By Hope Belli Tinney, Washington SBDC
WOODINVILLE, Wash. – In the sometimes pretentious world of winemaking, Bob and Lauren Bullock are pragmatists who think good wine should be an anytime pleasure.
At Eye of the Needle winery, they buy surplus wine from premium wineries and blend, age and bottle it under their own label in an effort to create a flavorful wine for $10-$15.
"We don’t want to be the Friday or Saturday night wine,” Bob said. "We want to be the Sunday through Thursday night wine business.”
In 2009, the Bullocks’ startup sold its first 440 cases in 11 weeks. By 2012, Eye of the Needle had three part-time employees and annual sales of nearly 6,000 cases - or more than 60,000 bottles of wine. In 2012, four wines - Harvest White, The Eye, Sangiovese and Syrah - won awards at the Seattle Wine Awards and the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition.
Eye of the Needle is selling six different wines in 159 locations, mostly in the Puget Sound area but also in six other states and Canada. The tasting room in Woodinville is open two days a week.
The brand has grown quickly because it’s a great value, said Lauren, but they put a lot of effort into presentation - both the label on the bottle and the vibe of their tasting room.
"Your winery is always so much fun to visit,” a customer wrote recently. "The employees are cheerful, knowledgeable and fun, the winery is decorated beautifully for each event and the wines are always so tasty.”
Getting help to ‘do it right’
Through it all, the Bullocks have worked with Jennifer Shelton, a certified business advisor with the Washington Small Business Development Center at Western Washington University in Bellingham.
The Washington SBDC provides no-cost, one-to-one advising to small business owners who want to start, grow or transition their business. The Washington SBDC network includes 28 business advisors and four international trade specialists.
It receives support from the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), Washington State University and other institutions of higher education and economic development.
Working with Shelton, Bob said, "is gold. Pure gold.”
"Anytime there’s a question, if I call her and she doesn’t know, she’ll find someone who does,” he said.
"If I want to send wine to China, she knows someone at the SBDC who can help. E-commerce? She has answer after answer after answer.” "We were just starting out,” Lauren said. "We knew this was something that could really fly and we wanted to do it right.”
Roundabout route to winemaking
Shelton said the Bullocks make a great team: "They are positive, generous, dedicated business owners who are fun to work with. I couldn't ask for a more rewarding experience than being a small part of their journey to success.”
In 2010, the Bullocks were able to get an SBA Patriot Express Loan through Banner Bank for equipment and working capital, and then they got a line of credit, thanks to Shelton. True, the Bullocks were new to winemaking, but they weren’t just starting out.
Eye of the Needle was born of second chances. A Vietnam War Veteran, Bob began distributing wine in western Washington in the early 1980s, which was an exciting time to be involved in Washington wine.
But after about a decade he was looking for a change, and he ended up in the medical insurance industry in 1996. In 2001, he suffered a major stroke that left him paralyzed on the left side.
His prognosis was uncertain, Lauren Bullock said, but he surprised his doctors by walking out of the hospital just eight weeks later.
With a lot of work, he eventually was able to walk an entire marathon averaging 16-minute miles.
"I always think I can do something until I know that I can’t,” he said with a smile.
Recession opens a niche
Never one to get stuck in a rut, in 2006 Bob decided it was time for a change. He looked into a couple things, but finally decided he wanted to return to the wine business.
In 2008, he became an independent wine broker, once again working with premium Washington wineries. But the recession hit. Where others saw obstacles, the Bullocks saw an opportunity - premium wineries had surplus inventory just sitting in tanks but the market was strong for mid-range wines at an affordable price.
In late 2008, the Bullocks formed Pacific Wine Enterprises, LLC, and started doing business as Haystack Needle Winery, which later became Eye of the Needle.
As a negociant winery, Eye of the Needle buys grapes that it crushes and bottles, but more than three-fourths of its inventory is bought as finished wine from other suppliers.
By buying finished wine, the Bullocks avoid the cost of owning winemaking equipment and are able to use their capital to buy the best wine they can get. Then their artistry begins, as they begin blending tastes - and price points - to get a good wine at an excellent value.
"I tell our team to leave their egos at the door,” Bob said about the group that gathers for blending trials.
"It’s not about our palates; it’s about a specific taste profile that defines what our customers are looking for.”
For more about Eye of the Needle, go to http://www.eyeoftheneedlewinery.com.
For more information about the Washington SBDC, go to http://www.wsbdc.org.
For more information about SBA, visit www.sba.gov/wa or call (206) 553-7310.
Bryan Trussel could not believe the deal being offered his company by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and Washington state Department of Commerce. The two agencies gave him a State Trade and Export Promotion (STEP) grant worth $5,000 that paid for his company to travel to Spain and participate in the 2013 Mobile World Congress last February. The grant also assisted in getting contracts for his company’s mobile application Glympse. “(The STEP grant) allowed my small business to play with the big boys,” Trussel said.
Trussel is the CEO and co-founder of Glympse, a mobile service that allows GPS-enabled mobile phone users to share their location temporarily on a web-based map with anyone they choose. The company was founded in 2008 by Trussel and his friend Steve Miller. The former Microsoft employees decided to turn away from the security of a guaranteed paycheck and went to work for themselves. Having started in a basement in Redmond, the two have grown the company to 17 employees and moved to the South Lake Union district in Seattle.
They have big dreams for their company – to have “Send me a Glympse” replace “Where are you” when people call or text each other, wondering if they are stuck in traffic or going to be late for dinner or a meeting. The Glympse application is safe, as the user selects the contact to send their location, including a timer feature for the person to decide how long the other person has to see his or her location.
Trussel has had success in the United States, but its overseas where the company’s real success is happening. The most popular countries using Glympse are Germany, the United Kingdom, France, Australia and Sweden, to name a few. Companies focused on application development may not be aware that they are exporters, just by nature of clicking a few buttons in iTunes or at the Google Play store. With 96 percent of the world’s buying power outside the U.S., it just makes sense to be set up in as many places as possible, Trussel said. Exporting makes up 40 percent of Glympse’s downloads now. “It’s clicking a checkbox to have Glympse available in the Germany or British app stores,” he said. “It easily takes a developer two seconds to be exporting.”
Offering Glympse free to the app’s end user and focusing on obtaining revenues from partnerships created with car manufacturers would be the business model. Instead of ads or charging users to send Glympse notifications, the company wanted to develop partnerships with automobile companies to have Glympse be a third-party application already installed in a new vehicle. Their model has worked, as Trussel has his application natively configured into some of the vehicles sold by Ford and Mercedes-Benz. “Lots of people are doing location applications, but not like us,” Trussel said. “We were first, we have the brand recognition, and we have the partnerships.”
When Trussel and his staff found out about the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, and that BMW would be there looking for applications to put in its vehicles’ Connected Drive special equipment option for the heads up display. The Mobile World Congress consortium represents 85 of the world’s leading automobile, mobile communications and consumer electronics companies from around the world. “Having the STEP grant considerably helped us get the meeting with BMW,” Trussel said.
The STEP grant program is funded through the SBA. The program helps financially bootstrapped small businesses take advantage of key trade shows by offsetting part of their travel and registration expenses. The vouchers also cover translation services, international marketing campaigns and international product certification. “We are thrilled to be a part of this program for a second year, not only to promote our technology but also to represent the highly talented and innovative start-up community in Washington state,” Trussel said. “We’re excited to be able to showcase location sharing in automotives and discuss the technology fits into other industries as well.
Thanks to SBA and Washington state, Trussel was able to meet with BMW at the trade show, and if all goes well, will have the opportunity to have Glympse in future BMW automobiles. Just like he wants Glympse to move from being a noun to a verb like “Google”, Trussel wants his application in every vehicle on the market. “We are trying to be really strategic; we want to nail the automobile space, create those partnerships and build out the platform,” he said. “Four times we have been on thin rope and were boostrapping everything, but now we have (marketplace) momentum.”
A diagnosis of Celiac Disease changed Janell Farnsworth’s life forever. An intelligence officer in the Washington Army National Guard’s 81st Brigade Special Troops Battalion, finding safe options at the dining facility would prove difficult, as she could no longer eat any foods that contained gluten. After her diagnosis, she scoured the major grocery stores looking for gluten-free options, to little avail. Most stores had a very limited selection. She was also mystified to find Western Washington had only one gluten-free grocery store located in Tacoma, more than 85 miles away from where she lived. Her entrepreneurial spark lit up and she realized there was a way to meet the needs of herself and others with gluten sensitivities in Snohomish County and make a little money while being her own boss. Janell’s Gluten-Free Market in Everett, was born.
Instead of jumping head first into the business without having any prior experience, Farnsworth reached out to the Washington Women’s Business Center (WBC) and the Veterans Business Outreach Center (VBOC) in Seattle. These two non-profit resource partners affiliated with the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) provided free counseling and low-cost classes to help Farnsworth best target her efforts in getting the gluten-free market up and running. “I never had a concern (the market) wouldn’t work, but had to go through the due diligence and develop a detailed business plan,” Farnsworth said. “The business plan really answered a lot of questions so I could take appropriate steps and properly budget resources.”
The 1,200 square foot shop has an outstanding selection of gluten-free food products, including cereal, chips, bread, baking mixes and flours, pasta, cookies; even beer and hard cider. Thanks to assistance from Lynn Trepp, project director for the VBOC, sales have been increasing since Janell’s Gluten-Free Market opened in 2009. Because she devoted countless hours to working on her business plan and stuck to the plan, she was able to grow, even adding a low-carb annex to the store. Now, she reaches a new customer base – those who were having difficulty finding low-carb options. “Today, the business has built a loyal following of customers who continually thank Janell for creating and sustaining such a resource in the community,” Trepp said. “The business has showed growth in both top-line revenue and in profits each successive year, but more importantly, has served a community of shoppers who otherwise would have had little or no available alternatives.”
Because her business has made such a difference in Everett and the surrounding communities, Farnsworth wants to open a new gluten-free market on the eastside. Many of her customers live in Kirkland, Redmond and Bellevue and travel more than 20 miles to shop at her specialty store. She is currently working with Trepp to save money and create a plan to make that dream a reality. “So many people get really overwhelmed after being diagnosed (with a gluten sensitivity), and there are now so many resources available to help them,” Farnsworth said. “The success I’ve had in this store is allowing me to bring other communities not only food, but support groups and information about being gluten-free.”
Whether it is a gluten-free market or other business, Farnsworth advocates for all Veteran entrepreneurs to take advantage of SBA’s resources. The Army captain with 20 years of service including a deployment to Afghanistan in 2006, emphasized the value of classes offered by SBA and its resource partenrs, which guided her business decisions and helped her develop a well-grounded business plan. SBA offers a two-day entrepreneurial course for active duty service members leaving the military called Boots to Business. In addition, female Veterans are eligible to get involved with Women Veterans Igniting the Spirit of Entrepreneurship (VWISE), as Farnsworth did. “Veterans need to look into what SBA resources are available to them locally and make sure they use them,” she said.