Diving Into Passion: My Wine Adventure
Professionally speaking, I am the reasonable type. I have always restrained myself from doing crazy things. So, if five years ago you would have told me that I would be starting my own company in the wine business, I would have thought that *you* were mad.
Let me tell you the story of how I decided to dive into my passion.
In 2017, I joined the INSEAD Global Executive MBA programme (GEMBA) to challenge myself and break the glass ceiling in my 20+ years of telecommunications and energy management career.
I used to be all about IT, networks and electrical switchboards, nothing to do with wine at all.
In one of our GEMBA Strategy classes, we happened to study a business case on Yellow Tail. This case describes how the Australian family-owned Casella winery was able to take over the US wine market by offering a simple, accessible wine and reaching out to non-customers (aka people who think French wine is too complicated).
Suddenly, I had an epiphany!
What if I did something like that, in Singapore?
Ideas started flowing into my head, wine barrels, wine accessories, me in a wine bar sharing the happiness of wine discoveries, me sipping wine all day, teaching and sharing the love of wine tasting… you get the picture.
Shortly after, I attended the INSEAD Start-up Bootcamp where participants are led through structured ideation techniques and draw out their ideas.
I got even more excited through this experience (even though my drawing skills were not that conclusive) and I fleshed out my business vision further:
I was going to renew the wine bar concept into a more engaging one where the waiter teaches guests how to taste wine using little games and accessories (aroma vials, special glasses etc.)!
Following the bootcamp, I started seriously thinking and talking about creating my own wine company.
But how was I supposed to get started? I had no expertise in wine, no experience in the wine industry, no references, and no knowledge of the Food and Beverage sector.
As a first step, I decided to strengthen my credibility by doing a wine certification course called “WSET” – in parallel to my daily work, business trips, and juggling between my family and the intense INSEAD programme.
I also decided to focus some class electives (Blue Ocean Strategy, New Business Ventures) and my Final Project on this wine education and appreciation in Asia idea.
This was a great opportunity to strategically think through and test the viability of the concept, build a business plan for an innovative wine bar in Singapore, and get valuable feedback from INSEAD faculty.
With two other classmates, we worked out the Blue Ocean Strategy aspects, had fun, and learnt a lot about the market, customers constraints and issues that needed fixing.
We later didn’t go ahead with the wine bar idea in real life, but I was able to reuse a lot of the learnings for my start-up later on.
In October 2018, two months before graduating, I had another ‘Eureka’ moment as I realised that the INSEAD Alumni Wine Club only existed in France but not yet in Singapore.
Along with other wine enthusiasts alumni, I decided to launch the INSEAD Wine Club in Singapore to share my love of wine and create a community of wine lovers. And what better way to test some of my ideas, continue learning about the wine ecosystem and market in Singapore and learn the ropes?
The Alumni INSEAD Wine Club’s first event took place in March 2019 with the determination to host one event per month. (Which we did! We were the most active club that year!)
This encouraged me to get the next level of the WSET certification and gave me the push to incorporate my own business, which, I decided - after testing the names with the GEMBA'18 cohort - to call A Wine Adventure.
But with the incorporation completed, I was still full of fears – after all, I had no experience as an entrepreneur.
I kept stalling for a few months and did not really act on my venture. I finally decided to force myself, and a few months later, in October 2019, I arranged my first Masterclass at INSEAD: Wine 101.
Before the big day, I felt terrified.
I was going to present in a classroom where I had been a student myself just a year ago. This time, I would be the “professor” and teach 35 people the art of wine tasting. Would I be able to pull this off?
To make the class fun and accessible, I used the interactive games around wine that I had created during our GEMBA Final Project. People loved the approach: they were able to experiment, using their senses, they played, they competed against each other, they blind tasted and made bets.
I was in heaven, sharing my passion and making people savvier and more confident.
Buoyed by all this interest and support, I finally felt ready to officially launch my business – A Wine Adventure – with a mission to demystify the wine approach in Asia through 'gamification', taking into account the local culture and approach.
I took the opportunity of the WINSEADers fair in December 2019 – an event where all INSEADers in the wine business could present their wines - and got ready to conquer the world in 2020.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic happened.
But suddenly, face-to-face Masterclasses were no longer an option. I also had to cancel all the planned INSEAD Wine Club events.
Digitalisation and new channels became a must.
After a moment of despair, I understood that this crisis could also be an opportunity if I could be agile.
Indeed, during the ‘circuit breaker’ (the name for lockdown in Singapore), all restaurants closed. But people still wanted wine, lots of wine!
A friend from the "Women of the Wine" group I had created in 2019 to gather female wine professionals (there was no such network in Singapore), was looking for new ways to reach customers as her trade customers were all shutting down.
We soon realised it would be a win-win situation to collaborate. From her large selection of imports, I chose organic wines and wines made by women winemakers in order to implement both sustainability and diversity values in my company.
Another friend from the champagne industry helped me turn my mini website into an e-shop. A Wine Adventure was on the map with almost 100 wines in less than two weeks!
As I discovered, drop shipping and consignment (sell first, buy after) were great means to get in business without having to bear the costs and risks of shipment, stocks management and delivery. Cash is king!
In addition to my previous ideas of accessories and games for the Masterclass, I also started sourcing ‘wine companions’, that would support the gamification concept, be unique gifts and allow people to keep playing at home: comic books on wine, boardgames and quizzes about wine, black socks and black glasses, wine aromas to train your sense of smell … And none of these were available in Singapore. I was developing a blue pond!
Then, I got dengue.
It was not COVID-19 but it certainly took its toll. I decided to concentrate on my health and to take this opportunity to accelerate my business launch once I got better.
I investigated several ideas that could make my start-up a success. I opened many doors, closed a lot others, tested the waters, understood that time and focus is of essence but also that I needed to test my ideas in the real world rapidly and concretely, following the design thinking method we were taught at INSEAD:
Go out, talk to potential customers, create a MVP (Minimum Viable Product), go ahead even if not perfect, make mistakes, fail fast, learn from it, pivot.
I resumed my Masterclass ideas around the concept of "Winefullness" (wine tasting is a meditation, you need to be in the moment) and fun (drink, play, learn). I adapted to COVID-19 constraints: class limited to a small number of people, at my house or at people’s home and in partnership with corporates or clubs who could welcome more people.
And of course, I developed online options.
Throughout the last months of 2020, business ramped up as people could not travel outside of Singapore and they were seeking entertainment. My classes and wine gifts became very popular. My revenues grew quickly as I was applying cross-selling between the classes, the accessories and the wines.
2021 came, and we went backwards.
I was hit by the rollercoaster of COVID restrictions in Singapore going from gatherings limited to 5, 8, 5, 2 to again 5 people. The constant change was nerve-wrecking and made it impossible to plan and sometimes to host classes, but A Wine Adventure survived.
Some people who had booked their class as a group didn’t recant and agreed to postpone. Some waited 12 months to finally do the class in 2022. Their support was key.
I remained relevant and active by launching three new classes: the Wine Cluedo (a murder mystery where the wine gives you clues to find out who did it), the Winexplorers (taking you out of your comfort zone and travelling virtually to unexpected wine regions such as Gobi Desert or Slovenia) and the Bubbliness (learning the Champagne complexity and tradition through blind tasting).
The concept of the classes remained the same: to demystify the approach to wine tasting, experiment, use your senses, guess and have fun. I also kept developing collaborations with women professionals and female wine makers.
In 2022, I focused on developing my digital marketing strategy, boosting my Instagram and Facebook and LinkedIn pages and shops. I learned about reels thanks to my young intern and the constant need to be visible. I also started importing my own wines to reduce the costs of my classes. Keep optimising, keep learning!
Then, I (finally) got COVID … but A Wine Adventure was safe and the world reopened.
In November 2022, I was invited back to INSEAD to share my journey during that very same Strategy class I took five years ago with Professor Gabriel Szulanski.
I can guarantee you that being able to share how you applied those learnings to build your own venture is an incredible feeling.
And a few weeks ago, on the 6th of December 2022, I had the greatest honour to be invited to the Residence of the French Ambassador to receive the ‘Prix du Public’ des Trophees des Francais d’Asie 2022 (The Awards for French nationals overseas organised by lepetitjournal.com).
So, what’s next?
I’m looking at scalability through a tech solution to extend my concept and provide a wine game night setting without my presence being required. I’m launching a new class about pairing called ‘Wine Tinder’ and I will focus on corporate classes and B2B positioning.
My journey into entrepreneurship has just begun and it has already been an exhilarating ride.
I could not have done it without the feedback and support from my INSEAD classmates, professors, friends and family, as well as the all the wine professionals who shared their experience and were patient with me as I learned.
And I owe a huge thank you to the early customers, partners and suppliers who trusted me and chose to give me a chance. Because it takes a village to succeed in launching your own company!
Cheers to you, dare to dream, and remember to taste taste, taste!
More about A Wine Adventure
My motto is ‘Tame Your Wine’ and my company values are: diversity (I promote women winemakers and in the wine industry), sustainability (I only distribute organic and sustainable wines) and fun (you learn best when you play!).
Learn more by contacting the author:
Mireille (Mimi) GIRAUD
Photos credits: Xavier Keutch photography and Anne Valluyi photography