Peter Langenstein was always a wine man – not as a producer, but as a consumer. “I worked in financial services technology, but I was also spending a lot of time in California wine country exploring small, under-the-radar wineries,” says the French-schooled entrepreneur.
Peter decided to pursue the grape full-time and in 2005 opened the virtual doors of BRIX26.com, an e-commerce company that sources a tightly edited portfolio of limited-edition California wines and sells them direct to consumers.
Headquartered in San Francisco, BRIX26 currently offers vintages from about 300 California wineries. “About 90 percent of what we taste, we don’t offer on the site because I know they could be better,” said Peter. “People shopping for wine, especially online, are inundated with too much information and don’t really know if the wine is really any good. When someone comes to BRIX26, they know that the wines have been personally vetted.”
Peter knew email marketing was one of the most cost-effective tools available for small businesses like his; plus, it made sense for an e-commerce shop. He began with Outlook and started with a small list of people he knew. He soon added the ability for BRIX26.com visitors to sign up for e-newsletters, and his list grew into the thousands quickly. The email campaigns soon took too much time to manage. Peter also wanted his emails to look more creative than what he was able to put together on his own.
“As an e-commerce business, email is the single most important way to communicate with my customers,” he said. “I needed to do it right if I wanted BRIX26 to succeed.”
When it came to finding an email service provider that would be the best fit, Peter turned to his fellow wine enthusiasts. “I subscribe to a lot of wineries’ newsletters, and noticed that a lot of them were using VerticalResponse,” said Peter, referring to the branded VerticalResponse icon that appears at the bottom of emails delivered through the company. “And I liked the way their emails looked – professional yet still personalized. I figured if VerticalResponse had the wine industry in their corner, they must be doing something right.”
Initially, Peter used a pre-designed VerticalResponse template, where he was able to easily drop in text and photos. In time, he wanted something more customized, but lacked the technical know-how to create his own design from scratch. He worked with strategy, design and technology firm Pixel By Inch to develop a custom template.
“I had creative control over the look and feel, and once it was designed I could just plug in the content, which is what I personally like to do most – telling each wine’s unique story and profile,” he said.
Peter estimates that email marketing now drives about 80 percent of his business, with 20 percent of it coming from search engine marketing. “A lot of people find us on Google, go to our website and then sign up for the newsletter,” said Peter. “The marriage of search and email marketing has done very well for us. We’ve found that search is a great way to build our email list.”
BRIX26 sends emails to its subscriber lists a few times per week, usually to announce a limited-edition wine or new release they’ve just acquired, with tasting notes and information on the winery or winemaker.
“The great thing about email marketing is that you can really get creative with the content and drill down to see what works,” said Peter.
These days, Peter is noticing that more of his emails are being opened on a mobile device, surpassing opens in Outlook. This isn’t surprising; research from comScore found that nearly 90 million Americans access email through a mobile device, with 64 percent doing so on a near-daily basis. BRIX26’s emails are based on one of VerticalResponse’s 700+ templates, which are all pre-designed at a size that can easily be read on smartphones.
Biggest challenge being a small business owner:
The ability to wear many different hats from CEO to technical support and everything in between. When I worked for a larger company I always had a very narrow, defined set of responsibilities. When you start a small business you have to be willing to do everything, at least in the beginning.
Biggest lesson you’ve learned as a small business owner:
That at some point you need to learn to start “letting go” and delegating parts of the business that are not your specialty to other people who can take care of them so you can have a normal life again.
What do you like best about your work? What keeps you going?
Talking to customers from all over the U.S. is my favorite part of the job, and getting them wines they can’t find in their local market. And one of the best parts of my job is to work with small wineries from around California.