Know your vision/purpose — this is what will get you through the hard times.
Find & solve a market problem — if you’re not solving a problem you will never make it
Narrow your target market more than you want to — even if you have to start by selling a single product you will thank yourself later. Become the expert and then expand.
As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create A Highly Successful E-Commerce Business”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Kent Nowlin, Vice President of Management and Operations for VineSpring. A veteran leader in the wine business technology space, Kent joined VineSpring in 2019 to oversee the business. Kent spent nearly a decade at ShipCompliant, the primary technology company in beverage alcohol compliance, where he managed the company’s finance, operations, and sales teams until eventually becoming the General Manager. During his tenure, he not only participated in the successful vertical growth of ShipCompliant’s wine channel, but also its horizontal expansion in the beer, spirits, and general online retail channels.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I have a long history of working in the wine industry. Before consulting with VineSpring and eventually becoming the Vice President of Management and Operations, I held several leadership positions at Sovos ShipCompliant where I participated in the successful vertical growth of their wine channel, but also its horizontal expansion in the beer, spirits, and general online retail channels.
I also have a military background that relates to business. The importance of teamwork, planning, execution, etc. One that I find myself explaining often though is the concept of interlocking fields of fire. When a platoon sets up in a defensive position it is important that the line of fire for each fox hole has the right amount of overlap with the line of fire of the fox hole next to them. If there is too much overlap you become inefficient, when there is too little overlap you have gaps in your defense. Part of my job as a at VineSpring is to make sure that our team’s responsibilities have just the right amount of overlap so that we are as efficient as possible without letting things slip through the cracks.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Chris Towt our co-founder and CEO, started a winery with his wife and realized quickly that selling beverage alcohol was unique. Not satisfied with the ecommerce options that were available for its unique requirements he decided to build his own.
So, how are things going today? How did your grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
Things are going quite well today. We are growing, we are profitable, and most importantly we have built a strong team. I wish I could tell you that the grit used in the early days was all it took but no that resilience is constantly needed, sometimes on a daily basis. As you grow your challenges don’t go away they just change. Instead of worrying about how you will make payroll you’re worrying about what your competition is doing, or how to grow faster.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think what makes VineSpring stand out is our commitment to the lifetime value of a customer. Something I realized early on in my software career was the importance of recurring revenue. It is not enough to just increase repeat, one-time sales. You have to create a subscription that brings your customers into a relationship with you, and instead of holding them hostage with long-term contracts you gain their trust by creating long term value for them.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Identify your vision/mission and make sure it is bigger than just making money. When times get hard it is important to know why you are doing what you are doing.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I have a close friend who I met with weekly for breakfast. Both of us were entrepreneurs and even though we were in completely different industries we were able to help each other work through tough decisions, vent about the tough times, and celebrate the good. Having someone outside your organization to talk with is invaluable.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The Pandemic has changed many aspects of all of our lives. One of them is the fact that so many of us have gotten used to shopping almost exclusively online. Can you share a few examples of different ideas that eCommerce businesses are implementing to adapt to the new realities created by the Pandemic?
In the wine industry most online sales begin with an in-person experience, usually a vacation to wine country where you visit and learn about many different wineries through tastings. When you go back home you now have context for wines you would like to purchase online or better yet, partner with longer term by joining their club. Without the in-person tastings, wineries were left figuring out how to create an online experience. Many set up virtual tastings where you can meet the winemaker over zoom and learn about their new vintages. Others partnered with restaurants and did virtual cooking classes that perfectly paired their meal with a particular wine. The reality is people need connection so figuring out how to maintain connection in a remote environment is key.
Amazon, and even Walmart are going to exert pressure on all of retail for the foreseeable future. New Direct-To-Consumer companies based in China are emerging that offer prices that are much cheaper than US and European brands. What would you advise retail companies and eCommerce companies, for them to be successful in the face of such strong competition?
Niche. Focus on a smaller market and be the expert in that market. It is similar to brick and mortar stores. Big box stores are where you go to get cheap prices, but the specialty stores are where you go to get quality and specific items you can’t find anywhere else.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start an eCommerce business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Trying to be all things to all people. It is impossible to market those types of stores. You need to narrow your focus and grow from there. It is better to narrow it too much than it is to go too broad.
In your experience, which aspect of running an eCommerce brand tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Content. Content is what will get you noticed, you can never have enough. Yes it needs to be quality but don’t get hung up on that at first, it is more important to build your content rhythm first. Then as you find your voice you can hone in the quality. I see too many people get verklempt because they are worried about whether the content is perfect and therefore nothing gets out the door.
Can you share a few examples of tools or software that you think can dramatically empower emerging eCommerce brands to be more effective and more successful?
MailChimp. Communicating with your patrons through email marketing is still important. MC has many automation tools to make sure that your follow up with customers and even potential customers is timely and well managed. The other is obviously social media. If SM is not your thing, hire it out because it is a necessity these days.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies an eCommerce business should use to increase conversion rates?
Automated follow up. You don’t have time to manage all your potential sales so using something like MailChimp to create a follow up campaign for abandoned carts is key. The other important thing is to make sure you are tracking your sales funnel.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that an eCommerce business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Stand behind your product. Make returns as easy as possible for your customers because some of your most loyal and long term customers will be people who have a good experience when something goes wrong. Beyond that make sure your selling products you believe in and can personally stand behind. If you or your team wouldn’t use it yourself, don’t sell it.
One of the main benefits of shopping online is the ability to read reviews. Consumers love it! While good reviews are of course positive for a brand, poor reviews can be very damaging. In your experience what are a few things a brand should do to properly and effectively respond to poor reviews? How about other unfair things said online about a brand?
The most important thing is to have a response. Even if it is just acknowledging their experience, it goes a long way. If you don’t respond it gives people the feeling that you don’t care, and that will erode your brand.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to create a very successful e-commerce business? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Know your vision/purpose — this is what will get you through the hard times.
- Find & solve a market problem — if you’re not solving a problem you will never make it
- Narrow your target market more than you want to — even if you have to start by selling a single product you will thank yourself later. Become the expert and then expand.
- Content, content, content — I’ve seen companies win big from a single article in the right publication, but it takes lots of articles in lots of publications to nail that one.
- Find a mentor — burnout is guaranteed, surviving it is not. The best way to win is to stay in the game, the best way to stay in the game is with encouragement and accountability.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start 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. 🙂
Private, non-profit health insurance. Religious organizations have already proven the model, time to open it up beyond religious communities.
How can our readers further follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!