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Days Of Wine…

Days of wine: Andre Eikmeier, Qwoff.com. What started as a simple plan to post wine reviews online has turned into a global business and community-builder for ex-soap star André Eikmeier. Meet Geoff, the ‘Facebook for wine-lovers.

Ever found yourself mid-career, wondering what you want to be when you grow up? André Eikmeier has finally found a way to blend his passion – great wine – with business, launching wine-centric social networking site qwoff.com.au last year. But it didn’t come easy.

Now in his mid-30s, André has been involved in varied pursuits, sometimes successful and sometimes heart-breaking, including fragrance, acting, singing, sales, media production, and marketing, before creating Qwoff.

But ironically, all those false starts, lessons learned, challenges overcome and networks built, have helped make Qwoff a successful business. André is proof a patchy business past can help forge a thriving business future. Having a few good bottles of wine to enjoy with friends along the way hasn’t hurt either.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be?

Wanting to be Batman is my earliest career memory, but then it was a lawyer or a journalist. I studied economics and accounting, and after a bit of travel, went into the raw fragrance business with my father. That didn’t work so well – never work with family. (Hang on, what am I doing now?) I’d got into acting as a kid, mostly TV commercials, and starred in a Coke ad with Kylie Minogue in high school that instantly changed my status from dork to cool. So when I wanted to get out of the family business, I fell back into acting. I landed a lead role on the beachside soap Pacific Drive followed by a number of other popular TV shows and also did a fair bit of singing in covers bands such as The One Hit Wonders. We were big in the nineties, as they say.

Why did you quit acting?

A lot of actors out there are really passionate and talented, and it’s an amazing career if that’s the case. But I wasn’t either, to be honest. The trouble is that to get out feels like you’ve failed – and it’s not a bad lifestyle either – so I stayed in it longer than I should have. Then in my mid-20s, I started a theatre production company with a friend. We believed we could transform the face of independent theatre: instead, we lost $80,000 on our first production and had to start managing corporate events just to pay people back. Around this time I went to work at Cellarmasters, selling booze. A lot of actors do this, and they tend to make good salespeople! I stayed there for about a year and did a couple of their wine-education courses, which I really liked.

Was that when you got into wine?

I was always into wine. My family’s European, my dad was a migrant and he really liked his wine: I think it was a bit of a status symbol for him. I remember a friend and I started this tradition of lunch on the water once a month at a restaurant on Darling Harbour. The first time we did this, we ordered a Rosemount Show Reserve Chardonnay and we thought it was really special, so we’d order the same wine each time, and that wine became a bit of a thing for us, the mark of an occasion if you like. That’s the thing about wine, it’s about the moments. It’s about the stories. And the more you learn about it, the more magical it becomes.

What happened next?

We tend to do everything at once when we hit 30, don’t we? I left Cellarmasters to start my own video production company. I also got married and bought a house. I still had a lot to learn about filming, editing and other aspects of making videos and commercials, and my strategy was to take a year to hone my skills and learn the business while my wife (also an actor) supported us. But three days after we settled on the house, her show got canned, and we suddenly found ourselves with no income and a hefty mortgage.

How did your business survive?

The news about my wife’s show came while I was in the Hunter Valley enjoying a bit of wine tasting, as one does. In crisis mode, I drove over to the tourist office. I told them I had a production company and pitched a job to them. It just so happened they’d been thinking of doing a corporate video, and so I got the gig. I completely bs’d, but my motivations were good. I didn’t quite know how to do what I was promising, but they were happy. From there, I got more winery clients and became a bit of a specialist in that area. It helped that I knew about wine. As the trust grew with my clients, I also became a bit of a new-media consultant for these wineries, helping them with their online presence. In time, the business organically developed into something of a wine marketing consultancy.

How did you get the idea for Qwoff?

Three years into running the production business, we moved to Adelaide with our baby son Kalen to be close to my wife’s family. The wine industry is much bigger in SA, so it worked well for the business. But still, I was pretty much a tradesman: I charged by the hour, and that was the limitation. I was talking with my best mate and web guru Brendan Yell, who worked with Compuserve in the early days of the 1990s .com boom. Thanks to his website ShopFree, Brendan had achieved a degree of ‘passive income’ which freed him up to grow his business and develop new ideas. I wanted to replicate that.

I wanted the business to be something wine, something website, and more than marketing. The 26th of February, 2006, was my epiphany date: I thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a website where you could read reviews on a wine, from real consumers rather than journos and wine critics.” I put my idea to Brendan, but he was nonplussed. He couldn’t see how I’d make money, because we both agreed that to have credibility, it would have to be honest and unsponsored.

But Geoff is more than just a reviews site. How did you get there?

Yeah, that was just the beginning, it was nearly 18 months in development. Geoff is now a complete wine networking site, we often describe it as ‘Facebook for wine-lovers.’ People can rate and review wine, use online cellar-tracking applications, and network and communicate with people with similar interests. We have a blog, a wiki-style wine Q&A forum, and of course, our members can buy good wine. And that’s just Phase 1. We put aside a lot of cool ideas for Phase 2, which we’re calling Qwoff2.0, and that’s what we’re working on at the moment. It should roll out this month.

How did that happen?

Right at the time I was thinking through my early ‘wine review’ idea, my wife’s brother Justin Dry came home from a stint overseas. He’d studied wine marketing at uni but moved into property development, and it had left him a bit empty. So he arrived home with plans to do something with wine and online communities. Shazam! With some initial trepidation (we’re brothers-in-law after all) we joined forces and started our business from scratch.

I’d originally called the business something different, but Justin hated the name, so we brainstormed. It wasn’t easy to find a wine-related name that we could register as a .com URL, but once we hit upon Qwoff, with the silly spelling, we really liked it. Having fun with wine is part of our brand, it’s the core of our whole idea. We want to take away the elitism and some of the fear that’s associated with wine. “Don’t stress, it’s only wine,” went up on our wall, and started to shape the personality of the site.

So the collaboration was really important?

It was essential. Justin is more Gen Y than Gen X, and he thinks on a much bigger scale than me. Right from the start, he said, “It has to be global.” I’d only been thinking of an Australian site, but Justin pointed out that for a site that relied on member contributions, we’d never gain critical mass in a population as small as Australia’s. So we started dreaming bigger dreams for the future of Qwoff. Justin also had a more comprehensive idea of social media because he’d been using sites such as MySpace and Facebook while he was traveling. It’s pretty lonely working on your own business as I had been, and so much more motivating working together.

We work together pretty well. Justin and I are the major shareholders, and I look after customer service while Justin takes care of the wine database. We share the sales, marketing, and site development tasks. Doing as much ‘big picture stuff as possible together is important to us: we need to bounce ideas off each other and support each other, but I also think it’s important to present to the industry as a team, rather than just one guy. Brendan is a smaller shareholder and a supposedly silent partner, but he was also key to the site development, and now plays a strategic and consulting role. We work him hard. Brendan’s an industry veteran, so even though he’s not much older than us, his internet experience is invaluable. He makes sure we don’t make too many mistakes. And we sub-contract a web programmer, who also has a passion for wine.

Tell us about Qwoff2.0. What can we look forward to?

We’re really going to ramp up the wine sales side of things, particularly boutique wines that aren’t easy to get. Originally, we weren’t going to sell wines at all, but so many members wanted access to the wines people were talking about, we had to stop resisting. Wine sales are huge online. Last year, online wine sales out-stripped offline wine sales. We’re expanding into a comprehensive world wine online cellar door.

Beyond wine sales, what else?

A really exciting part of Qwoff2.0 is the launch of Krofft. Without giving too much away, it’ll be a weekly, 15-minute show, very much a cheeky, anti-establishment, off-the-cuff look at wine. We’ve got internationally renowned – or should I say infamous – wine critic Nick Stock to host it. Think The Chaser’s World of Wine and you’re in the ballpark. We’re also ramping up the networking side of things. People will be able to put more on their profiles, create and join wine clubs, share photos, videos and post messages on each others’ profiles. We’re also bringing in news feeds, and members will be able to mark wineries and regions as favorites and keep up with wine happenings and news from around the world.

Are you involved in any other websites?

We’ve just created a Facebook application called ‘Splash’, where users can throw a bevy (or even a sponsored wine brand) at their friends. It’s cute, and a nice, soft way to reach the delicious mass of Facebook users. We thought about a Qwoff Facebook app, but I didn’t think the uptake would be any good: Facebook apps are about instant gratification.

How does a business like Qwoff actually make money?

That’s the trick, isn’t it? We take a commission on wine sales, but beyond that, we have a wine partners program where wineries pay a yearly fee for a profile page, premium brand placement, and wine sales to our members. We’re expanding this with the feeds and favorites functions, so in effect, a winery can build its own mini-wine club through Qwoff.

But in this industry, there are definite obstacles of tradition to overcome. A lot of wineries automatically assume they should send us their wines to review. They don’t understand that Qwoff is about the people, and we can’t dictate or even influence what they say. On the site, Justin, Brendan, and I have no corporate presence: we’re just regular ‘offers, and our reviews count for as much as anybody else in the community.

With everything that’s happening, how do you find time to relax, and spend time with your family?

Next year, maybe? It’s full-on, but the really intense stuff goes in waves. Right now, we’re manic trying to roll out Qwoff2.0, the qwoffTV, and go truly global, as well as the day-to-day maintenance, sales, PR, and interaction with members. I think if you’re excited about your work and actually find it fun, it’s a lot easier to put in those long hours! I just have to manage my time around my other commitments. I have an open-door policy for the kids – my office is in a converted garage next to the house – and too bad if clients can hear them. I’ll come in from work, spend some time with the kids before they go to bed, have dinner and some TV with my wife, then work for a few more hours late at night.

What’s next for Qwoff?

We’re heading to the US in June to launch the US version of Qwoff, and Justin will probably stay there for three or four months. Domestic content in a site like Qwoff is essential. If we opened up the site with global content, the Australian wines and members would soon get swamped with US content and the site would lose its relevance to Australian wine-lovers. If you’ve got 30 people all extolling the virtues of a specific wine on the site, but nobody in Australia can get it, what’s the use? #Acting Out You may not know his name, but odds are you’ll know his face. Remember that besotted delivery boy who brought pizza and Coke to popstar Kylie Minogue in her hotel room? That was André Eikmeier back in 1990. He also appeared in A Country Practice and GP as a child and played opposite Danielle Spencer (now Mrs. Russell Crowe) in his mid-90s Aussie soap Pacific Drive.

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