As a mechanic, Jeremy Coulis liked his nine-to-five lifestyle, but once his kids were older he decided he wanted to open his own business. After going back to school to try something new, Coulis completed the Entrepreneurship and Small Business program at Durham College (DC) in August 2015 and launched Agile Fat Guy Spirits, a craft distillery.
“I chose DC’s program for its focus on helping students develop the knowledge base needed to build something from nothing and start their own business upon graduating,” said Coulis. The Entrepreneurship and Small Business program guides students through the ideation stage and right through launching a business, with courses that encourage them to think outside the box — an integral characteristic of any successful entrepreneur.
A no-nonsense kind of guy with no entrepreneurial experience, Coulis appreciated the program’s hands-on approach, including a mentorship component that sees students receive 24 hours of mentorship from a local entrepreneur. Coulis landed at Beau’s All Natural Brewing Company for his mentorship, where for three days he spent time learning in a variety of departments.
When FastStart DC (FastStart) launched in January 2015, Coulis immediately got involved. FastStart’s official kickoff at DC included partnering with the Student Association to launch a social media contest that asked students to share their thoughts on what entrepreneurship meant to them. As one of 11 prize winners, Coulis received an all-expense-paid trip to Canada’s East Coast to attend the Starting Point Student Entrepreneurship Conference at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Winning the trip catapulted Coulis into becoming a FastStart client. The DC Summer Accelerator program launched soon after in the spring of 2015. He applied and became part of the inaugural accelerator program, facilitated by the college’s partners at Spark Centre. Coulis immersed himself in the start-up world at DC’s regional innovation centre, attending workshops, seminars and mentoring sessions. He even took home a $500 prize for winning one of the summer’s three pitch competitions — all just the beginning of his entrepreneurship journey.
In an unconventional move, Coulis came up with his Agile Fat Guy brand name even before deciding on a business or product. “I race sailboats, and anyone who sails knows that you have to be agile to race,” said Coulis. “Someone called me an ‘agile fat guy’ once and I thought it was fun — so it stuck!” Coulis doesn’t just feel passionately about his brand, he believes he is his brand. At Agile Fat Guy, he often jokes that he’s the CFG – Chief Fat Guy.
Once he had the name, Coulis wanted to capitalize on it. Originally planning to start a craft brewery, he later changed his mind to focus on craft spirits instead. Soon after, Agile Fat Guy Spirits was born and officially incorporated in August 2015. After receiving $5,000 in seed funding from the DC Summer Accelerator program for successfully completing the program and meeting the prize criteria, Coulis put the money toward his start-up, using it to secure the equipment required to start a distillery. He credits being part of FastStart DC with helping him to source suppliers and giving him the support needed to start a company in today’s ever-changing economy.
“Agile Fat Guy probably wouldn’t be here today if it weren’t for FastStart DC and Spark Centre,” said Coulis, identifying the program and regional innovation centre as key components to his success thus far. “Working at The Loft [at Spark Centre], I learned how critical it is to remain focused on your core idea until that idea gets established.”
With his core idea of creating craft spirits established, Coulis is moving on to his next goal: getting those spirits into LCBO stores. He recently submitted his vodka and gin products for consideration and is optimistic that they’ll be on retail shelves soon.
“Getting products on LCBO shelves is a unique process,” explained Coulis. “The LCBO has a product call once a year where they decide what they want to sell. But once you get in, it sets the standard for selling everywhere else.”
While continuing to navigate the LCBO’s regulatory process, he is keeping momentum going for Agile Fat Guy by focusing on marketing, especially the brand’s social media presence. He’s also working on developing new products, including coolers. Coulis also recently secured a deal with George Brown College to partner with the school’s Food Science department on research and development for his company.
Coulis’ long-term goals include a 12-month plan to have Agile Fat Guy vodka and gin products in the LCBO, and a 24-month plan to add coolers to the retail mix, with all products being available in as many LCBO outlets as production will allow. By the end of 2017, he would also like to be exporting Agile Fat Guy products across Canada. His vision for Agile Fat Guy also includes building a distillery in Cobourg, Ontario, his hometown and the home base for the company. Coulis has plans in place to create jobs and hire local employees to run production services — his way of giving back to the community that’s supporting his start-up venture.
“Using resources like FastStart DC and Spark Centre gives you a step up in the right direction,” said Coulis, reflecting on his DC and DC Summer Accelerator experience. “It allows you to be different from everyone else and still be a part of their world — new entrepreneurs should stay with them as long as they can. You meet so many people and the system works well with the whole team in it.”
Drawing on his own experience as a student entrepreneur, Coulis now shares his own advice with aspiring entrepreneurs: “If you can’t talk about your business non-stop to anyone at any time, then you are not in the right business. Just be passionate about it. You have to have a passion for your business. Tell everyone about your idea. Ask everyone for help. Take free money. Take risks.”