Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Book Review: The Barefoot Spirit


 How does walking barefoot on the beach relate to being successful in the wine industry?  You need look no further than The Barefoot Spirit written by the founders of Barefoot Wine: Bonnie Harvey and Michael Houlihan.  Along with writer Rick Kushman, the entrepreneurs who started Barefoot Wine just published a book.  It is about how Bonnie and Michael started out in the wine industry completely naive and ended up building a very successful business.   They took a new approach to creating a wine brand and steadily built their business.  They used new marketing approaches, injected a lot of fun into their brand and worked tirelessly to build customer loyalty. 
Over the years I have had the pleasure of meeting Michael Houlihan at many wine industry events, and he has always been a gracious and engaging man.  I have also known Rick Kushman for a few years now--running into him at local charity events and wine related functions.  I also read his articles in the Sacramento Bee regularly.  Together Bonnie, Michael and Rick have put together a story that is a quick and fun read that subtly gives you great business insight.  

The Beginning:  Bonnie and Michael started up Barefoot Cellars in the late '80's somewhat accidentally.  With a good amount of bulk wine needing a home, they went about building a new wine brand from the ground up.  While that bulk wine sat, they quickly learned everything they could--talking to winery owners, store owners and anyone they could find who would explain how things operated in the wine biz.  Maybe that is what allowed them be so successful--being comfortable asking questions and then figuring out how to use that information to build their company.

I know a little about a lot of things in the wine business, and this book gave me some helpful insight and interesting color regarding how wine is marketed and sold.   Why does that bottle end up costing the consumer $20 versus $5?  Why can you find some wines in almost every store you stop in, but you stumble upon a new brand when you shop at a locally-owned store?  How do wines go "on sale"?  What does it take to make wine that so many people end up liking?  The Barefoot Spirit explains it using fun anecdotes.

College Dinner Party Wine:  I do have a soft spot for Barefoot Wines.  One of the first wines I really experienced was Barefoot's Cabernet Sauvignon in the 1.5 L bottle in college.  My friend Susi, who was practically raised in her family's Italian restaurant, brought it to one of our rare dorm homemade dinners.   If an all knowing Italian restauranteur was offering it, I knew it had to be good.  That wine remained with us through 4 years of college--and through many deep philosophical wine powered nights.  When I first met Michael I told him this--and he said that so many people tell him similar stories.  

Treat Your Customers Right:  The wines have a lot of fans to this day, and a fan base is what Barefoot worked very hard to build.  The fun wine world we are in today is much different than the wine world Michael and Bonnie found themselves in at first.  To just name their wines Barefoot and have a fun looking footprint stamped on the label was unheard of.  They really went after building a marketing program that reveled in individuality and a commitment to their consumer.  Putting a 800 number on their corks allowed customers to contact them--and contact them they did.  Often it was to tell Michael and Bonnie they couldn't find the wine at their local stores, or to talk about a problem--but often it was to sing the wines' praises.  Barefoot didn't just listen to these calls, they responded to the calls and worked to turn them into consumer loyalty opportunities.

So with my fondness of the brand it was kind of fun to read this book right before hitting the beach where I could walk barefoot in the sand and unwind.  I wrapped up the book on the final approach to the Belize airport where my husband and I were headed for a week of much needed relaxation.  My husband was reading parts of the e-book over my shoulder.  He said to me, "Anyone thinking about going into the wine business should read this book first."  Might be a good plan.

Treat Your Employees Right:  As a recruiter, I appreciated the comments on how to humanely manage people and how important your staff is to your success.  They were constantly learning how to build and manage their business, and they clearly state that they were successful because of the hard work and dedication of their employees.  I know the two owners were also very hard workers dedicated to their business and their employees.  The advice they offer to other business owners is valuable. 

Management Book In a Memoir:  I enjoyed Rick Kushman's writing style,  keeping it light and conversational while making strong connections between Michael and Bonnie's experiences with business strategy--while never hitting you over the head with business jargon.

Being Barefoot:  Appropriately, Barefoot's logo was created to celebrate being footloose and enjoying yourself.  Having just escaped a bad winter storm and enjoying myself in Belize I reflected on the book while walking barefoot in the white sandy beaches.   I can appreciate the Barefoot Spirit and am happy it is living on with both the brand and with the brand's creators.  The last comment from Michael in the book is very touching.  "When you see a footprint on the beach, you don't know if it was made by a man or a woman, or someone who is gay or straight or black or white.  You can't tell religion.  It doesn't matter.  It's just the impression a human makes when they walk on the earth.  That's what matters.  We're all on the beach together."

I'm glad we're on this beach together.  Cheers!