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A few weeks ago my colleague and friend Paul Mabray of Vintank wrote an article on Palate Press called “Looking for Hope in the Sea of Dying Wine iPhone Apps.” It was, as is usual for Paul, thoroughly researched and argued, and deserves to be referenced forevermore on the question of wine apps in 2012.
My perspective on the article is bittersweet. My company’s app, Red White Boston, was chosen by Paul and his team at this time last year as one of the top 26 wine iPhone apps out of 452 available options. Our concept was simple: offer location-based wine recommendations (often in video) from a network of 30+ partner stores throughout greater Boston.
In practice it worked liked this: say you’re on your way to a party and you forgot to pick up a bottle of wine. What to do? Launch the app, and immediately you’ll see which of our partner stores is located close to you at that particular moment. You’ll see the distance between you and them, and directions for how to get there. That led you to the front door. But the best part was that, walking in the door, you knew which five to ten wines the people in that particular store recommended at that particular time.
It was a great idea! It still is a great idea!
So why didn’t it take the wine app world by storm?
There are reasons for it, three of which I’ll describe below. Paul has already hit upon the biggies like revenue and platform. But to be proactive about it, and forward-thinking, and let’s-learn-from-our-mistakes, I’d like to accompany each reason for failure with a suggestion to recalibrate.
I gladly raise my hand as a fool who loves failure and imperfection; the Red White Boston iPhone app was certainly imperfect. But failure and imperfection is the best way I know to learn and improve and, eventually, to get it right.
Goodness knows there’s a lot of learning to do in the world of wine + digital. Here are my thoughts on one slice of it.
Past — We didn’t charge partner stores to participate in our app. Since so many of our partners were classic mom-and-pop stores with limited budgets, they balked at paying even $300/year to participate. We made the decision that getting the app up and running with quality recommendations was more important.
Recalibration — We reasoned that the app would generate revenue from the category of Sponsored Wines that we engineered into it. This isn’t completely impossible, of course, but at the time we didn’t have the sales team or infrastructure in place to make it a reality. The app was sexy and it attracted attention, from Vintank and others, but it did not generate revenue. Where our revenue did come from was sponsored daily emails and events, specifically tastings of the Red White Tasting Crew, which was a focus group where wine brands paid to taste and buzz about their product. Was the app worth it, then, despite generating no revenue in and of itself? I’d say Yes, because of the cachet and substance it demonstrated to our larger, paying clients.
FAILURE: SCALING THE CONCEPT
Past — I called the company Red White Boston with scalability in mind, that is, to lead spin-off enterprises in Red White New York, Red White San Francisco, Red White Atlanta, Red White USA, etc. I even relocated to Atlanta last August in part to make that happen as the first test case. What I’ve found so far is a disjointed wine community (not unlike Boston’s) and a less enthusiastic technology community than what I’m used to. I’m digging into Atlanta, and it’s going to take time and resources.
Recalibration — The resources required (in Atlanta and any spin-off city) at the bare minimum include a salesperson and a daily content producer, two of the fundamental roles for building a functioning and sustainable community. The community of retailers would supply the wine recommendations to a Red White Atlanta app, and the community of consumers would lead to the influencers of a revenue-generating Tasting Crew. And by demonstrating proof of concept in multiple cities, our ability to attract investment from major wine brands increases as well.
Past — We launched the app in the summer of 2010 and built it only for the iPhone. I see that now as a definite mistake. In addition, what we saw from our usage data was that consumers accessed the recommendation videos more from their computers than from their phones. Which means it may not have been the location-based or mobile functionality that was the most important component of the app; it was the videos themselves about wine choices from a known inventory.
Recalibration — Two years later, the platforms for accessing and spreading/sharing videos has improved on all devices, mobile and otherwise. It opens the door, in my view, to “deconstructing” the app and scaling it at the same time. One idea is to designate Google+ circles by city — Red White Atlanta, Red White New York, Red White San Francisco, etc under the rubric of Red White USA — and share the videos over YouTube’s wine channel, where I am already a preferred content provider. That would achieve the same purpose that was so attractive and important about the original version of the Red White Boston iPhone app, namely, to curate video wine recommendations for individual markets.