Divino Wines: Jake Woodhouse

Wine lover Jake Woodhouse's passion for specialist Italian vintages has inspired a new business

The UK has changed in recent years from a nation of beer drinkers to country of wine connoisseurs. Jake Woodhouse hopes to make the most of this newly found love with a business dedicated to specialist Italian wines.   

Name: Jake Woodhouse Age: 30 Business: Divino Wines Type of business: Wine importer Start date: May 2005

When did you first decide you wanted to start your own business? I’ve done many jobs, initially I was a musician but I got bored and retrained to be a winemaker in New Zealand. I then worked in Italy for a few vintages before returning to the UK where I got a job in an independent wine merchant. I had been thinking about starting a business for a while and working there gave me the idea for Divino.

Tell us about your business Divino wines imports wines from small producers in Italy who make interesting, distinctive and an exciting wines (ie. not supermarket wine). Selling is done through the website direct to customers and as we import the wine ourselves we offer good value as well as interest. There are a couple of other websites selling Italian wines that I know of, but they all buy in the UK from wholesalers and as a consequence offer neither value nor interest, and they all offer the same wines. I also sell to a few specialist independent wine merchants and I am looking to expand this side of the business.

Was it your first business idea and where did it come from? No, it wasn’t my first. When I came back to the UK from Italy I briefly worked at a craft brewers in Devon. And I thought ‘if I can make wine I can certainly make beer’ and planned to start my own organic microbrewery. Two things put a stop to that plan; firstly the start up cost of buying the brewing equipment is enormous; secondly it turned out that I’m a coeliac and therefore can’t drink beer any more – and I refuse to make beer if I can’t drink it!

What makes you think there’s a market for your business? The explosion of wine drinking in the UK over the last ten years or so has been largely fuelled by the supermarkets providing basic, cheap wines. Many people who have been introduced to wine in this way are starting to realise that there is a lot more to it and want to find out more. Whilst working at the specialist wine shop I ran several six week wine courses and realised through this that there is a real thirst for knowledge of wine and discovering more interesting wines.

Once you’d decided to start a business, what did you do first? I did a lot of research into every aspect of the business, using startups.co.uk as a starting point. Importing alcohol is not particularly easy. I needed to find a transporter who could give good rates despite the fact that to begin with I would be importing relatively small amounts. A bonded warehouse is also needed to avoid paying huge amounts of duty upfront. I also had to learn to do the maths pretty quickly.

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What advice did you seek? I went on a business startup course recommended by Business Link which was quite useful.

Does the government need to provide more help to people trying to start a business? Maybe there should be more grants available to cover start up costs, I’m sure the government could find some money somewhere.

Talk us through the process of writing your business plan. I found it tough going. I tend to prefer to just do things and see if they work.

How much did it cost to start the business? For the wholesale side – nothing – as I negotiated consignment stock terms with most of my suppliers. So, effectively I only pay once I’ve sold the wines. The website cost £2000 and I have to say I was extremely pleased by the speed and quality of the web designers. They took everything I said on board, came back with a draft version and it was all finished on time. And, I’ve never even met them as they are based miles away from me!

How did you fund this? I ransacked my bank account. I did wonder about going for a loan but I hate dealing with the banks and I thought it would probably set me back months. I just wanted to get on with starting the business.

Similarly, how are you funding your running costs until the business takes off?I’m lucky in that my partner has a job, which can just about cover our expenses.

When did you stop working? For most of 2005 I was still working at the specialist wine shop, so was getting up early, doing a couple of hours before going to work and more when I got back. I finally left after Christmas as I felt I needed more time to dedicate to getting more customers. I am far more happy self-employed. Did I mention I dislike working for people?

Are you working from home or from premises? I work from home. The wine, however, gets the luxury of premises in the form of a bonded warehouse. I actually prefer working from home and although it would be nice to have a bigger home with a separate office, it’ll do for the moment. Most of the work can be done over the phone and email. Also, I go out to see clients and do tastings so there isn’t as yet a real need for premises. I don’t find it difficult to keep a professional approach working from home, in fact I think I’m better here!

How many hours are you working at the moment?Pretty much normal office hours.

How are you managing your day and what steps have you taking to ensure you’re able to get everything done without working around the clock? The most time consuming thing is going out and getting new customers, once a wine is listed then the orders tend to repeat. The accounts take quite a long time, there is a lot of paper work involved with importing wine and dealing with duty, so I realised pretty early on that I needed a decent accounts package. It took a long time to find a suitable one (multiple currencies are not supported by many), but now I have one up and running it’s made a big difference.

What about staff, is it just you? Just me

What marketing and advertising have you done so far? I’ve done a small amount of advertising for the website, but am starting seriously next month in collaboration with a magazine dedicated to all things Italian. I sent some wines off to be tasted by a very prominent wine writer and got excellent reviews on his site. This is something which I will be doing more of.

Where do you hope to be in 12 months time? I aim to be supplying 15 independent wine shops all over England and I want to have increased my web customers by 50%.

What are the main obstacles to growth?Getting to buyers at shops to taste the wines, invariably they like them when they do, but it is getting them to agree to taste which is the hard bit. I have a daring plan for this, but I don’t wish to divulge it right now, ask me again in a year.

Tell us about your website. The website was an offshoot of the main business but has become increasingly important. I enjoy passing on my knowledge of Italian wine and the website is a way to do this. For example, there is a vineyard diary with photos of one of my producer’s vineyards and an explanation of what work is done. No-one else has this and it acts as a great incentive to get people back to the website on regular basis.

What are your main ambitions, to make a lot of money or enjoy what you do? My ambition is really a bit of both, I want to enjoy what I do and make enough money to be able to live comfortably. I also have an ambition to get back to winemaking at some stage.

What have you found difficult about starting up and what do you wish you’d done differently?I wish I’d started earlier.

What skills and personal characteristics do you need to start your own business?Single-mindeness but with an ability to adapt if necessary to external events.

So what advice would you give to anyone thinking of starting a business? By all means do the necessary research, but in the end just go with your gut feeling, if it feels right then do it.




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