Tips From The Top: Conversation With Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey

I spoke to Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey, co-founders of Barefoot Wine, about their journey and best advice

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Adam: Thanks again for taking the time to share your story and your advice. First things first, though, I am sure readers would love to learn more about you. What is something about you that would surprise people?

Michael: Out of high school, I applied to be a fighter pilot at the US Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs, but was washed out because of a history of migraine headaches. They thought at the time that I might have a mental problem. They didn’t want me in the cockpit of a multi-million dollar aircraft. Later, it was proven that migraines are not a mental issue but I may have had a mental problem after all when I chose to become an entrepreneur!

Bonnie: It’s my foot on the famous Barefoot wine label! We were looking for a footprint with a high arch and I realize I had one just like that right on the end of my leg! So I sent Michael to the store for the biggest ink pad he could find and put my foot in it and stepped onto a piece of artist paper, and that’s how my foot got on the largest wine label in the world!

Adam: How did you get here? What experiences, failures, setbacks or challenges have been most instrumental to your growth?

Michael: From the time I was a kid, I had to be pretty much self-reliant and creative. I had to stick to it and believe that I would discover the solutions.  I built my own coaster, built my own toys, built my own fort, and had my own paper route. I saved up for years to buy a bike. But what was most  instrumental in getting me here was, in a word, “persistence!”

In our business, we were undercapitalized in a very competitive and controlled business. So we were forced to be resourceful. For instance, we had no money for advertising, so we had to come up with a way to get the word out about our products. We realized that every store where our products were for sale was surrounded by a neighborhood of patrons who were supporting worthy causes to do something positive in their neighborhood. These fundraisers were for local causes like beach clean-ups, after-school parks for kids, or building a new library. We learned that by supporting them, we were giving their members a social reason to buy our product which turned out to be more powerful than the mercantile reasons. We called it “worthy cause marketing”. It worked so well that even when we finally could afford commercial advertising, we stuck to “worthy cause marketing” because it was more effective! Plus, we were able to make a difference with hundreds of worthy causes across the nation.

Bonnie:  My older sister was a very young mother with three kids. I wound up helping to raise them. But I was very young as well. Even at 11, I had to step up to the plate. It was challenging and I was forced to take on responsibilities most folks don’t fully realize until they are in their twenties or thirties. We also move around a lot when I was a kid. I had to learn how to make new friends fast at new schools in different parts of the country. Both of these lessons helped me out significantly later on in life!

For instance, when we started our business, I had to wear many hats including CFO, CPO, and VP. We were stretched pretty thin in those days but I knew I could manage it because I was used to taking on responsibility, multitasking,  and had developed the soft skills necessary to get others to help me get things done. .    

Adam: In your experience, what are the defining qualities of an effective leader? How can leaders and aspiring leaders take their leadership skills to the next level?

Michael: You have to prove to your people, and all your stakeholders, that you have their best interests at heart. You have to understand what those interests are and demonstrate with your actions that you are providing them with a vehicle and a pathway to their own success. For instance, people work for many reasons, but the top four seem to be salary – to pay the bills; acknowledgment – for self-respect; time off – to enjoy their life; and security – to give them confidence in the future. Each one of those interests can be translated to compensation, recognition, personal time, and benefits.  

Bonnie: Leaders must have a clear plan, effectively communicate it, and include their people in the problem-solving necessary to get around the obstacles. At Barefoot, we practiced what we called “know-the-need, instead of “need-to-know”. That means we shared our problems with our entire staff and ask them for ideas.

For instance, one time we had a great opportunity at a big supermarket, but they put us on the bottom shelf where nobody looks. We were up against the clock because we had to sell a certain amount of product in a certain amount of time or be discontinued – forever!. How are we going to do that if they put us on the bottom shelf? We asked our people. Somebody said. “Well we’re Barefoot, so we’ll just have to go after the foot traffic!” Everybody laughed. But then one of our people stood up and said, “You know, that’s not so crazy, maybe we could put decal footprints on the floor leading from the door to where our products were on the bottom shelf. Customers would be looking down to see where the footprints went and discover our wines. That idea came from our 78-year old receptionist. We used her idea all over the country! Imagine what would have happened if we hadn’t asked her!  

Adam: What are your three best tips applicable to entrepreneurs, executives and civic leaders?

Michael:

1 Expect solutions. Keep your eyes open!

2 Engage strategic allies. Who gets rich if you get rich?

3 Overkill on customer service. Remember where the money is coming from!

Bonnie:

1 Practice empathy. Put yourself in the other guy’s shoes.

2 Be persistent. Ask another way, a different person, or a different day!

3 Show gratitude. Write thank you notes and be specific.

Adam: What is your best advice on building, leading and managing teams?

Michael:

1 Look for the team members who fit the job and the other team members. The team members have to respect the skill sets of the other members and know why they are essential. Plus, they have to like them. Any friction can doom the team.

2 Second, make sure everyone on the team understands where the money comes from. It’s the customer and their customers, not you or your company. They have to know how their contribution will affect the bottom line and help sales.

3 Don’t micromanage your team members but do set regular progress meetings based upon mutually agreed-upon goals.

4 Don’t ever get personal or emotional. Stay calm and confident. They will pick up on your demeanor and it will help them focus on the challenges ahead.

5 Thank them in detail publicly when they achieve their goals or when they solve a vexing problem in a creative way. They will encourage other team members to do their best because they know they are appreciated and acknowledged.

Bonnie: They have to like you as a person. That means that you have to show you care about them. Soft skills are critical for any leader to seriously engage their team members. Answer the question: how does achieving the goal help your team members achieve their goals? Be sure to give them public accolades when they perform in a productive manner or solve a vexing problem.

Adam: What is the single best piece of advice you have ever received?

Michael: My father once said to me, “Make up your mind Michael, do you want to make a statement, or do you want to make a deposit?”

Bonnie: My mother once said to me, “Yep! You can do it! Just set your mind to it!”    

Adam: What is one thing everyone should do to pay it forward?

Michael: Put extra energy into your people. Help them achieve their goals. If they leave you, stay in touch and provide as much mentor ship as you can. Your experience can help them.

Bonnie: Remember, it doesn’t have to be the person you paid forward that returns the favor. There is no energy lost under the sun. You will be rewarded. But maybe in a different way, from a different person, on a different day!

Adam: What are your hobbies and how have they shaped you as a leader?

Michael: I am an avid hiker. Sometimes I have to overcome some pretty steep challenges on the trail. Sometimes the trail is uneven. Sometimes it’s really hot and I just want to sit down in the shade. But I keep going because I love the adventure an all the new things I will see. Plus, I’m getting away from the screen and the phone to give my brain and spirit a chance to reboot. And I know that the hike will help me with my mental and physical health and help produce creative solutions in my professional life.

Bonnie: I love organic gardening. It’s not just the chemical-free fruits and vegetables, it’s not just that they are grown where I live, and it’s not even the fact that it helps me become more healthy and self-sufficient. As my mother used to say, “It’s a sanity garden. No matter what your challenges are, no matter where you have to go, when you come back, you’ll see progress in your garden. It’s a reminder that things are going in the right direction.

Adam: Is there anything else you would like to share?

Michael: The fuel that drives persistence and tenacity is the reassurance of your early adopters. When you’re starting to feel frustrated or even depressed, maybe it’s time to pick up the phone and call some of your happy customers. Ask them what they like about your products or services. You’ll be surprised how their positive testimony will recharge your batteries and give you the courage to overcome the next hurdle!

Bonnie: Develop an attitude and a procedure for handling problems. Find out who else benefits if you succeed. Engage their support. Look at how a similar problem was solved in other industries. See what’s applicable to your problem. And don’t forget to look at all your other problems. Lay them out on the table. Look for relationships between those problems. Remember, the elegant solution solves more than one problem!

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