Fishing and beer seem like a perfect fit. And owning companies in both areas? Sounds ideal.
But, according to Matt Johnson, “They’re definitely very, very different businesses.”
And he would know. Johnson’s main role is CEO of Omnia Fishing, a commerce platform where he and his partners are working on conquering the $4.5 billion US recreational inland fishing industry.
He is also a co-founder at Able Seedhouse + Brewery, a NE Minneapolis brewery. “There’s four of us, and we all kind of have a unique skill set that we bring to the group. We’ve never really defined roles.”
We sat down with Johnson to talk about the growth of his two companies, and what he’s learned by working on them concurrently.
THE INTERSECTION OF BEER AND FISHING
While he enjoyed brewing beer for fun, Johnson had never really thought about being part of an actual full-scale brewery. That changed when he met Casey Holley in early 2014, four years before Omnia Fishing would get its start.
“We were connected through a mutual friend. Casey had two other partners that were working on building the concept for this brewery,” Johnson says. “Casey had built this brand around the idea of a seedhouse.” Holley had a plan to convince local farmers to grow small grains, which the brewery would import and malt on site before brewing with them.
The timing was perfect for Johnson. His first startup had just been acquired (more on that in a minute), and he was looking for some type of creative outlet where he could continue to grow and build outside of his day job.
“It was kind of this perfect storm. I looked at what they were doing, I did some research and found some of these things in Minnesota that had me really encouraged about the business model. We hit it off. They asked me to join as a founding member, and then things really went fast, and we really got everything up and running. Able opened our doors in November of 2015,” says Johnson. Since then the brewery has continued to grow—Able beer is now available throughout the Twin Cities via restaurants, bars and liquor stores.
Able may have launched first, but the idea for Omnia had been in the works for a long time. “I had previously started a company, Contour Innovations which automatically processed GIS related sonar data to create detailed lake maps. We sold to Lowrance, the largest marine electronics company in the world, in 2014.” He worked on transitioning Contour’s mapping platform from the B2B space to the recreational fishing market.
“I began establishing relationships with major manufacturers and major players in the recreational fishing space, and I recognized this gap in retail. It was kind of this evolution of trying to understand why there was this gap, why was everybody still purchasing products in store in the fishing space and not online?”
That question led Johnson to start Omnia Fishing in 2018. He launched the platform alongside partners Dan Wick and Chris Morgal in November of the same year.
“We connect data and products by answering the question, where are you going and what do you plan to catch? We call it a contextual commerce platform where we allow customers to view a unique shopping experience based on each lake. It really is using a map to shop for products. That’s really important in the fishing industry because different lake features change as the water features change, the species are different depending on where you are in the United States, and what season it is, and the life cycle of the species. And that means the products you need are different.”
A brewery based on a Seedhouse concept and a commerce platform based on a proprietary algorithm that simplifies the connection between lake details and fishing products: as Johnson points out, they’re quite different businesses. That said, Johnson has been able to find commonalities between the two.
“The commonality is the way we look at how we build our business. We are paying close attention to margin in both businesses. The taproom operates at a much higher margin, gives us the opportunity to invest and be creative in how we put our brewery’s brand out into the market. With Omnia, we’re really focused on maximizing gross margin in our sales so that our claw-back period is as short as possible for our customer acquisition.”
He has also taken lessons learned while growing Able and applied them as he thinks about how to scale Omnia. Johnson admits, “I think more generally just in my entrepreneurial career, one of my biggest, biggest weaknesses was always that I wanted it done my way and I wanted to control exactly the way it went because I’m confident in my ability. It’s the absolute worst idea ever. There’s no scalability in myself and my time.”
“With Able, we had a bigger founding team, and we realized that we needed to make investments in people and staff and people that care about what we were trying to build. So, I learned a lot about trying to kind of communicate a vision of where we were headed. And not only communicate that to my partners, but make sure that it was also being communicated up to the rest of the team. I wouldn’t say I’m great at it, but I learned that that was such an important tool.”
Although Omnia is just a year old, Johnson has started to apply what he’s learned growing an online commerce platform back to the brewery business. “Omnia being a digital business, we have had to build a very calculated plan to identify customer-acquisition channels and to know what we should expect from them as we try to acquire customers. That’s been really interesting because between 2015 and 2018 Able was not a digital company. We had a social presence, but it really was just kind of to put our brand out there. There was no understanding of what we could receive or how we could make those digital channels work for us. I’ve learned so much. And it’s constantly evolving, constantly changing. But the merging of creative strategy for marketing and the numbers, which I love so much, has been just fascinating for me. And we very slowly started to implement some of those things over at Able to make the marketing channels more sophisticated. And that’s been tremendously interesting to me.”
Johnson admits that he’s more focused at the growth strategy level than the day-to-day operations at Able. He credits the Able team with allowing him this ability to focus. Johnson says, “Able has a lot of smart people on staff that know and understand what we’re trying to do, and we are all driving towards common goals.”
While owning a brewery and fishing company might not be the lifetime supply of fun weekends it seems like at first, Johnson gets a kick out of having two brands that are connecting with the community. “I always thought it would be cool to have a brand that I could talk to somebody about that would be meaningful and impactful to them. I think we’ve done that with both Able and in some early degree with Omnia. People think what we’re doing with Omnia is exciting, and people like the branding and they want to drink the beer and eat the barbecue at Able. I hear stories all the time of people wearing those brands, and they’ll be at a football game or something, and somebody will say, ‘Hey, I love Able’ or ‘Oh, I love Omnia, I bought some stuff from them.’ That’s exciting to me. It’s pretty fun to connect with people that way.”
[Editor’s Note: Stephanie Rich is an investor in Omnia Fishing. She has no official connection with Able Seedhouse + Brewery other than the fact that Supergiant is her favorite beer.]