For many entrepreneurs, the old adage “business and family don’t mix well together” is a cardinal rule. Happily, that has not been the case for Mike Votto. As the CEO of Connecticut-based Votto Vines, a thriving six-year-old wine distributor/importer on track to generate $8 million in revenue this year, 38-year-old Votto helms a staff of 15, most of whom, save for five, are relatives.
“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve never had any real conflicts,” says Votto, a former corporate lawyer. However, if disagreements do transpire, “we discuss strategy and plan, and then we try to come to a consensus. It’s just the nature of being very close relatives and friends.”
Judging by the success that Votto Vines has amassed since it began selling wine out of the back of a Subaru wagon, now working with big box retailers like Costco and scoring a spot on Forbes’ list of most promising companies of 2015, doing business the family way has clearly worked in the company’s favor.
The Lightbulb Moment
Votto came up with the idea for the company following a trip he and his wife made to Italy in 2006. While visiting a number of small wineries in Tuscany, they asked one of the wine producers if the liquor was available for purchase in the U.S.
“The answer was no,” says Votto as he recounts the conversation. “[He said], ‘We don’t export to the U.S. We would really like to but our experience has been that for the big importers we’re not a large enough wine producer for them. Also, we’ve had some bad experiences with really small importers when it came to getting bills paid.’”
Like a cliché in a cartoon, the conversation led to Votto having a storied lightbulb moment.
“I came home and said to my brother, cousins and brother-in-law, here’s an idea: importing small- to medium-production wineries that either fly under the radar with the big guys or for whatever reason, don’t export but produce really good wine,” he remembers. “That was essentially the beginning of our plan to develop a startup wine importing and distribution company.”
True to most fledgling companies, Votto Vines’ early days were fraught with challenges. In the first year, for instance, the five principals, including Votto, cobbled together a mere $50,000 in seed capital, drawn mostly from personal savings, coupled with loans from friends and relatives.
“That got us through the first year in terms of a small warehouse lease, our licenses [to sell wine] and buying our first couple of shipments,” he recalls. “Nobody was getting a salary.”
The following year, the company’s prospects brightened considerably after snagging $500,000 in angel funding. The six investors, who took equity in the company as part of the transaction, included a professional football player. They were mostly personal connections.
“They had a strong belief in the company vision and in wine,” says Votto. “They liked our team being a group of young professionals that had a well thought out plan even though the business was in its infancy. We had our licenses and we were generating revenue. We had the makings of a real business.”
Another challenge Votto Vines struggled with at its inception was positioning itself in a saturated market.
“We’ve tried to stay away from doing really inexpensive wine dominated by really big companies,” he says. “We’ve tried to find wine and price points that fit a more entrepreneurial niche. We’re definitely focused on mid-tier–$12 to $20 retail.”
Forging High-Profile Ties
Thanks to their network of influential personal and professional contacts, Votto Vines was able to forge partnerships with key wine distributors, such as Republic National Distribution Company, the second largest wine and spirits distributor in the country.
As Votto explains, RNDC represents a lot of major suppliers in the U.S. They also work with Costco. And through them, Votto Vines was able to form a relationship with the big box retailer.
We’ve tried to find wine and price points that fit a more entrepreneurial niche.
Yet Votto Vines has not rested its laurels on simply being a wine importer. The company has also been an innovator as well. Recently, it developed a Star Trek wine brand for CBS Consumer Products, which manages licensing and merchandising for brands and TV shows within the network’s family.
“[CBS] came to us with this Star Trek idea,” explains Votto. “[Next year] will be [the franchise’s] 50th anniversary. They’re putting a lot of bandwidth behind the Star Trek brand. And wine does play a role in some historic episodes. The brand has done very well.”
Drinking to the Future
As for where he would like his company to be in five or 10 years, Votto strikes a sensible and sedate note.
“Right now we take it one day at a time,” he says. “It sounds trite but we want to keep it on its current trajectory, keep building our portfolio and distribution as well as our retail and the buyer/seller relationships.”
Live long and prosper indeed.