Plato, Pasteur, and Philip (James) Provide a Wine Lovers Guide to Entrepreneurial Success

How the team at Snooth has built a truly fruitful enterprise blending entrepreneurial gusto and tech savvy to make the largest online wine resource in the world.

Philip James

Plato’s words, “No thing more excellent nor more valuable than wine
was ever granted mankind by God,” would find no argument from Snooth
co-founder Philip James, who turned a 30-page business plan into a
profitable media business in under four years. Just before handing the
reigns over to a new CEO, James spent an hour
with me, reflecting on his company’s growth to-date and providing, with a
little help from other illustrious oenophiles, a wine lovers guide to
entrepreneurial success.


Life is too short to drink bad wine–Anonymous

As is often the case with successful start-ups, the original idea may
not be the big idea, so entrepreneurs must be prepared to pivot.

Explained James, “Snooth was originally going to be an installed kiosk
company,” that provided detailed information on wine in understaffed
grocery stores. Having built the database and a demo site to support
the kiosks, James and his partner, “fumbled around as every-start up
does looking for a revenue model.” Fortunately they quickly eschewed the
hardware business for a software-driven alternative made possible by
the well-timed rise of smart phones. Noted James, “we realized people
are just going to use it on the phone, they don’t need it in the store.”
Thus, the ultimate wine lovers resource, became their focus
and mobile iterations became essentia

Wine gladdens a man’s heart–Psalms


Once you build your product or service, it is essential that you
really understand what business you are in.
Having grown
into the world’s largest wine database with over 5 million unique
searches per month, the Snooth team does not see themselves as
educators. Explained James, “it is not our job to make you an expert in
Burgundy, it is actually our job to entertain you and give you what you
want, otherwise you just don’t come back.” Recognizing the importance
of entertainment to the experience, the editorial team covers
a wide range of products and topics from expensive Bordeaux’s to cheap
chardonnays, from baby backs to box wines. If consumers respond well to
a particular topic, more posts along a similar vine follow thus
enhancing engagement.

I like best the wine drunk at the cost of others–Diogenes the Cynic

An essential ingredient to rapid growth is the ability to find new
customers on someone else’s vine.
With site traffic up 60%, page views
up 100% and time spent on the site up 15%, Snooth is expecting
triple-digit revenue growth in 2010. A large part of this growth can be
attributed to numerous partnership deals on sites like Epicurious,
Yahoo! And on which Snooth powers wine pairings with
recipes. Explained James, “we reach about 10 million people per month
through these partnerships which are branded and link back to” Because these are revenue sharing deals, “there are
benefits for both parties, they get unique content and it helps recipe
sites tap new ad verticals,” enthused James. It also means that Snooth
can avoid investing in what James calls, “paid marketing.”


Wine is the most healthful and most hygienic of beverages–Louis Pasteur


When it comes to the health of a start-up, it is important to have
multiple means of customer engagement, staying top-of-mind and
encouraging word-of-mouth.
Adding over 1000 registered users a day, has done an especially good job with its newsletter, which
“goes to a quarter of a million people and is Tweeted, ‘Liked’ on
Facebook and shared really extensively,” offered James. In addition to
pushing out content, consumers are encouraged to participate on the site
itself. Explained James, “users used to come just to read about wine
and look up prices and over time that has expanded into an active
forum.” This rapidly expanding community has multiple tiers, with the
most engaged considering Snooth’s headquarters a home away from home.
Noted James, “the top 1% have my cell phone number, email me and come by
the office unannounced, so we know what they are thinking!”

Wine is a puzzle yearning to be solved–Aaron B. Sherman


Web-based businesses like capture a tremendous amount of
data, data that can be used to increase customer satisfaction AND to
create new revenue streams.
Currently, Snooth “serves over 41 million
food and wine matches per month and we expose some of the data to
wineries, and that is really helpful to them,” explained James. Snooth
also encourages wineries to certify their content which 2,700 wineries
have done thus far increasing the accuracy of the data and improving the
ranking of those wineries. Each winery can also access their own data
through a merchant interface, so they can see in real time, “which area
in the country or the world have the most interest in their products
right now,” reported James. Though this information is very helpful to
the wineries, James admits that when it comes to data mining, “we could
do a much better job.”

Wine is inspiring and adds greatly to the joy of living–Napoleon

While most entrepreneurs can inspire the launch team, there comes a
point when they need to ask themselves if they are the person to bring
long-term joy to investors
. When I asked James if he was the guy that
could get Snooth to $20 million in sales and beyond, his response made
the announcement of his successor as CEO one week later only a modest
surprise. James spoke to the need of any entrepreneur, “to hire really
smart people, way smarter than [he is] and to give them responsibility.”
“I think people like me are really good at vision, creativity, hiring
and inspiring the team,” explained James. James went on to tout his
soon to be successor, Rich Tomko, as “an operations guy who knows how to
make it from $5 million to $20 million.”


Final note: As a long-time member of the Snooth community and a wine
lover from way back, I must ultimately side with Alexander Fleming who
said,”Penicillin cures, but wine makes people happy.” And it would really
make me happy if Verizon had the iPhone so I could use Snooth’s mobile
in NYC liquor stores to find my
faves at even better prices!


About the author

Drew is the founder of Renegade, the NYC-based social media and marketing agency that helps inspired B2B and B2C clients cut through all the nonsense to deliver genuine business growth. A frequent speaker at ad industry events, Drew’s been a featured expert on ABC’s Nightline and CNBC