Rochester startup WineryConnect initially set out to raise $400,000 in its Series A round. But the coronavirus outbreak underscored its value proposition—using technology to connect controlled-beverage producers with customers—drawing $1 million from an undisclosed local investor.
Though the business was in talks with the investor before the pandemic hit, once the lockdown began it quickly became obvious that WineryConnect, a cloud-based commerce company, held promise.
“Wineries and distilleries are doing everything online,” says Ben Weiner, CEO of WineryConnect. “Their tasting rooms, where they used to get most of their money, are closed. The ones that weren’t online are scrambling to get online and the ones that were online are doing fantastically well.”
WineryConnect, a DBA of Quantum Loop Solutions, functions as a virtual IT department to wineries and others in the controlled-beverages realm. Its Grape Squad supports all the technologies used by its customers, such as point-of-sale applications like Revel, while its vinESB platform offers enterprise-level cloud application integration as an affordable service, connecting it altogether.
Currently, WineryConnect works with 30 wineries. Its client roster includes names like Hazlitt Vineyards, Buttonwood Grove Winery and Wagner Valley Brewing. The business employs seven people, including contractors.
Ben Weiner’s brother Sam Weiner, who calls himself a product of the Rochester business ecosystem, is founder of WineryConnect and its chief technology officer. He credits local entrepreneurs and NextCorps, where he attended the Lean LaunchPad Program, for help along the way. In 2012, Quantum Loop developed an application allowing merchants to manage their businesses from a mobile device, taking third place in the Rochester Regional Business Plan Contest, planting a seed for WineryConnect.
“We’re the only virtual IT department for controlled commerce in the world, I can say pretty confidently,” Sam Weiner says.
An enterprise architect, Sam Weiner has been working on omnichannel commerce for several years. Now a buzzword in the tech world, omnichannel is a multichannel sales approach, offering a seamless shopping experience for customers whether they shop on a mobile device, a computer or in a store.
“The real magic is we’ve figured out how to take this super abstract concept of (cloud-based) integration (as) a service. We’ve got a cloud that connects with other clouds,” Sam Weiner says. “And the only way we were really able to approach that is with deep verticalization.
“We picked the winery industry pretty deliberately and we’ve spent seven years figuring out that the only way to talk about that is to say we’re a virtual IT department. … More broadly, we’re a virtual IT department for controlled commerce.”
A virtual IT department levels the playing field, he says, allowing smaller wineries to compete effectively with larger ones. For bigger beverage producers, WineryConnect allows for a larger number of automated transactions between clouds, collecting analytics along the way. The Rochester company partners with IT departments at these businesses.
“It’s a nice family business that’s working with these family businesses, these wineries to help them grow over time and do the enterprise architecture and enterprise application integration that I was able to do for big companies,” says Sam Weiner, whose son leads the Grape Squad. “Because we can do it virtually, we can spread it across lots of companies, and they can get the same type of benefit.”
At Buttonwood Grove, WineryConnect helped to implement a Revel point-of-sale application, a TrueCommerce Nexternal eCommerce storefront and wine club platform integrated with the QuickBooks online business system. The winery was able to launch direct marketing efforts, print shipping labels quickly, kick off a wine club subscription service, and connect with customers through Revel and ecommerce offerings. The winery gained 93 wine club members in less than four months.
Still, the Weiners believe it is people that will make WineryConnect work. With the funds raised, the business plans to hire midlevel technologists to execute on their plan, building out the Grape Squad. WineryConnect will focus on developing an efficient way to capture payment processing revenue and clean, well-structured data for intelligence. The team hopes to free producers to focus on their products and engage consumers with the ability to scale operations in the future.
“Mainly, we plan on using (the funds) to implement what was already in our heads and hiring people to help us do that,” Ben Weiner says. “To me, one of the best stories of this is not only could we get an investment in this time, but we could also be looking to hire people in this time.”
Though the Weiners did not disclose employment or revenue projections for the company, they expect to start hiring soon and grow local jobs. WineryConnect’s investor took advantage of the federal Qualified Opportunity Zone program, which targets economically distressed communities where new investments, under stipulations, may be eligible for preferential tax treatment. The business is located on Alexander Street in Rochester.
“The benefit…is going to the community,” Ben Weiner says. “We’re going to be working in an area that’s underserved, we’re going to be hiring from the locality; we will be working in that office in the Opportunity Zone, it’s just a plus-plus for everyone.”
An entrepreneur and Cornell University graduate, Ben Weiner has been a small-business owner and a restaurateur. An owner of a general contracting business, he decided to move from Brooklyn to Ithaca, to be in the Finger Lakes, after his brother brought him on as CEO, a decision that he says was a no-brainer. An early investor in WineryConnect, Ben Weiner will spend his time organizing the team, talking to partners and growing sales.
“I have a great feeling (about this),” he says. “I wouldn’t be letting go of my contracting company and moving to Ithaca if I didn’t.”
Though the company’s approach could work across industries, WineryConnect is intent on focusing on controlled beverages. Plans for growth include Savor, using social networks to drive transactions, from ecommerce to in-person visits. Eventually, Sam Weiner says, WineryConnect could consider commerce around controlled substances like cannabis. For now, however, it plans to stay the course.
“We understand that there’s so many verticals that we could be chasing, but we want to chase basically one first and get that right, and that will be controlled beverages, wineries, distilleries, some breweries, perhaps,” Ben Weiner says. “Then we’ll be dipping our feet in other verticals once we get this vertical all standardized and proven out.”
Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.
Huge congrats to Sam and his team, who I worked with in the Lean Launchpad program. This shows how a clear market focus and perseverance pay off over time. Doing a startup? Don’t expect overnight success! It can take time for an idea to mature into a product mix and market fit.