On reflection I guess I was always meant to be in wine industry. However, it took me until I was 30 to realise it and walk away from a successful career in architecture working on projects such as Sydney’s King Street Wharf and Olympic Stadium at Homebush, to follow my passion, put my money where my mouth was (literally) and launch my first wine business.
I blame my parents for introducing me to wine. Back then they lived on acreage in the Yarra Valley and visiting them on Uni holidays there were only two real leisure activities: riding horses and tasting wine. Not a natural equestrian, I opted for the latter and spoilt by the likes of Coldstream Hills, Domaine Chandon, Mount Mary, Yarra Yering and Yeringberg, I developed a palate for ultra fine wines.
However, unfortunately young architects don’t get paid a whole lot. So to help fund my expensive tastes, I decided to launch a ‘little’ business called Wine Ark, offering temperature controlled storage solution for wine collectors. Originally meant to be a 1-2 day a week side gig, Wine Ark took off and within a few short years I was running a national storage business, a wine club and an online wine trading system called Wine-xchange.
For around 10 years I’d poured my heart, soul and every ounce of energy into building these businesses. Pretty much every cent I had was tied up in the businesses and I’d had hardly more than a week or two break over the period. So when a buyer came along and offered me the best part of $8.5m for the lot, I decided it was time to hand the batten over and have a well-deserved break before figuring out what to do next.
Meanwhile tech had been re-shaping the wine industry
Taking pause and stepping back to research the industry at large led me to discover how fragmented Australia’s online wine market was. More than 1,000 websites were selling wine! At the time, classified sites like Realestate.com.au, Carsales.com.au and Seek.com.au were all booming, their disruptive models bringing together the internet, inventory and information to connect suppliers directly with consumers at scale. It dawned on me that I could create a similar platform for wine, connecting Australian wineries with consumers, and in 2010 Cracka Wines was born.
Since those early days, we’ve grown to more than 40 staff in Sydney and we now provide a channel for more than 1,000 wineries to deliver to our customer base of 250,000+ members. We’ve also diversified, launching two other online retail brands MyWineGuy.com.au and Winegrowersdirect.com.au which operate off our platform but service distinctly different consumer market segments.
Unlike traditional retailers, we set out to provide wineries with a channel to sell directly to consumers, releasing additional margin normally lost to middlemen and supermarket controlled bottle shops. This is then shared between the winery and consumer, offering greater deals to consumers and greater returns to the makers.
As a disruptive channel, our year-on-year growth has exceeded that of the online retail industry at large and our plans are to ultimately become a publicly listed company. Our first step towards this goal is inviting mum and dad investors to get behind us later this year in Australia’s first retail equity crowd-funding campaign. The capital raised will fund our next growth phase as we prepare to take our direct-to-consumer model into foreign markets, particularly Asia where demand for quality Australian products is soaring.
What does it take to thrive in business?
With seven successful businesses to my name, some lessons have been easier learnt than others. Here are five tips for those in business or looking to start:
1. Find an industry or business you can be passionate about for 10+ years
Ultimately, my love of wine served as the catalyst for a career change at 30 and I haven’t looked back since. By the time I’d sold my first three businesses, I was ready to give something back. Recent years have seen a mass consolidation of liquor stores around the country, leaving us with a supermarket monopoly that disadvantages many winemakers.
My passion to help them find an alternative route to market was the reason I started Cracka and remain as passionate today as the day I started. If you can remain passionate about something for more than 10 years, you’re onto a winner.
2. Find a gap in the market
When I saw how fragmented the online wine industry was, I knew there had to be a simpler channel to connect winemakers with customers online. Our sales platform became a one-stop-wine-shop and education platform for those wanting to build their knowledge and sample wines that couldn’t be found at their local bottleshop.
If you can find a gap in the market where you can provide a faster, cheaper, higher quality or somehow improved product or service, you can set yourself apart and build a loyal customer base.
3. Be ready for crisis
Did you know Australia experienced a glass bottle shortage in 2015? Well, for a brief period, this threw a spanner in the works for our business, selling high volumes of bottled wines. A sales promotion we were running at the time led to unprecedented sales volumes, which our direct-to-consumer model was struggling to meet.
I never imagined I’d be putting out fires from experiencing high demand for product, however it served as a clear reminder to be prepared for the many challenges that business can throw at you. It prompted some business changes and planning so we’re prepared for anything the universe can throw at us!
4. Cultivate a strong culture
A ‘Cracka’ team needs to be led from the top. Building a great company culture, requires investing in the right team who can work well together as well as independently to problem-solve and bring complimentary skills to the table. Emotional intelligence and resilience are as valuable, if not more so than qualifications and experience. Don’t be afraid to let go of someone who isn’t committed to make way for someone exceptional.
5. Be agile and always ready to adapt
The term ‘disruption’ has received so much attention in recent years it seems like a shiny and new concept, but in reality it is the natural path of business. As humans we strive to find newer and more efficient ways to achieve the same outcomes, and never has this been truer than in the digital age. In business you need to be willing to reassess your goals and systems and always be open to reinvention.
Dean Taylor is the founder and CEO of Online Liquor Group, which includes Cracka Wines, Winegrowers Direct and My Wine Guy. With seven successful ventures under his belt, he’s been named one of the ‘50 Stars of Wine’ and one of the ‘Top 50 People in Australian E-Commerce’.