Luxury goods entrepreneur Ben Revell wants to turn the world of wine on its head with his latest business venture, as Peter Ranscombe reports.
Ben Revell looks like the last person you’d expect to work in the wine trade; with his smartly-cut shirt and expensive-looking watch, the 29-year-old tech entrepreneur is probably as far away from the traditional image of a wine merchant decked out in tweed jacket and raspberry-coloured cords as it’s possible to get.
Yet Revell has always had a passion for wine, buying his first case of 1959 Margaux – one of the top labels from the Bordeaux region in France – at auction when he was just 18.
That purchase got him hooked on buying wine and within three months he’d amassed 500 bottles, sparking a hobby that turned into a string of businesses.
Now, he’s raised £1m of Series A funding to keep up with demand from customers at his latest online business.
“Winebuyers connects vineyards and wine merchants directly to the customer,” explains Revell, who runs his 12-strong team from Mappin House on London’s Oxford Street, where fellow tech tenants have included music streaming service Spotify, file sharing website Dropbox and domain registrar Go Daddy.
His website lists around 30,000 wines from about 40 countries, with 20,000 members signing up to buy vino since the site went live last October.
Yet Winebuyers is no ordinary wine club; instead of charging its members a fee or taking commission on sales, the business instead gets wineries and merchants to pay a monthly charge for listing their bottles on the site.
Revell has a team of four full-time software developers who have written the code for the online marketplace from scratch using the Symfony platform.
The business has no giant warehouse full of bottles; instead, it acts as the connection between the wineries or merchants that sell their wares straight to the consumer, fulfilling the orders from their own stock.
Rather than producers or merchants having to upload prices, pictures of bottles or other information to the online marketplace, the software captures the information automatically at 11.30pm every night – although it could complete the task every three seconds if need be – scraping the information from the sellers’ own websites.
The computer coding that powers Revell’s site could be licensed to other sectors, but he’s keen to focus on his own business for the time being.
While wine will keep him occupied for the foreseeable future, he also owns the Beerbuyers.com domain name and so craft beers are on the horizon.
Gap in the market
The idea for Winebuyers came to him six years ago when he began selling bottles from his own collection.
“At that point, you couldn’t sell wine on Amazon and you still can’t on eBay, although I notice you can now on the German and Italian sites,” he says.
“I was using a website called ‘Bidforwine’ and it took six minutes and 23 seconds to upload a bottle – I timed it on many occasions.
“That’s when I realised there was a gap in the market and a business opportunity here.”
Revell was one of the shareholders behind a website selling watches and diamonds, and which began selling wine on the side to the same affluent customers.
When he saw how a rival site was charging 1,200 users €700 a month each to use its online marketplace for watches, he decided to do the same for wine.
He’d already set up Prestigious Wine to sell some of the bottles he’d bought at auction but decided to create Winebuyers in October 2015 as the vehicle for his marketplace idea.
“I sold my wine, I sold my watches, I sold my clothes – literally the shirt off my back – to fund the development of the site and I moved back in with my parents, which isn’t ideal when you’re 28,” he laughs.
Embracing the crowd
Raising £70,000 to fund the business to proof-of-concept stage, he then spent 18 months developing the site, spending some £380,000 in the process.
The next step was raising his Series A cash to fuel growth, using a mixture of crowdfunding and private investors.
He secured £568,870 from 300 investors through Crowdcube, selling a 5.17% stake in the company and exceeding the initial target of £525,000, with the remainder of the £1m coming from other sources.
Revell had initially shied away from crowdfunding but found it to be a positive experience.
“It’s great for connecting you with customers,” he adds.
“It was hard work though – I was receiving email inquiries at four o’clock in the morning from potential investors in China and the United States, and I wanted to reply to them within an hour.”
Crowdfunding also had the unexpected benefit of allowing vineyard owners, sommeliers and other members of the wine trade to invest in the business, which Revell describes as “promising and very flattering”.
Delivering on promises
One of the challenges Winebuyers faces is the sheer number of bottles available on the website; while many filters already exist to help refine selections according to country of origin or grape variety or price, the team is also working on other ways of helping customers to pick their products.
They include incorporating elements of artificial intelligence and machine learning into the site’s software, so the portal can gauge what customers enjoy and make recommendations.
Another issue could arise if customers experience difficulties with deliveries – do they complain to the retailer or to the Winebuyers website?
“Touch wood, we’ve not experienced that problem yet,” says Revell.
“Deliveries by the big three couriers – DPL, FedEx and UPS – have improved so much in recent years that wineries can now use them economically instead of exporting in bulk.
“Ours is the type of business that couldn’t have existed even five years ago without those developments.”
Revell is keen for all his staff to complete the level two qualification from the Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET), the drinks industry’s training body.
He also wants to develop the blog on his site to help educate customers who want to learn more about the wine they’re buying and drinking.
Revell is one of a growing number of entrepreneurs who are breathing fresh life into the wine trade: Nick Baker also began selling bottles from his own collection when he launched The Finest Bubble, which promises to deliver sparkling wine in London within a two-hour window; while product designer Kevin Jabou used technology from military and medical applications to create Kaelo, an “iceless ice bucket”.
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