It all began in the cramped space of a laundry room in a rented California farmhouse.
Like many entrepreneurs, Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey started out with just a little bit of money and a dream.
Thirty years later, their kernel of an idea – tweaked, tinkered with, and fostered over the days and decades – has blossomed into one of the country’s most successful wine labels, Barefoot.
The industrious couple came into the wine market with barely any prior industry experience – so for them, entrepreneurship has been about evolving, giving back, and constantly learning from (often constant) mistakes.
Today, since selling their brand to California-headquartered E&J Gallo Winery, they share their compelling story through speaking engagements, training, and consulting.
“Their venture from the beginning was designed not just to be a moneymaker, but to have a social impact.” – Prof. Frank Hoy
This week, they will talk about their entrepreneurial successes and failures at WPI as part of the Robert A. Foisie School of Business’ Entrepreneurship Speaker series.
The events are made possible through an ongoing grant from the Coleman Foundation catering to faculty member entrepreneurship fellows.
The goal is to “just trigger ideas for these faculty members who are not in business, but who recognize that their students are going to go on to become entrepreneurs or innovators,” said Frank Hoy, Paul Beswick professor of entrepreneurship and director of the Collaborative for Entrepreneurship and Innovation. “Innovation and entrepreneurship is one of President Laurie Leshin’s initiatives. This is all part of WPI’s mission.”
Houlihan and Harvey will offer three programs spanning Thursday and Friday that will focus on branding, marketing and innovation, management, and taking a brand global.
According to Hoy, the Coleman Foundation Faculty Entrepreneurship Fellows Program is aimed at faculty members whose main disciplines are outside the business school. Currently there are 14 fellows, he said, whose areas of expertise range from arts and humanities, to chemical engineering, to robotics.
Although the event is prioritized for fellows, the public is welcome to attend, Hoy said.
Previous speakers in the series have included Miroslav Pivoda, innovation consultant from the Czech Republic; Benyamin Lichtenstein of UMass Boston; and German economist Alexander Koeberle-Schmid. Future planned speakers will include Candida Brush, vice provost of Global Entrepreneurial Leadership at Babson College, and Nitin Sanghavi, a professor of retail marketing and strategy at Manchester Business School in England.
This week’s event with Houlihan and Harvey, meanwhile, came about when Hoy met the couple and heard them speak at the annual conference of the United States Association for Small business and Entrepreneurship.
“I was fascinated by their story, I was fascinated by them personally,” Hoy said, describing them as having “great personalities,” and being “really open, wanting to share, wanting to help other people.”
“Their venture from the beginning was designed not just to be a moneymaker, but to have a social impact,” he said.
Michael Houlihan and Bonnie Harvey will offer three events this week
- “Branding, Marketing and Innovation,” 6 to 7 p.m., Thursday, Salisbury Laboratories room 411.
- “Going Global,” 10 to 11 a.m., Friday, Salisbury Laboratories room 011.
- “Management: The 3 Core Competencies,” Noon to 1 p.m., Friday, Washburn Shops and Stoddard Laboratories room 229.
Visit their website at http://thebarefootspirit.com.
According to their bio, the couple started the Barefoot label in 1986, nearly going bankrupt in their first few years of business. But by learning to adapt and employ various innovative methods, they worked through obstacles and established new markets for their brand. Along the way, they also emphasized performance-based compensation and what they call “worthy cause marketing,” or supporting nonprofits that represent equal rights and environmental causes.
Since selling their brand to E&J Gallo in 2005, they have spoken across the country, received numerous entrepreneurship awards, and authored the bestselling books, The Barefoot Spirit: How Hardship, Hustle, and Heart Built America’s #1 Wine Brand, and The Entrepreneurial Culture: 23 Ways to Engage and Empower Your People.
“They got into a business and industry that they didn’t know,” said Hoy. “They made every mistake that an entrepreneur could make. But they didn’t make the same mistake twice. They went on, recovered, and persevered.”
Ultimately, he stressed, their story offers numerous examples of how entrepreneurs in all areas can mess up along the way, but in the end “still survive, still succeed, still accomplish goals.”