Felicia Qian Interview with Tiffany Xingyu Wang (WG ’17)
How to convert a dormant mailing list into active wine club subscribers for a winery? How to match a guest at a restaurant with a great wine from an intimidating list? How to make a private club a preferred destination for all social drinks? Every single wine retailer in the $40B wine US wine industry wants to know. Our alumna, Tiffany Xingyu Wang (WG’17), has the answers and is making her company, Winesona(Winesona.com), a sensation in San Francisco.
Tiffany started Winesona when she was a second year student at Wharton. I got to know Tiffany when she was hosting a wine tasting event at Wharton, engaging us to stay truthful to our own tastes while tasting the wines. The next thing I knew, Winesona was born. Unlike most companies in the industry, which tend to go direct to consumers with a focus on price, Winesona uncovers wine consumers’ unique taste profiles and delivers personalized wine recommendations through existing wine retailers.
Four months after her graduation, I got to sit down with Tiffany at a wine bar in San Francisco and talk about her venture. Starting a business is risky, all the more so for those who do so in a country new to them. Tiffany is one of the inspirational few who has taken on the challenge with bravery and determination. She told me, “The question was never if my immigration status would determine whether or not I became an entrepreneur. When the idea finds you, you have to go all in.”
Our conversation is a story about Tiffany and Winesona, but also a memo from an inspirational entrepreneur that may make you leap to pursue your own passion.
Tell us about Winesona.
Your taste matters. That’s what we believe. Winesona uncovers wine drinkers’ taste preferences and constructs their “sonaprints” – like a finger print for tastes.
Winesona acts as an intelligence layer for wine retailers to drive their sales. We design blind tasting events for our wine retailer partners to sell as a service and to allow them to collect data. We then deliver their consumers’ taste profiles. Our partners value the customer loyalty and the increased customer lifetime value. Our partners include private clubs, wineries and restaurants, and I intend to partner with retailers like Costco, K&L and Total Wines soon. I would call Winesona’s business “WSaas” – Wine Science as a Service.
What’s the latest update on Winesona and what’s the company’s vision?
Winesona initially was set up to be a B2C e-commerce platform but recently pivoted to the B2B SaaS model. We provide our intelligence engine to our retailer partners and help them sell more wine and make their customers happier.
The interesting part is that when I first started, I used tastings only to learn about consumers. I never thought Winesona would take a B2B route. However, it became obvious to me that the SaaS model and B2B route can be scalable and very efficient for data collection.
The two key reasons we pivoted were: 1) The team is a group of top data scientists passionate about solving this personal taste data problem. 2) We proved market interest and the potential to scale. Every week, I have a target to either growth our data or our revenue by 10 percent.
As to the vision, Winesona is way more than a wine company. We are a personal data company. Personal taste data will be one of the most valuable assets for the next decades, and Winesona is onto it!
Why’d you start Winesona?
I grew up in China, a country of mass production. I lived in Paris in my early 20s and stepped into a wonderland where my taste mattered. That contrast has shaken my life deeply and makes me who I am today – I care about how you feel as an individual. Winesona is all about this vision – to create the right, the freedom, and the way to be happy in our own way.
I am both a sommelier and a data scientist. Several close friends who are serial entrepreneurs pushed me to do something related to my personal passions. They taught me about this idea of “founder fit” and this stuck with me, a business where I have a North Star, a combination of values and passion.
The path to happiness is to focus on what one truly likes truly, when nobody else is looking. And my North Star is to make wine drinking a personal and loving experience for everyone Winesona may reach.
What’s your role at Winesona?
I am the founder and CEO. By that, I mean that I’m the chandelier, the structure that holds the brightest lights who are smarter than me and who want to reinvent the wine industry. I feel so fortunate having my founding team of ex top tech company executives and PhD experts in data and taste, who are now willing to make my dream their own. They are now, above all, friends I trust.
I heard you let go early funding opportunities. Why? And who would you like to be your investors?
It was a team decision. We want to stay revenue-funded till we are set to scale. As we decided to pursue the SaaS model, we can stay lean and optimize the team’s competence without getting diluted early.
I feel fortunate being surrounded by close friends who are veteran investors and serial entrepreneurs. They gave me the courage to not to take money early and the wisdom to consider my early investors as family members – not only smart but also caring about Winesona. This goes a long way.
However, Perkins Coie, a reputable law firm in the Valley, did grant Winesona its deferral program based on Winesona’s potential and accepted Winesona into its “Le[a]d Better Program” for rising star women founders. I am grateful to have Perkins Coie on board.
What would be your advice to the Wharton entrepreneurship community?
Put yourself out there. That doesn’t mean you network endlessly. That means reading and doing what you didn’t fully know about, and embracing the risk of embarrassment in talking with those who outsmart you about the topics you may even never have heard about.
The other equally important thing is to put people before business. Winesona has a no asshole rule and we only want to work with A-players and investors. Turns out that the only path to get all of these is “people before business.” Wharton teaches a lot about skills, but we also know nothing can be solved by skills alone, even not people skills, but only with a genuine concern for helping others do better. If you enable others to excel, they will help you in ways you could never imagine.
Heading out of the wine bar, I came to think of Tiffany as a combination of a science geek and a romantic artist. As she said, founder fit goes a long way. This tale of wine and data has opened its first brilliant chapter and made us yearn to see how the story unfolds.