Mark Aselstine is the founder of online wine club and gift basket business Uncorked Ventures. What makes the company different than competitors is its focus on high-quality wines from California Wine Country. “There’s a lot of $10/bottle wine clubs out there, and there aren’t a lot of folks the selling smaller-production type of wine that you see in Napa and Sonoma as opposed to the type of stuff you see at your local grocery store,” Aselstine said. “We wanted to provide a service that had that wine show up at people’s doorsteps.”
Founding the Business
I was a mechanical and environmental engineer, which I didn’t particularly care for. I was in a corporate real estate job during the recession, which was not a great thing to be doing. I was looking to do something else. I married the youngest daughter in a family and my brother-in-law (who was my original business partner) married the oldest daughter in the family. The middle sister was getting married in Peru. My brother-in-law Matt and I had a 10-day trip to talk about what was going on with work for both of us. As it turned out, the sisters all had lots of events to do together, which left Matt and I plenty of time to drink pisco sours out on the balcony. Over that trip, we decided we would do something that would be fun and that we could make a living doing, too.
My background in the wine industry was basically zero. But, looking at where we lived, we saw there was a pretty dramatic difference in the selection of wine that you could get in San Francisco versus San Diego. Then, when we compared it to what I could get visiting my family in Western New York, it was almost not on the same scale.
Financing the Company
We wrote checks from savings to get the business started. Now, I use credit in the name of the business. That’s both to help smooth out monthly expenses and to keep things running. We have shipping charges that are a fairly incredible percentage of what we spend on a monthly basis. Having a corporate card is, frankly, really helpful.
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We have almost a full 50 percent of our sales come in during a 45-day period between Thanksgiving and the first of the year. Everything feels great around that time, but the back end of that is that we have all these shipping charges that are going to occur because of the 3- and 6-month gifts that come in during Christmas. In the past, we’ve done stuff like taken short-term CDs to try and get a better return on the cash that’s just sitting in a savings account. But, with current market rates, there’s not a whole lot we can do to see any type of return on that.
Net 30 is standard in the wine industry. Other than UPS, which likes to get paid right away, we’re net 30 with everyone.
Business Challenges and Rewards
The most challenging thing is wearing so many hats at the same time. It’s really a challenge to prioritize what needs to happen today versus what needs to happen for longer-term success. You tend to get bogged down in customer service and small stuff that doesn’t necessarily lead to more sales six months from now. How do you balance the need for continued growth versus what needs to be done immediately?
Quite honestly, the most rewarding thing about running the business is the flexibility that I have. I’m pretty lucky that I get to drop my boys off at school. I don’t miss baseball practice and all that kind of stuff. It’s nice to be able to set my own schedule. It’s nice if the baby’s sick and my wife can’t take the day off of work, I can juggle and be here. We always hear about work-life balance – that’s one thing I think owning a small business really can provide if you’re careful about it.
When we first started, I’m not sure we even knew which questions to ask. At first, we went to a wine-specific software platform. It had a lot of really great features. But, a lot of those features that were so great were really aspirational to us – they were features that would help us until many years off into the future, but the software didn’t get some basic stuff done. Having an easier content management system to work with so we could make changes to our website would have been more helpful than the ability to set up a number of bottles for reorder based on which wine club someone was in, for example.
Our pricing was smart at the beginning and continues to be smart. There’s an awful lot of competition at certain price points. We don’t exist there, so we don’t sense it quite as much. Being honest about where we’re located and what kind of wine we’d like to source was smart at the beginning.
Advice for Aspiring Entrepreneurs
It’s not going to be a linear progression. There’s going to be ups and downs. Some days it feels like two steps forward and one step back. And there are some days when it feels like two steps forward and seven steps back! But, I find more and more when I talk to people that if you want a small business to be successful, the active everyday trying and keeping at it is usually enough.
What’s Next for Uncorked Ventures
From the wine perspective, we’ve done a good job of sourcing stuff locally. We haven’t necessarily done that with gift baskets. We’re excited to dramatically expand the number of gift baskets that we’re offering. In the next week or two, we’ll have a chocolate gift basket made entirely in Oakland and another made in San Francisco. Shortly after, those will both be up on Amazon under Fulfillment by Amazon.