I had the pleasure of interviewing James Kornacki.
James Kornacki, PhD, is founder and CEO of Üllo LLC, a Chicago-based company that believes that wine is best enjoyed the way the winemaker intended–free from the sulfite preservatives used to keep it stable during shipping and storage. Üllo’s Wine Purifier is a first-of-its-kind product that gives consumers the option to remove sulfites, for a healthier, more natural way to enjoy wine.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I always knew I was cut out for something different because as kids, my twin brother would be outside throwing a football while I played “mad scientist” inside. I never grew out of my love for science, but half way through my doctorate in Chemistry at Northwestern, I found the life of a scientist to be confining. I needed to get out of the lab and do my own thing. I knew my biggest competitive advantage was, at that point, my knowledge of organic chemistry. I knew I wanted to find a way to use the science in a new, practical, and fun way. When I came home from the lab one evening I saw a box of chardonnay on top of the fridge (hey, I was a grad student), and that’s when it hit me. What if I could use chemisty to take sulfites out of wine? If it could be done, I knew there was a market. I focused the next three years on creating Üllo. I had set up a small chemistry lab in my apartment and worked nights and weekends developing the polymer that ultimately became Üllo’s Selective Sulfite Capture™ filters. After finally getting the PhD, I assembled a small team to bring the concept of Pure Wine to life. Sure enough, there was a market for removing preservatives from wine. We hear from customers every day that, with Üllo, they are able to drink wine again. To me, that’s proof of the power of science.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
I don’t recall laughing about this ‘faux pas’ at the time, but I see the lighter side now. We launched Üllo in the fall of 2016 and had sold out of inventory by Christmas, leaving several hundred customer shipments delayed on backorder. We took a sigh of relief when we got those orders out a few weeks later, only to find that none of these products contained the necessary sulfite filters. Üllo doesn’t work without its filters. Folks were not happy. So what did we do? The right thing. After we learned of the problem, we immediately notified the affected customers and sent out extra filters right away. I learned that it’s ok to make mistakes. You just need to do the right thing and fix them.
Is there a particular book that you read, or podcast you listened to, that really helped you in your career? Can you explain?
The Power of Now, by Ekhart Tolle. You must just read it. It would help anyone navigate through life’s challenges a bit more… calmly.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
I started Üllo with the belief that to be successful in business meant doing something that nobody else was doing. With the invention of Selective Sulfite Capture™, we were well on our way. However, it was the inspiration for that invention that still propels the business today; helping people enjoy the simplicity of wine. I knew that sulfite sensitivity was a real problem because my aunt is sensitive to these preservatives. She turned wine away at a family gathering when I was about ten years old, and that memory stuck with me. It’s the reason I saw that box of chardonnay and thought, “I bet I could take the sulfites out of that. I bet she could enjoy wine again.” Now, hundreds of thousands have enjoyed wine in its natural state, and that’s pretty incredible.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
Everything will work out. You’re always going to have ups and downs in business, but you just have to remember that as long as you’re passionate about what you’re doing and putting in the work, everything will work out the way it is supposed to.It also never hurts to remember that perception is reality.
Thank you for all that. The Covid-19 pandemic has affected nearly every aspect of our lives today. For the benefit of empowering our readers, can you share with our readers a few of the personal and family related challenges you faced during this crisis? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
We’re all still coming to terms with the effects of prolonged social isolation and the persistence of fear. It’s a bizarre reality because, for many of us lucky enough to be able to work from home, it’s not entirely bad. I began to notice early on that I was starting to have a lack of motivation, which I was not willing to accept. I decided to do what I think everyone should do in this case and look after your mental health with physical activity. I began by exercising regularly, biking around Chicago, and even building a garage gym. Every day I get to exercise it feels like a miracle, even leg day!
Can you share a few of the biggest work related challenges you are facing during this pandemic? Can you share what you’ve done to address those challenges?
One of the biggest challenges managing an organization is the ability to separate the important from the unimportant. This can be challenging in the best of times, but it gets even harder during a crisis. To help with this, I’ve taken on the mindset that the future holds promise and that it will be wonderful. It’s important to recognize the things that really matter in life and the things that you don’t need to waste valuable energy on.
Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. The fears related to the coronavirus pandemic have understandably heightened a sense of uncertainty, fear, and loneliness. What are a few ideas that you have used to offer support to your family and loved ones who were feeling anxious? Can you explain?
Take some time to turn off the TV and put your phone away. It’s important to know what’s going on in the world, but it’s just as crucial to give yourself a break from stress and negativity. Enjoy the time in, spend time outdoors, and do the things you love.
Obviously we can’t know for certain what the Post-Covid economy will look like. But we can of course try our best to be prepared. We can reasonably assume that the Post-Covid economy will be a trying time for many people across the globe. Yet at the same time the Post-Covid growth can be a time of opportunity. Can you share a few of the opportunities that you anticipate in the Post-Covid economy?
I think a lot of people recognized well before Covid-19 that the global economy was functioning the way it had in the past. It seemed there was not enough global demand for all of the goods and services we were capable of producing due to the technological advances made over the past century, and the pandemic has made this reality far more apparent. Traditional monetary policies cannot fix this (they tried), so governments and central banks are experimenting with creative new strategies. In the US we have already adopted a universal basic income, like it or not, and it seems to be working, at least for now. Assuming things continue as they are, then such free-flowing money might be all it takes to achieve the promise of capitalism, that is, opportunity and freedom. With the security of income, we will have the ability to pursue our passions. So, what are the opportunities that arise post-COVID? To that I ask, what is your passion? Just make sure it’s compatible with a COVID world. There is no post-COVID, just as there is no post-flu, at least for the foreseeable future. When the fear is gone, that is, when there is an available vaccine, the world is our oyster once again.
How do you think the COVID pandemic might permanently change the way we behave, act or live.
I hope that businesses will start treating people like people again.
Considering the potential challenges and opportunities in the Post-Covid economy, what do you personally plan to do to rebuild and grow your business or organization in the Post-Covid Economy?
I do not see a post-COVID economy until there is a vaccine. So, the question is, how do I plan to grow Üllo in an environment when financial anxiety and personal stress is unusually high? Thankfully for my business, people can still enjoy the experience of wine and what it can bring to their day. Whether it be having a glass at the end of your workday or enjoying with friends or loved ones, for some of us, wine has become a pleasure to look forward to. That’s why I will continue to innovate and grow this brand to ensure that our customers will enjoy wine exactly how it’s supposed to, back to its original state with no sulfites — just like the winemaker intended! We have an exciting new product launch coming out this fall, so I look forward to sharing more details soon!
Similarly, what would you encourage others to do?
Put down your phone when you can. Exercise. Change.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“If life weren’t funny, it would be tragic.”- Stephen Hawking.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Check us out at ullowine.com