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Tips From The Top: One On One With Harriet Mills

I spoke to Harriet Mills, founder and CEO of Wine & Design, about her journey and best advice

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?

Harriet: I think people would be surprised to find that I’m an avid Shark Tank fan and that I hunted down the opportunity to be on the show with just a Google search.

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

Harriet: Founding my business during the height of the recession was a huge risk that brought with it a lot of challenges, but I wouldn’t change it for anything. My growth has come from always learning from my mistakes so that I can come back stronger. There will always be hurdles, but the more experience you can gain from the last one, the more prepared you are to clear the next one. I’ve learned to place a lot of trust in the team I’ve assembled around me, because our shared experiences and perspectives make the business better collectively.

Adam: How was your experience on Shark Tank? Can you walk readers through the process, from how you made onto the show to your appearance to the investment and how the show has impacted your business? What advice do you have for those interested in getting on Shark Tank?

Harriet: In 2017, we’d gone through a rebrand two years prior that helped us grow to 65 units, but were at the point where we were looking for a capital infusion to get us to that next level of growth. Going on Shark Tank had been a dream of mine for a while, so I did a preliminary Google search, found a long-shot email address and took a shot in the dark—and somehow, it happened.

The experience itself was really surprising and kept us on our toes the entire time. My husband, Patrick, and I practiced a ton, creating and memorizing our script throughout the months-long process of interviews and cuts, all with no guarantee we’d be selected or even make it onto the show. I was also eight months pregnant at the time, which added some complexity to the process—and meant I had to deal with the high stakes and stress with no wine.

The producers we worked with were awesome and enthusiastic, and despite the touch-and-go nature of the process, it was a really fun experience I’ll never forget. We knew we wanted to add some shock value to our appearance and make an impression on the Sharks, so we brought in a nude model for the mock bachelorette party painting class in our pitch. The shock value made all the difference—that’s my biggest advice to anyone interested. Regardless of how exciting or unexciting your business is, make sure your proposal makes a splash on TV, because ultimately, that’s the medium you need to keep in mind. You can have the best business ever but if your pitch isn’t entertaining, it’s going to be a huge uphill battle. Find the fun in what you’re offering and place it center stage because that’s what gives you the best chance of being chosen.

We ended up going with an offer of $500,000 (with $350,000 as a line of credit at 12% interest) for 10% equity from Kevin O’Leary, who remains a brand partner to this day. Just being on the show put us in the spotlight, and led to several new franchise deals. It’s been a huge driver of franchise leads and gave us the opportunity to expand to the West Coast, which was also a significant milestone for us.

Adam: What are your best tips for early-stage entrepreneurs?

Harriet: Have some capital to work with on the marketing front—that’s something I didn’t have that I’d make sure to assemble if I could do it all over again. Develop a marketing plan and understand the backing you’ll need. When you have the capital to support your strategy, you put yourself in the best position for success.

I also recommend seeking out a mentor to guide you through the early stages of getting your business off the ground and profitable. My mentor saved me a lot of time and energy on many action items I otherwise would have had to work on for twice as long, so it’s a relationship I think is really important to cultivate during those early years. Finding someone in your industry who can help on the idea generation front is a huge benefit, as well.

Adam: What are your best tips for entrepreneurs trying to scale their businesses?

Harriet: Invest in strong marketing! Dig in and do your research on which vendors you want to partner with, and keep up with and stay ahead of trends to put yourself in the best position to stand out. Watch what the competition is doing, as well.

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?

Harriet: I believe that a leader has to join the team instead of just giving out orders. Get your hands dirty, because it lets your team know their work is of equal value and their ideas for improvement are of equal importance. Listen to perspectives that aren’t just your own—the easiest way to grow as a leader is through collaboration in pursuit of a shared vision.

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

Harriet: Make sure your team’s voices are heard so they feel like they’re a part of the future of your company. Fostering honesty among your team is a huge asset and helps identify areas for improvement quickly and positively.

Team building is also a huge part of your success, so my advice is to incorporate it outside of the workplace on a regular basis. Keeping people encouraged and excited about coming to work goes a long way.

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

Harriet: My mom always told me, you only have one reputation—you can’t get it back once it’s out there, so make sure it’s a good one.

If I could choose a second, it’d be: Don’t be late. I learned that from my granddad, who taught me to always set my watch a little faster than normal because being late is a huge setback in someone’s mind.

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

Harriet: Being a mentor to anyone and everyone is paying it forward, to me. Give free advice to anyone interested in taking it, whether that’s your kids or a person on the street. If you’ve received good advice in your upbringing, look for opportunities to pass it on.

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

Harriet: I’m very competitive, so playing tennis and other sports growing up was always an awesome endeavor for me. It also taught me the value of teamwork and what it means to be a team player and a good teammate. In my life overall, that’s been a valuable lesson in learning how to treat people and being respectful while still pursuing the best for yourself.

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