Stylus: Russ Cook

With subscription services and vinyl records in strong demand, this entrepreneur decided to combine the two - and add in a bottle wine!

Name: Russ Cook
Company Name: Stylus
Location: South East
Date Launched: 27/10/16
Twitter handle: @stylusvinyl
Website: www.stylusvinyl.com

Tell us what your business does:

Stylus is a new subscription box service that pairs a classic album on 12″ vinyl, with a great bottle of wine, every month. Each box also includes an independently commissioned piece of album art, inspired by the record.

Finally, each month’s box contains a magazine, featuring interviews with musicians, biographers, winemakers, sommeliers, and so on, as well as tasting notes for the wine and, what we call, listening notes for the music.

Where did the idea for your business come from?

I’ve always been a musician and have always believed that music, recorded originally, for vinyl, sounds best on vinyl.

I’ve also been collecting records since I was 14 and, in more recent years, I’ve been working as a journalist in the hospitality sector. That led to me developing a real interest in wine too – particularly drinking it!

The knock-on effect is that my wife and I spend a lot of time listening to our favourite classic albums on vinyl and drinking good wine. The two together just work: both come from people who have great stories and both tend to have really interesting production processes.

In sum, that’s where the idea for Stylus came from. We felt other people of our age group who, for the first time in their lives, are enjoying being at home a little more, would really buy into it.

How did you know there was a market for it?

According to an article published in Fortune Magazine in April, vinyl sales are at their highest for 28 years. Interestingly, those sales are spread among a really diverse demographic.

There’s also an increasing interest in subscription box services, particularly in the capital. Those who lead busy professional lives, and are in search of an easy way to enjoy the finer things, are really buying into it.

They’re people who, for the first time in their lives, have a home they’re feeling settled in and a steady income. They’re looking for nice ways to spend their time, other than on their iPhone and in front of the TV.

What were you doing before starting up?

I was – and still am – working as a reporter at Square Meal Venues + Events. I also freelance as a music journalist and embrace my inner geek by writing regularly for The Walking Dead Magazine.

As I mentioned earlier, I’m also a musician and have been an active one since I was 16. I’ve had a record deal with a band in the past, and played several major UK festivals.

My wife is also currently the product director for a software company. That’s her full time job so she doesn’t have the time for the normal operations of this business, but luckily she likes working, so she acts as my business advisor some evenings and on weekends – particularly when free vinyl and wine are involved.

Have you always wanted to run your own business?

I’ve never seen myself as a businessman, but I’ve been told many times that I’ve an entrepreneurial spark and have been encouraged to follow it wherever it leads.

My wife, on the other hand, has been dreaming about running businesses since she was a little girl. As an American child, she ran her own lemonade stand and fake restaurants for her family.

I suppose you could say she’s been in training for this her entire life. Lucky for me, I have her as my weekend business advisor.

How did you raise the money?

We’ve invested start-up cash from our own personal savings – the result of respective careers in journalism and software. So not only is our heart and soul in this business but also our bank accounts. We also have a silent partner – not involved in operations of the business – who liked the idea, believes in us and offered some investment.

Describe your business model and how you make money:

As a subscription box business, we operate on a monthly cycle. Customers need to sign up by the end of the month to receive the next box, which gets delivered within the first two weeks of each respective month.

We source vinyl directly from major labels (e.g. Warner, Universal, etc.) and the wine from our partners and wine experts over at Great Western Wine, which was recently acquired by Enotria & Coe.

The added value in what we offer comes from my experiences as a musician and journalist, which gives me access to interesting people, from the worlds of music and wine, which in turns provides interesting and insightful content. This helps inform the records we choose, and the wine we pair with it. But mostly, it provides us with great content for the Stylus magazine that goes in each box.

Our first issue, for example, featured an interview with Prince biographer, Matt Thorne, and an interview with Chester Osborn, chief winemaker at d’Aranberg Wines in Australia.

Additionally, I have a strong contact base of illustrators, and for our first issue we were able to commission Robin Eisenberg for a one-off piece of album art.

As far as the future goes, we’ve just started work on moving into the corporate gift market and offering one-off gift boxes – a package that includes a vinyl player for those starting on their collection. We’re also planning a vinyl only membership, particularly for our European customers.

Shipping wine to the continent from the UK can be expensive and bureaucratic. Last of all, we’ll be implementing a swap shop for customers who receive an album or two they already own.

What challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?

1. Alcohol Licensing.

Getting my personal alcohol license was pretty straight forward. I got the background checks, took the classes and passed the test. The premise license proved to be challenging though. UK alcohol laws are not directly applicable to online sale and the subsequent delivery of alcohol to people’s homes, with regards to age verification.

This is probably because they were originally written for on-premise sales or consumption of alcohol. We had to do a lot of research but eventually found that the government has offered some more recent guidance notes.

2. Couriers.

The cost of shipping within the UK, particularly when the service we are allowed to provide is restricted by licensing conditions, does, inevitably eat into our margin. The shipping we add-on to our subscription is actually less than what we are paying but we are trying to keep the monthly box cost attractive and reasonable for our customers.

As we grow and ship more boxes each month, we will then have some negotiating power to get better rates with couriers and better reflect what is passed on to customers.

What was your first big breakthrough?

It is early days, so I wouldn’t say we’ve had a major breakthrough, as yet. But, we’re really happy with how things are going so far. We worked really hard towards making sure that our first box was as high quality and as enjoyable for our members as possible, and we have had some great feedback. We have lots of plans for the future and are confident we have a great foundation to build on.

What advice would you give to budding entrepreneurs?

Firstly, do tons of research and learn from the experience of others. Even with lots of business experience behind you or supporting you, there is always an element of “you don’t know what you don’t know”.

When you make decisions with no information or minimal information these things can come back to bite you and ultimately cost you money in the future. Reading as much as you can about similar businesses and researching laws, both tax and non-financial, can be daunting, but is vital. We also suggest building up a network of other entrepreneurs and sharing skillsets.

Secondly, stay passionate and stay positive. It’s easy to get depressed by negative feedback or things not immediately working out how you expected them to. But no success comes without its hurdles and the determination, patience and hard work to overcome them.

Where do you want to be in five years’ time?

Ultimately, we want our business to have lots of happy customers who enjoy multiple elements of what we offer. We want them to look forward to getting our boxes each month and to eventually own a vinyl collection we helped to create.

In terms of other ideas for the business, we are interested in getting into events and using the experience I have of working in that sector. We love when people get together and enjoy music and we like to think we’re pretty good at facilitating a fun atmosphere. I’ve got a background in putting on gigs and my wife and I generally love to entertain. Our friends will tell you we’re often throwing big parties.

In fact, we even gave our wedding a blues and bourbon theme, which we planned in meticulous detail. We got some great feedback – the wedding venue wanted us to assist them with planning their future events after we were done!

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