missing out. Something only seems like a good idea once someone has proven it can work. But if you’re the one not proving that, you’re typically missing out on all of the value.

Early on, my team and I witnessed a slew of startups using expensive design agencies. We followed that trend, spending hundreds of thousands of dollars and were not happy with the brand the agency created for us. We then asked ourselves, “Why not build our brand internally?” So we scrapped a lot of “professional” product, wrote it off as a sunk cost, and redid most of the work internally. Even though we wasted a good chunk of money, the experience taught us to trust in ourselves more.

I even spoke about this design agency trend with a prominent entrepreneur that has a company valued at well over a billion dollars. They had hired one of the most famous design companies in the country. I asked him if it was worth it, and initially he defended the decision. However, after prodding on specifics of their brand that actually moved the needle for them, it turns out they had masterminded those details themselves. At the end of the conversation, I asked whether he still thought it was worth it? He replied: “You’re right. It was probably a waste of money. But who wants to admit to themselves that they wasted half a million dollars?!”

At Cheers, sometimes we feel that people let their years of experience in their respective field make decisions, rather than leveraging critical thought. We believe that team members can make up for lack of experience by thinking critically — it’s a skill you continuously need to hone and implement on a daily basis. Too much experience can potentially backfire because they’ve been poisoned by a poor thought or what happened to them in the past. Don’t get us wrong, we love people with experience—but a practical background must still pass the test of novel critical thought. To use a war analogy, in World War I, the veteran generals commanded their troops to charge on machine guns while riding on horses. It was the “inexperienced” generals who pioneered the use of tanks. The best person is someone who has both experience and discernment, and knows when to use each muscle.

Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.

When hiring, I don’t hire a person’s resume or who they are today. I hire them for their potential. Look at the trajectory of a candidate rather than their current skills or experience. Consider each resume as a snapshot in time. What you have to try to discern is what this person will look like in the future—not just at the present. At Cheers, we invest in someone’s future when we hire them. All I care about is what this candidate can accomplish six months from now, two years from now, five years from now. What matters is where they’re going. It’s a way harder thing to try to judge, but it’s crucial to setting a foundation and culture of independent, but dedicated employees.

As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?

Think for yourself. That’s what we tell our team in any decision we make. It doesn’t matter what your job is on the team. We expect each department to think for themselves, which has led to improved efficiencies across the company and, in turn, benefits the company as a whole. I rarely like a top-down organizational approach. If I’m not hearing recommendations from our company at the individual department level, then someone isn’t thinking enough about their work.

What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?

As a company, we’ve found that hiring the right people is one of the most important steps for growth. A strong focus on fundamentals is key, as well. Make sure your team understands the fundamentals through and through. Be strategic about if, long-term, the business can actually produce more value than it takes in. Take into account your efficiencies and consider what areas can you maximize those. That’s where you will find opportunities for profit.

What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?

I wouldn’t say there’s any one failure worth calling out, but there have been a few poor decisions made as an overall management group. However, the most important thing is to have more good decisions than bad of similar size and scale.

In other words, you should obviously keep the amount of bad decisions low but, ultimately, the amount and size of your good decisions relative to the amount and size of bad decisions is what matters. As long as that ratio is significantly positive, you can build a good company.

What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?

A way to bet against (short) bad private companies or investment groups. The amount of times I see VC investors invest into poorly managed companies and startups is shocking. For example, look at the demise of WeWork. Its downfall was rooted in mismanagement and failure in leadership, and many people saw it from afar long before it happened. If there was a way to bet against missteps like this, maybe it could sway investor confidence sooner rather than later and lead to the support in more sound investment opportunities.

What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?

One of the best purchases was getting an automatic litter box, because the amount of time and frustration it saves per week is unreal. I had to talk my wife into it, but you wouldn’t believe what such a small amount of automation will do for enjoyment of life and the satisfaction of your marriage! I wish the company was selling shares when we bought it. I doubt VC’s would have been excited about an automatic litter box, but it’s a phenomenal product and company and seems to have done incredibly well over the past few years. Sometimes the best companies aren’t “sexy.”

What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?

I love Slack. It’s more enjoyable than email because it’s quicker, more fun, and less formal. The way your Slack channels end up looking is a big part of your team’s culture. We obviously like to make money and fulfill our mission of promoting fun, responsible and health-conscious alcohol consumption, but we also like having fun at work. Slack has been a really fun tool for us to communicate with. And everyone appreciates a well-placed GIF.

What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?

I highly recommend “The Outsiders: Eight Unconventional CEOs and Their Radically Rational Blueprint for Success” by William Thorndike. There are countless powerful lessons in this book from some of the country’s most successful, but lesser known CEOs. A few of my favorite takeaways were to just use rational thought to make your own decisions and that sometimes going against the grain of the market is vastly superior to anything they teach you in academia. The whole book encourages leaders to tune out the noise of the world and make your own sound business decisions.

What is your favorite quote?

“The minute that you understand that you can poke life and actually something will, you know if you push in, something will pop out the other side, that you can change it, you can mold it. That’s maybe the most important thing. It’s to shake off this erroneous notion that life is there and you’re just gonna live in it, versus embrace it, change it, improve it, make your mark upon it. I think that’s very important and however you learn that, once you learn it, you’ll want to change life and make it better, cause it’s kind of messed up, in a lot of ways. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.” – Steve Jobs

Key Learnings:

  •  Engage your challenger mindset toward your competitors, your peers, and even your own ideas.
  •  Don’t aim for perfection. Work to make more good decisions than bad ones.
  •  Hire for the future. Think about where each candidate could take your startup business. What might the company look like if they grow with you?