THE INC. LIFE

The Biggest Challenge of a Wine Entrepreneur? It Isn’t Wine, or Entrepreneurship

Paper, time management and fragmentation are the nemeses. Here’s what Corkguru is doing to overcome them

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BY Cathy Huyghe - 10 Apr 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Those of us who are entrepreneurs in the wine space normally share several things in common. We love wine. We love what happens when we drink wine. We love what happens to the people around us who drink wine. And we think that consumers the world over should have the best possible wine drinking experience.

The only question is, how do you build a company on a bacchanalian manifesto like that?

The answer is most often rooted in the experience of the guest -- for in-person visits to a winery or a restaurant, for example, and for digital visits via apps, websites or immersive VR scenarios. The catch, as nearly all of us find, is that the wine and hospitality industries are two well-oiled machines that don't necessarily think they need innovative or disruptive ideas, and are perfectly happy to keep on keeping on.

That presents some interesting challenges that each of us engages and overcomes in our individual ways. For my team, whose skills are steeped in big data analysis, it's about following the digital trail of consumer behavior and sentiment, and mining it for insights that will improve the wine experience at every step of the journey.

For founder Danielle Gillespie, who's steeped in affection and respect for restaurants and wine, it's about exploring the cracks in two industries that are reluctant to innovate, but where she sees the lights of opportunity for improvement shine through nonetheless.

Here are three of her biggest challenges and what she's done to overcome them.

When Your Biggest Competitor Is Paper

Have you ever had this experience? You're having dinner in a restaurant, you've done your homework, and you've spoken to the waiter or sommelier about the wine you've chosen to have with your meal. The waiter or sommelier goes off to collect the bottle, only to come back to your table and apologize, saying that in fact the restaurant is out of stock.

Argh.

Gillespie and her team built a solution to prevent exactly that from happening: CorkGuru's digital wine platform electronically manages restaurant wine lists and inventory, and their Guest Loyalty Manager also optimizes the guest/subscriber experience inside and outside the restaurant.

So what happened when Gillespie took the solution to market? "Restaurant staff looked at us and said, 'We have paper. It's working,'" Gillespie said.

Except it isn't, of course. "Paper doesn't provide any information to the guest, and it's confusing," Gillespie said. "The result is that they just order something safe, but we want people making bold decisions. As entrepreneurs, we get very excited about people making bolder, more interesting choices."

The next step is convincing restaurants -- reluctant customers though they are -- that there is a better way. That takes time, and a lot of it.

Make High-Touch Work for You

Restaurants are a very high-touch industry, which requires plenty of time to do well. Yet, because it's so high-touch, time is the one thing that restaurants have very little of. Gillespie and her team take this irony and work it to their advantage, morphing their business into one that mimics the restaurants' level of service.

"We try to provide to our customers the same service that they provide to their guests," she said. That means taking a "concierge approach" to onboarding; delivering super fast responses to questions, emails, and phone calls; retraining new staff; and keeping menus up to date. They do this all free of charge, which hasn't been easy for some critics to swallow.

"We've been criticized for giving away these services for free," Gillespie said but she's sticking by the approach. "The bottom line is that we want to eliminate the friction between challenges and solutions. We want restaurants to think they'd be crazy not to use CorkGuru."

Don't Reinvent the Wheel. Just Make it Rounder.

Anyone who's worked in restaurants knows how fragmented the operational systems are, and that staff don't want to deal with 15 different systems and processes and passwords. "The advent of cloud computing has really opened the door for more streamlined operations, better integrations and better platforms," Gillespie said. "Each piece is making it a little bit better, but together a lot of these products could be really eye-popping and provide something of value."

They key is to distinguish where to add value to an already good solution, even though not every provider is willing to create new partnerships or try something new. "We don't want to do someone else's job," Gillespie said. "We want to add onto what already works well, so that the end result is greater than sum of the parts."