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This Craft-Beer Founder Gave Herself 6 Months to Succeed. Five Years Later, She’s Flourishing.

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October 19, 2020 8 min read

Sufferfest sounds like the name of a hardcore-punk festival, but it’s actually a common euphemism for extreme fitness challenges, which is exactly why Caitlin Landesberg chose it for her upstart beer brand. The -based marketing executive worked for companies including Strava and Mozilla before envisioning Sufferfest in 2015 as a relatively healthful and genuinely invigorating end-of-workout brew for avid runners and endurance addicts like herself. Think of it like Gatorade for grownups (ingredients in its line of pilsners, IPAs and even stouts include everything from bee polleen to black currant). 

By 2016, she had launched the company in earnest, and in 2019, West Coast craft stalwart Sierra Nevada acquired Sufferfest for an undisclosed amount — the first such deal in its 40-year history to that point — and took over the nascent operation’s production and distribution, helping it scale significantly. 

Image credit: Sufferfest Beer Co.

Landeserg remains hands-on in all areas of branding and marketing as CEO, and in a phone conversation earlier this month, she shared her thoughts on a woman’s work, the obstacles to entrepreneurialism and the reward of being able to mentor other up-and-coming innovators like herself. 

Related: Long Beach Beer Lab Could Have Closed; Instead, They Became Essential

Hit the Ground Running

“I was walking in [to stores] with my first beer samples that I created, labeled at home, with my leopard cooler, right after a run,” Landesberg recalls. “And I would find whoever was responsible for purchasing beer or specialty items and do a two-minute pitch right there without their permission and make them drink it on the spot. I don’t think they knew what do with me. [Laughs] And I didn’t know etiquette, so I thought that was normal. I was sweaty, with my hair up, going, ‘I’m going to bring a whole different audience to your store,’ and we were batting a thousand. We had preorders that first week of business, and within two months, we had the whole Northern California Whole Foods region locked down and mandated.”

Be the Outsider Breaking In

“I didn’t belong, and I think that’s exactly why we had succes,” says Landesberg flatly. “I didn’t ever identify myself as a beer drinker. It wasn’t until at the end of every race and someone said, ‘Drink this’ that I actually became discerning. We didn’t mean to disrupt, but we certainly were ourselves. As the business grew and I started hiring people, I didn’t hire anyone from the beverage space. I was bootstrapping and hired the people around me who were going, ‘Wow, this is a white space. I want to be a part of this.’ And lo and behold, my team became cyclists and swimmers and people who were competitive and loved the thrill of a kill.”

Tell Your Story Well 

“I think we won because we were able to tell stories better than the other,” Landesberg shares. “It became an exercise in letting someone know that this was the and occasion perfect for the beer that we were designing specifically for them. It became a very word-of-mouth product, and that was driven by other athletes or coaches or influencers that people aspire to be like. I didn’t mean to, but it was a page right out of the Strava playbook, and it translated perfectly to consumer packaged goods into a beverage category that we were defining in real time. I would say authenticity and real recognizing real led to being able to storytell better than the next.”

Practice the Art of Timeboxing

“I was at a place in my life when I desperately needed some change, and I realized I was going to have to change my lifestyle and sacrifice things that I loved and needed in my life in order to make this work,” Landesberg explains. “I was able to start a business because I didn’t have a family. I didn’t have financial responsibilities like I have today. I changed my living situation and stopped taking a paycheck. I sat down with my fiance [now husband], and we literally crunched the numbers of what we were going to give up and what we weren’t going to do. And I was going to timebox a six-month project; I was going to give myself six months and this budget, and if I can’t show traction, it’s not failure, but nothing attempted nothing gained. So I sort of pieced it out into chunks that felt less nerve-wracking to me.”

Recognize Your Privilege

“I was at a very specific time in my life,” Landesberg says of that six-month onset. “For people who might already have families and those types of responsibilities, for women in particular, the world isn’t fair, and I don’t think people are afforded the same privileges and exceptions and moments in time the way that I was at this moment in my life. Within those six months, I was lucky enough to have hit some milestones where we work, enough to support that proof of concept for me to do the scariest thing, which was ask my friends for money. And from an angel and a seed-investor perspective, because we were such early leaders defining that space, and I was working hard at it, I think those two things allowed for my first round of financing to come in as swiftly as it did. That laid the foundation for further growth and validation, where we brought in more credentialed money and backing. It’s such an alignment of stars when it does work, and I do think you have to be in a particular place of mind to say: I can step away from this type of life or routine and cut back to put my nest egg into a business I believe in.”

Related: These Beerpreneurs are Brewing a New Revolution

Beware Gendered Double Standards

“There are these unspoken pressures and this balancing act women always need to uphold in a professional setting,” says Landesberg. “We are the ones whose bodies are affected undergoing mass trauma, whose children respond to us and our bodily fluids for a huge period of time. And unfortunately, that weighs on people’s of your ability to be present over time. It’s so taboo to talk about, but it’s a fact of life that women are more risky. And I don’t think men are happy to say that or even feel that, but it’s something that I have observed and felt. And so has my husband. I think he tries to combat that as much as he can in his business and in his world. But I don’t think the same can go for men and women, and that’s just the simple fact of life.”

Look for a Co-Parent, Not a Partner

“We both really wanted what the other one had genuinely,” Landesberg says of first meeting with Sierra Nevada CEO Jeff White. “Those conversations were so energized about the potential that it was quickly decided we were going to do something together. I had other conversations that were so numbers driven and focused on, ‘Let’s grow you as big as we can, as fast’ versus, ‘Let’s build a lasting company, let’s build loyalty, let’s do something around quality and .’ I just sort of felt like this was the person I was supposed to meet right then and this was the home that Summerfest should have. As my first child, you know, I wanted to see it nurtured by the best parent possible. Jeff and I did look at it like a co-parenting relationship, and I really wanted to co-parent with him.”

Go Forth and Mentor

“I was telling this business site that I would never touch again,” Landesberg chuckles. “The scar tissue is so immense. I just want to see my kids who I’ve completely foregoed for the last three years. But obviously, the world’s changed, and we had a pandemic, and we’re living through that now. I’ve so valued my time at home getting back into a routine and being with a family that’s now grounded. I don’t think I would want to ever go back to the way life worked. But knowing myself, it may in fact be in my DNA, because I am so itching to build again. I want to pay it forward to other founders and founding member teams, working with brands that I’m really passionate about. Ones that are women-led or B Corp or mission-driven really excite me — helping other founders grow from one phase to the next. I don’t think I would ever be a full-fledged investor. I think I’m always going to be a builder. I just love the idea of creating something lasting and meaningful to my family, but that evolves with who I am as a person. That’s really all I could ask right now.”

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The Trump campaign celebrated a growth record that Democrats downplayed.

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The White House celebrated economic growth numbers for the third quarter released on Thursday, even as Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s presidential campaign sought to throw cold water on the report — the last major data release leading up to the Nov. 3 election — and warned that the economic recovery was losing steam.

The economy grew at a record pace last quarter, but the upswing was a partial bounce-back after an enormous decline and left the economy smaller than it was before the pandemic. The White House took no notice of those glum caveats.

“This record economic growth is absolute validation of President Trump’s policies, which create jobs and opportunities for Americans in every corner of the country,” Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign said in a statement, highlighting a rebound of 33.1 percent at an annualized rate. Mr. Trump heralded the data on Twitter, posting that he was “so glad” that the number had come out before Election Day.

The annualized rate that the White House emphasized extrapolates growth numbers as if the current pace held up for a year, and risks overstating big swings. Because the economy’s growth has been so volatile amid the pandemic, economists have urged focusing on quarterly numbers.

Those showed a 7.4 percent gain in the third quarter. That rebound, by far the biggest since reliable statistics began after World War II, still leaves the economy short of its pre-pandemic levels. The pace of recovery has also slowed, and now coronavirus cases are rising again across much of the United States, raising the prospect of further pullback.

“The recovery is stalling out, thanks to Trump’s refusal to have a serious plan to deal with Covid or to pass a new economic relief plan for workers, small businesses and communities,” Mr. Biden’s campaign said in a release ahead of Thursday’s report. The rebound was widely expected, and the campaign characterized it as “a partial return from a catastrophic hit.”

Economists have warned that the recovery could face serious roadblocks ahead. Temporary measures meant to shore up households and businesses — including unemployment insurance supplements and forgivable loans — have run dry. Swaths of the service sector remain shut down as the virus continues to spread, and job losses that were temporary are increasingly turning permanent.

“With coronavirus infections hitting a record high in recent days and any additional fiscal stimulus unlikely to arrive until, at the earliest, the start of next year, further progress will be much slower,” Paul Ashworth, chief United States economist at Capital Economics, wrote in a note following the report.

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Black and Hispanic workers, especially women, lag in the U.S. economic recovery.

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The surge in economic output in the third quarter set a record, but the recovery isn’t reaching everyone.

Economists have long warned that aggregate statistics like gross domestic product can obscure important differences beneath the surface. In the aftermath of the last recession, for example, G.D.P. returned to its previous level in early 2011, even as poverty rates remained high and the unemployment rate for Black Americans was above 15 percent.

Aggregate statistics could be even more misleading during the current crisis. The job losses in the initial months of the pandemic disproportionately struck low-wage service workers, many of them Black and Hispanic women. Service-sector jobs have been slow to return, while school closings are keeping many parents, especially mothers, from returning to work. Nearly half a million Hispanic women have left the labor force over the last three months.

“If we’re thinking that the economy is recovering completely and uniformly, that is simply not the case,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York. “This rebound is unevenly distributed along racial and gender lines.”

The G.D.P. report released Thursday doesn’t break down the data by race, sex or income. But other sources make the disparities clear. A pair of studies by researchers at the Urban Institute released this week found that Black and Hispanic adults were more likely to have lost jobs or income since March, and were twice as likely as white adults to experience food insecurity in September.

The financial impact of the pandemic hit many of the families that were least able to afford it, even as white-collar workers were largely spared, said Michael Karpman, an Urban Institute researcher and one of the studies’ authors.

“A lot of people who were already in a precarious position before the pandemic are now in worse shape, whereas people who were better off have generally been faring better financially,” he said.

Federal relief programs, such as expanded unemployment benefits, helped offset the damage for many families in the first months of the pandemic. But those programs have mostly ended, and talks to revive them have stalled in Washington. With virus cases surging in much of the country, Mr. Karpman warned, the economic toll could increase.

“There could be a lot more hardship coming up this winter if there’s not more relief from Congress, with the impact falling disproportionately on Black and Hispanic workers and their families,” he said.

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Ant Challenged Beijing and Prospered. Now It Toes the Line.

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As Jack Ma of Alibaba helped turn China into the world’s biggest e-commerce market over the past two decades, he was also vowing to pull off a more audacious transformation.

“If the banks don’t change, we’ll change the banks,” he said in 2008, decrying how hard it was for small businesses in China to borrow from government-run lenders.

“The financial industry needs disrupters,” he told People’s Daily, the official Communist Party newspaper, a few years later. His goal, he said, was to make banks and other state-owned enterprises “feel unwell.”

The scope of Mr. Ma’s success is becoming clearer. The vehicle for his financial-technology ambitions, an Alibaba spinoff called Ant Group, is preparing for the largest initial public offering on record. Ant is set to raise $34 billion by selling its shares to the public in Hong Kong and Shanghai, according to stock exchange documents released on Monday. After the listing, Ant would be worth around $310 billion, much more than many global banks.

The company is going public not as a scrappy upstart, but as a leviathan deeply dependent on the good will of the government Mr. Ma once relished prodding.

More than 730 million people use Ant’s Alipay app every month to pay for lunch, invest their savings and shop on credit. Yet Alipay’s size and importance have made it an inevitable target for China’s regulators, which have already brought its business to heel in certain areas.

These days, Ant talks mostly about creating partnerships with big banks, not disrupting or supplanting them. Several government-owned funds and institutions are Ant shareholders and stand to profit handsomely from the public offering.

The question now is how much higher Ant can fly without provoking the Chinese authorities into clipping its wings further.

Excitable investors see Ant as a buzzy internet innovator. The risk is that it becomes more like a heavily regulated “financial digital utility,” said Fraser Howie, the co-author of “Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise.”

“Utility stocks, as far as I remember, were not the ones to be seen as the most exciting,” Mr. Howie said.

Ant declined to comment, citing the quiet period demanded by regulators before its share sale.

The company has played give-and-take with Beijing for years. As smartphone payments became ubiquitous in China, Ant found itself managing huge piles of money in Alipay users’ virtual wallets. The central bank made it park those funds in special accounts where they would earn minimal interest.

After people piled into an easy-to-use investment fund inside Alipay, the government forced the fund to shed risk and lower returns. Regulators curbed a plan to use Alipay data as the basis for a credit-scoring system akin to Americans’ FICO scores.

China’s Supreme Court this summer capped interest rates for consumer loans, though it was unclear how the ceiling would apply to Ant. The central bank is preparing a new virtual currency that could compete against Alipay and another digital wallet, the messaging app WeChat, as an everyday payment tool.

Ant has learned ways of keeping the authorities on its side. Mr. Ma once boasted at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, about never taking money from the Chinese government. Today, funds associated with China’s social security system, its sovereign wealth fund, a state-owned life insurance company and the national postal carrier hold stakes in Ant. The I.P.O. is likely to increase the value of their holdings considerably.

“That’s how the state gets its payoff,” Mr. Howie said. With Ant, he said, “the line between state-owned enterprise and private enterprise is highly, highly blurred.”

China, in less than two generations, went from having a state-planned financial system to being at the global vanguard of internet finance, with trillions of dollars in transactions being made on mobile devices each year. Alipay had a lot to do with it.

Alibaba created the service in the early 2000s to hold payments for online purchases in escrow. Its broader usefulness quickly became clear in a country that mostly missed out on the credit card era. Features were added and users piled in. It became impossible for regulators and banks not to see the app as a threat.

ImageAnt Group’s headquarters in Hangzhou, China.
Credit…Alex Plavevski/EPA, via Shutterstock

A big test came when Ant began making an offer to Alipay users: Park your money in a section of the app called Yu’ebao, which means “leftover treasure,” and we will pay you more than the low rates fixed by the government at banks.

People could invest as much or as little as they wanted, making them feel like they were putting their pocket change to use. Yu’ebao was a hit, becoming one of the world’s largest money market funds.

The banks were terrified. One commentator for a state broadcaster called the fund a “vampire” and a “parasite.”

Still, “all the main regulators remained unanimous in saying that this was a positive thing for the Chinese financial system,” said Martin Chorzempa, a research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington.

“If you can’t actually reform the banks,” Mr. Chorzempa said, “you can inject more competition.”

But then came worries about shadowy, unregulated corners of finance and the dangers they posed to the wider economy. Today, Chinese regulators are tightening supervision of financial holding companies, Ant included. Beijing has kept close watch on the financial instruments that small lenders create out of their consumer loans and sell to investors. Such securities help Ant fund some of its lending. But they also amplify the blowup if too many of those loans aren’t repaid.

“Those kinds of derivative products are something the government is really concerned about,” said Tian X. Hou, founder of the research firm TH Data Capital. Given Ant’s size, she said, “the government should be concerned.”

The broader worry for China is about growing levels of household debt. Beijing wants to cultivate a consumer economy, but excessive borrowing could eventually weigh on people’s spending power. The names of two of Alipay’s popular credit functions, Huabei and Jiebei, are jaunty invitations to spend and borrow.

Huang Ling, 22, started using Huabei when she was in high school. At the time, she didn’t qualify for a credit card. With Huabei’s help, she bought a drone, a scooter, a laptop and more.

The credit line made her feel rich. It also made her realize that if she actually wanted to be rich, she had to get busy.

“Living beyond my means forced me to work harder,” Ms. Huang said.

First, she opened a clothing shop in her hometown, Nanchang, in southeastern China. Then she started an advertising company in the inland metropolis of Chongqing. When the business needed cash, she borrowed from Jiebei.

Online shopping became a way to soothe daily anxieties, and Ms. Huang sometimes racked up thousands of dollars in Huabei bills, which only made her even more anxious. When the pandemic slammed her business, she started falling behind on her payments. That cast her into a deep depression.

Finally, early this month, with her parents’ help, she paid off her debts and closed her Huabei and Jiebei accounts. She felt “elated,” she said.

China’s recent troubles with freewheeling online loan platforms have put the government under pressure to protect ordinary borrowers.

Ant is helped by the fact that its business lines up with many of the Chinese leadership’s priorities: encouraging entrepreneurship and financial inclusion, and expanding the middle class. This year, the company helped the eastern city of Hangzhou, where it is based, set up an early version of the government’s app-based system for dictating coronavirus quarantines.

Such coziness is bound to raise hackles overseas. In Washington, Chinese tech companies that are seen as close to the government are radioactive.

In January 2017, Eric Jing, then Ant’s chief executive, said the company aimed to be serving two billion users worldwide within a decade. Shortly after, Ant announced that it was acquiring the money transfer company MoneyGram to increase its U.S. footprint. By the following January, the deal was dead, thwarted by data security concerns.

More recently, top officials in the Trump administration have discussed whether to place Ant Group on the so-called entity list, which prohibits foreign companies from purchasing American products. Officials from the State Department have suggested that an interagency committee, which also includes officials from the departments of defense, commerce and energy, review Ant for the potential entity listing, according to three people familiar with the matter.

Ant does not talk much anymore about expanding in the United States.

Ana Swanson contributed reporting.

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