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Martin and Denise Cody: 5 Things We Wish Someone Told Us Before We Founded Cellar Angels

Never forget you’re always in the people business. The customer experience is paramount. In haste to get things done, we need to never lose sight of who our customer is, what they need, and then how to exceed those needs.

As part of my series about the leadership lessons of accomplished business leaders, I had the pleasure of interviewing Martin and Denise Cody, Co-Founders of Cellar Angels.

Wine lovers from way back, Martin and Denise Cody pivoted their love affair with wine into their first vino-venture; a retail brick and mortar wine shop in Chicago. The store became a much-loved, well-trodden institution in the city. Selling it in 2013, Martin and Denise went on to chase their dream of providing the finest, least known, independent wine producers in the country a digital marketplace to share their talents and artistry with wine enthusiasts.

Having founded three companies prior to Cellar Angels, Martin Cody has a visionary entrepreneurial spirit and built an extensive national network of wine industry contacts that continue to support Cellar Angels’ growth. His passion for both the craft of winemaking and his firm belief in the importance of developing and shaping small businesses have allowed Cellar Angels to thrive and fill a much-needed void in the market.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the story about what brought you to this specific career path?

In 1998 we snuck away early from a nursing conference in San Francisco to check out Napa and Sonoma Wine Country. This magical experience was the beginning of a wine passion, a hobby, and of course, led to Cellar Angels.

In 2007, we opened a small wine shop in the Lakeview neighborhood of Chicago and Denise exchanged her surgical nursing career to begin another in the wine industry. The next three years revealed a real void in the world of wine as we, as wine shop owners, we're unable to access wines from the small wine producers (under 5,000 cases produced per year) we’d come to love and support personally. They are the fabric of the wine industry, hand-crafting their wines with painstaking attention to quality and the environment. And while they represent over 70% of the wineries in Napa and Sonoma, their production volumes are so small that the distribution channel has left them behind. Supporting the boutique winery became our new mission and in 2010 Cellar Angels was born. The goal was to create a pathway for these producers to reach a national audience via a Direct to Consumer purchasing channel. Additionally, for the many wine enthusiasts out there like us hunting for the off-the-beaten-path wineries, Cellar Angels provide access to limited production wineries that couldn’t be found otherwise. In 2013, we sold the wine shop to focus on Cellar Angels full time.

Seven years later, Cellar Angels is now a recognized and well-respected name among the small wine producers of the famous Napa and Sonoma wine regions. We’ve since launched 3 wines clubs, a corporate gift program, and since the stay-at-home orders, we are providing weekly private and public virtual guided wine tastings.

Can you share one of the major challenges you encountered when first leading the company? What lesson did you learn from that?

One of the biggest challenges we first encountered was in navigating the three-tier alcohol system or alcohol distribution channel.

We learned the regulatory hurdles were put in place for a reason and weren’t going away any time soon. We also learned a great many people were tired of the “same old same old” when it came to wine accessibility via that three-tier system. If provided an easy manner to purchase from artisan Napa and Sonoma producers, normally inaccessible to consumers, they would engage and become customers.

And the second major challenge has been in learning how to interact and meet customer needs virtually.

What are some of the factors that you believe led to your eventual success?

There are four factors we believe that have led us to our success: consistent growth in wine purchasing behavior as online purchases have consistently increased via the Direct to Consumer channel; leveraging twenty years of winery relations to provide access to rare limited wines consumers couldn’t otherwise find on their own; video introductions to each wine producer and a feel-good purchase that supports small business wineries with a portion going to a charitable cause of the consumer’s choice.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Became CEO”? Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Your technology is dated the minute your most recent revision is complete. We’re currently on our third website platform and are still not where we want to be. Customer needs are always evolving, and the platform has to adapt.
  2. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good enough. You can spend hours (actually waste hours) over a decision when you’re most likely best served by deciding quickly and getting to the next fire.
  3. Ask for help. Entrepreneurs learn quickly when to put pride and ego aside.
  4. Never forget you’re always in the people business. The customer experience is paramount. In haste to get things done, we need to never lose sight of who our customer is, what they need, and then how to exceed those needs.
  5. Your work life and personal life are no longer separate. While yes, an online business affords the opportunity to work from anywhere, you will work from everywhere, 24/7/365.

What advice would you give to your colleagues to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

To thrive, build a reliable team around you so you can work ON the business and not IN the business. You won’t please everyone. Choose the battles you can win. Find balance. Take time for yourself to recharge your batteries so the creative juices continue to flow.

Find people you can mentor and help grow them. Surely every entrepreneur had someone’s assistance. Pay it forward.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

A team of wine friends helped put up the guard rails on the business, so we didn’t fall coming out of the gates. Our first investors believed in our initial “back of the napkin” pitch and took a chance on us. Now ten years later we still have loyal customers who have been with us from the beginning and remain committed to Cellar Angels and its success. It’s absolutely humbling and gratifying.

What are some of the goals you still have and are working to accomplish, both personally and professionally?

Keeping a work/ life balance is a major goal that takes conscious effort to maintain as does keeping up with the ever-changing digital market landscape and continuing to provide our customer’s value.

What do you hope to leave as your lasting legacy?

For Cellar Angels to “dent the universe” and provide small wine producers a well-worn path to wine enthusiasts through the Direct to Consumer channel.

Personally, we’d like to make a difference in the lives of the beneficiaries of the causes we are passionately supporting.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would enhance people’s lives in some way, what would it be? You never know what your idea can trigger!

If more wine enthusiasts know that they may have access to a larger selection of hand-crafted wine, at a better price and higher quality by shopping online, there would be a tectonic shift in the Direct to Consumer wine market. This purchasing behavior provides the small wine producers and family wine farmers financial security and a consistent revenue stream which they don’t enjoy now, especially in the time of Covid-19. Wine lovers can now transform an industry and change lives with a click.

How can our readers follow you on social media?



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Twitter: @cellarangels



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