Nov. 10, 2021

Productivity and Community with Eric LeVine, CellarTracker

Productivity and Community with Eric LeVine, CellarTracker

Building the app while on sabbatical from Microsoft in 2003, Eric LeVine, CEO and founder of CellarTracker, had been close to a one-person show until recently.  Yet, he’s built one of the most useful productivity tools for wine collectors, an engaged comm

Building the app while on sabbatical from Microsoft in 2003, Eric LeVine, CEO and founder of CellarTracker, had been close to a one-person show until recently.  Yet, he’s built one of the most useful productivity tools for wine collectors, an engaged community of geeky wine lovers, and a respectable business that he’s now investing in to grow and take to new heights for the benefit of the CellarTracker community.  Eric’s openness and candor provide an in-depth look at how one of the leading wine platforms was founded, built, and where it’s going next. 

Detailed Show Notes:

  • Eric’s background
    • “Tech geek” to “wine geek”
    • He was at Microsoft from 1992 - 2005; his last project was the “send error report” feature
    • 1999 - took a biking trip to Tuscany and fell in love with wine and started collecting
    • Built a tool to keep track of his cellar, then let a few friends use it, which morphed a personal spreadsheet into a relational database
    • Eric created CellarTracker while on sabbatical from Microsoft in 2003, then in April 2004, launched it publicly and left Microsoft a few months later
  • CellarTracker overview
    • Core element - a productivity tool to catalog and manage every aspect of the wine experience (e.g., purchasing, tracking, consuming)
    • Byproduct - “Yelp for wine” - the aggregated wisdom of the community from tasting notes, drinking windows
    • User base
      • 10M unique people visit the site
      • ~750k registered users
      • ~300k active users
    • Wine database
      • 4M wines created
      • 135M bottles in cellars
      • 9.1M tasting notes in the community + 1.3M professional tasting notes
  • Features and functions
    • Optical recognition of labels - partners with Vivino
    • Most used features - tasting notes (~10M visitors/year on the website, most people reading or researching the tasting notes; ~9.1M tasting notes growing ~750k / year / ~2k / day)
    • Features collectors use - what wines do they have, when do they want to drink them, what are wines worth (the main premium feature)
    • Wine valuations - partner with Wine Market Journal for appraisals, overlaid with what people are paying for the wines in CellarTracker
    • Drinking windows - updated by users, partnership with review publications to overlay their data for subscribers of their content
    • Surprise & Delight feature - the ability to print a restaurant-style wine list
    • Geekiest feature - can print unique barcodes for your bottles and use a scanner to check them in and out
      • Default mode - creates a unique barcode for each specific bottle
      • For restaurants - uses same code for each wine of a particular size
  • Conducted research into the wine collector space
    • ~18M people in the US store wine at home / in a wine fridge
    • ~10% awareness of CellarTracker in the US
    • ~5-10% awareness of CellarTracker globally
  • Data analytics
    • They just hired the 1st data scientist several weeks ago (as of Oct 2021)
    • They haven’t done a lot to date
    • User ratings - can track/follow specific authors, most often used for older wines at auction as one of the only sources of data for older wines
      • Richard Bazinet authored research in 2016 of an analysis of community ratings vs. professional publications
      • Never specifically built tools to enhance “influencers” in the system, was anti “gamification” elements to incentivize people to write tasting notes
    • Data accuracy - has a team of 4 (some PT/ some FT) to curate the wine database and look for duplicates, use both automation and humans to have duplicate detection
  • Business model
    • “Voluntary Payment” - one of the early “Freemium” business models
      • Established this because the value of CellarTracker is in the active community, and the data it creates makes the platform more robust and valuable
      • Suggested payment based on the size of collection - avg ~$57/year
        • $40/year for <500 bottles
        • $80/year for 500-999 bottles
        • $160/year for 1,000+ bottles
        • The lowest payment is $20, and some pay thousands
      • The majority of revenue comes from this
    • Some ads, but not in the app
    • Affiliate links with Wine-Searcher - the #2 referral source after Google
  • Key differentiators of CellarTracker
    • Cellar management - hardcore focus on scalable needs of collectors
    • Good engagement - attracted a set of people who keep coming back
    • Community - an “authoritative” audience - more geeky people that are in the community
    • Focus on privacy, needs of the community, up-time, neutrality (not affiliated with retailers or other businesses)
  • The next horizon for CellarTracker
    • Building a team - was only 3 people at the start of 2021, the goal is to be 11 by year-end (data scientists, engineers, UI designer)
    • Upgrade & deepen the existing experience, especially mobile app - they have seen a significant shift to mobile over the last 10 years, 
    • More recommendations and automation of different scenarios
    • Connection to industry/wineries/other parts of the wine ecosystem (no natural interfaces today)
    • Better understand and engage with the 10M people who visit the CellarTracker website - many of whom use it as a research platform
    • Brought on a group of angel investors to reinvest cash flow into the business
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