10 Lessons for Entrepreneurs I Learned as a Mofo – Part One

I’m wary of self-confessed expertise – this space moves and changes so fast. But there are those who are in it, doing it, thinking about it a lot, and learning as they go – often the hard way – and they’re the people I like to hear from. So in the spirit of community, I’d like to share with you over a series of articles the ten most valuable things I have learned as a Mofo – things that have made a real difference to my business, and to me as a leader, an entrepreneur, and as a person.

For this first part, I’ll give you a bit of context – a bit of background on me, so you can decide for yourself whether it’s worth your time to keep reading. I’ve been in business for myself since I was 19. That’s 22 years, depending on when you’re reading this. I’ve had two epic failures, another moderate success that made no money, I impoverished my family for the better part of a decade, lost a house and very nearly went bankrupt, and it’s only in the last two years that things have started to work – with my online wine business Vinomofo.

The Qwoff Journey

I moved with my family from Sydney to Adelaide in 2005, and this chapter of my life really all started early in 2006. I had a video and web production company (it was just me) most of my clients were wine industry – that was my passion – it was going okay, paying the bills… almost.

But I started getting interested in the idea of consumer reviews – you know; the voice of the people and all. I wanted to stop making videos and websites for other people and create a website for myself. I was fascinated in the idea of real consumers being the ones to rate a product and talk about it, as a collective, rather than relying on professional critics. Sounds a bit mundane now, but it wasn’t so commonplace back then, so I thought I was pretty clever.

My brother-in-law, Justin had come back from a six-month adventure in South America – bit of a journey of self-discovery – and on his travels he discovered this thing called Facebook; some of the American backpackers were using it to keep in touch with their friends back home. Anyway, he came back to Adelaide with an idea to create a social site for wine nerds.

So we got together one Christmas, talking about our brilliant ideas, and a few bottles later we thought it would be a good idea to go into business together. Brothers-in-law. What could possibly go wrong with that?

Justin Dry and Andre Eikmeier
The Qwoff Boys: Justin Dry and Andre Eikmeier wanted to create a social site for wine nerds – the only issue was turning a profit out of it.

Anyway, we came up with a site called Qwoff, and it was basically an online wine community, where you could review wines, share recommendations, we had a forum, blog, video channel, that sort of thing. Two of us, working from my garage in Linden Park, Adelaide.

We really embraced social media, earlier than most, and built the biggest facebook and twitter followings in the wine industry, we were crowned Digital Wine Communicators of the Year by the Wine Communicators of the Year, that side of it was great, we became an important voice for the wine industry, mainly because we reached this elusive younger audience of wine lovers, gen X and gen Y, which most people had failed to reach.

Anyway, we worked our arses off, and we loved it, but we just couldn’t make any money, god knows we tried. We would host global tweet-up events that would reach millions of people around the world, we had hundreds of thousands of views on our wine show, Road to Vino, where we travelled the country in a kombi on this big wine adventure. But no one wanted to pay us to drink our way round the country, amazingly.

So we were stone broke. I had two small kids. I’d already sold our house in Sydney to get us this far. I’d promised my wife in Christmas of 2008 that if things hadn’t turned around by March, I’d pack it in and go and get a job. Give me three months, I said. Believe in me.

Qwoff's Road to Vino
‘The Road to Vino’ – a somewhat prophetic title for a road trip, before Vinomofo arrived on the scene.

March came and went. Still broke. In May 2009 we found an investor willing to put a bit of money in, that allowed us to keep going, to get an office – cool space in Hindmarsh, an old brewery, we hired a couple staff, and we tried a few more things, launched this location-based check-in app and campaign, the Great Wine Adventure. Again, great idea, but just no good revenue stream.

That investor lost a lot of money in property in the Brisbane floods, and he wanted to get his money back out, so we found ourselves under a lot of pressure again.

Making Money Out of Wine

Then in 2011, after a Christmas break made particularly stressful and emotional by the fact that I was broke (again) we came up with the idea of actually selling wine. We’d always thought we couldn’t possibly do that – we were communicators, we had a community, we couldn’t sell stuff, that would be dirty, that would be commercializing something pure.

But it was actually our community who finally got us there – it’s all fine and well you’re talking about wine, but when are you going to shut up let us buy the stuff from you? That’s ultimately what we’re after. We trust you, you know what we like, you give us suggestions anyway, we want to buy wine from you.

We’ll call that lesson number 0.5.

So we teamed up with another mate of ours, a Barossa boy, named Leigh Morgan, and Vinomofo was born.

And it worked. Halle-f#%king-lujah.

Our first wine deal sold 21 cases, and we thought that was pretty special. Within 3 months, we’d sold $150,000 worth of wine, we had 10,000 members signed up to the site – more revenue and more members than we had in our Qwoff community over the last 5 years.

Vinomofo website mark one
Vinomofo as it was first launched.

In our first year we turned over $2.5 million. Unthinkable. We set our sights on being the Number One online wine site in the country. We paid our old investor out and set about finding a new partner to help us scale. Nearly signed with Fairfax, ended up going with Australia’s leading online retail group: Catch of the Day.

And we scaled. That second year, revenue was over $10 million, and our membership grew to nearly 200,000. Moved the business to Melbourne, and really learned a lot about online retail.

It was a good ride, but we missed our independence, so then in June 2013, with the help of a small group of Adelaide investors, we bought the company back. It was a risky play, but we pulled it off, and we’re on track this year to be the Number One wine site in the country.

Perseverance: The Ultimate Lesson in Entrepreneurship

I’m not sharing all of this with you to big note myself, nor am I selling you on the many virtues of Vinomofo in the hope that you’ll log on at vinomofo.com and sign up…

Of course, I’ll wait for you if that’s what you’d like to do, please don’t let me stand in the way of any of your personal vices…

I’m simply putting some context behind the journey I’ve had, and that way you can tune in (next time) to the things that I think have been the really important learnings, the things that have made a real difference, and you can decide for yourself if you find anything of value in what I share, and take the lessons into your job, your business, your life…

So there you have it, I’ve not yet shared my ten most valuable things, but there is perhaps the biggest learning of them all tied up in my story – perseverance.

I’ve had many opportunities to quit. Pressure from all sides, in fact – family, investors, accountants – but perseverance kept me in the game until I could turn things around. Until the sum of my learnings led to something that is (finally) succeeding.

The only sure thing is that if you’re not in the game, you can’t possibly make it.

See you next time.

Read the next instalment of Andre Eikmeier’s series on entrepreneurship.

A toast to Vinomofo

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