Proudly sponsored by: Victoria’s Small Business Festival
In this podcast episode of In The Company, we chat with Justin Dry, co-founder, online wine club Vinomofo. Justin, along with his brother-in-law Andre, originally started their business as Qwoff, an online wine community, where members rated and reviewed wines. They then produced a web series chronicling their wide road trip across Australia in a combi visiting some of the countries best winemakers. But after several years of trying to make it a viable business through community and content, Justin and Andre pivoted to become a wine deals site, adding commerce to their mix, and so Vinomofo was born.
Today we’re talking with Justin about the journey, and the role innovation has played in taking an idea, executing it, learning, pivoting and the importance of evolving in small business.
This episode is bought to you by Victoria’s Small Business Festival, happening across the state from in August and early September 2017. Check out festival.business.vic.gov.au to access over 500 free and affordable events to elevate, support and inspire you and your business.
Kylie: You’re listening to In The Company, a podcast about humanising work and designing better working lives. Each episode is curated to provoke you to think more deeply about things that matter in your career and life and how to build your toolkit for how to thrive as a human in business today. We explore how we work from the inside out. I’m Kylie Lewis, and it’s great to be in your company. Welcome.
Today, we’re in the company of Justin Dry, co-founder of the online wine club Vinomofo. In 2007, Justin along with his brother-in-law Andre originally started their business as Qwoff, an online wine community where members rated and reviewed wine. But after several years of trying to make it a viable business, Justin and Andre pivoted to become a wine deal site, and so Vinomofo was born in 2011. Today we’re talking with Justin about the journey and the role innovation has played in taking an idea, executing it, learning, pivoting, and the importance of evolving in small business. Welcome, Justin.
Justin: Thank you for having me.
Kylie: It’s a pleasure. We’re going to jump into the Vinomofo story in just a tick, but before we do that, I’d really like to know a little bit about little Justin and maybe what he liked doing as a young boy and if there was any kind of entrepreneurial happenings way back then.
Justin: Yes, there was. Funnily enough, I actually started my first business when I was ten. And it was pretty basic, but it was a lawn mowing and car washing business. I did a neighbourhood door knock, and I actually built up to a reasonable size. I actually employed someone when I was ten or eleven. That was my cousin. And he’ll be forever known as lazy Ben because he was not that interested in the work, he was more interested in the lollies in the shop and spending the money that we’re earning instead of doing the work. But, you know, we’re still close. I’ve forgiven him. But it was a good lesson in employing the right people early.
And then it continued. I had lots of businesses early, but I was more interested in starting things than being the hard sales guy. That’s not me. But creating businesses was always awesome. And the next kind of main one that I did was a Christmas tree business, which I was happy to hear much later that one of my heroes growing up was Richard Branson, and he did the same business, and I was like, oh, that’s cool. I just have got a few more billion dollars to go. But it’s quite inspiring to hear that he went through that same kind of journey. And that was when I was about fourteen, I think.
And I sat on a corner of a really business intersection, and I bought a whole bunch of Christmas trees from a Christmas tree farmer, got my dad to borrow a car and pay for the Christmas trees. We went and picked them up, sat on this corner, and I think it’s pretty common now to sell Christmas trees at petrol stations and stuff, but it wasn’t then. And I sold out in like half a day. I was expecting to be out in the sun all weekend. And I sold out in half a day and I was so overconfident I think that I called a Christmas tree place, and I said, how many trees do you have left. And they said, I don’t know, 40 or something. And I said, well, if you drop them down to me today, I’ll take them all. And he was like, okay, great. And he decided to do that.
And the trees they rocked out, my God, you never saw 40 poorer excuses of Christmas trees in your life. They had like two branches and three little bits of green, and I was like, oh my God, what have I done here? And I had already paid, so I was in trouble. But I sold about half of them, so I spent the next three days trying to sell these awful Christmas trees, and ended up putting all of my money back into it to buy the last 40 and I think I was left with about 15, and that was my profit. So I went home with my profit of 15 Christmas trees and no money. So it was another kind of lesson in stock management, I guess. Or at least have a look at what you’re going to sell before you commit to buying it.
And then, the story continues. I started other businesses when I was 23 and 28, and then got to go back into the wine industry in my, I think that would’ve been early 30s. And I studied wine at uni and my ancestors planted some of the first shiraz vines in the Barossa Valley. I had uncles that were in the space who encouraged me at Christmas events and family events and that type of stuff to try different wines. So I was always around wine. And I was always interested in business. So it was a foregone conclusion really that I was going to combine the two at some point. I was hoping not to have the first four years be so bloody tough, but after that we finally got the Vinomofo and it kind of worked, so I’m pretty happy with the overall result.
Kylie: Yeah. We’ll jump into that in just a sec. So did you grow up in a fairly entrepreneurial family then?
Justin: Yeah, I think my dad has owned businesses. Some were more successful than others. I witnessed the highs and lows of that stuff. So I guess I probably had experience around that and I guess seeing failure and then seeing success and seeing failure and success, I kind of got used to it. And I saw what an impact it could have on a family. And so it was some … I’m not sure if I was inspired or scared shitless to be honest.
Kylie: But it didn’t put you off?
Justin: No, I think it’s in my DNA. I think I didn’t have a choice. I can’t work for people. It’s just, I can’t, I’ve tried. And I could do it for a while, but then eventually I … I don’t know, I don’t like being told what to do to tell you the truth. I can do it for a little bit, but it doesn’t sit well with me.
Kylie: Okay. So one of the things I always ask all my guests at the beginning of the podcast is three things that they believe in. So what might be three of yours?
Justin: Three things that I believe in. I believe in family, number one. We’re very close family and I get a tremendous amount of joy out of my family and I think it’s incredibly important. And my family extends beyond my immediate family, obviously. It extends to my friends as well. So I think family’s really important. I really believe in that. I also believe in growth as a human and I think it’s really important that we keep growing and facing our fears and stepping outside the circle of being comfortable. I think, not all of them, but a lot of the great things that I feel like I’ve achieved in my life have been by facing that fear and going past it. And all the fun stuff, so on the other side of that too. It’s really interesting because public speaking or getting in front of a camera or taking a massive risk in business is all the things I now look back on and have built me and now bring me the most joy. So probably the growth.
So family, growth, and I think the third one would be … So everything comes down to people. You know, as founders, you start a business and it’s the two of you, and if it’s a success, the team starts growing. And you get to ten people. You still have an influence. And then you get to 50 people and your influence is not direct anymore. And you really start relying on the people within your team to live and breathe the culture and live and breathe the mission and vision and values of the organisation. And I think over the journey I’ve made huge mistakes around people and I’ve also done a lot of good things in the same space. I keep learning and getting better, but in the end, I think business is always about the people you have.
Kylie: So what might’ve been some of the biggest mistakes that you made in that field?
Justin: I think probably hiring the wrong people for certain roles. Going against my gut sometimes. We’ve got much better processes. Back in the day, we were like, oh, you’re a good coder. Okay, you’re hired. And that was about the extent of it. Whereas, we needed someone, they were there, they seemed like a decent person. I was like, okay, great, you’re hired. Whereas now, as we make more mistakes … And there’s not heaps of them, but we’ve made some mistakes along the way. And those mistakes were generally around people and I think sometimes we hired too quickly. It’s a really fine balance when you’ve got a fast growth company. You need to hire fast enough to not slow it down too much, but slow enough not to make stupid mistakes. And it’s a really fine line.
And I think what we’ve done to get better at that is improved our processes, we’ve got better people involved in that process, it’s much more thorough. But then on the same token, you also shouldn’t be going against your gut in that because you can get the process right, but sometimes when people have flown through those processes and seem like the absolute perfect person in every other way. And then I’ve had a meeting with them, which is always a step that Andre and I do to get to know the people before they come in. And sometimes I’ve had that gut feeling. And I’ve gone against it because everything else was a yes. And I’ve thought, no, no, it’s just may have been that I’m having an off day. But without fail, most of if not all the mistakes I’ve ever made was when I’ve gone against my gut.
Kylie: So looks good on paper, but doesn’t necessarily translate into real life.
Justin: Yeah. And I think you can … I’m a very empathetic person and I can feel people. And I think I can feel their energy. I think as I’ve become older and wiser and more experienced and I’ve been through more, I’ve learned to trust my gut more. And I think when you’re younger you’re like, oh, what is that weird feeling. That’s just, I don’t know. Whereas now, I’m like, oh, shit, I’m getting a vibe. I get this feeling. I can feel energies really quite easily with people. And so if I’ve got that coming off someone and it’s not the right energy for our business, we definitely go with that now.
Kylie: Yeah, and I love that part of acknowledging the older wiser vision of you that is self-aware enough to listen to that and to make it part of your business decision making process.
Justin: Yeah. It’s very recent. It takes a while to trust yourself in those ways. But now, I guess I’ve gone through enough to have complete faith in that with me.
Kylie: Now we did speak this time last year for another podcast, and one of the interesting things that came up actually after we stopped recording was about the culture that you’re talking about and how important that is to Vinomofo. And one of the things that you do in your business to get to know each other a little bit more and to have each other understand each other a bit more. Can you tell us what that is?
Justin: I think you’re talking about … Because that was a year ago or more. But I think that was, there’s this great kind of tool online that you can do, and it’s free as well. And it’s one of many tools that we use. But one of the tools, the one I was telling you about last year, is love languages. And you can just google it and find the website. But basically it’s a series of questions, and it gives you the answer as to what your top love languages are. So whether or not it’s gifts, or whether or not it’s quality time, or whether it’s touch.
There’s five or six I think and we get everyone to go through that, and so what that gives us is what makes them feel amazing. So when you’re in a meeting or a team and you’re building out that team and you know what each of the other team members has as a love language, you can use that for the benefit of everyone.
So if someone likes praise, then it’s a nice way to make them feel welcome and comfortable and open to give them praise around what they’re doing or what they’re saying. And similarly, gifts, you know. Or acts of service. If you drop a little gift on their table and you know it’s going to mean something to them, I’d rather not do that for a team. And for one person, a gift means everything and it’s a ten out of ten kind of really powerful moment to them. And to other people, gifts are nothing, you know? They’d rather the praise, they’d rather an act of service, for you to take something off their plate.
So it’s knowing those things for each individual is really really powerful. So I remember talking to you about that, yeah. It’s great in relationships too. So if you know what your partner’s love language is, it’s really powerful. So if gifts mean nothing to them, you can stop spending the bloody money. And if acts of service mean everything, you’d better start doing the dishes.
Kylie: Now so there’s an innovation win straight off the bat for me when you talk about acknowledging that people have different ways that they like to be shown appreciation. And loved. And actually talking about love in the workplace. And I can see that one of your beliefs is family, and you see your friends as family. And you’re in business with family. And so that real emotional, strong emotional connection is super important. And the fact that you use actually a tool to identify that love language, I think that’s a massive innovation win that a lot more business places could definitely benefit from.
Justin: Yeah. I agree. And thank you. Yeah, it’s been really powerful. And it’s been powerful in our personal lives as well as business lives.
Kylie: Yeah, that’s fantastic. So I know people can go online and actually look up the five love languages, I think. And they do actually have a workplace application for it as well. So it’s not completely out there. So should we jump into the Vinomofo story? I mentioned in the intro where it started as one idea, but you’ve pivoted quite dramatically over the, what, ten years now that you’ve been working with Andre?
Justin: Yes, I think it’s about eleven years now. So we started in 2006. I came back from South America. I’d been backpacking for South America. I’d sold off some stuff and ended a long-term relationship, or had a long-term relationship ended on me, I should say. For a little accuracy. And I was like, oh, I just want to get out of here and experience the world. And so I sold off and landed in Chile in South America and spend the next six to eight months backpacking around South America and Central America and off to Mexico.
And so while I was over there, it was lots of long trips on buses where I got plenty of time to think and listen to music and try and kind of plan out my next move. Because I was ready for something new. And I had the last role I had been in, or the last business I was in wasn’t in the wine industry. And being in South America and Chile and Argentina. There’s great Cabernets coming out of Chile and Malbecs coming out of Argentina and the food is amazing. And so I was just starting, I was like, oh, God, I really miss wine. I really miss being a part of it.
And at the same time, I was also meeting so many other travellers, and a couple of them were American and they were on this thing called Facebook which back then hadn’t really hit Australia. And it was still invite only. And they invited me to be a part of it to keep in touch as we were travelling. And so I was like, I reckon this might be pretty big. And I guess it has been. But it was pretty obvious that the attraction and the growth was just insane. It was such a good service and something a little bit different.
So I was playing around with Facebook and then I was like, I miss wine. So I think over my many hours on buses and travelling, I kind of came, the idea I wanted to build a Facebook for wine. So that was my idea. I came back to Australia. I was at Christmas with my family and Andre, my co-founder and brother-in-law, was at the Christmas. It was actually at his house. And we were drinking wine and we were telling each other what we were going to be doing. Because he’s entrepreneurial as well and he was starting something new on the side. And we quickly realised that we were pretty much creating something similar. He was creating a site in the wine space for customer reviews. He’d started to work in the wine space doing videos and production.
So here we were, brothers-in-law, two wine spots about to compete with each other pretty much. And so after a few bottles of wine, we decided that it’d be a good idea to go into business together despite the fact that we didn’t really like each other. You know, he’s married to my sister, he has a big personality. I’m a protective brother. But that family dynamic. So, I don’t know why. It was the booze I think that kind of got us across the line.
So for the last part of that night we spent it in his garage trying to come up with a name of what our combined business would be. And that ended up being Qwoff. And Qwoff, which was misspelt because, one, we couldn’t get the normal spelling as a URL and two because we thought it looked cooler with the Qwoff. And so the number of times I had to repeat myself at how you would spell it to people I was chatting to on the phone. Q-w, w for Wendy, o, double f. Because it’s not how you should spell it. But we kind of thought it was cool. Didn’t realise that the other impacts it would have in the business. And yeah, Qwoff was born.
And I think we launched it a few months later, which would’ve been 2007 by then, 2006, 2007. And that was like the Facebook for wine with customer reviews. It was about building a community. It was about being a place that we wanted to be a part of. It was based on who we were and our idea around wine, which was no bow ties and BS which was traditionally associated, or was then more so than it is now. I think we’ve made some great moves. But without that kind of intimidation factor. That kind of old school, protective, crappy thing that the industry was known for for so long. So that was our philosophy. It was something that we loved. And get rid of all the bow ties and BS and see how it could go.
The first one wasn’t very good. It didn’t really work. I think we … Actually, we were building an audience of love wine lovers that really did feel quite aligned with what we were trying to achieve and our philosophy around wine. But the business model wasn’t very good and the wineries we were trying to get to sponsor their pages and advertise and that kind of thing. It was so early in social that they just didn’t have their heads around it. And to be honest, it was a bad business model. But a really nice site and a nice community. But we had taken something like Facebook and then niched the hell out of it to the wine space. So it was always going to be hard because you need big numbers for advertising as far as traffic and stuff. So one just bad business decision, business model I should say. But in the end built a great audience for us.
And then, about a year in, and we’d earned a grand total of about $30,000 I think. That was before expenses and including wages. So I think we probably didn’t take home any money that year. Which was kind of tough, especially since he’s married to my sister, so when I’m broke and the business is broke, my sister is broke so the whole family is pretty much done. And Christmases are pretty much average from there on in, I think.
So that was the first year. And the second year I came back from Christmas. I had this big plan, great new idea. And that was, whenever I go away on a holiday and I have time on a beach … I love the ocean, I love islands. And I just chill out. My mind goes mad with working out the next kind of phase and vision and big picture stuff. And I came back and I was like, Andre, I’ve got this great idea. And he was like, yeah, what is it? And I was like, I want to buy a combi and travel around Australia to visit in all the wine regions and surfing. And he was like, it sounds fun, but how the hell are we going to make money out of that? And I was like, I don’t know yet.
And because his background was in video production, he said, why don’t we just film it and we can sell sponsorship? And I was like, sounds like a great idea. Let’s do that. And so a show called Road to Vino was born. Road to Vino was us buying a convey, taking a camera, sound guy with us, and travelling around Australia. Visiting all the wine regions. Meeting all the wine makers and that kind of stuff. So we went and bought a convey, it was the only one we could afford, that was in the Barosso Valley which was a cool kind of story because it’s a famous wine region.
And it was through a friend of a friend. And it hadn’t been driven for a while. And it was sitting in knee-high grass in an old lemon orchard. And it should’ve been a sign that we kind of picked up on, like lemon orchard. Like lemon car. Like lemon orchard, lemon car. We probably should’ve got it. But we didn’t. And so we said, yeah, we’ll take it. Despite the fact, and we have a video which was cool of us checking it out. And Andre was filming me as I opened the side door. You know, conveys, their really long, big sliding door. And I opened it and it fell off. Like the whole door fell off the car. And I was like, we just we just [inaudible 00:21:20], and for some reason still thought it was a great business deal to buy this combi for like four or five hundred bucks or something like that.
Kylie: Who needs a door? Who needs a sliding door?
Justin: Yeah, who needs a door? Exactly. We will fix it. The whole idea was that we would fix it up and take it on this journey. And so we towed it back to Andre’s place, which my sister was really pleased with having an old convey in the front yard, and went to fix it up. And then I think it was four or five months later when we’d rubbed back all the rust, we were like if we wait until we fix this thing, we’re not going to be going until 2020. And so we decided to buy another convey, sight unseen online for a bit more money, but it actually said it moved. So we were like, okay, cool.
Eventually, we’re on our way in a working convey and we went to Hunter Valley first. And that show was so much fun and it was basically just going right, who are all the cool people in the wine industry that we want to get to know? Who are the legends that, the super-famous families? Let’s get them on the show, because we could ask and see if they want to be a part of it. And everyone said yes, so all of a sudden we were visiting all of the rock stars and all of the legends of the industry and building this incredible network of our favourite people. And to be a part of this show. And we filmed four episodes in the Hunter.
We sat down with Chris Terrill from Terrill’s, and Andrew Thomas from Thomas Wines. And these people are legends. Are legendary businesses. Or are now, were up and coming rock stars, and are now super rock stars. So it was such an amazing way to build that network. And you know, we were sleeping on their couches occasionally. We were having long lunches. We were drinking lots of wine and doing crazy stuff with these people. Which means we were building this incredible network of amazing people in the wine space who were all becoming close friends of ours.
And so, when we released the first episode, Wine Australia saw it and called us and said, look, we want to be part of this. We want to sponsor you because no one is speaking about wine in this way. And this is the way that the wine space needs to go. And no one does it digitally like you guys do, because we’re big into social and digital very early. And so they sponsored us. And so all of a sudden we’re away and we started getting enough money to keep doing the show. It wasn’t, we weren’t going to be able to retire on it, but it was enough to keep funding it and live, you know, frugally. But survive. And so that was the next year.
And we also had Qwoff still running in the background. And we were leveraging both audiences to build a greater audience, while building this amazing network of wine people. So you can see a pattern starting to emerge. And then the next year … Because road film, it was great, but I was starting to get interested in mobile checking apps and working out how we could bring that into our space as well. And back in the day when Go Wallet and FourSquare had launched. So it’s like a mobile checking out, like Facebook does now, but they’re the original ones. And I was like, oh this is really cool.
And so on our way to pitch to SA Tourism, I had to pick up Andre on the way, and I was like Andre, there’s these checking apps, this Go Wallet and FourSquare. I reckon we could do something with this in the wine space. And then we sat down and worked out what would be interesting. And we came up with this idea that if we could get this mobile app, then users could go in and check in at wineries and in wine regions and set up trips. And based on varietal tastings or regions or whatever style, then that would be kind of cool. And then when they checked in at a winery, one you’d go through their social channels, which means it will be great branding for the winery. And two, they’d get a special offer from the winery as in like a special vintage tasting or access to wines that aren’t seen normally at cellar door. Just something kind of cool for the user.
And so we got really excited about this. So half an hour later, when we’re all heading on our way to SA Tourism to pitch for Road to Vino, we decided that we’d change the pitch to The Great South Australian Wine Adventure, which was our new check-in app. So we get into a room, and first we start chatting about it. And they’re like, weren’t you pitching us for Road to Vino? And we’re like, yeah, yeah, but this is really exciting. This is our new project.
And they loved the idea. And then doubled their investment and said, yep, we’re all behind this. Make this The Great South Australian Wine Adventure. And we’re like, okay, cool. And they said, how long until you’re done building it? It was just an idea that we’d created that morning, and we pitched it as if we were like almost all the way through. And they gave us a big check, and we then hired a developer to start building it. And that was the next pivot.
Every business was getting better, but it was like we’re super poor, then we’re poor, then we’re still a bit poor but surviving. And that was the three years. And then the other thing that we did is that every business that we’re starting, we’re getting more revenue, but we’re also hiring more people. So Andre and I still had no money. And so my sister still had no money. Which was pretty tough conversations. Then, eventually, the next year was the year that I kind of came up with Vinomofo. And that was because at that stage, the group buying thing, which was how we kind of started. It was a group buying site, for one, but in the premium to super premium end.
So the fastest-growing company at that stage was a company called Groupon. So it was the fastest-growing in history. So I was keeping in touch with what was happening in the tech world, which I was interested in. Tech and business world. And then we’re also meeting these amazing people in the wine industry and then this amazing audience of young wine lovers. So you’ve got an audience, network, business model. And so I was like, cool. I was getting all excited that we might just come to this point where this might work.
So I pitched it to Andre and he was like no f-ing way. And I was like, what do you mean? It’s like, we’ve got, and we’d started another business as well. A digital agency because we kept getting asked to do work because we were doing all these innovative things in that space. And we said yes because we just wanted to get more money into the business. So we had that. So he said, no f-ing way because we have like four businesses on the go. And he was like, we just don’t have time. Are you serious? And I was like, yeah, but this one will actually work. Like properly work, I think. And he was like, oh, God. Then I had to kind of convince him that we weren’t going to be like those typical deal sites which kind of are the bargain-hunting type, because that wasn’t the wine that we liked. That wasn’t our audience. ‘
And so we worked out a way to stay in the premium to super premium end of the wine space. And we launched it on Vinomofo. And that was in 2011. And it just kind of took off. And that’s, that’s all the pre-days for Vino, and Vino’s been a crazy ride. And it’s now, we’re in three countries. We’ve got like 130 staff. It’s a big team, yeah, and a big business. And pretty exciting.
Kylie: This episode of In The Company is brought to you by the 2017 Small Business Festival, which is run by the Victorian government in Australia and is designed to help start-ups and small to medium businesses grow from strength to strength. Check out the festival website to find free and affordable events all across Melbourne and regional Victoria through the months of August and early September. There’s over 500 events, including workshops, webinars, mentoring, and podcasts just like this one. Visit festival.business.vic.gov.au to learn, grow, and connect.
So that whole idea of leading with content first and building that audience first to make sure that you’ve got a viable business to then launch to, that’s a pretty interesting model.
Justin: Yeah. I think it’s a great model if you speed it up a little bit. As opposed to four years of like working out how to do that. Because I think it’s super important and you can see it in the way that we’re launching it in other countries. We go in through grassroots, ground up, community build, and go from there. And that’s what we did in Australia. And that’s what we’re doing in New Zealand and Singapore, and any future, all the future markets will be, Justin, get over there, meet the people you need to meet, build the network, get to know our early adopters, love them to death, and referral will then come. So that’s kind of what we did in Australia. And that’s what we’re doing in the other markets.
Australia just took us a little bit longer than I’d probably hope. Because four years of having no money is not cool. But the overseas markets are already working out. It’s amazing to see and it’s really exciting. And we just had an event in Singapore where we had 200 of our mofos along as the 200 of the early adopters, the most engaged 200. And it was just so cool to kind of get to know them all and see who our audience were in this new market.
And exactly what we would hope, and kind of expected. But definitely hoped that it would be. That young, cool, open to learning more, and super passionate about the brand. And it’s just perfect. It suits perfectly. You know, you probably still have got those outliers in terms of age, but it’s not about that. It’s more about an attitude. And so our brand is all about an attitude to wine and life and food and all those things. And so it’s really cool to see them come together around an attitude and see what that community looks like. And they’re a great bunch of people.
Kylie: Yeah. And you can get a sense of the brand values and the kind of community that you’re building from the brand name itself.
Justin: Yeah. Yeah aboslutely, If you don’t like what our names, I’m not really allowed to swear in this podcast, am I?
Kylie: I think we’ve got an adult audience. I think we could probably go there.
Justin: Okay. So just so for anyone who doesn’t know, they know mofo stands for one mother. I always feel weird saying it. So if you know that, which most people do. And there’s a whole story behind that. It wasn’t originally called that. There was trademark issues. It was a bit of a joke and fun and probably not enough time to go into that one. But it was a good decision in the end. But anyway, if you’re offended by that, you’re really not our people anyway, so it kind of works for us in that way. So if you’re going to get a bit funny, then you’re probably one of the people that we don’t want to be part of our community. You’re kind of the bow ties and BS and the kind of toffee stuff. So it’s kind of self-fulfilling, I guess.
Kylie: Yeah. Now innovation has just been one of those buzzwords that’s popped up in the industry in the start-up space in particular. And what big businesses are also trying now to foster in their own kind of thinking so that they can keep agile. But I can see from your story you’ve kept innovating over and over and over again until you find something that works and then run with it. Do you guys see yourselves as innovators? Or do you talk about innovation within the business as a buzz word? Or where does innovation sit I guess in your brand, in culture?
Justin: Yeah. I think it’s, one we don’t call it innovation. It’s more of an attitude of how we do business and being … In the early days about being a disruptor and about disrupting what was currently existing. You know, the only thing that really keeps me up at night these days is becoming big and slow and being the disruptor that was disrupted. So it’s a constant thing and a constant push for us as a business. And we really do focus a lot on reducing and trying to remove the fear that people have around constantly changing and growing. As you bring people into your team to help you on that journey, you really need to instil it as part of the culture and necessity. And in order to remove the fear that people have.
Because this is not normal to take these risks. This is not a normal thing to keep looking at how you disrupt yourselves and how you disrupt an industry. Because the standard ways of doing things and thinking. And if you’re going to do that, you’re going to go into one of the big and slow ones. So you need to keep your attitude even as you grow. And it needs to be such a big part of the culture so everyone’s in on it. Because if you don’t, it’s a very quick and easy way to slowly die. And I think …
Kylie: So how do you address people’s fear? How do you do that? How do you attack that directly?
Justin: You have to show it’s okay to kind of fail. And I know failure’s one of those buzz words around today as well, as well as innovation. There’s a whole bunch of words that people use. But in reality, failure’s pretty normal and a big part of business. And as you see, we failed our way through those four years and plenty of other things to get to Vinomofo in the end, which was a success. And when you have Vinomofo, there’s been so many things we’ve failed at along the way. But as long as you’re looking at it as a lesson that you’re learning along the journey to get better. If you repeat the same mistake, then we’re going to have to chat. But if you’re making mistakes, then that’s absolutely fine.
And we need to build that as known within our culture that Justin and Andre make a heap of mistakes. Look at how they handle those. And so the hardest thing as a leader if you’re not used to this, because you care so much about your business, is to witness mistakes being made and reacting in the right way to build and instil that culture that you need to be the disruptor. To innovate. So it’s been an interesting journey because some of the mistakes that we would’ve already made and so we would never make again are repeated by new people that are coming to the business.
And so I think it’s all about them being sane and having an understanding that that is completely okay. Learn from it. Let’s move on. And not be fearful and not see the repercussions that would stop people from taking risks in the future. So it’s really about going, you know what, that’s fucking awesome. You’re going to learn a lot from this. Let’s move on. And if you’ve truly got that attitude, which you need to build into your business. If you truly do have that attitude, you can build a culture of innovation.
Kylie: So one of the studies that came out a couple of years ago out of the Google HR people division was a study about what creates successful teams at Google. And I think they studied 180 teams over two years. And what they found was that the number one factor for a high performing team at Google was psychological safety, that they could show up and they could take a risk and that they could admit that they didn’t know something and not feel embarrassed. And they normalised that risk-taking behaviour by, at the beginning of each of their team meetings, asking each team member what risk did they take this week. It was an expected norm. Do you have something similar like that? Or do you talk about risk overtly?
Justin: Yeah, we do. We don’t kind of necessarily go what is the risk that you’re taking this week? But that’s a great idea. I hadn’t seen that study and I think that’s really kind of cool. Because I think psychological safety is absolutely the number one thing to an innovative, disrupting kind of team, absolutely.
We kind of bring it up when we sense … We have very open and honest conversations. We have a full-time person in here who’s amazing, and that’s Nadia, who is here as kind of a coach slash intuitive coach. Kind of a way to connect people. So it started with Andre and I getting rid of walls and barriers and having really honest open connection and conversations. And then we extended it out to all the team leads. And it’s been transformational as far as people recognising the patterns and the walls that they have around it and the fear and the reasons that they react in certain ways. Then remove that, and have really respectful, open conversation. So that’s how we handle all of our meetings now.
It’s all about being empathetic and open and human and real and understanding that no one’s perfect and sensing when people are not aligned and asking the question as to why they’re feeling that way and how do we fix that.
And it’s been an amazing journey to see the impact that that’s had not only on the business, but people’s personal lives and relationships. So I think it’s the way that we have our conversations and it’s the way that we think about getting the most out of and for each team member. And that’s so much better than just at work.
Kylie: So it sounds to me like you see innovation as something that starts as a personal examination first and foremost.
Justin: I think, yeah, I think so. I think it comes from releasing a lot of the fears around that, around innovation and around taking risks. And I think you have to kind of start with the individual. And I think you need to create a culture around that that allows those conversations to be had and those people to be supported to work through those things. So yeah, I think that …
Kylie: Yeah. So do you have processes or routines or disciplines or rituals in place for exploring what might be called innovation, but I guess developments in a business or risks in taking you …
Justin: No. It’s all just expected that this is how we run and think all the time. It’s part of everything we do. It’s not like, let’s have our innovation time. It’s like, it needs to be part of every thought process, conversation. Because to stay ahead and be the disruptor and to do interesting things, it needs to be just part of your DNA within the business and the culture. It can’t be, oh, we’re going to allocate this time to be innovative. Because that’s the way big businesses do it, and sometimes do it really badly. And that’s why they eventually just outsource it, which is another whole week conversation. But I mean I understand, it’s hard when you’ve got this big, slow thing and you need to kind of change it and cut it up and do … It’s a big move.
But as long as it’s, for us, it’s always been part of our culture and part of our DNA as a business. So it’s obviously easier for us to maintain that. But you see the challenges as the team grows. But it’s just about regular communication, being a part of it, seeing the leaders be open and vulnerable and all of those things, and making it okay for everyone else to do it.
Kylie: So innovation’s not a department. It’s not somebody’s sole responsibility. It’s not, okay, let’s sit in a room and let’s go through an innovation process right now.
Justin: Yeah, exactly.
Kylie: So what happens when somebody comes up with a new idea. How does it go from being an idea to being investigated or executed?
Justin: So there’s an interesting chat that we had with another founder a while back, and the way he looked at it was very similar to the way we look at it. It’s two kind of decisions. One, is it reversible, and if it doesn’t work you’re dead. And the other one is reversible. If it doesn’t work, you can come back from it. If it’s one of those later ones, we’re okay if everyone has a crack at that. If it’s an irreversible or we did, then we need to have a big conversation.
Once we’ve worked those two things out, and it’s one that we can come back from, then we come up with the idea of what it looks like and we build a team around it, and then it’s just go. You know, it’s a very simple process. We want to have a look at doing our own delivery or whatever that part is, it’s like alright, let’s analyse what the idea is, how we perfectly want to see it, and then let’s go. And we set timeframes and deadlines and expectations around those. Agree as a group. And then they report on them. We follow the journey.
Kylie: Yeah. So I’m just wondering where innovation maybe in the business has failed.
Justin: Probably when we’ve gone away from the core kind of guiding principles to our business and culture, I think that’s when the failures have come in. When we’ve kind of done things or innovated for the wrong reasons and there hasn’t been buy-in and there hasn’t been an alignment as a business, as a team, as founders. I think it’s probably where the innovation has failed.
Because we about, four, five years ago, we had a big investor come in and take 70% of our company which was another big business called Catch of the Day. Which we then a year later bought back. So it was a great journey. Lots of stories, but not enough time to tell. Love them, but it was an interesting journey. And through that part of the journey when we were a part of this bigger group, we’re coming into a whole bunch of different cultures and a whole bunch of business philosophies and ways to do things. And I think during that period we did some silly things around thinking that we needed to evolve in a certain way which wasn’t aligned with what we kind of believed and what we normally would think and do. I think that part of innovation probably failed us. That was just bad decisions. It was just bad decisions.
Kylie: Yeah. Or lessons, like some people don’t have the viewpoint that they necessarily failed. They’re just lessons.
Justin: No, and I agree completely. And you have to separate the failure from the person. It’s gotta be that idea that did not work. It’s part of a process of ideas as opposed to a human and connection to that. And if you can let go of that, you have a much happier life.
Kylie: Yeah. How do you keep taking risks, because I think one things is when you’re starting out in business and you’re kind of fresh with enthusiasm and ideas, and you can jump in a convey and go around Australia and, you know, it seemed like a good idea. The more you grow your business and the more you do have invested in it, the more there is I guess to lose. Or there’s more that’s at stake. And also just the older we get, I think the more risk-averse we get. How do you keep fresh. How do you keep your edge, I guess, as far as innovation goes?
Justin: For me personally, it comes down to constantly going over the journey and how we’ve got here and understanding the lessons I’ve learned and all the best bits coming from the other side of that fear, the other side of that risk. And knowing that every time you do those things, you expand as a human. And same in a business, you get bigger and better and more kind of comfortable with those things as you go. It’s an interesting thing. When you’ve got nothing, you risk everything very easily. When you’ve got something, like this business and 130 people, you don’t put it all on black or red anymore. I would’ve put it on black or red when we started. Now, it does look different because you’re not risking the whole shebang.
But that’s why I talked about before around, is this a decision, is this door if I walk through and it closes behind me, are we dead if it doesn’t work? So you kind of start thinking in that way a bit. So yeah, it does change when you’ve got more. But it’s about building a culture that still does look for all the challenges and the disruption while not ever betting the house on one of those two colours.
Kylie: Absolutely. What would be some examples of where you had very few resources and that you really had to dig into going how do we make this happen with the least amount of resources that we have available?
Justin: Examples of that over the journey. We literally were broke for the first four years, so that was just everything. That wasn’t like a time. That was the whole journey where we had to be very innovative as to how we would afford the groceries next week, let alone actually earn a decent income. So I think it’s been just part of what we’ve done the whole time. When you get to a point now … It’s funny though, because we’ve wanted to maintain and carry that through, even when you don’t need to.
And so we’ve been at Mofo, so for example, we’re launching into new markets. There’s two ways companies generally do it. They go in, blast a whole bunch of cash, and try to buy their way into market share. Or there’s the other way where you go in, built from the grassroots community up, and as a business we could do either of them. But as a business with our culture and belief system, we did the grassroots community up, very little spend. We want to know what’s working, be agile, move quickly, change, iterate, and build. And that’s what we’ve been doing. That’s what we’ve done in Singapore. That’s what we’ll continue to do in every overseas market that we go into it.
Kylie: And it’s in your DNA. That’s how the business was built and that’s how it’s grown up.
Justin: Yeah. And sometimes you go a slightly different way over the journey and we’ve made mistakes and you go, oh, God, that wasn’t us. What are we doing? We’re going away from our core. You lose touch with what you’ve got decision-wise and the reasoning for it and belief system. And then you go, that was a silly one, and I know why I did it. And that’s really important. And I won’t do that again. But to pretend that we’ve had a perfect run since being Vinomofo is just absolute rubbish too.
Kylie: You’ve mentioned a couple of times the word empathy through our interview, and the role that that plays internally within the business. What role does empathy play with your customers as well in terms of determining where to go next?
Justin: Empathy is about being able to feel and read people and I think it’s, on the customer side, this is what I’m in new markets doing. I’m wanting to understand and know and I think there’s so much that you can sense and feel outside of what someone would say to you or write to you. And so I think actually being around them and feeling them is really powerful.
Some people don’t want to tell you things if they don’t want to to be a bit upsetting or a bit confrontational. But most of the time you can feel if you’re open to that type of thing. And there’s some really interesting ways that that can come out. But I had a guy in Singapore. He was an older local Singaporean guy. And he was awesome. He loved his wine. But when he came to say hello, because I encouraged everyone when I did my speech to I want to meet every single one of you. Please come and meet me. Please come and say hello. And so a lot of people did.
And I was saying to him, but he was really nice but he was really guarded. And kind of protective. So I knew there was more. And I said I know that you want to tell me stuff. I know that you’ve got things to say. And I ended up just saying it to him. I just said, look, I feel like there’s something that you don’t want to tell me, but please know that I can handle whatever you want to say. And I was touching him on the arm and I made him feel very comfortable. And at the end of it, he’s like, blah. And he told me a million things that are amazing to know as a business and the challenging points that he’s had when dealing with us whatever they were. And what he loves and what he doesn’t like about what we’re doing so far. And it was really really amazing.
We ended up at the end just hugging each other, and he went off with a big smile on his face. And so I think being able to read people in that sense is really really powerful and you get to the truth really quickly if you can make people feel comfortable. And most people want to, but most people aren’t used to being that open and comfortable with that stuff. But when someone opens it up and allows that vulnerability and all that stuff to be open, the other person generally flies right on through.
Kylie: Yeah, so one of the processes in innovation is doing in the field interviews and empathy maps and that’s a prime example of exactly doing that and bringing your love languages to play. By the end of it, having a bit of a hug with the …
Justin: Yeah, I’m not sure if his was physical touch, but it’s just a connecting thing, isn’t it?
Kylie: Absolutely, that’s why we’re here. I truly believe that the reason why we’re here is to connect. And when you can hold space to find a way into connecting with somebody in a really genuine, patient, authentic way, the gifts are there for both of you in terms of your business, any chance of the relationship and the connection, and what that person’s obviously feeling in return.
Justin, I’m mindful of the time, and we’re coming towards the end of our conversation. What three things would you like people to think about in terms of innovation from your perspective as a takeaway from our chat today?
Justin: Fear is normal. Two, to just get it done. Just feel it. But just get it done. Like, it’s okay. Just get it done. You’re going to be okay. And then I think probably most importantly which is something I’ve learned more in the last few years particularly and it’s become stronger and stronger is everything is people. Everything is people. So I think it’s your customers, it’s your team. Everything is human and people. And I think the more you understand that, the quicker you understand it, the less mistakes you’ll make and the greater you can go. So, yes, everything is people. That’s my third.
Kylie: We’ve got our ten by ten questions to finish off today. You ready to go?
Justin: Yes, hit me.
Kylie: Ten questions, ten seconds. I’m going to hit you up, starting with number one. What I like about myself is …
Justin: My big picture mind. And my ability to connect with people.
Kylie: I beat procrastination by …
Justin: Setting deadlines.
Kylie: A song on my life soundtrack is …
Justin: See the World by Gomez is one I travelled around South America with that means a lot to me.
Kylie: The world needs more …
Justin: Love and connection.
Kylie: A phrase I live by is …
Justin: Done is better than perfect.
Kylie: I love that one. Is there another one?
Justin: Yeah, there’s one around growth is on the other side of fear. That type of thing.
Kylie: Something everyone must do is …
Justin: Treat yourselves well. Treat yourselves well because we’re all so mean to ourselves in our heads. So I think treat yourself well.
Kylie: A book that changed me is …
Justin: Think and Grow Rich. I read it when I was about fourteen. It’s so outdated now, but wow, it was really powerful at the time.
Kylie: Fear and I …
Justin: Are good friends. But I get over my friend pretty quickly.
Kylie: Something that always makes me feel good is …
Justin: The ocean. I love the ocean. I love surfing, I love boating, I love just swimming in the ocean.
Kylie: And lastly, number ten. My legacy will be …
Justin: My legacy will be a global wine business that does good for the world and a network of family and friends that know I love them.
Kylie: Justin, it’s been a delight to speak with you today, as I thought it would be. For people who are interested in finding out more about Vinomofo, where can they go?
Justin: Vinomofo.com, obviously, to check out the site. And on Instagram, I’m Justin Dry. We have a Vinomofo one, which is just Vinomofo. On Twitter, it’s JustinLDry. And obviously Vinomofo as well. And yeah, Facebook too. We’ve got a role. Just come and say hello. We’re always here.
Kylie: Fantastic. Thanks so much, Justin. Now my love language is acts of service, so I greatly appreciate this time that you’ve spent with me today.
Justin: Awesome. Pleasure. Thank you for having me.