Lara Crystal Conquers On-Demand Alcohol

Special guest Lara Crystal, Co-Founder of Minibar Delivery, sits in with Startups Live.

June 5th, 2017   |    By: Keith Liles    |    Tags: Startups Live

The customer experience. The task of any business is to shape the experience – to decide what it should looks like, figure out how it can be improved, and to listen to your customers. And, as Lara Crystal speaking about her company Minibar Delivery reveals, who you partner with, tech, company culture and more can play both direct and indirect roles in determining the quality of the customer experience that you provide.

…even when the outcome is something as universally appreciated as having wine brought to your doorstep, there’s so much that could go wrong. Or, if you wise up as to how things are done at Minibar Delivery, so much that can go right…

Lara Crystal, Founder of MinibarDelivery

This morning’s Startups Live chat began with Lara Crystal introducing herself: “I’m the co-founder of Minibar Delivery, which my-co-founder and I created to build the best way to shop for wine, liquor and beer. Prior to Minibar Delivery, I was part of the founding team at Rent the Runway, leading marketing and overseeing the brand there for 4+ years.”

“In 2013, my co-founder and I were great friends and looking for a new challenge. We’d talk about ideas over dinner at one of our apartments, and one night we were out of wine – which really stopped the ideas from flowing. We realized that we can get everything delivered – but not alcohol! So the idea came out from the on-demand economy that was rising all around us. Then, when we looked into the industry a bit more – we found a lot of other problems surfacing both for consumers and retailers.”

Eileen Guan asked, “Lara in delivering alcohol, how do you ensure you don’t have kids ordering it?”

“It’s exactly the same as in store. The stores do the delivery and card upon delivery. (That’s part of what makes the business model very attractive – no infrastructure and no inventory.)

“So you guys are the tech-muscle, connecting the store to the buyer?” Stephanie Newton sought to clarify.

“Yup, exactly, we think of ourselves as their tech & marketing partners.”

It’s not hard to get behind the concept of alcohol delivery on demand, but the need for such a service is more urgent in some places than others.

As Imran Siddiq informed the group, “…a couple of years ago, Government in Turkey banned the liquor stores from selling after 11pm. So there is a rise in home delivery these days, basically people order some cheap food item from menu… and wine with it. Restaurants are thriving!”

Dr. Deborah Hecker wondered, “What previous experience did you have that contributed to your and your partner’s confidence that you could go into the unknown?”

“That’s a good question since neither of us had any experience in this industry, but I think we did have experience in building and scaling consumer brands, which is really what we’re trying to do with Minibar.”

Along similar lines, Devon Milkovich asked, “Was it challenging coming from a fashion retail space to the beverage industry? How did your Rent The Runway experience help in founding another company?”

“I think outside perspective can be valuable sometimes,” responded Lara. “It’s much easier if you’re on the inside to say, no way is this possible. Rent the Runway’s founders had no fashion experience, for example.”

Ryan Rutan was quick to add, “Innovation often comes from non-incumbents.”

And Wil Schroter pushed the position of not being an incumbent further, “Do you feel strongly sometimes being naive about what ‘can’ be done is your greatest asset?”

“That’s a very good question and not unrelated to yours, Eileen. (What would you say are the main points to building and scaling a consumer business?)”

“There was a great quote on Twitter the other day from Jeremy Liew that said, ‘When a consumer market is new, distribution wins. As consumer becomes educated, product wins. When product reaches parity, brand wins.’”

“I could not have articulated that so well, but I think that’s very similar to how I view this world of online alcohol sales.”

“Building a brand is so important in the long term, and you can’t neglect it in the beginning. From the start of Minibar Delivery, we knew what we wanted to be to our consumers and our partners.”

“But you also can’t neglect that growth (distribution) is really important in the beginning and you have to keep scaling and you have to keep an eye on product to make sure you’re building the best one out there.”

“Obviously there’s a strong parallel here with food delivery, which is a fiercely competitive space,” began Wil. “What have you learned from that industry that has helped you navigate differently (avoid mistakes) in your industry?”

“I think Seamless has had incredible focus and that’s helped them a lot. They could’ve easily expanded into grocery, liquor, etc. – especially with the name Seamless (though now I guess it’s Seamless/Grubhub) – but they just wanted to do this 1 thing well because it’s a big enough market.”

“And that’s how we feel about alcohol, which is $100B annually in the US just in at-home consumption. So if we can just successfully move a portion of those sales online, that’s a big business.”

Given the nature of interactions between Minibar and customers, Steph touched on a key concern when she inquired, “What does retention look like for you? Is it something done hand in hand with the stores you work with?”

“It’s something we’ve focused on from the beginning. We consider it our responsibility, not our stores. Of course they have the final hand-off, and ultimately control selection and prices (legally, they have to), but the entire customer experience is ours, including the stores we partner with – so ultimately we focus on ensuring that consumers come back, and if they don’t, we try to find out why so we can improve.”

In a highly competitive space, even saturated, where consolidation is occurring, the customer experience is vital to differentiating yourself in order to succeed.

“We aim to be an aspirational experience that provides the most value to our consumers – not just in terms of price, but in terms of what they get from the service. So that’s always included things like bartenders for consumers that want something special, personalized recommendations to make our shopping experience superior to in-store, a party-planning tool so consumers can figure out how much to order. Things like that – all came from customer requests.”

Dan Meisner wanted to know, “How did you initially begin marketing and spreading the word? Did you work with customers throughout the process of creating the MVP?” Excellent questions for anyone starting out and ready to attract attention.

“My co-founder and I both have marketing backgrounds, but…”

“I’m more on the brand marketing side and she’s more on the paid acquisition side. We always say that the two sides work hand in hand, but brand marketing comes first.”

“So we started with PR, partnerships, word of mouth, influencers – really building the word up – and this is true still for new cities – then we layer in more of the paid marketing, SEM, facebook, direct mail, etc.”

At the mention of partnerships, Steph said, “I was was thrilled to see that y’all had established partnerships with some of the big names in beer. Which is a pretty male-dominated ‘boys club’ industry. How did you go about selecting/building partnerships? And do you get any ‘beer money’ from them?”

“Thanks for the question about partnerships!”

“I started to get into this earlier when I was discussing how we discovered other challenges in the industry. One of the things we realized is that these brands, who are some of the biggest brands in the world, have no actual connection with their customers. They advertise on tv, billboards, etc. but can’t sell directly, so the communication system just drops before and after a sale. We realized we could help change that a bit by providing them a better platform to connect to consumers at the time of sale and beyond, everyone from Anheuser-Busch to Pernod Ricard, etc.”

“So we sought out advertising partners that were innovative and that we felt would resonate with our consumers.”

Brandon Hollembeak was eager to better understand the role of brand connections for the business. He asked, “You work directly with the stores to sell their inventory, but you’re also working the connections with brands as well. Is that to influence getting the store partnerships or.. ?”

Lara answered, “We essentially have 2 revenue streams – store revenue and advertising revenue from brands.”

Dan had a follow-up question: “How did you manage to set up meetings with those giants? Do you mind walking us through that process – it’s sometimes difficult to get in touch with some of the giant companies as a small startup.”

“Often they would come to us – that’s one of the reasons that building buzz through PR & word-of-mouth is so important.”

Lara repeatedly made it clear that despite early success and growth, the plan would remain to get this one thing right. Which led Steph to ask, “Did your team grow over night? Or slowly? How did you maintain culture?” #allthequestions

“We’ve grown pretty slowly on the team count, that certainly helps maintain a culture. We solidified our core values fairly early on and try to hire for those kinds of people.”

Steph interjected, “You guys did everything right! Kept a narrow focus, laid out core values from the start! Saves ya SO MUCH heartache (and headache!)”

“We try to focus on culture, and recently created a small ‘culture committee’ with people at various levels to make sure we’re hearing a lot of different voices.”

Imran wanted to know what Minibar’s core value are and how they came up with them. It was a sign of how deeply ingrained they are in company that Lara Crystal was able to respond instantly –

  1. Celebrate Every Day
  2. Deliver Excellence
  3. Be Open
  4. Embrace Change
  5. Operate with Integrity

“We came up with those as a team; we asked for input anonymously, then tried to bring together big ideas, then crowdsourced the right words from the team to summarize the ‘big ideas.’”

And of course, the question came up that’s on everyone’s mind – when are you going to expand into our region?

If you think Minibar Delivery sounds like the perfect company to work for, who knows, there just might be a place for you. They’re hiring! Check out positions they need to fill here. And if you have more questions for Lara Crystal, you can reach her at lara@minibardelivery.com.

Editor’s note: This chat has been edited for content and clarity.

 Lindsey Andrews and Lara Crystal, Minibar Delivery

 

About the Author

Keith Liles

Keith Liles is a freelance writer who loves travel, music, wine, hiking, poetry, and just about everything. He practices saying “yes” to life vigorously, rehearsing for the phone call when he’s asked to tour with Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. Follow Keith on Twitter @KPLiles.

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