Chris Towt of VineSpring: “Never miss an opportunity to shut up”

Never miss an opportunity to shut up. This was told to me from a mentor who taught me the power of listening. One of the biggest thrills I get at VineSpring is getting to know our clients and how our software can help them save time to do the things they’re really good at — ie: producing […]

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Never miss an opportunity to shut up. This was told to me from a mentor who taught me the power of listening. One of the biggest thrills I get at VineSpring is getting to know our clients and how our software can help them save time to do the things they’re really good at — ie: producing a fantastic product. It’s extremely gratifying to listen and show paths for how they can accomplish their goals using our software.

As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Chris Towt.

Chris Towt is the co-founder of VineSpring, the leading subscription-focused commerce platform for wineries, breweries, and distilleries. He and his wife Ellie own Durell Vineyard in Sonoma, CA. Chris is obsessed with simplifying the DTC equation for craft alcohol producers.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?

I attended Colgate University (class of 1999) where I studied Computer Science and Economics. When I entered Colgate in 1995, It was an interesting time to be at Colgate because the campus residences had just been wired for high speed internet. The University needed help installing network interface cards in student owned computers so I formed a business and was contracted to do the job. I was obsessed with making it as easy as possible to complete an install and developed a web based application to help install drivers and configure settings on Windows 95 and Mac 3.11 computers. I guess you could say I’ve always been interested in leveraging technology to make things better.

In 2005, I met my wife, Ellie, and a few years later I moved from Denver, Colorado to Sonoma, California where Ellie was already well established growing grapes and producing wine. Together, we started Dunstan Wines to showcase the quality of the Durell Vineyard, the vineyard she bought several years earlier. She wanted to sell more wine and I wanted to leverage technology to do it, so creating a web based application seemed like the right path — and so VineSpring was born.

Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?

We’re simplifying the way craft beverage alcohol is sold DTC. Selling alcohol to anyone is complicated — lots of compliance and red tape to get through — but your customer doesn’t need to know this — they just want to buy your product. VineSpring provides tools so that wineries, breweries, and distilleries can effectively sell their products in person, online, and recurring (via a club) to strengthen the lifetime value of a customer.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When we first started VineSpring, we wanted to make sure our pricing was affordable for the smallest of wineries. I’m talking about the 1 person business where the winemaker is the owner and does everything else too. Most of our competitors were charging a high monthly price and a commission on sales — we set out to provide reliable, fair pricing. The one kicker was the setup fee. We felt we had to charge something, and we landed on a 500 dollars one time fee + a case of wine. We had a genuine interest in our customers and what they were pouring their hearts and souls into (after all, we were doing the same thing, just in software) and thought by getting to know their product, we’ll get to know our customer better. As our client base grew, we started signing up wineries whose bottles of wine cost over 100 dollars per bottle….or more. One potential client who was evaluating VineSpring had a bottle that retailed for 550 dollars and they had a real problem with giving a case of wine to us. Right about this same time, our accountant told us each case of wine had a value and we needed to pay taxes on that value — very quickly we did away with requiring a case of wine, and I’m proud to say today there is no setup or activation fee to start service with VineSpring.

We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?

Jason Eckenroth who founded ShipCompliant, a beverage alcohol compliance software company, referred us to the EOS (Entrepreneurial Operating System) process. EOS is a set of concepts and tools that any business can implement to run more effectively, or as EOS calls it, gain traction. It took several years to learn, embrace, and implement the EOS process so that it’s second nature now — but without it, I’m confident we wouldn’t be as effective as we are today.

Through EOS, we’ve surfaced our core values and core focus, defined our marketing strategy, and defined our 1 and 3 year plans to prove that we’re on track to get there. If you don’t know about EOS, I highly recommend checking it out and thinking about how your business could improve by implementing the basic EOS processes.

In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?

At VineSpring, we’re always searching for how to make things simple. When selling alcohol to someone that lives in another state, there are only a handful of states that actually require a purchaser’s date of birth be collected at the time of sale, and a few of those states require the date of birth be verified with a 3rd party (there are services that do that — compare the date of birth, customer name, and address to verify they are who they say they are). We built a mechanism so that the date of birth is only collected in the states where it’s required — and at first we heard outrage from our clients. Some exclaimed, “This is ridiculous — we need a date of birth for both the purchaser and receiver!” even though it wasn’t necessary. It’s taken some convincing, but eventually most come around to realizing a smarter checkout is a better checkout, leading to more sales.

Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.

Never miss an opportunity to shut up. This was told to me from a mentor who taught me the power of listening. One of the biggest thrills I get at VineSpring is getting to know our clients and how our software can help them save time to do the things they’re really good at — ie: producing a fantastic product. It’s extremely gratifying to listen and show paths for how they can accomplish their goals using our software.

Learn and live by EOS. I’m eternally grateful to Jason Eckenroth and the ShipCompliant team for recommending the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) process to us. Like many entrepreneurs, I’m good at being a visionary, but this also means I’m often distracted by the shiny things. To truly gain traction towards accomplishing our goals, a process must be put into place with people held accountable to the process. EOS has given us the guide rails to help ensure we’re on track.

Get out and exercise. Breaks are necessary and being out in nature or getting some form of exercise is truly necessary. I’m proud of our team who all have great hobbies, families, and stay active and are passionate about things outside of work.

Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?

In the niche business of beverage alcohol, word of mouth is key. It’s important to always be innovating and providing value to clients, and new clients will appear. If you aren’t surveying your clients to establish a Net Promoter Score (NPS) — do! Those who give feedback care about your product enough to say something, good or bad. Next, partnerships are extremely important. Get to know all the businesses that can drive business to you — in our case, web designers, accountants, bookkeepers, and consultants. Make sure they are happy using your software so they are helping spread the word.

We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?

There’s so much to be learned from outside the beverage alcohol industry and seeing what tools are providing great value to craft producers in general. One area I’d really like to shake up is how an in-person transaction happens. Most of us are walking around with a super computer in our pockets — I’d like to redefine the in-person transaction by engaging people on their own device while still providing amazing customer service. Traditional point of sale systems are being replaced by self service tools that empower the customer to tailor purchases to their tastes. It’s an exciting time to be in this industry and helping craft producers think about things differently..

Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?

I think I’ve listened to every “How I Built This” podcast that exists. The story of the founder and the beginnings of a concept, company, and then scaling the idea are fascinating to me. The story of Stripe definitely resonates — taking a vastly complex thing — the online transaction — and simplifying it to a few lines of code is simply awesome and inspiring. Today, Stripe provides the best set of tools to power successful online transactions that I know of. Simplifying something complex, making it better, and then scaling it as they’ve done is a story for the ages.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

“There is nothing better for the inside of a man than the outside of a horse.” — Ronald Reagan.

I grew up riding horses (and still do today). Horses have shaped my life in many ways — the partnership between horse and rider is truly unique, and something I cherish. Life can get hectic and stressful, but spending time on the back of a horse is a great way to unwind, be thoughtful, caring, and reset. Whatever your escape is — riding a mountain bike, getting to the gym, going for a hike — prioritize it to help you succeed in other areas of your life.

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? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Get out and VOTE this election. We are so lucky to live in a representative government. Be proud and VOTE. If you know someone who isn’t going to vote, encourage them to vote. It matters.

How can our readers follow you online?

The VineSpring blog is a good place —

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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