Most public figures who have found themselves embroiled in the number of scandals that James Watt, the chief executive of craft beer firm BrewDog, has managed would by now surely have retreated from the public spotlight.
However, that is not Watt’s style. The outspoken founder of the Punk IPA brand is once again generating his own headlines, with the launch of a new competition which will see the businessman inject five million pounds of his own cash, in search of the next billion-dollar company.
Watt has coined the project ‘The Next Unicorn’ and it will see him team up with the world’s largest equity crowdfunding platform Crowdcube to receive pitches from a range of European entrepreneurs.
As part of the process he will then whittle down entrants with the help of a carefully selected panel, including Crowdcube CEO Matt Cooper, and Evelyn McDonald, CEO of Scottish Edge – which helped the brewing company get started 16 years ago.
The competition is an attempt to rival BBC’s hit television Dragons Den which Watt was rejected from twice, once when he sought early funding in 2009 and separately when he was approached and shortlisted to become a Dragon himself, but ultimately didn’t end up getting the seat.
“I have no resentment towards Dragon’s Den at all,” Watt tells City A.M – but does say that he was spurred on by those rejections and believes that he can do “something better” for the budding entrepreneurs.
Since Brewdog’s formation in 2007 the business has experienced extraordinary growth, expanding to some 78 bar locations across the globe and securing lucrative trade deals with major supermarkets – however Watt admits that the experience of a CEO in a high performing company can be “lonely” and a “difficult journey”.
We definitely had some challenges and there are definitely some things that we could have done betterJames Watt
He says: “[As part of the competition] I want to share my experience in building a remarkable company and hope to help them do the same”.
Watt reveals that he also wants to help these potential high growth businesses learn from some of the “pitfalls” and “challenges” that BrewDog has faced.
He says: “I think what we have done well, when we’ve got things wrong, is we have held our hands up and put means in place to help ensure we build the best company we can.”
The launch of ‘The Next Unicorn’ comes as the dust is slowly starting to settle on a number of scandals which soured the reputation of BrewDog – including being accused of creating a “culture of fear” since its rise to prominence.
In January 2021, Watt was forced to apologise to former employees after an open letter went viral on Twitter, in which 61 former workers alleged that the company cultivated a “toxic” culture that left staff suffering from mental illness.
Two years on, in a bid to improve workplace practice Watt said that BrewDog has an independently managed ethics hotline across its business and 120 mental health first aiders to help staff facing difficulty.
Reflecting on the crisis, Watt said: “We definitely had some challenges and there are definitely some things that we could have done better.”
Moreover, late last year BrewDog was forced to give up its B-Corp certificate – because the organisation that hands out the profit with purpose hallmark “requested additional measures”.
Watt told City A.M that “B-Corp or no B-Corp” BrewDog is “focused on building the best company it can,” and has achieved its first carbon negative status.
He said: “[it’s removal] doesn’t change us working hard to make sure we get better at everything we do every single day.”