I had the pleasure of interviewing Stephan Fortier. Stephan is a highly driven and passionate renaissance man who combines his love for film, fashion & lifestyle, design, food, video & digital content creation, branding & image-making and business startup advisory with savvy business acumen and entrepreneurial edge to continuously bring his visions to life. With 25 years of experience as an entrepreneur, he launched 30 startups including an app for celebrity wines and spirits (GrapeStars), a magazine (Ocean Drive Canada), a fashion line of custom sandals (Tuccia Di Capri), a modeling and talent agency (Talent), and 21 restaurants/clubs from NYC, Miami, LA, Montreal & NE.
His latest project, GrapeStars, is a revolutionary app and marketplace offering wines and spirits of over 200 celebrities, including Angelina Jolie, David Beckham, George Clooney, Mila Kunis, John Bon Jovi, Conor McGregor, The Rock, Jay Z, Sarah-Jessica Parker and Robert De Niro amongst many others.
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 started my first business at the very young age of 19. I was in college at the time (so basically completely broke) but compensated with strong salesmanship skills driven by passion and obsessive perseverance. I convinced the landlord of a prime, empty retail space in downtown Montreal to give me $50K to lease his space, and then the bank across the street to give me a $250K small business loan. Armed with a very modest $300K, I managed to miraculously open my first restaurant.
I went on to start 35 different ventures in various fields from restaurants, magazines, fashion, retail, modeling, entertainment and now, a tech company in the home liquor delivery space. I have many passions, so I’m constantly creating. My brain is wired differently than most, as I have a strong logical and pragmatic side (I studied accounting and financial analysis in college), as well as an extremely developed creative side, which is probably why it’s so natural for me to launch businesses. The visions and ideas come easily, as do the business aspects, especially when pitching investors and speaking their language.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Bringing GrapeStars to life was a collaborative effort with my childhood friends, Robert and Jean-Jean Pelletier, and our partner in Sweden, Stefan Lindqvist. The concept morphed significantly over the years as we learned to navigate the very challenging legislations of the U.S. liquor industry. Jean-Jean had the initial idea to play in the celebrity wine space, while Robert and Stefan had the vision for the name and the app. I contributed the business model.
It was quite complicated to figure out at first due to the many federal and varying state legal restrictions. In addition, the logistics were a nightmare as these celebrity products where not readily available at retailers nationwide, or even with any distributors in most cases. We figured out an incredible model that now allows over 200 celebrities with a combined following of 1.2B to finally leverage their social media audience to sell their wines or spirits direct-to-consumers compliantly online. We built a potentially massive and game-changing marketing machine. However, tapping into all this potential comes with a surprisingly elegant solution as we do not buy, stock or ship these products. We simply take a commission on each transaction and let our network of partners do the heavy lifting.
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?
Without a question — my first restaurant. It wasn’t really funny at the time, but now when I look back at how “green” I was, it’s beyond comical. The restaurant was actually doing extremely well and was one of Montreal’s premier fine dining establishments that was completely packed every single night. However, my chefs had trucks waiting in the back at night to steal food and the manager did the same thing in the front with liquor. Although I was generating tons of revenues, I still couldn’t pay my bills. I had to eventually sell the restaurant just to cover the debts. A complete mess! But as we say, you live and you learn. After that episode, I concentrated a lot of my time figuring out extremely sophisticated systems for all of my subsequent business ventures. Today, anyone would be hard pressed to steal a single carrot or sip of liquor that I wouldn’t be able to trace back. It also allowed me to significantly increase not only controls, but efficiency as well. It worked out for the best in the end, but it was quite the initiation to what many consider to be one of the most difficult businesses out there.
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 whole heartedly agree with that. I think any business is very difficult and requires a lot of commitment and dedication. Having a passion, or a purpose like you said, for what you do will definitely help you keep going during difficult times. For me with GrapeStars, I feel a similar purpose as I did in the hospitality business, which is to bring people together, or “feed the soul,” as I call it. Some of my best memories in life involve super fun evenings with friends and family sitting with good food, fine wine, entertaining conversations and a great escape. That’s all you can take with you to in the end; the memories.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
I think for me, to successfully implement a culture, it’s not really about sweeping catchy slogans, but more about what you do every day — the grind, the decisions you make whether they’re big or small — they all have to be consistent with the overall message. Your team will listen to your rousing speeches, read your carefully crafted policies and memos, but in the end, they will watch what you do day in and day out and that’s what’s going to have the most impact. My philosophy when it comes to building culture is that I am their servant. My job is to provide my team with everything they need to succeed and if they fail at any stage during the process, it’s on me. I don’t believe in bad apples. It’s my job as their leader to properly make them see the vision, rally them behind it, and give them the tools to succeed. It circles back to what you were mentioning earlier about purpose. It has to truly live within you, and you have to truly feel it in order to apply it throughout your team.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
I cannot stand to lose. That’s where most of my drive comes from. If I think of an idea for a business, I will not stop until it comes to life and is successful. Now I’ve had my teeth kicked in several times, but I went down swinging each and every time. More often than not, dedication, drive and being relentless in your pursuit will get you there.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Pretty much every new company I’ve ever started had that cycle to various degrees. Of course, I considered giving up many times, but in the end the fight in me always triggers when faced with adversity.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Success is an ever-fluid concept and expectations are continuously raised along the way. I would say I’m at a point in my life where I’m very proud of certain successes I’ve had over the years, and at the same time very humbled by some difficulties I’ve faced throughout my career. The incredible wealth of knowledge I’ve acquired (mostly through failures) puts me in a very exciting position to meet my next challenges. I think we are in a very good position today with GrapeStars to create something really special.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service-based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
I believe a lot has already been said about this in terms of your standard “identify your market,” “identify the needs,” “find your niche,” “define your message,” “have a plan,” “know your services,” and all that good stuff.
I’d like to approach the question more in terms of intangibles that, in my opinion, are key to succeeding not only in service-based industries but in entrepreneurship in general.
1. Do the Do
This is where 99% of ideas go to die: overthinking or over-analyzing to the point of convincing yourself to move on from your idea or, even worse, being paralyzed by fear or simply just not knowing where to start… What is step one?
Thankfully, there’s this little law of physics that also applies to business: actions create reactions. It is truly amazing how doing something, even just a small task, can set wheels in motions. The most successful people I’ve met are not necessarily the biggest scholars or thinkers, but they are the biggest doers. They act first, and then readjust with more actions if need be. They don’t spend unnecessary time talking or thinking about things, they spend time taking action.
I’ve experienced this many times first-hand in my businesses. Sometimes when things are stagnant, I’ll start little projects or do small tasks and it seems to open up a completely different flow of energy. Never underestimate the power of actions!
2. Show Me the Money
I’m always amazed about how seldom I read about this. It’s like an assumed fact that the money will be there when you need it. Well, let me tell you that it’s not. Raising money is why 90% of ideas don’t even get to see the light of day and continuing to raise money is how 99% of businesses survive, even the ones that end up thriving.
The ability of an entrepreneur to raise money, especially in the initial stage, cannot be understated. It’s one of the key traits of a successful entrepreneur. This is where a partner with that ability can come in handy. Once a business is operational, you will surely still need to raise additional money to get through tough times, or even to grow faster during better times.
I can attribute pretty much all of my failures in large part to a lack of proper funding. Sometimes you’re eager to get started, or you just cap out on the money you can raise for a project. You then try to make budgets work with what you have instead of exercising patience and getting the proper funding that will allow some margin of error. Not the wisest decisions I’ve made in retrospect.
3. Create the Magic
A former mentor of mine use to always tell me that a bad idea that’s well executed is better than a good idea that’s poorly executed. There’s definitely some truth to that in some ways, it’s a very catchy phase indeed, but make your life easier and come up with an amazing idea to start with. This is obviously easier said than done, but you need to find an idea that does more than just respond to a need.
This is the difference between Apple and HP for example, both servicing the same basic need but obviously in very different ways. Pay attention to details, invest in proper branding and create an aura around your product or service.
It’s much more efficient to invest in creating a product or service that everyone wants to have, than to spend fortunes in marketing to try to sell something average to audiences that don’t really care. Create something they want really bad — it then sells itself. Again, easier said than done, but I believe efforts placed here will pay off in the long run.
4. Service the Service
It’s called the service industry for a reason. Way too many companies forget to be of service to their clients. Selling a service is the easier part but dedicating yourself to servicing that service takes a whole other level of commitment. Nowadays, especially where clients are much more informed than ever before, more demanding and way more irritable, it’s important to spend time researching and talking to your clients. Have honest conversations instead of leading them to tell you what you want to hear. Dedicate a lot of resources and efforts to raising your customer service to the next level. Very few do, so you’ll gain an edge just by doing it.
5. Fight the Fight
I don’t know of many success stories that didn’t go through debilitating times. If you want to succeed, you will most likely have to go through hell to get there. This is where your grit and dedication will be tested many times over. Get yourself in fighting mode from the get-go. A lot of this is about having the right frame of mind. If you go in ready for a fight, it will be much easier to win than when you’re caught off guard.
Lastly, never take starting a business for granted. Investors are not easy to find, great ideas do not grow on trees and opportunities do not abound. You have to be humble — it’s a privilege to be an entrepreneur. The vast majority of your success will come from pure luck. Don’t squander your opportunities and be ready to fight to the death for it. It’s much easier on the psyche to fight and lose, than to walk away and regret not trying hard enough for the rest of your life. Trust me, I’ve made that mistake before, I’m not doing it again.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I would obviously have to say all the investors who believed in me throughout the years, business partners, advisors, dedicated employees, loyal customers… the list is endless. But one person in particular took the time to really mentor me. He was a good friend of mine who became my partner. He was one of the world’s leading experts in implementing the Toyota Production System (TPS) in Fortune 500 companies in the early 2000s. He taught me so much about production systems and general business and operations efficiency. I have always been extremely creative with business concepts and problem solving, and I have a really good head for numbers, but I was lacking in operations. He took my expertise in operations to a whole new level and helped me become a well-rounded entrepreneur.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Very interesting question.
I always wanted to help children, whether orphaned, abused or underprivileged. I strongly believe kids shouldn’t be forced into dealing with the harsh realities of adulthood before their time. All children should be allowed a childhood, and it’s our responsibility as a society to protect their innocence for as long as possible. Being a dad myself and coming from a humble but extremely loving and happy family background, I always felt that I needed to give back some of those blessings. That’s where I would say my heart would be in terms of philanthropy.
Thinking about this in terms of efficiency gives it a very intriguing dimension in a way that I never considered. I’ll have to think more on how this concept could potentially be molded into a movement to affect real change.
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