Interview: We chat with the former Microsoft executive turned home beer maker

After a career of over 18 years at Microsoft, what does a person do when he or she decides to move on? In Bill Mitchell's case, his move was to launch a new company that he hopes will help make creating beer at home as common as some make coffee. He teamed up with Avi Geiger, another former Microsoft team member, and Bill's brother Jim Mitchell to form PicoBrew in Seattle and they are now in the middle of their Kickstarter fund raising campaign to help launch the PicoBrew Zymatic home beer maker. The campaign has already doubled its original $150,000 goal and it still has over two weeks left before it is completed.

Neowin got a chance to chat with Bill Mitchell via email about the PicoBrew Zymatic along with his views on Microsoft's current Windows Phone strategy.

First, you left Microsoft a few years ago. Why did you decide to depart a successful company and career at that time?

I wanted to pioneer some new technology-related areas again! I was lucky enough to start at Microsoft in 1992 when the company was relatively small and actively pioneering exciting new products outside of Microsoft’s main interests. I was able to pioneer a lot of new product spaces (smartphones, automotive computing, wearable computing) in the 90s, and that was awesome: people (at least early adopters) loved what we did. From 2000-2008 I learned a lot about managing huge organizations. That was good learning. I was promoted to VP and ran a big development organization that helped produce Windows. That was great learning. But I’m best at pioneering new stuff, and I wanted to get my hands dirty again. 

How did the idea for the PicoBrew Zymatic come about?

My brother Jim and I are avid home-brewers and were constantly comparing notes on home-brewing. In late 2009 we had each sort of hit the wall on a couple of issues. I was super busy while at Microsoft and had to *start* brewing at 8:00 or 9:00 at night when I got home from work, which meant I was typically up brewing until 3:00 or 4:00am! Jim was struggling with batch repeatability. Jim’s a physicist who’s spent the past 20 years building food processing plants and equipment in CA, so he expects precision and repeatability. When you’re making all grain beer over a gas burner and mashing in a cooler, temps are just not that controllable, not like in the food plants he built. Given all of the internet devices I had pioneered, I said “what we need here is an internet appliance that takes the pain out of homebrewing and adds more rigorous process control and measurement!” We (Jim and I and our partner Avi) had between us the right skill sets to make it happen!

The Kickstarter page goes over the history of developing the product. What were some of the more challenging aspects of getting the PicoBrew Zymatic to work as you envisioned?

From the start, we wanted to build a system into which you could pre-load ingredients. This proved very challenging! The obvious way to do this is with pickers/robotic arms, but we figured out a non-obvious (patent pending) alternative approach: flow the beer wort around the ingredients at the appropriate times. Dialing precise fluid flow paths and innovating on things like a stepper-motor-controlled fluid swivel arm turned out to be a lot of work!

How did your experience working at Microsoft help in developing the PicoBrew Zymatic?

At Microsoft I had a chance to take hardware projects all the way through the manufacturing stages, but also to write (and manage groups who wrote) a lot of firmware. My partner Avi spent even more time on the manufacturing side. So a lot of the areas that are stumbling blocks (or at least totally new areas) for most Kickstarter product teams are sort of old hat to us…that helps a lot!

The machine sounds like it's pretty impressive. Could the company have found investors the more traditional way instead of using Kickstarter?

I did fund the project out of my own pocket initially, but 3+ years is a long time to self-fund! We recently take a very small angel investment round, but we’ve still needed to be brutal about cost management: the founders hadn’t been taking salaries and all of our shop and lab equipment comes from Craigslist, UW Surplus and eBay. But we’re about at the end of the engineering…we just need to tool our plastics…and that’s expensive. So we went to Kickstarter with our product because we knew a lot of home-brewers like us are Kickstarter supporters (like us!)

The PicoBrew Zymatic has quickly reached its main goal and there are still over two weeks to go. Were you surprised at how fast the Kickstarter campaign raised the money for the goal?

We were very pleased and thankful! But put it this way: I would have bought one, if someone else had come up with this thing and offered it at the prices we are offering them! If you’re a serious home-brewer, you end up spending a fair amount of money on your hobby. A good stainless brew-sculpture, for example is >$2000 on MoreBeer. We’re giving you total control and automation for less than that. So we hoped enough people would see the value in them that we would hit our goal, but you just never know.

While you have been away from Microsoft for a while, we have to ask you, as an outsider looking in, how you feel about Microsoft's moves with Windows Phone and its recent announcement that it will be acquiring Nokia's Devices and Services division?

I worked very closely with Nokia in the ‘90s when we were pioneering smartphones, and I’ve got to say that they have some really smart people there. Also, Stephen Elop is charismatic and has a ton of bandwidth. So is it a good match? Yeah, I think so. Does it dig Microsoft out of 3rd place in the smartphone race? That remains to be seen…

Finally, is there anything else you wish to say about the PicoBrew Zymatic?

First off, a big thank you to all those who have already supported us on Kickstarter! This project has been a labor of love for me, and it’s super gratifying that people seem to love the product. I can’t wait until you taste the beer you make on it! Second: please realize that this is a professional tool. In the hands of a brewing professional like Matt or James down the street at Fremont Brewery it can make championship beer. But if you don’t know anything about brewing, you’re probably best off brewing recipes created by pros or serious homebrewers. A great tool alone doesn’t turn you into a pro overnight!

We would like to thank Bill for answering our questions!

Image via PicoBrew

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19 Comments

As someone that brews my own beer, I find $1399 to be a JOKE to have your own setup. For £300 you can have pretty much the same equvilent system.
I'm even more surprised they're sold out of the $1399 kit on kickstarter, did the people that buy it not relise it's incredibly overpriced?

Because there is more to it than getting a kit from the local home brew shop - it actually roasts the hops and barley as well so you can become pretty specific about sourcing particular ingredients from specific areas in much the same way that grapes will have certain qualities based on soil, climate etc.

You don't roast hops and it doesn't look like it roasts the malt either. It starts with a mash where you break down the starches into sugars in hot water. Usually you're going to have a combination of different roasts.

Spicoli said,
You don't roast hops and it doesn't look like it roasts the malt either. It starts with a mash where you break down the starches into sugars in hot water. Usually you're going to have a combination of different roasts.

Ah ok, it just appears that there is a lot more to it than what people here are dismissing it over.

I agree that the price is pretty high. It is basically a fully-automated system, so it would make repeating a recipe extremely easy.

But honestly, brewing a full-grain recipe is very easy and doesn't require a large investment. A 10 gal brew pot ($50-100), 2 five to ten gal water coolers (mash tun and hot liquor tank) ($20-40), 5~6 gal carboy ($20-30), maybe a propane burner and tank ($50-75), bung and airlock ($5), thermometer ($10), and that's about it. So for a pretty basic setup, that's about $200.

Also, using an automated system wouldn't be as fun. Personally I like setting up some chairs around the burner and drinking some beers with a few friends while we go through the steps.

I'm also an avid homebrewer....an all-grain guy who has been writing and perfecting my recipes for years. Like the poster above, I think this thing is a joke. It doesn't even do a full five gallon batch, you still have to lay out for a kegging setup (which many homebrewers, including myself, have done anyway), and it also limits what you're able to brew, in a sense. For $1400, you could get the highest of high-end brewing kits, kegging setup, extra fermentation space, grain mill, and enough ingredients to go nuts for a year.
Part of the enjoyment of homebrewing is the experimentation, the mistakes, and overcoming them, as well as streamlining processes and efficiencies in extraction and time. This simply seems to take all the fun out of it. It obviously has its audience, though...and honestly, I'd test drive one just to taste the finished product. But no way would I ever buy one.

What do you propose people do differently if they have active interest? In particular let's talk about funding options. Shall they bootstrap themselves? (not many have the free cash to do this.) Shall they dilute the venture with VC money? (never a good idea except for the VC.) Shall they go to a bank to get a loan? (banks are not interested in this sort of investment right now.) What do these interested people do aside from these things?

waded said,
What do you propose people do differently if they have active interest?

The same way people have started up businesses long before the Internet. You have to raise money through loans, partners, and pitching the idea to investors. It's a full time commitment and not just a passive throw something up on a web site. Investors aren't going to be all that interested in entrepreneurs that appear to play it safe.

Spicoli said,

The same way people have started up businesses long before the Internet. You have to raise money through loans, partners, and pitching the idea to investors. It's a full time commitment and not just a passive throw something up on a web site. Investors aren't going to be all that interested in entrepreneurs that appear to play it safe.

Investors & banks would say you do have to do that. But you don't. People were making stills without VC and bank involvement long before Kickstarter too, and I dare say they were passionate about it.

waded said,

Investors & banks would say you do have to do that. But you don't. People were making stills without VC and bank involvement long before Kickstarter too, and I dare say they were passionate about it.

I don't agree. Passively sticking something up on a web site and seeing who shows up says you have no real commitment. No commitment means guaranteed failure.

rolls said,
If you want the best home brew kit in the world...have a look at this kiwi outfit Williams Warne
http://www.williamswarn.com
Looks like they have solved the problem

LOL £3000! How many suckers, sorry, I mean, people, have paid anything for that I wonder...

n_K said,

LOL £3000! How many suckers, sorry, I mean, people, have paid anything for that I wonder...

And then they want another 300NZD$ for that 4.5kg CO2 tank. That's $250 US and I could probably three of them.

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