How a Former Cal Football Player Quit His First Job After 11 months and Built A Mission Driven Wine Company
11 months. That’s the extent of work experience Brandon Hall had when he set out to start a wine company with seven other friends. In November of 2006, a little more than a year after his football career finished at the University of California-Berkeley, Brandon quit his job as a Sales Rep for Gallo Wine Company and began selling wine out of the trunk of his car. For someone who planned on owning a business only after a lengthy professional sports career, Brandon knew working for someone else wasn’t what he was meant to do.
Nearly 13 years later, Brandon has no regrets about quitting and starting an adventure with seven friends to build a brand of their own. ONEHOPE Wine is now a multi-million dollar, mission-driven brand. From the outset, the company committed to donating a portion of the proceeds from every bottle sold to charity. To date, Brandon and his team have made more than $4 million in donations, provided 46,000 people with global health care, 49,000 forever homes for shelter animals, 1.8 million meals for children, 163,000 life-saving vaccines and much more.
In this interview, we spoke with Brandon about what it was like building a company with no experience in the beginning, how he scaled it to compete with big players, and the advice that all student-athletes should hear before leaving school.
Paint the picture of what joining the company was like fresh out of school.
Gallo is the Coca Cola of the wine industry. They own a majority of the top 50 brands and they own at least a third of the shelf in every grocery store. My job was to manage Gallo’s products in 10 grocery stores in Southern California. I had to be in the store before 7 or 8 AM working with the buyers to make sure our products were on the shelf for the right price. There's plenty of inventory and I would try to get them to either bring in new brands or place my display of certain brands.
The other thing to mention is that Gallo is known as a hardcore program. So there's a lot of competition. Everything is tracked. The atmosphere was definitely about striving to compete and be better colleagues. But for me, I had to remind myself everyday that this wasn't for me. I was always aware that someone was in control of my life and at that point, it just never sat well with me.
I guess that’s reflected in how quickly you left the company. Can you talk about leaving Gallo after 11 months to start ONEHOPE Wine?
I started a casino rental equipment business within two months of working in Gallo and I did it on the side. In college, everyone was playing poker so I built it for our house that we lived in. Then I realized I should just try to rent these so I started renting them for a couple hundred bucks a weekend. I started making more money renting, dropping off, and picking up poker tables on the weekends than I would make at Gallo working 70 hours a week.
That was my first aha moment. I'd finish up my work at Gallo at two or three in the afternoon and spend the afternoon working on that rental business. Jake Kloberdanz, our CEO, worked with me at Gallo and we would always run business ideas by each other. He had the idea for ONEHOPE and we would always say we should do this. Once his friend was diagnosed with cancer, he told us, “I'm doing it. You want to go?” I quit and started building both ONEHOPE and the rental business full-time.
What were some of those main challenges in the first year or two?
Back then you couldn't legally sell online so we had to sell to distributors and get them to carry our product. And then we had to help them sell it to grocery stores, wine shops, or restaurants. A lot of those first couple of years was running around California selling wine to stores and then getting a distributor in California to deliver it and warehouse it for us.
Our next state was Arizona. We also had a connection in North Carolina so I spent a lot of time flying out there to work with that distributor. It's a lot of relationship based selling, getting to know the distributors, getting to know the sales reps, and spending a lot of time with them. That was the first year and a half. Around this time, I hired someone full-time to take over the casino business to allow me to focus on ONEHOPE.
Was there an early milestone that validated your decision to start this company?
Michael Mondavi, the son of Robert Mondavi, came up to us at a trade show in San Francisco. One of my co-founders gave him our pitch of who we were, what our vision was, and how we gave half of our profits back to local nonprofits. He loved the story and offered to partner with us to help us make better wine and advise us on a very bumpy road ahead. I would say that was the first time we felt like we were onto something. If that guy - one of the godfathers of this industry - thinks we have a vision here and that there's a road ahead for us, then we were onto something.
Today, your website is a key component of how you sell your wine. Can you explain how adopting technology helped ONEHOPE grow its brand?
When we first launched the e-commerce site, we could only legally ship to seven states. It’s 46 states now, but early on, we realized the internet was the only way to build significant market share without going through distributors and retailers who may not have our best interest in mind and are heavily persuaded by the large wine brands. No one was really doing this in wine so we made a very conscious decision to shift our focus towards e-commerce five years into the business and launch a simple website that sold our 10 varietals at the time.
Adopting technology also helped us build our direct selling business. This arm allows individuals to become what we call Cause Entrepreneurs by signing up as affiliates of our brand, hosting at-home wine tasting parties or events, and selling wine at those events to raise money for local nonprofits of their choice. As affiliates, they have their own website that showcases all of our products, allowing them to take orders easily. So technology is key. That started four years ago as a pilot program and it's creating a whole new distribution platform, putting the distribution power in the hands of these cause entrepreneurs.
Early on, you said establishing yourself was all about relationship building. In order to scale to reach the volume you have, how did the business evolve and how did you evolve as a leader?
Once we went into digital marketing and started creating a digital brand, then it became more about understanding marketing, customer acquisition, and customer retention; it was about knowing how to emotionally connect with consumers. In today's world, if a consumer doesn't emotionally connect with your brand, they're going to go buy whatever they need on Amazon. That's been a huge part of what I've studied over the past couple of years to help develop our brand.
If you look back to starting this with only 11 months of sales experience, to now being a successful wine company with amazing partnerships, what would say are the hardest things you’ve had to overcome?
We didn't really understand what it was going to take to finance a brand like this. We've had to raise money consistently for 12 years. When we started, we were young and ignorant and thought we were going to blow up in a couple of years and have a parade for ourselves. We learned very quickly that this was gonna be a marathon and that we were going to have to raise a lot of money to bring on investors and sell a lot of people on this big vision.
The other challenge was just the Goliath that we're going up against. There are 9,000 registered wine brands in the United States. And the majority of the volume is done by the top 50 brands. 90% of those are owned by four conglomerates. So when you want to grow to become a player in this industry you have to compete against those guys, have partnerships with all the big distributors, and have monopolies on all the big grocery stores and restaurant chains. So for us, we have to fight with the thousands of other brands for those last couple of spots at restaurants and grocery stores. That was a big challenge that we definitely didn’t anticipate. We still fight these challenges today.
Is there a partnership or deal that you’re extremely proud of?
I think one of the biggest ones for validation was obviously the Mondavi partnership early on. More recently, we created a limited edition, 1.5 liter bottle of wine and produced 10,000 of them for our 10 year anniversary. And with the revenue from the sales from that, we partnered with Pencils of Promise and funded a school in Guatemala. Some of our team and community went down there and opened the school. That one was very special for us because for many years we were just giving away checks to charity. It was really cool to get to the point where we could actually fund a school that is going to be sustainable and benefit that community for many years to come. That’s the one I'm most proud of at this point and we'll be hopefully looking to do a lot more of that in the future.
What’s the one piece of advice you would give to yourself?
If you're a senior and or junior in college, and even if you think you're going to go play in the NFL for 10 years, start reaching out to people that are from your program. Successful people have great mentors that have helped them and pointed them in the right direction. It was around my senior year when I found a mentor who was in real estate. I started asking him a lot of questions about how he built his real estate empire and what he did early on. I picked his brain because that was the only mentor I got at Cal when it came to life after sports.
Also, never be the smartest or most talented person in the room. You can be a very talented, have everything going for you, but if you stick with your college buddies that are not going in the right direction in life or don't have positive attitudes, they can bring you down along the way. It's really hard to let those people go, but it’s important to understand who you're spending time with and who you're surrounding yourself with. You’re typically the average of the people you hang around with.