Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey are two of the nicest people I have had the pleasure of talking with, and they just so happen to be incredibly successful and world renowned entrepreneurs. Michael and Bonnie founded and grew the Barefoot Wine brand, which is now the #1 wine brand in the US and one of the best selling and most recognizable wine brands in the world. Did the dynamic duo start their highly successful wine brand because they had millions to invest and an abundance of knowledge and experience in the industry? Not exactly.
Michael and Bonnie started the brand in their laundry room in 1985 with practically no money and no experience. Their journey is an entrepreneurial success story that reminds us that the American dream is still alive and well.
I was invited into their beautiful California home via Skype not long after I had the privilege to hear Michael give a keynote address at the 2013 USASBE National Conference in San Francisco. Although I was not able to meet Michael at the conference, I took his business card off of the dinner table and tossed it into my briefcase. It wouldn’t hurt just to reach out to him right? Much to my surprise, this successful entrepreneur immediately responded and after one email he was asking what time would work for me to meet!
There is a lot that young entrepreneurs can learn from this founding couple and their struggles and success. The following is an interview I conducted with Michael Houlihan about his entrepreneurial journey, his upcoming book, tips and advice for young entrepreneurs, and more.
Michael Luchies: Did you have any entrepreneurial endeavors before Barefoot Cellars?
Michael Houlihan: Yes
Bonnie had a company called “In Care Of” [c/o] where she paid bills for people who had the money, but not the time. She also had an office management consulting practice where she did everything for small businesses from office organization and collections, to oversight of outsourced vendors.
I had several businesses including the first men and women’s hair cutting shop [Great Lengths], a stainless steel storage tank rental business, and a small business consulting company focused on relations with government entities.
ML: Wow! I guess it is safe to say that Barefoot Cellars was not your first rodeo. What failures have you faced as an entrepreneur and how did you recover and learn from these failures?
MH: When we started Barefoot Cellars, we thought that if we had gold medal winning wine at an unbelievable price, it would sell itself so we expanded out of California into Washington and Hawaii, but we soon found out that we had to physically be in every store to keep the product in stock. We thought the distributor and the retailer would take care of it.
On the contrary, they were not familiar with the brand and it didn’t have a selling history in their store, so they let it run out and get replaced with a competitor’s product. It cost us more than what we were making to make periodic trips to Washington and Hawaii just to get the reorders and to basically do what we thought was the distributors’ and the retailers’ job. We pulled out of Washington and Hawaii for 2 years and didn’t go back until we could afford to hire a representative of each one of those territories. We learned that we needed to have representatives in every market to maintain constant vigilance over our products at retail so that they stayed in the stores long enough to establish a track record of sales.
ML: You were able to create an incredibly successful business with your wife. What advice would you have for someone considering going into business with a family member or loved one?
MH: Respect the other party for their skill set. Do not try to micromanage them. Realize that their opinions, which may be contrary to yours, are in your own and your companies’ best interest. Have a separate place where you conduct business, even if it’s a laundry room, garage, or small in home office. It’s best to work in separate spaces. Don’t talk business in the bedroom. Plan several non-business related vacations every year in advance and buy the tickets in January.
ML: Thank you for that, really good advice. If there is one thing you could change about your entrepreneurial journey, what would it be?
MH: We should have gotten started much sooner, like when we were in school. Just conducting business is such an education. The sooner that you get the hard knocks over with, the better. Unfortunately, they weren’t teaching entrepreneurship when we were in school.
ML: Your book is titled “The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand.” Explain how heart and hustle are important for an entrepreneur:
MH: Heart is several things. First and foremost, it’s the belief that you have in your success. That belief is the foundation of the tenacity that is required to keep on going, even though you take some hits. Heart is also the way you treat people. By putting yourself in the other guys shoes whether they are employees, creditors, vendors, or customers, your empathy with their needs and concerns is transmitted through your products and service. Lastly, Heart is the causes you hold dear as an individual and how you use your business to forward those causes through public statements, corporate behavior, and the support for non profits.
Hustle is all about how fast you move to take advantage of opportunities, dodge adversity, and solve challenges. When you are an entrepreneur, you have to look for, and surround yourself with other team members who have hustle. They are determined, directed, and light on their feet. You and your companies’ ability to make quick changes and adjustments is the key to survival in the first few years.