By: Mary McAuley
Back in 2013, I ventured to create my own label when I couldn't quite find the perfect wine to pair with a traditional East Coast Clambake--something I grew up eating with friends and family down at the Jersey Shore. While I did have a sense of the wine industry--having completed culinary school, obtained my sommelier certification, and worked as a wine buyer--there are a few stand-out points worth knowing prior to launching a business of any sort. Of course, as they say, hindsight is 20/20, but the following tips are those that I've learned to live by and can be useful for any start-up or entrepreneur-to-be:
Harvest Your Mentors; Worship Your Champions
The great thing about building a company from the ground up, especially a lifestyle brand like Ripe Life Wines for example, is the willingness of people to be a part of something from the get-go, before the "big break." I cannot stress enough the importance of harvesting relationships with two kinds of non-employees: (1) mentors and (2) brand champions.
Mentors are so valuable for imparting wisdom from their career experience. Sometimes a great mentor is difficult to find and hold onto, as they're successful, busy people themselves. Finding and keeping these confidants is worth your time, as mentors become your pseudo-board of directors that would otherwise cost a fortune. These are trusted advisors who won't coddle or sugar-coat anything for you.
Champions, on the other hand, are the friends, family, and fans that organically, openly, and freely promote your company. Oftentimes, brand champions feel a sense of pride and ownership over the brand, which is great. In my case, they're my friends and family who never fail to ask their local wine shop or bar to carry the Clambake Chardonnay and Clambake Rosé. They buy bottles and cases consistently, not even for themselves, but to give away as gifts to spread the word and create a buzz--word of mouth is the best form of marketing for any business. They also post on social media and populate my hashtags. They attend promotional events bringing a handful of new friends and free help whenever they can. Reward, support, and thank these brand champions. From time to time, I send all of my champions a heartfelt email inviting them to an urban oyster shuck or clambake bonfire to let them know how much I appreciate them.
Don't Buy Curtains
You don't necessarily have to take this literally, but the point is that arranging your life to successfully run a company is the hardest thing you will ever do. For me, getting up in the morning has always been hard. I do my best grunt work in the afternoons and evenings, and my best ideas come at night. However, when you're building a business, you have to be on everyone else's time, not your own. So, when I started Ripe Life Wines, I got rid of my bedroom curtains. This made sleeping in much harder--often impossible.
It's important to always get in a solid work day, so I recommend changing whatever aspect of your current lifestyle that will enable you to do so: party less, exercise more, don't buy cable, etc. Feeling productive will fuel and propel you forward.
Stay True to the Concept
Don't get overwhelmed by negative feedback or early setbacks that might make you question your concept after launching. Not having a strong sense of direction, as well as a clear commitment to that direction, can be more detrimental than missing out on some advice from others or letting a little failure steer your ship for you too much. When I set out to craft wines that purposefully and perfectly paired with clambake food, I understood the novelty of focusing a wine brand around food-and-wine pairings and the void for trustworthy-yet-fun brands out there. However, many others who were not on board with the concept still offered a lot of advice as to what I should do. I had to stay very true to my plan and, in order to introduce a trustworthy, artisanal wine label to a saturated market, I had to sacrifice some financial gains to implement the most respectable and high-end winemaking practices. I've been told by some distributors that the "cute" label doesn't necessitate such a high-quality product, since it attracts consumers by aesthetic, and that I should reduce my quality and lower my price to compete with the other "beach-y" brands out there. However, I made the decision from the start to build a following by over-delivering on quality, despite our "cute" label, and this has paid off tremendously now that the concept has caught on.
The point is, when you're starting your own company and you have a novel concept, everybody will have their own opinion of it. If you take too much of that feedback to heart, it could weaken your messaging, your branding, your consumer loyalty, and ultimately stray you from your mission. Weak concepts don't make it big--only strong, bold, honest ones do.
Hire Only The Best
As a start-up, you're forced to squeeze a nickel out of every penny. Hiring friends (or, sometimes out of desperation, whomever is available) might sink your ship--fast. While they may be a cheaper option in the short run, they may not be the most qualified to help you grow and thrive. A tenacious new entrepreneur is often likely to pick up the slack from a fellow employee before dolling out constructive feedback or letting someone go. It's worthwhile to spend a little extra time, energy, and money on hiring the best candidates available, whom you can really trust to get the job done. While talent like this often comes with a price, I've found the return on investment is tenfold.
When hiring, I recommend evaluating someone's drive, intelligence, and work ethic. Sometimes, these values even outweigh experience. There are ways to acquire industry knowledge from outside mentors who enjoy aiding strong talent or through workshops and skill-building classes online. Your team needs unwavering passion to help the company take off. Not to mention, you'll sleep better at night knowing there are no "weak links" or responsibilities left uncovered.
Understand It Won't Be as Glamorous as You Think
One of the most difficult parts of launching my wine label was having very few people to relate to, not only as a wine producer living in New York City, but as an entrepreneur at age 28. There is a real glamorization of entrepreneurship. As someone who used to glamorize start-up life myself, let me tell you that in addition to the perks, it is honestly the most terrifying and difficult thing to do. Starting your own business means risking many thousands, if not millions, of dollars. The stress is immense and you need to realize it's not as "cool" as it seems. For example, I'm fortunate enough to be living in Napa Valley from August to February as my wine is being made. What most people don't realize, though, is that I'm not here sipping wines at a château all day. I'm actually living with a group of young, new winemakers and sleeping on a twin air-mattress because a bed didn't fit into the budget.
If you understand from the get-go that sacrifices of this sort have to be made, in addition to the fun and immensely gratifying aspects of entrepreneurship, then you're one step ahead. Thinking humbly--and being prepared to work hard, struggle, and potentially fail at times--is a sound mindset. Despite all these hardships, making my Clambake wines has been the most rewarding thing I've ever done, and I wouldn't trade the experience for anything.
Mary McAuley is the founder of Ripe Life Wines. Her wines have become available across New England, and have garnered the attention of outlets like: Wine Enthusiast, Harper's Bazaar, Epicurious, Fork + Plate, Hamptons Magazine, Hamptons Cottages & Gardens, CBS-WUSA9, Foodie & the Beast, and many more. @theripelife
This post originally appeared on Savvy, a pocket recruiter for busy, professional women.