Host: Kristofor Lawson
Mixing and Editing: James Parkinson
Research: Patrick Laverick
Transcript: Jasmine Mee Lee
Theme Music: Nic Buchanan
Artwork: Andrew Millist
Kris: From Lawson Media this is Building A Unicorn, the show about what it takes to build a big global business. I’m Kristofor Lawson.
Kris: These days a large amount of retail has moved online. You can buy almost anything you want at the touch of a button and then have it delivered to you wherever you are. But there are some industries which have in many countries struggled to convert to the digital revolution, and that opened up a market for new entrepreneurs to dominate. One such company is Vinomofo, a wine delivery startup started by Andre Eikmeier and Justin Dry.
Kris: Vinomofo has taken the Australian wine industry by storm with their no BS approach to what was always seen as a pretty snobby industry. They now operate in Australia, New Zealand, and Singapore, with plans for further global expansion.
Kris: Now the road to success is usually never easy, but for Vinomofo CEO, Justin Dry, this love of entrepreneurship was really in his blood.
Justin Dry: My father was an entrepreneur, had kind of ups and downs as most entrepreneurs have. Some pretty major and challenging downs. So I saw the highs and the lows of my chosen path.
Kris: What did he do as an entrepreneur?
Justin Dry: Lots of different things. So he originally started in insurance. . He owns some gyms. He owned some other outlets. Property, he did for some while, he did finance. He did lots of different things over the time. But one of those moves, quite early was into the kind of health and gym space, that didn't work.
Kris: It’s important to mention here that back in the late 80s and early 90’s Australia was in a recession. At the time the official interest rates set by the Reserve Bank of Australia were as high as 17 and a half per cent, meaning the rate people were actually paying at the bank was often well above that. And this forced many people into bankruptcy, my family included. And Justin’s family, well they struggled too.
Justin Dry: ...I think they hit those kind of numbers. Can you even imagine interest rates at 20%?
Kris: Crazy. Even now they're what? Like three or four per cent
Justin Dry: Yeah, exactly.
Justin Dry: I think he probably overleveraged himself. Went into an industry that then got very tough when the market crashed and interests were high and no one had any money. So I think, I saw the challenges around that. We lost the house, we lost everything. Went from having nice cars, a decent house to being asked to leave and losing everything. And going into rentals and shitty cars, and all the things that happen when you have no money. And so I think seeing that was interesting, but also seeing the optimism around an entrepreneur. And may sometimes blindly, and other times well founded. But that was, I kind of saw, I saw an interesting ride and, but the thing that we always talked about was business and ideas. So that kind of got me interested. I started my first business when I was 10.
Kris: Right. What was that?
Justin Dry: It was something very simple. It was like car washing and lawn mowing kind of business. I did the rounds. Door knocked on people's doors, and probably annoyed them, and asked them to clean the cars for four or five bucks.
Kris: Was it successful?
Justin Dry: Yeah, it actually was. It, I did remarkably well, when my first business, I actually employed my first employee when I was 10 and a half, and,
Kris: Who was that?
Justin Dry: It was my cousin Ben. And he'll be forever known as lazy Ben. Because he was more interested in going to the shops with our money, and eating lollies than actually doing the work. He was also the first one I had to fire, but we were still close. I got married last year and he came to the wedding.
Justin Dry: Thank you. But there's no hard feelings there. I don't even think he remembers to be honest.
Kris: But like any true entrepreneur, Justin wasn’t going to stop at one successful lawn mowing business. So when he was 14 he made the logical next step into something a little more seasonal.
Justin Dry: I was selling Christmas trees. Buying directly from a Christmas tree farm and selling them before Christmas. Before that was a thing, before other people were doing it...
Kris: Right. People would bypass going to the Christmas tree farm themselves, and then just come to you?
Justin Dry: Yeah, so I would set up. I asked, umm, it was just around the corner from my house where I grew up. There was a petrol station that was, like, on the corner of, like, five main roads coming in together, so like heaps of traffic. And asked if I could set up on the front lawn of the service station with the hand drawn signs, and the Christmas trees laid out three or four weeks before Christmas. So when people would drive past that, "Oh, I'll grab a Christmas tree." And if they could fit it. And, yeah, I did again, remarkably well early. And I sold out on the first time I did it. I sold out within about three hours. It was like I was doing it for three days sale over the weekend. And I think the first time I convinced my dad to drive me up to the Christmas tree farm, front up the money to buy 15 Christmas trees, and drive me down, and put me there. And I did hand drawn signs for, 'Christmas trees for 15 bucks', or whatever it was. And I sold out in like three hours.
Justin Dry: And I was like, "Oh my God, this is easy." I went to the, back then the phone that you actually have to spin around to dial ...
Kris: I remember those.
Justin Dry: I called the Christmas tree farm, and I was like, "How many Christmas trees do you have left?" And they're like, "Oh, 45." And I was like, "If you drop them down to me, today, I'll take them all." ...
Justin Dry: And the guy is like, "Okay, done." So and you should have seen these Christmas trees out. Because I should've thought about this, and looked at my stock before I bought it. But they were like some of these Christmas trees, because they are the 45 last Christmas trees available at this Christmas tree farm. They the 45 that … everyone had passed over.
Kris: They're skinny ones with like two branches.
Justin Dry: Yeah. Exactly. They had, like, two little bits of green on a really skinny branch. And so, but I got stuck with them. So I ended up selling about half of them, and all my profit from that first venture into the Christmas tree market was Christmas trees. I made no money, but I couldn't bring myself to drop the Christmas trees off anywhere because it would cost me money to drop them. And I was like, "I can't bear to lose any money." So here I am getting dad to hire the truck again to drop them back to our place...
Justin Dry: It was all my profit. And I was driving back with these Christmas trees, and he's like, "... What are we going to do with them?" And I said, "Oh, I don't want to dump them because it will cost money." And he was like, "Oh, okay. Well, we'll take one." I was like, "Oh cool, that'd be 20 bucks."
Justin Dry: And he was like, "Umm Justin I have driven up to the Christmas tree farm, I've hired a truck, I fronted all your cash, I think I get a Christmas tree." And I was like, "Okay, bugger." And so we gave him, I gave him a Christmas tree. I had like 12, I think, left and, or 13 left. And they ended up staying down the side of our house for two years, turning brown, dying slowly, and then slowly kind of being reduced down to nothing.
Kris: I bet your parents loved that.
Justin Dry: Yeah. No, they loved it. And for me, whenever I come home from school, you'd go to the entrance to the front gate. I remember this scene so well, "Go front gate off this main street, look to my right. And there's the 13 Christmas trees slowly dying from two years." And a really good reminder to look at the stock before you buy it.
Kris: Justin grew up in Adelaide in South Australia, about an hour south from the Barossa Valley, arguably the wine-capital of Australia. And as Justin discovered, his ancestors had planted some of the first vines in the region, some of which are 140 years old.
Justin Dry: …So my ancestors planted some of those, and so it's in the DNA. I didn't know so much when I was younger, about that. But wine had always been a thing in our family. My Dad and mom obviously drank wine, and they were very social, and all their friends and family drank it, it was always around. But it was only when I was about 15 or 16 that two of my uncles, one in particular, uncle Peter, is a viticulturist, so, is the wine science of growing grapes. And I'd go to these family functions and they'd line up three or four glasses of wine, not telling me what the brand variety, region, whatever it wasn't, and they'd get me to blind taste them, and tell them what they were. And I was like, "I don't even drink. Like, this is way too early for me to be doing this."
Kris: How old are you then?
Justin Dry: Like 15.
Kris: Oh wow.
Justin Dry: Yeah, 15. I think they were asking me to spit it out or take little sips. They would try and get me to pick them, complete blind tasting and, "But I don't even drink. How the hell am I supposed to do this?" They're like, "Yeah, we'll guide you through it." And they'd be like, "We'll tell you what this variety smells like, tastes like, feels like in the mouth, what this region is known for." You know, all those things around, you know, what that vintage was like, and what that would mean to the wine. So they were kind of guiding me through it, and I loved this game that I was playing. And I was okay at it too.
Kris: Justin developed this deep love of wine. He learnt about the history of the industry and the role his ancestors played in the space. And he became more and more involved. So as he finished school, his friends were spending all their cash on beer and other party drinks, and Justin well he was buying expensive bottles of wine and then writing tasting notes to compare his own results to some of the critics.
Justin Dry: If James Halliday, which is a famous wine critic in Australia had written blackcurrants and raspberry notes in this wine, I would do the blind tasting, I'd write my notes, and then I'd look it up, and if we had the same thing, I'd be like, "Fuck yes." I would be like, "Oh my God, I'm good." And I did that. And I got super wine nerdy for my 18th birthday, instead of having a beer keg party, and a whole bunch of people over. I asked my parents if they'd put all that money into one bottle of wine, and I bought my first super expensive wine…
Kris: And how much did that cost?
Justin Dry: … It was maybe 300 bucks or something. Two or $300 back then.
Kris: That's a lot for an 18 year old…
Justin Dry: Yeah. That was the entire budget I think back then of the whole party and everything around it. And so, I just spent it on a nice bottle of wine because I wanted to try a really expensive bottle of wine. And mom cooked dinner, we sat around family dining table, had a really nice meal, opened the bottle of wine, slowly decanted it over, like, many hours. I kept checking it, like, going back every 30 minutes to smell it, till eventually it was ready. And the evolution of that wine in the glass, and the experience I had just made me fall completely in love with it again.
Kris: By this time Justin was entering university and he had decided to study marketing. But was really wanting to work in the wine industry so he focused on how you market wine, and then also studied chemistry so he could understand the science of actually making the wine. Then once he finished he decided to go all in.
Justin Dry: I thought wine was it. And I studied it, finished that degree, went and worked in the wine industry. Holding tastings for people, representing brands, worked in wine shops, fell completely in love with it. Did vintages at wineries where I could go and make the wine, or pick the grapes or both. So yes, I was in. I was all in...
Justin Dry: And then when I was about 22, I was like, "Oh, I'm not sure anymore. I'm not sure if this is a passion or a profession." And so, I decided that I'd give something else to go. So went and studied financial markets, I became a stockbroker.
Kris: That's a lot different from winemaking.
Justin Dry: Yeah, it is. But I'd always been interested in business, and finance, and economics was always my strong kind of suit at school. Mathematics was, that kind of thing. I was always fascinated by business, and entrepreneurial endeavours, and it kind of made sense to me. It was either wine or business. And stockbroker was very business focused, and I understood that market. I was like, "Yeah. Cool with that. Sounds good." Studied it, went and worked as a stockbroker for a short period, and that was late 90s, and there was, like, the tech boom. So everything I touched turned to gold. All my friends said I was a bloody genius. Not so much in early 2000s when it all went the other way, which was the tech crash. And so, I kind of rode that wave, and got out just as it was going down. So I made a bit of money.
Kris: After the dot com crash, Justin decided that spending all of his time staring at computer screens watching stock prices move up and down just wasn’t that interesting. He had some friends that got into property and so he decided to use the money he’d made to do his own development on the South Australian coast. And he made some money out of it. So he took that money then doubled down, and made some more money. And by his late 20s he was doing pretty well. But then he made what he calls the worst mistake he’s ever made.
Justin Dry: I actually went guarantor for someone I cared about deeply, stupidly... Probably is the worst mistake I've ever made. And I went against my gut, and I went against my head, and I went with my heart to kind of protect someone that was in trouble. And I was going to set it up in a way where it was going to be fine even if it didn't work. And I was going to put it under a company that I had, that had some assets in it, some properties through the property company. And unfortunately, when the docs came out that day, when I went to sign, my personal name was on most of it. So when the other thing went down, it kind of took me with it. And from someone who had way too much money, way too young. I went to having very little money at the, very quickly. And I lost everything, lost all the houses, the cars, all the assets, all the fun stuff.
Justin Dry: And went through some really challenging years in… and it had a huge impact on my life. But as they say, what doesn't kill you, makes you stronger, and you learn all those lessons. And I've, and I’ve probably, I am a far better business person, entrepreneur because I went through awful stuff. And I think most people that have gone through something similar would say the same. At the time it doesn't feel that good. And it's-
Kris: Yeah. Sure. That's hard for someone in their late 20s to feel like they've made a success of themselves, and then have that sort of taken away from them.
Justin Dry: Yeah, absolutely. And, you know, very challenging. And I started living a life that wasn't amazing. I started partying too hard, not taking care of myself, not exercising, drinking too much. All the things that you do to escape the reality of what was going on, and these things that. When that happens, it's not a quick thing, it takes years for things to go wrong and the repercussions of that fully be known. And, and so it's a really challenging, awful period, and you're just trying to keep your head above water through that emotionally. And so, escapism becomes a thing.
Justin Dry: And so, I did that. And I did that for a while until I think the last kind of moment, the moment that I was like, "All right, this is enough, Justin. Pick yourself up. Let's go." Was the day I was saying goodbye to my house. And the house had always been a thing because growing up and you lose your house as a kid, and then you're not expecting to do that as an adult. The house was something that meant a lot to me. When I made some money, that was the first kind of thing, "I need to have a house." And I did that and I was always going to protect it. And unfortunately it kind of unravelled.
Justin Dry: But that day that I said goodbye to the house, which is the last thing. You know, the cars had gone, all the other houses, all the other properties, all the cash had gone, and this was the last thing. And it had been sold, and I was saying goodbye to the house. I was walking through it, and it was quite an emotional, kind of, experience. And I got to the final room and it was my bedroom just before I left the house. And I had a scooter, that was all I had left. It was waiting at the front for me to ride on out. And I got to the main bedroom, and it was empty, and I was a little bit kind of upset and saying goodbye. And when I was standing in the room, there was a wardrobe and the wardrobe door was open, and there's a mirror on it, and it just triggered…
Justin Dry: And I saw myself, it wasn't a pretty look. And I saw myself, I was like, it reminded me of this exercise that I had learned doing, I think it was a Tony Robbins course, you know. I'd listen to so many kind of self help, personal development type kind of tapes, CDs. Reading lots of books, that's what I, I always did that. So whether it was Tony Robbins or another person similar to that, and take what you will from him. Some of it's great, some of it I don't really gell with. But there's one exercise that I did and it was looking in a mirror and you imagine yourself living the same life for one, three, five, 10 and 20 years. And you're standing in front of the mirror, and I'm looking at myself and it's not looking great.
Justin Dry: You know, I've had two years of not looking after myself. And one year, and you imagine yourself in one year doing the same life. And you start kind of your shoulder start coming forward, you start getting smaller, you start feeling awful, and start to struggle to look at yourself. But you keep looking at yourself and three and it doesn't get any better from there. It gets, and by five and 10 and 15 and 20, you are a shell. You're really small, you're feeling awful, it feels gross.
Justin Dry: And you imagine where you are, who you are, how you feel, the life around you, the people around you when you continue to live that way, and then you go, "Oh God, that's enough." Then you reverse and come back to the current day. And then you imagine one, three, five, 10, 15, 20 years ahead if you change your life, and do the things that you should do, and look after yourself. And start again, and get positive, and surround yourself with good people, and those types of things.
Justin Dry: And so I did that, one year you're like, "Yes." And then three years like, "Oh, I'm going to kill it." And then year five and 10, your shoulders are back, your chest is up, and you're super positive. And I'm building myself up, and then there's, and by 20, I'm like, "Yes, I'm going to do it. I'm going to do it again." And you're super positive. I was super pumped as I'm leaving this house. I'm walking out going, "Yes, let's take on the world." And another, another exercise that I did at the same time was pretend you're wearing a Superman cape.
Justin Dry: You walk differently it hard and it sounds silly when you're saying on radio or a podcast and, but if you imagine you're walking with a cape behind you, like a Superman cape, you change, your body language changes. The chest is up, shoulders are back, and you start feeling very powerful. So, it was just those two things, doing that exercise and pretending I'm wearing a Superman cape, I am storming out of this house with no assets, onto a scooter that's worth so little. In shorts and a T-shirt with no assets and no money going, "Yes."
Kris: Oh wow.
Justin Dry: Super positive. I jump on the scooter, and I'm like, "Yup." Take off driving to the office with this business that I had, which was making no money. And scootering along, pull up at traffic lights, and I stop and this other car pulls up beside me, and it's got a family inside it. And a husband, wife, and a child, and I pull up at the lights, they pull up, it starts raining. I'm in shorts and a T-shirt and thongs on my scooter having to say goodbye to everything, going towards nothing with nothing in my pocket.
Justin Dry: And it starts raining. I'm like, "Are you bloody serious?" And then this car that's pulled up, the kid in the back of the car looks at me, and points at the parents. Like points at me and says something to the parents, and I'm like, "This must be my lowest point." And I'm like, "All right. From here on in, it's all good." And that was the kind of turning point in my life.
Kris: It’s at this point that Justin starts his journey into what would eventually become Vinomofo. And right after this break we’ll find out what it takes to go from losing everything to running a fast growing startup.
Kris: This is Building a Unicorn, I’m Kristofor Lawson. And before the break we were speaking with the CEO and co-founder of Vinomofo Justin Dry. Now Justin had lost his home and all his money and not long after that his girlfriend broke up with him. But that entrepreneurial spirit runs deep in his blood, so around 2006 he decides to make a return to the wine business by starting an online website called Qwoff.
Justin Dry: I decided that I need to get away from Australia and just all this stuff. And I went travelling through South America backpacking… I met a couple of American travellers, and that we're using this thing called Facebook … really taking off in the States.
Kris: Sure. That was the very early years of Facebook.
Justin Dry: Yeah. Very, very.
Kris: And one or two years old.
Justin Dry: Yeah. It was very, very, very early. It wasn't available. It was invite only when I first met them. But they were using it to keep in touch with each other. They were college students from the States, and the way that they were kind of leaving each other and coming back together, was through this thing called Facebook, and kind of keeping in touch. And because I was travelling with them a bit, they invited me to be part of it.
Justin Dry: And so I joined, and that was how my first kind of introduction. I was like, "Oh my God, this is kind of cool. This is interesting. And I think this might be big." ... I was looking for my next opportunity. What was I going to do? What business was I going to start? What industry was I going to go in? You know, I really missed wine. I wanted to do something on the internet, and I was playing around with this thing called Facebook, I was like, "Oh, what?" On my long bus rides through South America, I was dreaming of what I could do.
Justin Dry: And I was like, "All right, I want to do wine again." I want to do something on the internet. And this kind of Facebook community building thing that is Facebook, is really interesting. I was like, "What about if I kind of combined them all, and I created the Facebook for wine?" And that was Qwoff.
Justin Dry: … Told my brother-in-law about it, Andre over Christmas that year with what I was building, and he was building something actually surprisingly in the wine space at the same time around customer reviews. And so, we hadn't talked about it, he wasn't in the wine space before. He'd done some work in the wine space for about six months, but he had gone, decided at similar timing that he wants to go into that space too. I came back with these plans for, like, the Facebook of wine. We told each other at Christmas, and over a few bottles of wine decided that we'd go into business together. And that was the birth of Qwoff. We'd actually didn't like each other very much back then. And so, I think it took the wine to convince ourselves that that was a good idea.
Kris: That's a hard decision to make if you're not like, you don't particularly like each other.
Justin Dry: Yeah. Well it got easier as we'd consume more wine. We got excited and then probably wondered what the hell we're doing the next day when we woke up. But we thought it was cool at the time, and that was a journey of four years before we launched Vino. (inaudible)
Kris: What did your sister think of this?
Justin Dry: ... Probably concerned, to be honest. But she, I think she quite liked the idea of me getting involved with Andre, in the sense that having two minds on the business would be a good thing. And very different people bring different skill sets, and she probably saw that as a good thing too. But, wow, they had one kid and another kid on the way, I think… and so they were tight with money, and I was obviously tight with money because of my history… We pivoted the business four times before we got to Vinomofo. Each one was...
Kris: Did it start in the garage?
Justin Dry: Yeah. It started in their garage.
Kris: That's a proper entrepreneurial story.
Justin Dry: Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Exactly. It's, we started it in Adelaide, in garage of Jode, my sister, and Andre's place. It was just a small little kind of, thing that had been converted to an office. We worked out of there for a couple of years actually, which was nice because we were around the kids and the family. Which had its pros and cons, but it was nice to be around the family.
Kris: So Justin and Andre enlisted the help of a friend to build them a website and went about trying to grow this online community. The way they did this was by trying to remove the snobbery that’s often associated with wine.
Justin Dry: The philosophy of the business is like no bowties and BS around wine. So like, we're super passionate about wine, but remove the bowties and BS.
And you go to small independent kind of liquor stores… and so you'd walk into these stores, and... even I was intimidated, because there was this old guy with rosy cheeks and a white shirt and bowtie that got his entire self worth out of making other people feel small because of his knowledge around wine...
Kris: How’d you deal with that?
Justin Dry: Well, I just remember thinking, "Well, if I feel this way, imagine how everyone else feels that doesn't have the experience in this space." And that's ridiculous… so that was kind of the driver behind the brand of this, no bowties and BS. Still super passionate about wine, but get rid of the wank. It was basically where that philosophy came from. So because of that, and what we stood for, and the way we talked about wine, we gathered, like, a really great younger audience of wine lovers who discovered us and wanted to talk about wine the way we talked about it. Wanted to try the wines that we were tasting, and wanted to review and write and connect up with other wine lovers of a similar kind of demographic. And we built this great audience, and we started to get quite a bit of recognition within the media space in, of that industry… And we became the kind of digital wine guys, and each business we kind of rolled out after that was in the same space, and got bigger and better.
Kris: Qwoff started around the same time that Gary Vaynerchuck started Wine Library TV and began his rise to fame. Justin and Andre had built a fairly decent audience although the site really wasn’t making money. So they ended up going and raising some money from an angel investor and then they got an office. But they still had to figure out how to turn it all into a business. So Justin would go away around Christmas and come back each year with new ideas on how to monetise their audience.
Justin Dry: You know, we’d earn, like, 30 grand that first year between two people. And that was before expenses, like, seriously tight. And he was married to my sister, it didn't make family Christmases was very good. And so when I came, went away for Christmas I came back, and I was like, "Oh, I've got this great idea, Andre.”
Justin Dry: I've always wanted to, I was a surfer growing up. I was like, " I've always wanted to buy a kombi, travel around Australia, surfing, tasting wine. And that's it."
Kris: So a couple of years into their journey on Qwoff, Justin and Andre start piecing together this idea for a series where they would travel around Australia and taste different types of wine. And because they were the digital wine guys they wanted to publish it on YouTube. So they eventually bought a kombi, hired a videographer, and then travelled around speaking to people in the industry about their wines.
Road to Vino Ep1: “Well we’re here in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales. It’s actually quite appropriate that our journey begins here because the Hunter Valley is the birthplace of Australian wine. Beautiful as this is, I’m getting thirsty. Let’s go and find some really good booze.”
Kris: They called the series Road To Vino. And while the Qwoff community liked the content, the videos never really gained much traction on YouTube.
Kris: But the series did give them the connections they would eventually need to start working on a new idea that Justin had on one of these Christmas vacations. The idea that would eventually become Vinomofo. But that wasn’t always the name, in fact for a long time it was going to be called VinoMojo.
Justin Dry: Yes. Vino Mojo, get your mojo working. That was the original idea. Yeah.
Kris: Right. And you went quite a bit down the path of doing that.
Justin Dry: Yeah. So I came back after the break, and it was like I've got this idea… Umm it was a blending of a couple of different kind of ideas into our space, with our audience and our network, it was possible. So I was, like, really excited, and Andre is like, "Are you bloody kidding me. What are you talking about?" And we've got four businesses on the go at this stage. And he's like, "How do we have time? No." And we, I eventually convinced him that it was a good idea, and we're like, "Yeah, let's do it." He came up with the name Vino Mojo and get your mojo working. And we went ahead and built out the site and our social profiles.
Justin Dry: … And we had, like a pre sign-up thing happening, and we had thousands of people signed up ready to go. We had a countdown clock, this is launch date. And two days out from launch, we're sitting there and we're super excited because, like, we're only 48 hours away from launching this thing that we’re so excited about it. It was the right time, we had the right network, we had the right audience, it just felt really good. And I was like, "Oh wow, okay, excellent." Then we get a letter. It's a thick letter and it seems quite official.
Kris: That's always a bad sign.
Justin Dry: Yeah. We're like, "Well we don't get many of these. What is that?"
Justin Dry: We opened it up and it was a letter from a solicitor, and it was a cease and desist to not launch the site. And we were like, "Oh my God." It was a trademark infringement notice is. And that's what it was. They were saying they had the trademark to Mojo which Vino Mojo. They have the trademark to Mojo because there was a wine brand called Mojo Wines, and it was, like, a wine producer brand.
Justin Dry: We called a really cheap solicitor, and said, "What should we do?" And he said, "Change the name.". And we were like, "Are you kidding me?" And he said, but good advice really in the end, because we really wanted to launch. We were two days away, it was the right time. There's a time for ideas, and this was the time. And so we were like, "Oh God."
Justin Dry: … We designed everything. The site was almost ready to go live, and we needed this, the logo to be so similar that we could do it in a very quick amount of time… And so we were like, "Okay. Let's just think about how we can change a letter or something within the name. And then when we win, we can change it back." …
Justin Dry: And we do what we always did and do, when we have that kind of issue. We opened a couple of bottles of wine and we sat there,
Kris: I’m noticing a theme.
Justin Dry: And we sat down, and we were like, "All right, what of Vino Moto, Vino Modo?" And after about our second bottle, I'm like, "Why don't we call it Vinomofo, for them motherfuckers that are trying to steal our mojo." And we were like, we laugh. We're like, "We can’t. That’s crass.” Abd, “Oh my God we can’t call a company wine motherfucker." Vino stands for wine, mofo is obviously what it stands for. So we were like, "Oh my God, you can't. But how funny is that?"
Justin Dry: … It'd be really kind of interesting to, like, launch with that, have the background story, put it up on our site as to why it's called that, go out to the media, have a bit of a PR thing around it, and then if we win, when we win, we can change it back. But it's just a launch kind of name. So that was it. We decided that we'll call it Vinomofo. We changed everything, launched, and it just took off.
Kris: Was it, like, immediately successful?
Justin Dry: Yeah. Yeah. It was like, the day we launched, we sold more wine in that one day than we'd sold in, like, the previous three or four months.
Justin Dry: And it wasn't that much because we hadn't sold that much in the previous three or four months, but it was still significant amount of wine for us. And then we were like, "Uh, maybe we've saturated our database now with that one sale." … On the second day we were like, "Oh, we'll probably not going to sell very many."... And then the third day and it was more, and then the numbers kept growing, and the customers kept signing up, and it kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger. And we are like, "Oh my God. You know, like, just don't stuff it up now. We're onto a winner. Just don't fuck it."
Kris: The newly formed Vinomofo was a hit. Younger people in the industry just loved it, because they were using different language to the rest of the companies in the space. Justin and Andre were now finally making money, and they had a few others partners in the business as well from their days with Qwoff. So they split all the equity equally.
Justin Dry: … At the start we weren't very sophisticated with it. You know, back then there wasn't as much available in terms of communities or mentoring or even, I mean, we'd read books, but there wasn't even as many of those available, as to, learning from previous experience or people that knew the industry. We kind of fumbled our way through.
Kris: Gradually through the first year into Vinomofo, Justin and Andre started to face a really difficult problem. And it was due to their supply chain. It turns out that while some of the younger audience were loving their no BS brand, some of the bigger retailers were starting to get concerned about their own businesses and so started to turn the pressure on their suppliers.
Justin Dry: We had some pressure from big competitors to try and end us basically, because we're this young disruptive company that was starting to make some noise, and they found us a little bit annoying, and potentially threatening to their own businesses. They were starting to put some pressure on suppliers not to deal with us. And a lot of the suppliers were good mates of ours. You know, like, the producers, the winemakers are the real people in the industry. You know, they're, they’ve, a lot of them are coming from farming backgrounds. These are real people, there's no wank with these guys. These are really honest, beautiful people. And so when big retailers, that are selling maybe sometimes 70, 80, 90% of these wines that are produced by these amazing people, they’re significant, you know.
Justin Dry: So when they start getting pressure to not deal with us, they have to make a really big call. Do they risk 80% of their business to help out friends or people doing interesting things, or do they go the safer path? And completely understandably, quite a few would choose the safer path. So that pressure started to make it really hard for us to get wine…
Kris: The pressure forced Justin and Andre to consider all their options. They didn’t want to force their suppliers to fight with the bigger retailers, but they did want to scale quickly to get to a size where they had enough purchasing power to get the wine that they needed. So they started shopping the business around to their angel network for investment, and also to other companies. And they ended up selling 70 per cent of their business to The Catch Group, a Melbourne-based company which owns a collection of daily deal websites. Some of which are similar to Groupon.
Justin Dry: And then we were in the kind of bigger leagues, and we had deeper pockets, so we could sign bigger checks, and we could buy more wine, all those things. And it made sense to us. And that's what got the deal across the line.
Kris: When The Catch Group purchased Vinomofo the site already had around 30,000 active users. And the team had to move across to Melbourne to be integrated into the Catch office.
Kris: What was it like working for someone else?
Justin Dry: It was a change. So, they were good people, that were still friendly, very friendly with them… But it was a really interesting experience, because they were running big companies within this space. There were some good learnings that we had. What was different was, it was no longer our baby completely... Even though they were really good, they were like, "The reason we've invested in you is because we can't do what you do in this space. And we trust you, we've backed you, so go and run the business." So there wasn't, there was no one standing over your shoulder.
Justin Dry: And so we still had complete autonomy. But it still, it just felt different. It just felt a little bit different. I don't know what it was in the end, but it wasn't because we were minority shareholders now, it just felt a little bit different. Great experience, great learnings, we did get full autonomy, but the reality is, it just felt different…
Kris: Working for Catch had completely changed the culture at Vinomofo, and after a year at the company, Catch was starting to think about an exit. That meant they were examining the entire Catch Business and then restructuring it to avoid duplication. And somewhere in the process Justin and Andre were left wondering what was going to happen to Vinomofo.
Justin Dry: We chatted to one of the founders and said, "Look, what's going on?" You know, we felt vulnerable. You know, like, "What does this mean for us? Are they going to get rid of half our team and bring us into the main team, or what does that look like?" And they basically said, "No, no, no, no, no, no, no, you're fine. We don't do what you do." And we were tiny compared to their whole business as far as revenue and team and whatever. And they're like, "No, no, no, you don’t get in the way. You're fine."
Justin Dry: It was very kind of like, not mean to be, but a little bit dismissive, in the sense that like, "You're just small and unimportant, don't worry about it." And so we were sitting there going, "Oh, this is not how we wanted it to feel it." And it, and the path that we've been sold had chosen. And so then we decided, we started having secret meetings in the first aid room to talk about what we could do and how we felt. And we decided that we would love to buy it back if it was possible. We started those conversations. We approached one of the founders, Gabby, who is a good guy, still good mates. And he was very fair, and we just went, "Look, Gabby, I know that we were not annoying, we’re not. And we're not getting in the way of anything, but what we'd really like to do, and what we're feeling at the moment is if we would love to buy the company back." And a little bit of silence, and he was like, "Oh. Oh, you know I can understand that." Because they'd started that business too, brothers in a garage and he could completely understand the thinking.
Kris: Right. They could relate directly to your story.
Justin Dry: Absolutely. A couple of young entrepreneurs back then, you know, had done it themselves, garage to this big business they could relate. And he was like, "Oh yeah, okay, well that's, you know" And then you could see the trader come in, the sales guy he's like, "No, no, I understand that all but I'd hate to see go. Oh, but that's, then that might be a little bit expensive." And then we're all, then we're going, "Um, yeah, we've got no money." So then the games began, the bracketing of like, "Oh, it's going to be really expensive and well we've got no money." And trying to meet somewhere in the middle.
Justin Dry: And we ended up calling a mate of ours who had a bunch of investors from South Australia, which was where we originally started. High-net-worth individuals and just umm, who were disappointed when we got sold into Victoria and, would have invested in us if we needed the money, apparently. Then we called him and he said, "Look, give me an hour." And he came, he called back within that timeframe and said, "Yep, I've got the money."
Kris: And with that the deal was done. And coming up after the break. Vinomofo finds it own feet once again.
Kris: This is Building A Unicorn, I’m Kristofor Lawson.
Kris: On June 30, 2013, Vinomofo officially became its own company again. And for Justin and Andre this was really the beginning of a new era, the chance to start again and gain some autonomy back.
Justin Dry: … It was so exciting. It was so exciting. It was so funny because when we did the first part of the transfer, we were, the transfer over. We'd done the deal, but we'll still working within their offices, waiting to find our own offices back somewhere closer. To help and… they're all lovely, we're still really good mates with a lot of their team. But it was just a weird keynote kind of moment, like, crossover period. And then finally we found this place in Richmond, which is super inner suburbs of Melbourne, close to where I lived.
Justin Dry: And we got this cool warehouse style, kind of smaller office, and brought our 13 people which we had into that office space. And the vibe and the feeling was incredible. And it, the deal crossed over at, yeah, June 30, July 1st. Any transactions up to midnight on June 30 was theirs, and anything after midnight was ours. And so I remember getting into this office and we were all sitting on computers in different locations, refreshing to see the orders come through. And because we had no money, because we gave it all back. And we're starting with bank balance zero. And so we needed transactions to start happening, we were like, "What if it doesn't happen? We've got an office now, we've got 13 staff, we've got," And so we were refreshing and then it was like 12:00, and it was like nothing. 12:01 nothing. 12:02 bang, and we had our first order.
Justin Dry: It was like $232, and we're standing up yelling and celebrating and, "We're back baby." And then we all realised that we need another 20 grand to pay wages by next Thursday. So we had a bit of a way to go, but it was so good. And from that period, like, the energy was back for everyone. Our audience that had thought, some part of that audience had gone, "Oh, they are there big now, they don't need us." They all returned and all of a sudden we were super fast growing again. And that period from 2013, next few years were incredible.
Kris: The new independent company grew rapidly becoming one of Australia’s fastest growing startups. And by 2016 had more than 400,000 members, 110 staff, and was bringing in revenue of close to 50 million, Australian dollars, a year. Around the middle of 2016 the company started to move into the global space. First by heading to New Zealand, and then eventually Singapore.
Justin Dry: We were looking at Singapore or Hong Kong comparing those markets, and Singapore made a lot of sense. It was in desperate need of a player like us in the market. There was too many middlemen, people were paying way too much for wine. There was too many people dipping their hands in.
Kris: What are some of the challenges that you had to think about when you start rolling your business out into another country?
Justin Dry: So many… one of the things I've kind of learned is, we thought we had an idea of what the offering would be, you know. We had an idea of what it should be, and when we went in and we've had to adapt that to each of the markets. Because they're very different. It can, you can go over there, you can experience it, you can say this is the right model for that industry or this space or that country, but the reality is you've got to launch and learn. There's, there’s things that you never expect that come up. And what we thought was our business was actually not our business. So we thought the model, which is premium to super premium wine curated to our, you know, the top five percent of the wines that we love, and then we buy deeper than anyone because of that super focus. Which means the prices are better. And so, then the culture around the business, which is no bowties and BS, but super passionate about wine, that was our thing.
Justin Dry: We were, like, going to a new market like New Zealand. You go to the local producer, you basically say, "What's that market buying in that space, premium and super premium." And it's mostly kiwi wines. And we'll go into that, we'll go curate it, pick our top five percent, go super deep buy more than anyone, which is our model. And sell at prices that the market has never seen before. We've soon realised that that didn't work in New Zealand. What we actually needed to do was focus on what we do well, because New Zealanders like buying New Zealand wine, but generally from New Zealand retailers. Not necessarily Australian guys. And so we quickly realised to focus on what we do well, which is Australian wine and unique kind of interesting wines from all around the world, that aren't seen in these countries very often.
Kris: These days Vinomofo has sorted out some of the challenges with growing into global markets, and they’re eyeing off the US, something they’ve talked about for a few years now but perhaps 2019 will be the time.
Justin Dry: You know... I've done a lot of time there, researched the market a lot, started to build out there, networking, and done the licencing. So we're there, we're getting very close, to be able to be ready, so it's just choosing when.
Justin Dry: ...What I would have originally done, would've been bring our model and try and build out the networks within the American industry. And now what we're kind of leaning towards is similar to New Zealand, where we kind of do what we do really well. You know, there's 65,000 Aussies in greater LA area, expats, there's a whole bunch of them all over America. So even that as an audience is a great kind of market to target first. And then the market within America that is drinking Australian wine is also very interesting.
Kris: At what point, like, when you're growing this team, did you start to realise that your skills as a leader needed to evolve to be able to fit a bigger organisation? Or did that, or was that just a gradual process?
Justin Dry: I think it was a gradual process because it, the skills you need as a leader definitely change over time. I think, very quickly you realise that managing people and leading people is a very, very important part of that skillset. And, you know, when you're starting as a young entrepreneur and you've got just yourselves or a couple of people, it's all about, you know, being all things in the face. And also, you know, you're coding, or you're writing a copy, or you're doing the social, and you're doing, you're just. I was doing the marketing up until 2013 along with all my other roles, until I employed thankfully, Kip who's still with the team as head of marketing today. And that was I think 2013, 2014. Up until then, and we're a significant business, I was the only guy doing marketing in the business.
Justin Dry: So you, and that was a skill set that I had to have up until that point. And then now I'm still fascinated by it, and I think we still have really deep conversations, but it's not my area. So then you can go and focus on other areas. And I think that more time gets taken up with different things as you grow. The media side gets bigger, the bigger you get. The people piece gets much, much, much bigger. The strategy piece gets much bigger. The understanding raising funds, and board, you know, meetings, and process and, wow, it just changes so much. And I think traditionally, you know, you'll have CEO or leaders that kind of fit in to a certain size company. But when it's your own and you're growing with it, or your part of the original team that has scaled, you get to experience all those different levels. And it is quite fascinating, and challenging, and scary, and exciting, and all the things that, all the emotions that you can possibly imagine.
Justin Dry: Because sometimes you, everyone has imposter syndrome at different stages, at different levels within their lives, and you've got to grow. And the only way to do that, is to step the hell out of your comfort zone. And, you know, that's a constant thing. And I think people when they're starting, look at people that have had a longer journey, like are, and are seen to be a very successful entrepreneur or business leader, and think it gets easier. It actually doesn't, it gets a lot harder. Because, and so if anyone is thinking that, "Oh, just I'll get to this size, I'll get to this many people, I'll get to this number of employees, I'll get to this many countries, I'll get to this level of” whatever their idea of success is, “And then it will be easy.” It's just not, it's just not.
Kris: It's just like a constant evolution of just becoming an even bigger, harder challenge.
Justin Dry: Yeah. Absolutely. But I mean, it's obviously incredibly rewarding or you wouldn't be doing it. And it's super exciting and I love it. But there's not a lot of comfort, zones. There is just, You're never truly, truly comfortable if you're growing.
Kris: Because probably plenty of people sit at home having this idea of when they start the journey as an entrepreneur, like, "If only I can reach this point, then all of my stress goes away."
Justin Dry: Yeah, exactly. And I think probably most people think that way, and it's just not the case. And I think that the more time I spend in it, the more comfortable I get with risk. And that's what happens because of the experience. So I, the things that would have bothered me five years ago, I don't even think about now. I can sleep very easily at night with 100 things all going wrong. Or, you know, 100 things up in the air, whereas probably two things would've kept me awake for three nights in a row when we started. And so I think you get more comfortable with the risk and the responsibility. But the thought that you don't have to step out of your comfort zone, and it's constantly or regularly scary, is false… To do that next level, especially if you're in a fast growing company that's evolving, and changing, and building, and you haven't been at that level before, there's a lot to learn.
Kris: Andre actually left Vinomofo in 2018 handing over the CEO title to Justin, although he’s still involved on the board and is still a major shareholder. And in many ways this is a business that is inherently linked with family. So it may not be surprising to know that Justin’s mum is also deeply involved in the business. In fact for a long time she did all of the accounts without charging them a cent, so once the company was doing well Justin really wanted to repay her.
Justin Dry: My main driver in my life is my family, to look after them and make sure that they don't have to worry about the things that I worried about as a kid and went through. And the first thing I did when I had a little bit of money out of the business, was I paid mom's mortgage off. Because I didn't want her to have a mortgage the rest of her life. It's like that's what drives me.
Justin Dry: And when we actually started, Vino doing really well and Vino started taking off, I remember calling her and saying, "Hey, mum, I got a question for you." And she's, "Yeah." And I'm like, "How much notice do you have to give to other job?" And it was one of those really beautiful conversations that meant a lot to me. And I didn't realise how much it meant to her until later she told me, that day that when she got that call and she, when we said goodbye and she was really excited, and she hung up the phone and she danced in the kitchen. And she was just so happy to be able to come and work for her boys. It was one of those really lovely moments, and that's why. One of the first things I ever wanted to do was look after her.
Kris: With everything that you've achieved now, when you look back at the journey that you've had, what do you feel?
Justin Dry: I think I'm, I feel proud of the things that I've achieved. I feel like we've still got so much to achieve. It's one of those things that as most entrepreneurs do, you're always looking at the next thing. I feel a little bit of regret around not appreciating the wins, along the journey. And it's easy to say now, and I probably still do a little bit, because I'm always looking at what's next. But there were times when we, you know, big significant things that happened, where we should have probably kind of just taken a moment and gone like, "This is pretty cool." Like, "This is, what's happening now is pretty cool. Doing this kind of deal is huge. Building a company like this is huge. Employing your first person is huge." All those momentous moments and we didn't probably take the time that we could have to appreciate.
Justin Dry: So a little bit of regret, a little bit proud, a little bit,you know, I don't know. It's ah, thankful, I'm really thankful that I've had the opportunity, you know. You can prepare a lot, and you can dream a lot and you can, you can have vision boards and goals and all those things that I think are super important, but there's also a little bit of luck involved in these things. And to pretend there isn't, is silly. And we've been incredibly lucky. I'd think that I'm very thankful for where I am, and the opportunities that I have, and the little moments that have been lucky along the way. And I'm also thankful for the moments I haven't been, to be honest. Because I've learned a lot. I don't know. Thankful, proud, little bits of regret along the way, but super excited about what we have now, and then what we can do with it going forward.
Kris: What's the biggest thing that you've learned on your journey?
Justin Dry: The biggest thing I've learned is, that all the good stuff is outside of your comfort zone probably. And I know that sounds like a motivational speaker, but it actually is true. All those things that were the scariest for me to do have probably been the most rewarding. Taking the risks, daring to dream that this stuff was possible, daring to put down on my vision board or on my goals that I wanted to achieve certain things, that have now become true. Daring to get in front of the camera, and do the first wine tasting that I felt extremely uncomfortable with, you know. I think probably, probably it continues today, like, there are those things that I go, "Oh God, that doesn't feel good. That doesn't. That feels a little bit scary. I'm a bit fearful about talking about this, or talking about that, or getting up on that stage, or," I think they're much rewarding. Probably the biggest lesson has been to, yeah, feel the fear and just do it anyway.