Startup Grind APAC 2018: Justin Dry talks wine, authenticity and handling growth
If you need to cultivate authenticity, then is your startup truly authentic in the first place? The co-founder of one of Australia’s hottest wine-based startups shares his experience ahead of his scheduled appearance at Startup Grind APAC Conference in December.
Being “authentic”, has become something of a buzzword in startup circles.
Putting it another way, “being true to your why” is all the rage. It drives startups to want to appear authentic rather than actually being authentic.
Think exposed wood, trailing indoor plants and beards.
“Everyone feels they need to have authenticity, to feel it, talk about it and portray it. It seems to be a word of the moment,” Vinomofo co-founder Justin Dry told The Pulse.
“But if you need to talk about how authentic you are, you’re not being authentic.”
Despite Vinomofo growing from two to over 120 employees, extending into three markets, raising $60 million in revenue and reaching 600,000 members, this wine brand is often held up as an authentic brand.
Not that co-founder Justin Dry knows what that means exactly.
“It wasn’t something we’ve ever really talked about, to be honest,” he told The Pulse. “It’s just sort of happened as we’ve gone along.”
Before Vinomofo launched in 2011, its founders dabbled in various wine-related businesses. Even back then Dry and co-founder (and brother-in-law) Andre Eikmeier knew exactly what they wanted to be.
Namely, something unpretentious.
The seed stage of authenticity
“I grew up near the Barossa with a few uncles in the industry who were slipping me wine well before I should have been drinking – so by the time I was 24 or 25 I knew a fair bit about wine,” said Dry.
He said he found himself intimidated when going to independent wine stores from proprietors talking down to him about something he loved with a passion – and if he was being intimidated, he thought there was very little chance of new people falling in love with wine.
“They got off on their sense of self-importance because they knew more about wine than you did – and they used that to validate their self-worth,” said Dry.
“It was bulls**t.”
So, Dry and Eikmeier investigated a different, more accessible way to talk about wine.
“Somebody needs to get rid of the bowties and BS about wine. Talk about wine with real language, but still with passion, love and respect,” said Dry.
“Don’t be a wanker about it.”
So, how do you zoom in on your core proposition as more staff come on board and operations become de-centralised?
Maintain the rage when you talk shop
“When you’re two guys in a garage, you are the culture,” said Dry.
The challenge is when those two become 120.
When you scale up to 10 people, they can fit in the same room – so making sure everybody’s on the same page while fulfilling the company’s mission is easy enough.
When you scale to 20 or 30 people, you miss a few conversations. Reach fifty, and there could be multiple offices.
“Then you hit 100,” said Dry “and there’s no bloody chance.”
He said preserving the company’s original mission, the brand’s authentic heartbeat, has been difficult with more people.
“I’d like to say that we nailed it all the time, but we didn’t, because we’d never taken a company from two people to 120 before,” said Dry.
Still, Vinomofo’s starting point of wine without the wank has remained intact. Dry said this wasn’t a mere act of fate.
Hire for culture
As a startup grows, it becomes harder to control the company’s purpose – you’re hiring more, and at a cracking pace.
“You’ve got to hire fast enough to not hamper growth, but slow enough to make sure you don’t f**k it up,” said Dry.
“We definitely did have a period there where it was just ‘you want to work for us? Good, you’re hired’.”
“That wasn’t the greatest way to hire people, but that was early. We’ve gotten a lot better and it’s because the right people are everything.”
Once you have people aligned to your company’s core proposition, that proposition becomes the daily mantra.
“Communication is very, very, very important,” said Dry.
“It’s about talking about core values, the company mission, and the way you do things and the why behind it. To be able to communicate that across teams, across locations is a challenge – and you’ve just got to go all-in on it.
“Put it up on the wall, have it be part of all communications, have it be part of the decision-making process. You really can’t over-communicate.”
That oh-so illusive authenticity isn’t just an image, it’s remaining true to your core proposition – and the key to that in a fast-growth company is to talk about it. A lot.
“As a founder who’s buried in something, you can forget that everyone doesn’t live and breathe the same things that you do,” said Dry.
“I think a team pulling in the same direction, with the same mission – I think that’s how get to an authentic place.”
Justin Dry will be speaking at Startup Grind APAC Conference, presented by MYOB on Dec 6 – 7 in Melbourne. Get your tickets here