When business is good, it’s good. Learn to say “no thank you”. I learned firsthand what it’s like to go from no business (right when the pandemic started) to more business than you can handle (about 6 months later). Identify who your ideal clients are and what types of people and organizations you want to work with. Quickly and politely say “no thank you” to people who do not fit into those categories. My ideal clients are corporate clients who regularly host virtual events of 10+ people.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Brianne Cohen.
Brianne Cohen, certified sommelier, is the principal in a lifestyle brand and business based out of Los Angeles, offering her services as an event producer, wine educator, and wine writer. Since COVID hit, Brianne has educated and entertained over 2,000 people through her “Virtual Vino” online wine classes, both public and private. Brianne regularly judges at international wine competitions and holds the WSET Diploma certificate, which is one of the most coveted and difficult wine certifications. Learn more about Brianne at BrianneCohen.com.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
I was born and raised in Redmond, Washington where I lived with my mother and older sister until the age of 7. We then moved to southern California and I haven’t taken my flip-flops off since! We moved in with my grandparents, which was an experience in and of itself. Living with grandparents gives a child perspective that they wouldn’t otherwise have. You learn to have patience with seniors and develop a different view around aging, death, and dying. I was studious and focused and could not wait to go to college. I ended up at Marymount College and then Loyola Marymount University, both in Los Angeles, and have been in LA ever since.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My grandmother always said “it doesn’t cost anything to be nice”. I’m not sure if she came up with that or if she just repeated it, but it had an impact. Kindness is so underrated. Especially in this fast-paced harried western world we live in. I don’t care how fast you’re going or how much you need to get done, you must be kind. Period. That is a non-negotiable for me. Yes, sometimes I get short or lose my temper, but I always acknowledge it and apologize. Kindness is a pre-requisite in order to work with me. I will not hire vendors who are not kind and I will not take on a client who does not have a kind disposition. Unkind people are not my people.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
The Big Leap by Gay Hendricks was quite impactful for me. This was a book that my business and success coach, Marla Diann, had me read, and it changed me. When I read this book, I discovered I had what he calls an “upper limit problem”. I would only allow myself to experience a level of success, accomplishment, and achievement that is within my well-defined comfort levels. I had an “upper limit”. Fear, worry, doubt, and ego was creating these limits to what I’d allow myself to accomplish. Once I realized this and worked on it with my coach, I set big goals and looked further and higher than I ever thought possible.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
Before the pandemic, I had my own business that I had owned and operated since 2017. There are two arms to my business: event production and wine education. On the event side I produced large-scale, live events, mostly in the non-profit space; with a specialty for LGBT non-profits. On the wine side I’d host/teach wine education classes in corporate settings, as a team-building activity.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
When the pandemic hit, within 2–3 months I had lost all my event clients. Every event I was working on was cancelled or had pivoted to a virtual event. By June 2020, all of my client retainers were cancelled. And that had been 90% of my income. On the other hand, in early March I was thinking about my wine community and wondering what I can do to help lighten the mood a bit and bring people “together” while we are avoiding/minimizing human contact. I also remembered my coach telling me the importance of an email list and being able to regularly communicate with your audience. I decided that 2020 was going to be the year of marketing. I wasn’t going to be able to do live events, but I could figure out how to host virtual wine tastings, build a mailing list, and stay connected with my audience until things went back to normal.
On Thursday, March 19th I hosted my first virtual wine tasting. I thought a handful of my friends and colleagues would join. I had OVER 100 people sign up to attend. The response was so overwhelming and gratifying! I did these free and low-cost public wine tasting classes for about 12 weeks straight before I started getting inquiries for private virtual wine tastings for corporate groups, non-profit groups, and individuals.
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
Yep, it was week one of the pandemic: early March. I knew a stay-at-home order was imminent and internally I was panicking. What am I going to do? This is going to decimate my business. I can’t just sit around. Everyone was going to be stuck at home. We all had a computer and Internet, and wine-lovers most certainly had wine! On March 11th or so, I signed up for a Zoom account, did a bit of Googling, and figured out how to host a Zoom “meeting”. I didn’t make people purchase any wine or require them to go anywhere to shop for wine. My focus was on people drinking what they already had on hand. I crafted classes around common topics: Wine Tasting 101, Rosé All Day, and All Things Bubbles, for example.
How are things going with this new initiative?
Better than I ever could have imagined! For year ending 2020, my business was up 62% from the previous year! And that’s with no live events for 10 months out of the year. The growth was solely from my Virtual Vino business. Once I realized that there was a need for fun, entertaining, and educational virtual wine tasting classes, I hit the ground running. I partnered with wineries around the country who offer small-format tasting sets sent to each attendee, and sometimes I pair cheeses and chocolates with the wines. Since I started counting, I have seen over 2,000 people on my Zoom screen! My secret sauce is the shared tasting experience. Everyone is enjoying the same sensory experience (the same wines) with each other, but from their homes. This helps the group connect and “feel” like they are a part of something together.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
I am forever grateful for my husband, Aaron. Once Virtual Vino got up and running, I realized how much preparation I needed to do in order to make these events successful. He helped me set up a mini studio in our home, including: a green screen, lights, a light ring, microphone, webcam, and an ethernet connection. Most importantly, he wrangles the dog and cat for ALL of my events. All three of them hunker down in the back bedroom to minimize noise and distraction while I am live and presenting. Without him I’d have a dog barking in the background and a cat knocking down wine glasses. It would not be pretty.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
The most interesting thing that has happened is the sense of collaboration I feel in the event and wine industries. Pre-pandemic I felt more of a sense of competition. People seemed to hoard their contacts and connections. Immediately when the pandemic started, I felt that everyone was vulnerable and their guards were down. I saw many of us helping each other and sharing contacts freely. More than freely! I have never made so many industry connections and networked more than I have during the pandemic.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
- When business is good, it’s good. Learn to say “no thank you”. I learned firsthand what it’s like to go from no business (right when the pandemic started) to more business than you can handle (about 6 months later). Identify who your ideal clients are and what types of people and organizations you want to work with. Quickly and politely say “no thank you” to people who do not fit into those categories. My ideal clients are corporate clients who regularly host virtual events of 10+ people.
- Look at expenses as investments. When your business starts to grow, or you are actively pivoting, your business will have new needs. Identify and prioritize those needs and set goals for when you can implement each of them. If your business is growing and revenue is increasing, look at a 1,000 dollars/month expense as a vehicle to make your life easier and to save you time to do more of what you get paid to do. The investment vs expense mindset is key. Your mindset must shift. If your revenue one year was 100K dollars and the next year it’s 200K dollars, you should hold that 200K dollars mindset. What does a 200K dollars business owner think and do? What does a 200K dollars business need versus a 100K dollars business. As my business grew this past year, implementing a CRM platform into my workflow was integral to my success, in order to manage leads, prospects, and clients. I vetted platforms and hired a professional to help with the onboarding.
- You should spend your time doing the thing(s) people pay you for. As I pivoted and my business exploded, I quickly: upped my Virtual Assistants hours, hired a WordPress/SEO expert, bookkeeper, and a PR professional. All those functions were not core competencies of mine and were not the best way for me to use my time. I was spending more time than necessary on those things and I was not doing them well.
- Advocate for you and your business. Above I spoke about being kind. That is key and is important. But one thing business owners (especially women business owners) struggle with is the desire to be “liked”. That is who I show up as personally and I found myself doing it in my professional life, but it was not serving me. Maybe I hired someone and they weren’t doing a great job. Instead of addressing it head on, I’d dance around the issue in an effort to stay friendly and liked. That does not serve me or my business. Be your #1 advocate and learn to freely and regularly ask for what you need. And be kind while doing it.
- Turn it off. You are not always available. When you have a business in which everyone is clamoring for you and you have more inquiries that you can handle, that can be exciting. Even addicting. If an inquiry came through my website at 10pm, I wanted to reply, give pricing, get a call on the books, etc. Pretty much anything to move it forward and get close to signing another deal. On the other side of that I found myself burnt out, depleted, and unfulfilled, as I was not leaving any time for my personal life. I now have set boundaries for my business. I close my computer after working 8–10 hours. More than that is just too much. Same with text messages. I only reply to work text messages between the hours of 10am-6pm M-F. I learned that I am not always available and that 99% of communication can wait.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
These are all simple strategies that you can implement overnight:
- Turn off ALL notifications on your phone so you can control your screen time
- Use the Boomerang app to pause your inbox periodically and to help you only communicate with people during business hours
- Meditate every day (even for 1 minute).
- List 5 gratitude every single day in a notebook.
- Don’t forget to do things that bring you joy. For me that is cooking and learning. Even though I teach wine classes, I still attend and sign up for other people’s wine classes, so I can take a break from teaching, and learn. This is for my own personal enrichment.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
I would love to start a movement of less waste/consumption AND a re-allocation of resources. We all waste and consume too much…that is a hallmark of Western society. Many others go without. Yet, there are enough resources on this planet (food and water, for example). I’d love to start a movement with the youngest and brightest minds to solve this problem. To inspire people to waste and consume less and to help allocate the plentiful resources we have.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
I’d love to have lunch with the chef, Rachel Ray. I watched her cooking shows religiously when I was young. I am fascinated by her ability to take something intimidating and complicated (food and cooking) and make it fun, approachable, and attainable. I’d love to chat her up about her inspirations to do that, and also see what parallels exist in the wine world. How can we make wine as fun, approachable, and attainable as she did with food and cooking?
How can our readers follow you online?
You can learn about me and read my wine blog on my website at BrianneCohen.com. Also, you can follow me @sommspirations on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and ClubHouse.
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!