How this female founder is transforming an industry with a user-centric approach
From evolution: a podcast by entrepreneurship@UBC
evolution is a podcast shining light on our ecosystem’s stories of innovation, impact and hustle throughout their venture building journey. Join us as we build community and knowledge related to entrepreneurship during the course of COVID-19.
On this week’s episode of our podcast, evolution, host and entrepreneurship@UBC’s Creative Specialist MJ Araujo speaks with TasteAdvisor Founder and CEO, Alyssa Farr. TasteAdvisor is a technology platform that matches individual consumer taste preferences to wine, with a matching accuracy greater than 80%. Alyssa shares how she set out to solve one of the industry’s most complicated problems and how TasteAdvisor is creating wins for the entire wine ecosystem.
About Alyssa Farr
Alyssa Farr is Founder and CEO of TasteAdvisor, the Okanagan-focused wine app that helps people discover their new favourite wines, in amazing venues, all while enjoying a local wine experience that was custom-crafted for them. Additionally, Alyssa acts as a business coach, is the owner of Unlimited Contracting (a social enterprise residential and commercial maintenance renovation company) and is an Entrepreneur in Residence at Purppl.
TasteAdvisor takes the guesswork out of buying wine.
TasteAdvisor is a venture that was part of entrepreneurship@UBC Okanagan. Learn more about e@UBCO, here.
To read a full transcript, see below:
MJ: Alyssa, so nice to have you here today. I'm wondering if you could tell us more about how TasteAdvisor got started and about your journey as a founder?
Alyssa: Yeah, so Taste Advisor came from a couple different places. First, I really enjoy solving complex problems. I enjoy working with multiple stakeholders and trying to build a win win situation in an ecosystem. So somebody actually had just said, “Well, what about wine?” That seems like an industry with lots of players and lots of complexity. It makes living in the Okanagan, a really amazing thing. So what if you solve that problem or could add to solving some of the problems they're facing there? That was sort of the beginning of it. Then I knew, probably five or six years ago that I really wanted to do something in tech. I did something very service based before and other businesses and so I wanted to do something more scalable, and this gave me the perfect opportunity.
MJ: Amazing. Could you give us an overview of how TasteAdvisor works?
Alyssa: Yeah, so TasteAdvisor, our company has two different products. Our main product that most people know us for is our tourism Explorer. That is a platform that supports regional wine tourism, and region can mean anything from a small sub region like Naramata, or us a slightly larger region like Okanagan Valley all the way up to a state or province. Our ideal partner is a state or province because it pulls everybody together, and when everyone's working together, there's more wins or economies of scale, and there's more benefits. We have a couple core features; we have all the wines in a region in the platform. We have all the wineries so you can build roots and decide what you want to do and add things to your cellar. You can see things to do in the area, you can click on where to buy and find retailers that carry that wine, which is one of the common challenges, but really our core competitive advantage is that we actually have taste algorithms that recommend wines to you based on your tastes. You take a little taste test when you start on the platform and it's really easy. The questions are designed that anybody with no Wine Experience can take it. We have matching accuracy greater than 80%, which means we're going to give you bottles of wine that you're going to like with at least a four or five out of five stars.
"...but really our core competitive advantage is that we actually have taste algorithms that recommend wines to you based on your tastes."
MJ: Could expand on how TasteAdvisor is helping wine regions and wineries build connections with their consumers?
Alyssa: Yeah. So one of the common challenges for a winery is just the amount of competition right? You're dealing with the most legislated product out there, and you are both a farmer, and you're in hospitality, and you're in manufacturing, and so it's this really complex business, and you can't be all things to all people. So you make this awesome product and how do you find out who's best for you? Just because you drink wine doesn't mean that wine is the best wine for you. And so when there's thousands of bottles of wine like there are here in BC, and every year new varietals are being released, how do they stand out or really connect to their ideal consumer? Ideal in this case is around price and about taste preferences. How bold it is, or how light bodied it is, or how sweet it is or not, or the different flavours or all the different attributes. And so, we felt like there is a wine for everyone. Our philosophy is that if ratings are really awesome, because they give you some sense of what's popular, but really, if a wine is a five out of five, and you still don't like it that's okay. It could have a really low rating and you could love it, and that's also okay. So we thought if we could cut through the ratings and cut through all the options, and just say you tell me what you like, and I'll tell you what's in that bottle and I can make that strong connection that you're going to like this, and they make it, that really is a win win. You're going to show up at that winery, you're going to be satisfied with the product, you're gonna be interested in the story that they're telling. They didn't have to spend so much money to get exposure and you're happy as a customer. That's our core of how we really make the difference.
"So one of the common challenges for a winery is just the amount of competition right? You're dealing with the most legislated product out there, and you are both a farmer, and you're in hospitality, and you're in manufacturing, and so it's this really complex business, and you can't be all things to all people."
MJ: Wine tasting is usually seen as a really fancy activity, and it is, but it sometimes makes it inaccessible or it makes people feel intimidated, so catering to the individual user is amazing.
Alyssa: Our real goal is that there should be a place for everybody to find wine that they like without feeling intimidated.
MJ: What are some interesting patterns and insights that you've observed in consumer behaviour when it comes to the wine industry?
Alyssa: Well the first part of consumer behaviour, especially around preferences, that people have a hard time telling you what they really like. That's been one of the big challenges in the industry, someone can walk in, and you might have, let's say, 12 wines that you could serve them, or there's hundreds of wines at the liquor store and it's really hard to decide what to offer them, because they're like, “I like something bold”, well, there's hundreds of bold options, you know, how do we get into more specifics? We know that if we can get down to the basic attributes, then we'd say the average consumer is able to more excessively enjoy what's happening. So it’s really like, "just tell me what I'm gonna like”, I don't want to know the nuance or the education, something people might elect to do further on. But people really at the end of the day, they definitely just want to know what might be a good fit and have somebody kind of sort through all the industry knowledge for them. Some people are experts for sure, there are those wine hobbyists, but this really helps with the average wine consumer, or the novice wine consumer who are like, “I don't know, wine?”.
MJ: How did you find out about entrepreneurship@UBCO?
Alyssa: Well, I have the real benefit of knowing the current Okanagan Director prior to her becoming the director, and so it was this sort of serendipitous experience, but I've been early in my exploration of what I wanted to do and what the industry really needed and doing my research, I had the opportunity to meet the director, Camille Saltman. She was an advocate right off the bat, a great enthusiast not connected to UBC and then about a year later, further down my research journey, I was ready to sort of activate and I had seen this posting about e@UBC for Vancouver and so I applied and then I got an email from her, “we just opened one up here in the Okanagan, and I'm the director”. I was like, wow, that couldn't be more perfect. Somebody I already know is an advocate. But really I've had the opportunity to participate in a couple different accelerator programs and the access to mentorship, different perspectives, a safe place to explore what your concept is, and sort of pull it apart and put it back together is invaluable. Like the advice and perspective is invaluable. I knew that we needed that, the more the better.
MJ: How did your team come together around this project?
Alyssa: All of my team are a small team, but my team, they all have entrepreneurial experience, which is really important to me. Everybody still has a small business around their area of expertise. And so it meant that they already knew what it was like to have and to earn a client's trust and execute on that in order to get paid and deliver value, and so I had the opportunity to meet my first founding member. We worked together on several other projects and we just got along famously and I thought, well, I could hire her. She was like, “No, don't hire me. Let me be your team member long term”, which I was super grateful for. Then, same thing with our second member who joined us like, you're really great at this, can I hire you for a season. “No, we just want to be a founding member”. Then our third member, we actually met at a wine tasting. He's our wine sensor researcher on staff. I had come up with this idea that wine could be matched based on the sensory attributes, and I was like, “Hey, you know something about sensory attributes. Let's have a conversation”. Then he also became a founding member really early on, so it's just the right people at the right time and we have some pretty clear company values around having fun, having a win-win, and building relationships. That makes it a little bit easier to select people in and out of the journey.
MJ: Awesome. So my next question for you is how has COVID impacted your business?
Alyssa: Yeah, it was interesting. We weren't sure, as everyone experienced, not sure how COVID was going to impact. The quarantine and the restrictions around tourism specifically, were a concern, would that negatively or positively affect us? Because we take a regional approach first, we really focus on personalization to the consumer. That includes having regional products and a regional destination and most wine is consumed in the region that it's produced. Really COVID actually has been a positive because more locals are getting out experiencing in their local region, and the regions themselves so Wine Commissions and Tourism boards, they're all looking for those digital solutions, to increase engagement, be able to see what everyone's preferences are, and be able to respond. We really provide that ideal solution. We are on our way to moving into the US. As part of this opportunity through COVID, to say, we need to have more digital resources, and many more regions were already on that track, this has just accelerated them, but it's been positive overall.
"Really COVID actually has been a positive because more locals are getting out, experiencing in their local region, and the regions themselves, so Wine Commissions and Tourism boards, they're all looking for those digital solutions to increase engagement, be able to see what everyone's preferences are, and be able to respond."
MJ: I find it interesting how you said that wine is usually consumed in the region that it was produced. How do you take that into account when creating the experience on your platform?
Alyssa: So there's the most common wine app out there is Vivino. They're the one that everyone compares us to. Vivino does an amazing job. Like they have the biggest wine database in the world, they have 42 million users, like they're very, very successful. They have built their database from user input. So somebody snaps a picture and away you go. It does serve a really valuable place in the market that we're not trying to replace the differences that if you went to look for Okanagan wines, or pretty much any regional wine in any specific region, you're going to find maybe 20% of the wines that are available. So it's not useful for your everyday experience. Not only can you not find what's in the area, you can't distinguish what you're going to like from that giant list. Then you can't find where to buy it because as many of us have experienced on a local level, you might go out wine tasting, love that wine, except the only place you know to get it is at the winery. There might be four or five liquor stores in the province that carry it. So, you know, how do you figure that out? This product with these producers, and this geography, is our focus with the goal of building the market share of this product over international products. Likewise, those international products in their own region over international products like ours.
MJ: That really explains it very well. So my last question for you is, what is one wine that you've recently discovered? If you have a favourite wine, what is it?
Alyssa: Well, I have so many favourites. It's one of the downsides to this kind of work, but surprisingly, I typically pick rosé as a category because rosé is like a summer favorite, and it's kind of crisp and bright, but without being quite as acidic as some white wines can be. I have a couple classics that I love. The other day I pulled up my app, and I was looking for rosés and the ones that I wanted weren't at the liquor store. So I had to look through the options and see what was the best match for me. I picked one that I would have thought like, oh, had it been up to me, and without the algorithm, I wouldn't have picked it. But since I built the algorithm, I trusted it, and it's the Time Rosé from Time Winery and I would never have chosen it on my own, but I love it. It's actually become like a household favorite. So, a perfect example of how I would have written it off. Thanks to some number crunching behind our system. It ended up becoming a favourite.
MJ: Thank you for joining us and we hope to see you next time. In the meantime stay safe and stay healthy.
Interested in furthering your own entrepreneurial journey? Join us September 8th at our Community Town Hall and sign up for early bird registration at our first ever entrepreneurship@UBC Immersion Week, September 28th to October 2nd, where we will demystify entrepreneurship in the innovation economy.