Transcript of BusinessRadioX Interview featuring Brandon Vallorani with hosts Lee Kantor and Stone Payton:
All right man you ready for the headliner? A lot of pressure, man. Those were a couple of hard acts to follow, I think but he’s been very diligent. I’ve seen taken notes this is going to be a fun segment … please join me in welcoming to the broadcast CEO with Vallorani Estates and also author of The Wolves and the Mandolin: Mr Brandon Vallorani!
Thanks for having me, guys, delighted to do it. Yeah we’ve got a really strong show already we think, incredible.
I’m sitting here just absorbing every fellow entrepreneurs here because it’s inspirational, it really is.
Why don’t you share a little bit about your book!
Yes, The wolves and the Mandolin is the title of the book — it’s a business book, published by ForbesBooks which was a great honor for me as a first time author. The title’s a little unusual; doesn’t sound very businessy but it comes from a family story that goes back to my family in Italy.
One of my great uncles was a minstrel and he traveled from town to town playing his mandolin for parties, weddings, etc. and this particular region of Italy is called Abruzzo and it’s in the foothills of the Apennine Mountains which are snow capped even in the summertime. It’s beautiful but in these mountain regions are wolves and as he was traveling home one night, he encountered a pack of wolves and what he did is he climbed a tree and played his mandolin all night long until the wolves calmed down. In the morning they dissipated and he was able to come down safely.
So it is a metaphor for my life — many people’s lives — and my business experiences.
Now what has been your entrepreneurial journey?
Well, I’ve always thought I was an artist. As a kid, I was always drawing pictures. Everybody thought “you’re going to be an artist.” My undergraduate degree was in graphic design. But I realized that I love business and I can be creative. I’ve tried just about everything.
It’s interesting: one of the first things I did was I sold snacks. I worked for the WV University printing press and I had a little a little box of snacks and I sold coffee, you know made a few extra bucks for my own family at that time.
I’ve tried a little bit of everything, but the the business that really got got me where I am today is Liberty Alliance, which is a network of well over one hundred websites. We make all of our money on advertising and last year did about one hundred seventy million page views in the month of November. That company in particular has been on the Inc. 5000 of America’s fastest growing privately held companies for five years in a row. Liberty Alliance is political news websites, but I’ve sold that in April and I’m glad to have sold it because the primary content was political and while I think politics are very important to all of us — especially as business owners — I was just getting tired of it and I wanted to do something else.
So I sold and I’m very happy about that! The new company’s hired many of my employees so I get to sort of start over and my book explains my journey back all the way from my ancestors through my experiences and what I want to work on going forward.
And what do you want to work on now?
I’m currently focusing on coffee, wine, and cigars — things that I enjoy …
There you get all your favorite things!
So far, yes!
And you try to put them in vending machines — hey that’s a good idea actually!
I think in Europe you might be able to buy wine from a vending machine!
The coffee has been in the works for a while while I was running the Inc. 5000 company. And growing and living on caffeine! We supplied coffee [through a service] in our office and it was OK coffee. But I had an employee who was really crafty and he was roasting coffee at home and bringing it in. It just smelled so amazing, right, and I would tell my assistant, “can you go down the hall and get me some of Eric’s coffee?”
And so my mind started thinking, wow, maybe we could sell this coffee because it’s so good and I want to share it with other people. We upgraded his roaster and made it the official coffee of the office and then we upgraded the roaster again and started selling online because of my experience selling online. And then we have to upgrade the roaster again! We’ve got our our coffee in grocery stores now — about five [chain stores] locally as well as some bakeries [and shops].
The coffee is already growing quickly. The wine business … I’m importing some wine from Italy right now from Vigneti Vallorani run by my 8th cousin Rocco Vallorani. It’s incredible.
What, you had to go an ancestory.com to find him?
Actually we found him on Facebook! That was interesting, and we went over to visit them and started talking about our family history. We hired a company called Legacy Tree to do all the research and connect the dots so that’s how we are related. We are pretty much the only — maybe one other store in New York — that imports their wine. It is Italy’s best kept secret as far as I’m concerned! It is amazing wine, good stuff.
And then you’re doing cigars as well?
I smoked casually off and on with some hunting buddies and business associates over the years, and one of my business partners said, “Hey do you want to start a cigar business?” and I said, “Sure why not!” He had a connection and we’ve been importing Nicaraguan cigars for the last few years, and now private label under my name.
So now are you doing this as one kind of a corporation, or each one is separate?
They all started off independently and I realized I’ve got to put these together into a brand, and so the brand is Vallorani Estates. I have about an eight acre property in Dallas Georgia. We have two hundred grapevines growing right now and also roast our coffee there—we don’t grow tobacco there! All of that comes together under the Vallorani Estates brand.
Then that’s what you’re looking to do, that’s the next chapter of the adventure?
That is the next chapter.
Now in the book you tell the story. You know, you told earlier. What other lessons are in the book about business?
Yes, there are lessons — for example how do you fund your business? Well, for me, it was learning how to get loans; how to get capital to do what we do; and I self funded. I use credit cards and that can get you into trouble if you’re not able to pay those off! But I thankfully was able to do so, but you know it’s very hard for banks to — especially an internet business like I was — loan you money. Where’s the collateral? What exactly do you do? So getting a traditional loan is difficult. I talk about that in the book: Making sure you have a good credit score so you can go out and seek lending.
Any kind of marketing tips?
Yes, so I guess I’ve sold products online since 2004 …
Before was cool.
Yeah, I guess! I’ve been selling online actually longer than that but on my own since about 2004. The key really is telling the story and that kind of ties back to my book. If you just put a product on a shelf or a product on the Internet or put something up on Amazon, but you don’t really tell the story, it’s hard to get people excited about it. So that’s the first thing. Then you have to convince people to like you, you have to convince people to trade the money that’s in their pocket for the product or service you have. And it has to be compelling enough through the story, through the price point, for them to make that exchange. And then limitation. What we’ve found online is if you tell them that this weekend only it’s Buy One Get One Free, you’re going to sell a lot more than if you just said we’re always buy one get one free. So you tell them it’s maybe it’s only the first hundred bags of coffee or it’s through Sunday, and that’s it.
Now are you using the same techniques to grow these kind of luxury items?
That’s the irony of it, because these are premium products and when it might be my temptation — because that’s how I’ve built my business — is to do those kinds of things, I’ve gotten such pushback and resistance from my staff because hey, this is premium. You can’t just cut the price like that.
So you have to get new staff. (Laughter)
I’m not going to do that because really the products sell themselves. They are premium products; you don’t compete on price alone. I mean, I’m not saying you price yourself out of the market, but we’re under a lot of our competitors, but we’re not so cheap that we look like a discount coffee.
But how do you do that on the Internet? Are you? Do you have to do things — they have to experience here, right, the first time?
Great, great question because I approached this business at first as Internet sales only and that’s what we found.
Online people can not taste the coffee, they’re not smelling, they’ve not held the bag in their hands.
So you’re just another bag of coffee
When we’re on the local level, it’s much easier to get people to spend money to buy the coffee but on the Internet we do have to use some of those techniques I was mentioning in my book. So we have done the Buy One Get One Free or Buy 2 Get 2 and that moves a lot of coffee.
So now you’re doing some combination of online and in real life selling and marketing?
Right, what we were finding now is that while the Internet is — it’s very it’s wide open, you know, you can sell millions of bags of coffee, if you have the right formula. We’re really going back into the local market and Seth who is our roaster and lead salesman, he goes and he builds relationships. Just one at a time; the little bakery store owner here, a local grocery store there. Predominately in the Kennesaw [Marietta, Acworth] area, and Paulding county areas.
He builds relationships, he goes into the grocery store, and he sets up his coffee stand and actually serves coffee and while he’s there he also sells thirty or forty bags of coffee. But if I’m just sitting on the shelf, you know pick up a few bags, but …
I bet you can’t tell that this one’s noticeably better.
Exactly, so we’re that’s what we’ve found is that the personal touch and building a local brand awareness is critical.
But that’s hard to scale.
It’s slower, it is a much slower and that’s another challenge. As an entrepreneur, you’ve got to have enough fuel in your jet to take off.
You have to really invest in your product, as no one believes in it as much as you do,
Absolutely, and I do ask myself periodically, wow if I just stop right now and bank money I’d probably be wealthier … but I wouldn’t really be happier, because I’m happiest as an entrepreneur. Doing it and taking a swing.
Now how does the book come into play right now? Are you on a book tour, you get the word out about the book, that the book tells a story?
And one of the stories … I’m holding in my hand here a bag of coffee. It’s our Buon Giorno! coffee, and on the label on top is a little photo of my great-grandfather Luigi. Luigi was quite a character. This side of my family’s from the market region of Italy but Luigi was an entrepreneur and he came to America. He set up a grocery store, had a restaurant. I’ll give an example.
He wanted to sell his restaurant and he invited all of his friends and neighbors to come in the night the prospective buyers are coming in, and he offered them all free meals. The restaurant was full and he made the sale easily. He had a grocery store, and across the street he was competing with another grocer so he would sneak over and erase the prices on the board and raise the prices, you know?
So this is my great-grandfather but he did what he had to do to survive and to take care of his family and he left a legacy in our family of entrepreneurialism and we carry it on to this day.
So if somebody wanted you to speak is that what you do?
I haven’t yet but I know there’s associations or different businesses to speak to. I’m prone to but I have not actually sought that out at this at this point; I’ve been so busy growing the business but it certainly wouldn’t turn that down!
I want to hear about this idea of finding what you call “mandolin moments” — just every day, right, as an entrepreneur. Taking, making a point of finding those mandolin moments.
Right for me, and as you all know around the table, you can work and work and work and work and never take a break; even working in your sleep sometimes, waking up in the middle of the night solving problems. But if we don’t stop once in a while to enjoy the fruits of our labor or enjoy our family…. For me taking a moment to enjoy a cup of coffee not so much in a hurry, which is what we typically do, but just savoring a good cup of coffee in the morning and meditating a little bit before we start a day.
Or you’ve closed a business deal and you want to light up a good cigar. I mean, these aren’t things you do in a hurry; these are things you make a commitment to do and it’s very, you know, you contemplate what you’re going to do.
Your vision, your goals, a glass a wine to celebrate. So that’s why I chose these products as the next phase of my life to promote, because they’re products that we enjoy and celebrate life with …
And you don’t want to wait until the wolves are at your feet to celebrate those moments.
Very correct, and I usually involve my staff. For example, I’ve already promised my guys that Wednesday afternoon we’re going to have a cigar break outside and they’re looking for that because you’ve got to give your staff an opportunity to celebrate small successes as well.
Good stuff. And if somebody wants to get a hold of the book?
The Wolves and the Mandolin is available on Amazon dot com is where you buy the book and ValloraniEstates.com is where you find all about these products I was discussing today.
Atlanta’s Business Radio X with Lee Kantor and Stone Payton