European Business: Many start-ups originate from a founder’s passion for an idea or a product. You have prominently said, though, that you didn’t know much about wine before you founded Vivino. Can ignorance be bliss when starting a company?
Heini Zachariassen: The word ignorance may be a little harsh, but I do believe that some naiveté is important. If you’re in a business that you know really well, it can be hard to analyze it from the outside. But if you have no previous experience, you’re not locked into the mindset of that particular industry – and that can be an enormous advantage. When I was developing Vivino, I remember telling a lot of people in the wine industry about my idea to build the biggest wine database in the world. Their responses were polite but unequivocally negative: ‘Well, you probably shouldn’t do that. You should focus on one particular kind of wine, Bordeaux or Burgundy or whatever, because there are just too many wines out there.’ That’s typical of somebody who has been in an industry for a long time and knows how big it is. We didn’t know. We just went for it.
If you’re in a business that you know really well, it can be hard to analyze it from the outside. But if you have no previous experience, you’re not locked into the mindset of that particular industry. Heini Zachariassen
European Business: Despite the fact that a little naiveté went a long way when you founded Vivino: In retrospect, weren’t there some things you would have liked to have known in advance?
Heini Zachariassen: Definitely. Originally, we had assumed that 20,000 pictures of labels and 20,000 wines in our database would at least suffice for the very early stages, but that just wasn’t the case. We were indeed surprised by the huge amounts of data we needed even early on. If we had realized this beforehand, we would have taken a different approach and gone straight for 100,000 or a million wines – or we wouldn’t have gotten started at all. Again, our naiveté was probably a blessing in disguise.
European Business: How did the idea for Vivino come about and what was the first major lesson you learned in the process of setting up the app?
Heini Zachariassen: My original idea for what later became Vivino came from a personal experience I had in a supermarket in Copenhagen, where I saw this wall of wine and I didn’t know which one to buy. I was just overwhelmed by the huge selection available to me. That was the problem I wanted to solve and I knew that a lot of people had the same problem I did.
We could have built all kinds of fancy apps for our users, but what they really wanted was simple: They wanted to know if this particular bottle of wine in front of them was good or bad. So we focused all our energy on this very simple thing: to obtain as much information about as many wines as possible and to present that information to our users in an accessible way. The first thing you have to do as a start-up is find out what your users want. At the beginning, your whole team is usually only made up of two or three people, and you don’t have any resources to speak of, so you need to identify quickly what exactly your users want from your app and then focus on that relentlessly. If you try to do ten things, you will really do nothing.
European Business: Vivino’s appeal is partially based on its users receiving suggestions based on peer reviews. Do peers really give better advice about wine than experts?
Heini Zachariassen: Yes, absolutely. Just think about it: If somebody loves really fine art and you don’t understand it, wouldn’t you rather receive recommendations from somebody who understands and appreciates art in the same way you do? In all aspects of life, getting recommendations from your peers is usually more valuable, with a few minor exceptions. That being said, when we look at our wine ratings and conduct correlation analyses, the crowd is just as good as the experts. The crowd is wise – I have no doubt about that.
The crowd is wise – I have no doubt about that. Heini Zachariassen
European Business: For the last two decades, the biggest success story in the world of e-commerce has clearly been Amazon. Did Amazon serve as a role model for Vivino as well?
Heini Zachariassen: Amazon clearly sets the bar in many respects. They’re an important driver of e-commerce, and I don’t think that’s all bad because they are moving the market and showing everybody how it’s done. In doing so, they also drive customers to us because in the field we’re competing in – finding and exploring wine – we are better than they are. If you live in the United States, Amazon has become the absolute benchmark in terms of the level of service the customers can expect. When I buy through Amazon today, I expect two-day shipping – that’s a normal thing now. Recently, I bought a gift from some random poster store, and it took a month to arrive. For me, this has become completely unacceptable.
Amazon has become the absolute benchmark in terms of the level of service the customers can expect. Heini Zacharaissen
European Business: Your company's European headquarters is located in Denmark, a country not immediately associated with wine and wine culture. How important are the Nordic countries for you as a market, though, and is there something that makes them special business-wise in the food and beverages sector?
Heini Zachariassen: As I explained earlier, I was a complete outsider in the wine industry, and Vivino was very much founded from an outsider’s perspective. Hence, the fact that Vivino was born in Denmark, a country without vineyards, is not a bad fit from this point of view.
I remember a tweet by a French guy about us, which said: ‘Why is this app not French?’ I don’t want to bash the French too much, but this question can probably best be answered with a story another Frenchman once told me about his grandfather, who lived on the left bank of the Garonne River near Bordeaux and who only drank left-bank Bordeaux – except when he wanted to try something really exotic one day, and then went off to drink a bottle of right-bank Bordeaux. The extent to which this man explored the world of wine was confined to a small section of his home region in one department of France.
Unimaginable for a Danish wine aficionado: Even though there is no wine production industry in Denmark, wine is widely enjoyed and consumed in the Nordic countries. That makes our market very diverse, and when you walk into a store in Denmark, you will see all kinds of wine from all regions of the world. The selection is immense – which is also the reason why people need more help with it.
European Business: Have you become a wine connoisseur since you started your company and if so, what’s your favorite wine currently in stock at Vivino?
Heini Zachariassen: Naturally, I have picked up a few tips along the way, but my goal is not to be a wine connoisseur as the Vivino audience spans all groups of wine drinkers – from casual to connoisseurs. And I don't need to be a connoisseur with the help of the community! I usually don’t give recommendations, but I live in California now, and I love the Cabernets and Pinots from here, and I really love champagne, too. I’m pretty diverse in my wine preferences and drink all kinds of stuff – everything that has a good Vivino rating.
Interview: Julian Miller | Pictures: Vivino