“The world was a crazy place. Lehman’s had just gone bust, it looked as though the world was about to end and it was spectacularly bad timing,” says Rowan Gormley, co-founder and chief executive of Naked Wines, of his decision to start the company in 2008.
Six years later, the company has sales of €65m, a waiting list of 10,000 investors – or angels, as the company calls them – wanting to invest, and a disruptive business model that brings crowdfunding to the wine business.
Mr Gormley’s route to Naked Wines appears, with hindsight, entirely logical. He grew up in the South Africa of apartheid but always knew his future would be outside the country. “The system was broken,” he says, and, having decided to acquire a portable skill, he became a chartered accountant.
It was not his academic studies at the University of Cape Town that were to lead to Naked Wines, says Mr Gormley, but rather “weekends sitting under oak trees drinking delicious wines with my wine farmer friends”.
He saw up-close how winemakers were permanently stuck in a vicious circle of squeezed margins and long credit terms while supermarkets demanded an ever-larger share of the profits.
Mr Gormley was working for the private equity firm Elektra when he got a call from Richard Branson asking him to join Virgin in 1994. There was no specific role on offer.
“The day I arrived we were all discussing what we could do with the Virgin name. Everyone was talking about space ships and nightclubs and I put up my hand as the new boy and said, ‘What about financial services?’ Richard just went, ‘Brilliant! Let’s do financial services.’” And so Virgin Money was born.
Mr Gormley led the division from its initial phase offering pensions and life insurance to banking and then online banking. He remembers “discovering new bands and new authors on Amazon through the recommendation services”, and thought it would apply to wine.
A pitch to Virgin was rejected, but Mr Gormley and his brother worked “weekends and nights” on the fledgling business that they named Orgasmic Wines. When it was running, they re-pitched it, this time with more success.
“The two biggest things I learnt from Richard Branson were first, that anything is possible. The second is to trust your instincts,” recalls Mr Gormley. “He would judge every business proposition on the basis of would he as a consumer want to buy this, rather than what is the return on investment?”
Virgin Wines had a rocky start, says Mr Gormley. “We made all the classic dotcom mistakes. I got seduced by Virgin Online Wines – three sexy words – what could possibly go wrong?” A tough period followed during which 80 per cent of staff lost their jobs and the office moved back to Norwich, but by 2005, Mr Gormley had rebuilt the business and sold it to Laithwaites, the wine retailer. Three years later a disagreement with a new manager left him “with no job, some cash and 17 people from Virgin”, he remembers.
He went to market and successfully attracted investment from the German family group, Wein International, and Naked Wines was born.
“Crowdfunding didn’t exist as a concept in 2008, but I had a feeling we were on to something and that it was a game-changer,” he says. “We hit £1m turnover in the first six months of trading.”
Angels invest an agreed sum every month (as little as £20) and this money supports winemakers whose wine is sold exclusively to Naked Wines. Angels are then able to buy wine at discount. “We have 135 winemakers and some would simply not be there without us,” says Mr Gormley. “If you can help your supplier by financing them, you become their number one dream customer.”
The model favours wines that mature and bottle quickly. So, two years ago, Mr Gormley decided to raise “a £5m, three-year bond from our customers to finance proper, old-fashioned fine wines” with A-list winemakers.
Mr Gormley claims the company “has probably got better insight into what people like to drink than anyone else on the planet. We have over 3m customer ratings,” he says. “The wisdom of the crowd is much stronger than the wisdom of the individual.”
For all his enthusiasm for wine, it is the passion for running his own show that drives Mr Gormley. “Frankly, I’d rather sell paving stones for myself than have a big, corporate glamorous job.”
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