Evolution of a Milwaukee Startup: Bright Cellars
Richard Yau and Joe Laurendi of Bright Cellars

Evolution of a Milwaukee Startup: Bright Cellars

How two beer drinkers built their idea for a wine business into a 19,000-subscriber reality.

“We’re a data-driven wine company for a new generation of wine drinkers,” says Bright Cellars co-founder Richard Yau. Yau and Joe Laurendi view customer data as essential to company growth. They also love Milwaukee. “From a talent and culture perspective, this is a very good place to grow a business,” says Yau, pointing to the city’s low cost of living, enthusiastic and supportive community, and affordable real estate. Here’s how they went from inspiration to execution, in seven not-so-easy steps.

Step 1: Identify a problem.

Working at Boston start-ups, MIT grads Yau and Laurendi noticed their 20-something peers were distrustful of wine experts. “Wine connoisseurs have historically been snobby,” says Yau. “Millennials want to learn about the product they’re consuming.”

Step 2: Research the subject.

An entrepreneur has to know the product well in order to sell it. “We were very comfortable with beer but didn’t know a lot about wine,” says Yau, who took two semester-long wine classes at Boston University, featuring tastings, lectures and assigned readings about wine regions and grape varietals.

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Founded: 2014
What it does: Monthly wine-subscription company targeting millennials
Employees: 39
Number of subscribers: 19,000[/alert]

Step 3: Develop a solution.

Pricing out a startup’s operating costs is key. Bright Cellars calculated fulfillment costs before developing a pricing plan that’s a sweet spot for customers: $68 for four bottles of wine, shipped. “A lot of our competitors are price-driven,” says Lau. “We’re not. (The wines selected) are pretty high-quality but not inaccessible.”

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Step 4: Test the concept.

Bright Cellars self-funded Facebook ads, an advertising approach many start-ups use to get the word out. “We’ve always been active on social media,” says Yau. They also used the minimum viable product (MVP) technique, an under-the-radar test phase to earn early adopters, relying heavily on their feedback to tweak customer service.

Step 5: Acquire data.

Data collected from customers helps startups understand what’s working and what’s not. Bright Cellars learns about its customers at sign-up via a seven-question survey resulting in four custom-tailored wine choices. Direct feedback and customer reviews after each shipment, says Yau, enable Bright Cellars to react immediately and continue refining wine choices.

Step 6: Secure funding.

Without funding, startups crash and burn. In exchange for 4 percent investment, Gener8tor (an accelerator that invests in early-stage, high-growth startups) accepted Bright Cellars into its three-month program in Madison, providing mentors and $70,000. This support made the move to Milwaukee possible, says Yau, who until then had never visited Wisconsin. Yau estimates nearly half his time while he was in Gener8tor was spent courting investors.

Step 7: Grow.

Increasing customers helps bring a startup to the next level. In Bright Cellars’ case, it hired staff to take care of the customers. Last fall, the company sold its millionth bottle and reached 30 percent growth since 2015. Up next: selling their customers’ data – wines they liked best and why – to wineries, to help them choose what to make.


‘Meet the Disruptors’ appears in the February 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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A seasoned writer, and a former editor at Milwaukee Home & Fine Living, Kristine Hansen launched her wine-writing career in 2003, covering wine tourism, wine and food pairings, wine trends and quirky winemakers. Her wine-related articles have published in Wine Enthusiast, Sommelier Journal, Uncorked (an iPad-only magazine), FoodRepublic.com, CNN.com and Whole Living (a Martha Stewart publication). She's trekked through vineyards and chatted up winemakers in many regions, including Chile, Portugal, California (Napa, Sonoma and Central Coast), Canada, Oregon and France (Bordeaux and Burgundy). While picking out her favorite wine is kind of like asking which child you like best, she will admit to being a fan of Oregon Pinot Noir and even on a sub-zero winter day won't turn down a glass of zippy Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc.