In this special feature story, Justin Grey chats with Andre Eikmeier and Justin Dry, the wine geeks behind wine industry disruptor Vinomofo.
For Andre Eikmeier and Justin Dry, it’s always been about the community rather than the dollar. The pair of self-confessed wine geeks from Adelaide, who are also brothers-in-law, are on a mission to inspire the world to drink awesome wine.
In 2007 Andre and Justin launched Qwoff.com, a website dedicated to great wine – and great wine lovers. Using Qwoff the pair organically developed an online community and forum for wine lovers – from the casual and curious to the educated and fanatical – Australia-wide. Becoming a member of Qwoff allowed “Qwoffers” to interact and engage with other “Qwoffers”, and through this online community Andre and Justin could share their love for quality wine and their views on the wine industry with a legion of wine drinkers who shared their passion.
Using Qwoff, Andre and Justin also shared their virtuous belief that good wine should be able to be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of whether you were an educated, well-to-do wine connoisseur or not. Andre and Justin didn’t give a damn whether their Qwoffers knew their burgundies from their bordeaux’s or not. If you were interested in wine, you were welcome to participate in the Qwoff community and further that interest.
Qwoff was all about breaking away from the pretentiousness and elitism that had traditionally gone hand in hand with the wine industry. It was about opening up the pleasures drinking top shelf wine to the masses.
“They were trying to create an elite and exclusive language around wine,” Eikmeier says of the wine traditionalists. “What a stupid fucking idea! They were trying to go, ‘Hey, more people should drink wine, but we’re going to create this language with this supposed mystique around it that’s going to make you feel stupid if you don’t know it’. That’s really what [the wine industry] were in danger of creating, so that’s what we’re really trying to break. It’s just a fucking drink, you know? Yeah, we think it’s pretty awesome, but it’s just a drink, and ultimately you’ve got to enjoy it.”
NO BOWTIES & BULLSHIT
Eikmeier and Dry captured this sentiment best in their long-held “no bowties and bullshit” manifesto.
“’No bowties and bullshit’ was really a key for us,” Andre says. “People can buy wine from many places, and the reason that they tuned into us even before Vinomofo was because they were like, ‘Yeah, I love my wine, but I’m just a normal guy’. And that was where we all came together with Vinomofo. That culture element is a real pin to our value promise. For us, it’s curation, price and culture, and that’s the culture part. That’s what we stand for. We believe in wine.”
But passion and belief will only get you so far in business, you’ve also got to have a solid product and price proposition. After tinkering with Qwoff’s model a number of times to try and make it into a commercially sustainable enterprise, the boys decided to make the jump from wine communicators to wine retailers and in 2011 Vinomofo was born. This move, while forced, was Justin’s idea, and initially Andre wasn’t convinced that it was the right move.
“He took a little bit of convincing, but it came from a good place,” Justin admits of Andre’s initial wariness. “We’d just come off the back of five or six years being communicators. We’d been sponsored by Wine Australia, we hosted lots of amazing things and we were getting this really great reputation for being communicators that didn’t sell people shit. And then all of a sudden I come along and say, ‘Let’s sell people shit! But once he could see that it could work well and not look like a lot of mass-market tailored daily deal sites and we didn’t have sell our souls, he was on board and was full steam ahead.”
For Andre, Vinomofo’s birth was the recognition that ultimately your business ideal has to be not just useful, but it has to be useful enough and wanted enough that people will pay for it.
“When we started our first business in 2007, it was with grand visions of creating something awesome in the wine industry for people,” Andre reflects. “That was all passion driven…it just didn’t work financially. We found that buying wine is ultimately the only thing in wine that people are willing to pay for. And really it’s the only thing that suppliers are happy to be involved with. It took us a while to realise that.”
FROM LITTLE THINGS…
Leveraging the strong community following they had cultivated with Quoff, Vinomofo was a commercial hit for Andre and Justin from day one. When their bullish growth led some keen media interest, Vinomofo caught the attention of Coles and Woolworths, the two big players that dominate the alcohol retail industry in Australia. Through their chains of bricks and mortar bottleshops, the alcohol powers that be at Coles and Woolies began to exert pressure on Vinomofo’s suppliers.
“They have been not exactly friendly over the journey,” Justin chuckles. “There’s a lot of stories from suppliers about the interesting tactics that our competitors were using to hurt us in business. But that was a good thing for us, because it made us think about how we were going to scale up quickly and get to a size where we could compete on the supplier side, as far as we would be buying similar volumes, or more.”
This external pressure forced Justin and Andre to go large, and quick. In early 2012 they sold a percentage of Vinomofo Catch of the Day group, which at the time had access to some two million consumers through its daily deals online business. In Catch of the Day Founders Gabby and Hezi Leibovich, Justin and Andre found two likeminded entrepreneurs.
The Leibovich brothers took a hands-off approach to Vinomofo and gave Justin and Andre the resources and support to propel the online wine retailer onto the truly big stage – and importantly, giving them the requisite buying power to stick it to Coles and Woolworths. The boys focused on offering their Vinomofo’s a smaller, curated range of premium top of the top shelf wine.
“Because we have that curated range, we’re not stocking six or seven thousand different lines, like Dan [Murphy’s] does,’ Justin says. “It means that our buying power is actually greater than the big guys because we’ve got such a limited, focused range.
“So when we go to a producer now – and we couldn’t do this in the early days –we skip the middle man and go straight to the producer and say we’d love to buy this amazing value wine. They say, ‘Well it’s stocked here and here and here, so how can we do it?’. And we say, ‘we’ll buy 3,000 cases, how’s that sound?’. The big guys are only buying 100 cases, so they say let’s do a deal.”
It wasn’t long before the ‘Mofo boys were in a position to buy back the share in the company they’d sold to the Leibovich brothers, returning Justin and Andre to their start-up roots.
“Mostly it was just a desire of ours to get back to that start-up culture,” Andre recounts. “I think they [the Leibovich brothers] understood, they didn’t make it too hard. They could’ve made it a lot harder; it worked out really well for everybody.”
DOING IT ONLINE
As with most modern-day retail start-ups, starting off online was always the most viable option for Vinomofo. While Andre and Justin are under no illusions as to the virtues of being an online retailer, they do point out that there are some drawbacks that are worth noting.
“Obivoulsy online you don’t have the restrictions of location, but when we chat to people in our industry and other industries who have got a physical store, those initial sales you can get just by being in a location if you’re offering a good product is a very hard number to get to as a start-up,” Justin admits. “That first couple of million dollars in sales, which is really, really hard, seems to be far more easier to get to if you have a physical retail presence.”
Direct interaction with customers, developing a rapport, and conveying personality are some of the other potential sticking points for online retailers.
“People like to have interaction, so we’ve got to overcome that in other ways, whether it’s having pop-up events with a pop-up wine bar, or tastings or what have you,” Justin continues. “We like to offer that because it’s a nice touch to get to know people outside of the online channel. It’s fun to meet people who are ‘Mofos and have a few wines.
“For some [online retail] is a greater challenge, but you can do it really well without physical stores. You’ve just got to be very open behind the scenes and be very authentic and communicate with really regularly and really openly. You can actually build relationships just through online channels. If you look at our Facebook page or our Twitter feed, we’ve got a lot of interaction and engagement. We use a lot of photos and videos and are always answering or asking a lot of questions, and that encourages those relationships.”
BROTHERS IN WINE
Working so closely as brothers-in-law hasn’t been the issue that it could have been for Justin and Andre. Andre has been married to Justin’s sister for 14 years.
“The wife came first,” Andre chuckle. “That’s how we met. I like to say that because it paints a very different story.”
“Like anything, it’s pretty stressful when it’s not working very well,” Andre says of the working relationship with his brother-in-law. “Brothers in law as well are pretty competitive. It’d been a pretty challenging personal journey for us as well, to get to the point of respect where you realise you function pretty well as a team.”
Having very strong opinions and different ways of thinking has added some curry to their working relations, Justin adds. However, he admits that coming from such different angles is likely what has got Vinomofo to where it is now.
“I’m more business-minded and big picture, whereas Andre is more creative,” he says. “If you combine those two things it’s a pretty formidable team. And I think if it was just two Justins or two Andres it wouldn’t have worked as well. So I think we’re both very thankful that it turned out the way it did and my sister married him. It’s really helped us get to where we are today. And today we get along great.”
THE GATEWAY FOR AUSSIE WINE EXPORTS
Looking ahead, the future is bright – and then some – for Vinomofo. The lads have just sketched out a five-year vision that in the coming years could potentially lead to Vinomofo moving into bricks and mortar retail with a concept store. And while the bulk of their five-year plan immediately focuses on developing their core product offering of online wine sales domestically in Australia, both Andre and Justin are aware of the very real potential for Vinomofo on a global scale.
“We were over in San Francisco two months ago meeting a whole lot of leaders in wine, just assessing opportunities,” says Andre. “We were in Hong Kong recently as well fact finding, because we’re interested in those markets and think we’ve got a model that would work well for those markets.”
“We will probably attack those next year – the States, Hong Kong and the UK,” Justin anticipates. “We seem to be making waves all over the world at the moment and we’re getting approached by lots of people who are interested in taking this model and expanding it worldwide.”
This feature was originally published in the December 2014 print issue of My Business. To read more in-depth features for SME business owners immediately upon publication, subscribe to My Business magazine now.
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