ESCAPE 9-to-5. CREATE YOUR OWN FREEDOM. Case Studies of Non-traditional Business Founders

How a Mom of 3 Uses the Power of Stories to Build Her Wine Brands, with Selena Cuffe

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Published under Food & Beverages, Import/Export, Wholesale

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January 16, 2015

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Selena Cuffe started Heritage Link Brands to introduce Americans to wines from South Africa.

Listen to how she used the power of stories to differentiate her line of wines from the myriad of others and win in the marketplace.

Listen here:

Note from Selena:

“President Obama hosted a summit, moderated by former President Bill Clinton, during which Walmart’s CEO spotlighted our brand, Seven Sisters! Bill Clinton asked a question directly to Walmart CEO Doug McMillon who begins to answer at point 42:49 on the timeline. McMillon specifically mentions Seven Sisters at 44:45. Please have a look:



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Faheem: Alright people, welcome to radical tribe dot com, welcome to the freedom show, this is episode thirty six so this is where you learn to escape nine to five and create your own freedom by starting a business and so if you are in a corporate job and you are desperate to get out and start a business then this is the show that you should be listening to every week. We feature successful entrepreneurs who have quit their nine to fives and started their business and secured their freedom so if that’s what you want to do then you are in the right place.

So this week we have a very special guest, her name is Selena Cuffe, Selena is the president of heritage link brands and this is a company that is a brand management and importing company and specializes in introducing Americans to products from Africa so Selena has had some wild success introducing Americans to wines from South Africa and that’s what she is here to talk about, she is going to talk about her story and her challenges and her successes and she is going to give you guys some tips about how to do what she does.

Before we get into the case study, we want to remind you that you can sign up for our mailing list at radical tribe dot com slash subscribe and that way, you will never miss the show. Right folks, here is Selena, enjoy the case study.

Selena, thank you so much for joining us at Radical tribe, we are very excited to have you here, I’d like to start off by learning a little bit about your background, what do you do and what you were doing before starting your business and how you started working for yourself

Selena Cuffe: Sure, I currently operate a brand management company that’s focused on introducing the global consumer to the best products and services that come from the continent of Africa. Typically we have a differentiation in the wine segment, we bring in, to the US, as well as work with the producers to export into four different countries [Inaudible]. Prior to this, I used to work for [Inaudible] where I was in brand management as well on twingle as well as [Inaudible] and then almost ten years ago, my husband proposed to me which led me to [Inaudible] which is where I worked at the time.

Going to work for an amazing organization called “The council on international educational exchange”, in essence, I oversaw their marketing initiative to about fifty thousand students that were either coming to the US or leaving the US in search of cultural understanding and study abroad and work exchange.

Faheem: Ok, and how did you start… when did you start the business and when did that come about?

Selena Cuffe: I started the business as a result of a serendipitous business trip to South Africa with the council and I, at the time, was opening up South Africa as a market to which students would leave and come to the US to study or to do work exchanges. On my very last day there, I was really looking to get into something to help me relax, it had been a very hectic and long schedule and I stumbled upon the first annual Stilleto wine festival. Stilleto was where Nelson Mandella and [Inaudible], the general public to fight for equal rights and [Inaudible] it was an area that once upon a time was considered to be a “A polished [Inaudible].

So the fact that they even had a wine tasting peaked my curiosity and interest. My market hotel thought otherwise, I started to get into my car and drive down there and I was blown away by number one, how fun it was, we had seven hundred people in attendance enjoying good food, music and wine and literally the second table I stopped at was one of this lovely woman named Vivian Klaynon who made an amazing [Inaudible] and she proceeded to talk about the idea that she would have exported it to the US market but she ran into such a terrible, difficult time trying to distribute her products locally within the South African market and it was almost as if a bright light went off in my head that…

First of all, the story of the South African wine industry is one of fascination, it started in sixteen hundred because of European [Inaudible] the prosecution of the catholic church, they came down and ironically… in a way very similar to the US, the same individuals that were fleeing… the aristocratic nature of Europe, the ability… the inability to have flexibility in social class, they came to this new world in search of better life and then started this wine industry… not just African but at the time, the Dutch east India company had flavours from Malaysia and Indonesia.

And the result was, South Africa has a three billion dollar industry but less than two percent is owned by black South Africans who represent ninety percent of the population so in my mind, this was really about preaching forward, not the political side anymore but now they were legally able to own land and there [Inaudible] restriction but now there was a new challenge which was for economic independence and economic rights so that’s what inspired me to start Heritage brands.

Faheem: Wow, that is such a fantastic story, thank you so much for sharing that Selena. You came upon this idea of trying to help indigenous wine entrepreneurs to export to the US on a trip, you were working for somebody else and you were on a trip to South Africa and this light bulb went on when you spoke… when you saw the opportunity so what did you do next, did you quit your job and jump in and started working on the business or did you start on the side, what was that process like?

Selena Cuffe: It was actually crazy because at the time, my husband and I were newly wed when we started the company, we got married in April of two thousand and five, I went to South Africa and had this moment, this ground breaking moment in September, the same year and then in October, we decided to actually start the company and in November, I found out that I was pregnant with our first child so there was a lot that happened that first year of me being married.

the way that it came together was when I returned in September, it was amidst a lot of craziness, when I returned, Katrina was in full swing, Hurricane Katrina so there was a lot of focus on… “Hey, what do we do domestically let alone think about what’s happening on foreign soil”. But one advantage that I think we had was the fact that we lived on the Harvard business school campus which is where my husband was still studying at the time and I graduated a year prior and so we were able to leverage the immediate contact with his professor, my former professor, students that were very willing to see which ones we should bring into the marketplace.

So, really that first year was… working a full time job whilst doing this stuff in my downtime whether it be on the evenings or the weekends or during my vacations and when I finally had a baby, I literally worked until the Friday before I had the baby Monday morning and so what that allowed me to do was fully recognize my maternity leave and use that as time to work on the business because… not saying that you can’t bond with your child during that maternity week period, it’s nice to have that dedicated time but my personality is not one to where… especially when the baby is asleep.

So it really was a good opportunity for me to get the website ready, talk to our first customer which was [Inaudible] and to get all of our kinks worked out before we launched. Not saying that it worked perfectly but we literally… we started the business on October… we didn’t do a commercial launch until February of two thousand and seven.

Faheem: Wow, just to go back to that point, you got married, you started a business and you had a baby in the same year, talk about having a crazy year.

Selena Cuffe: Yeah, it’s been busy ever since because I have had my third child on Saint Patrick’s day this year.

Faheem: Wow, congratulations. I was telling you over email, I became a father too exactly a year ago so I know how crazy it gets. I know how crazy it is to have one child not to mention three. I know we are short on time Selena so I just want to quickly clarify your business and it’s model, you describe the company as a brand management company where you help exporters… entrepreneurs export wine from South Africa so do you actually import the wine or do you just facilitate and market the wines, facilitate the export and market the wines.

Selena Cuffe: It’s multiple things, we actually import the wine as well as own a [Inaudible] in one of our… not one of our… our largest brand so we have an interesting team that’s [Inaudible] success of not only the brands but also the vineyards and the quality and production of the wine on term.

Faheem: So how did you come about defining this business model, is this the first model that you had in mind or did this just evolve because you started the business about ten years ago or nine years ago, was this the first business model that you wanted to pursue or is this something that just came along the way?

Selena Cuffe: It’s still trilinear, we are pivoting as appropriate and doing the necessary things that we can to constantly optimize and refine our business model but I knew nothing about entrepreneurship, I knew nothing about wine, I knew nothing about anything except branding and marketing, I got great training for P and G but everything else was… no relationship within the industry but I think the biggest piece that contributed to our success was just the passion for what it was that we were trying to do.

Faheem: Interesting, tell me about your current portfolio and where the business stands now and then we will get into your challenges and everything.

Selena Cuffe: So you want to know about the business model, how it works?

Faheem: No, I want to know where the business stands today, you started the business in two thousand and five and now how many brands do you manage and do you have other products as well, what’s going on in the business today?

Selena Cuffe: I started the business in O five, launched in O seven and went from being in one state to now being in forty seven, we have distribution in over five thousand outlets, including Walmart, [Inaudible], all three domestic US airlines, [Inaudible], we work with….on the [Inaudible] side to great brands, the seven sisters and the house of Mendela which was produced by Mendela’s children and grandchildren, we also began to introduce other products and…in October, we’re actually launching three beer brands that are out of west Africa and we’ve got a family care item that is launching in February of twenty fifteen, that is where I get to food storage, both in the developed and developing market.

Faheem: And what has been your biggest challenge so far in growing the business?

Selena Cuffe: the biggest challenge has been the way we probably started, I was too ambitious and optimistic about and not practical and maybe practical Is not a good word if you don’t know what you don’t know but I just thought that…it required a whole lot of startup [Inaudible] to get a business going so I probably…in just giving website [Inaudible] negotiation, trip to South Africa to meet the suppliers, review products, [Inaudible], seventy thousand dollars, that first year and yeah and we probably could’ve used about five [Inaudible], so I would just that the biggest lesson learned was to make sure that the capital structure is appropriately positioned [Inaudible] a sustainable business that is not draining personal resources.

So I mean a lot of…ninety nine percent of what I used to [Inaudible] came from personal…

Faheem: Came from what? I didn’t get that, came from what?

Selena Cuffe: Personal funds, my purse, yeah.

Faheem: Yeah, so if you wanted to do this all over again then how would you do it, you talked about capital structure and making sure that you have…your assistants are optimal and everything, so when you said, you could’ve done with five, five times less, right? So if you would do this again today, what would you do? How would you start the business?

Selena Cuffe: I would’ve probably raised [Inaudible], like a financing round and then startup the business, that would be the only difference, I think that fundamentally, the way that we approached it and took a very [Inaudible] to creating the necessary buzz and demand for the brand was exactly spot on, it’s just that I didn’t…now with three children, I feel kind of bad that I [Inaudible] everything, luckily, this was the first year, last year with that first year possibility, we are on track to go by forty five percent this year and I’m going to get a chance to pay off ninety percent of the debt that I have amassed over the past seven years in about two days, so yeah.

Faheem: Oh wow, that’s awesome, that is great, I know we’re short on time, I just have so many questions for you, so I’m going to go as fast as I can, how do you compete, I mean in such a competitive marketplace, how do you compete in a competitive market and what do you think has made you stand out and what is that like the key success, factor that has helped you grow in a competitive market?

Selena Cuffe: I think the fact that we offer something that’s totally different, most wine stories are the same, oh…my grandfather grandfather grandfather planted these wines back in late seventeen hundreds but the story of [Inaudible], most people that have been here [Inaudible], it’s either because they have inherited it or they made their money [Inaudible] and financially, you know oil, like they love wine, so they have poppies for them.

Whereas that’s not the case for our brand and [Inaudible] and brand, everybody knows the story of Nelson Mendela and when we do a wine dinner and have the family come in and talk about what that experience is like, there’s nothing that can compete with that, right? Similar to the seven sisters, I mean their story is tremendous, when the youngest sister was four and the oldest sister was sixteen, their father was fired from his job [Inaudible] and you lost your job, you lost your housing, you weren’t allowed to own land.

So in a period of twenty four hours, the family had to separate, one [Inaudible] had to go with one relative, [Inaudible] had to live with friends here and they never had a chance to live together as a family, fast forward twenty years, [Inaudible] in our industry decides to galvanize the sisters to pay tribute to their bonds of devotion during that difficult time and they began to produce wine [Inaudible], yeah, I don’t know, from the standpoint of telling that story, that story is more [Inaudible] to the experience that the average American in a post economic crash.

The people identify [Inaudible], last week, president Obama hosted a Summit for all of the African leaders, the first annual US African summit, I don’t know but there was a panel that former president Bill Clinton hosted with like Walmart CEO, the CEO of [Inaudible], the CEO of coca cola and Bill Clinton had asked [Inaudible], the CEO of walmart, questions about [Inaudible], their commitment to Africa and how to think about Africa and in response, he mentioned our brand by name, so I feel like, we’re doing something right….yeah.

I was blown away when I thought, when I heard it, yeah!

Faheem: I would love to listen to the clip of that, please, I would love to listen, that’s so powerful, I mean that’s…while they were telling their stories like it just you know feel the power in those stories, they are so moving, especially the story about the seven sisters and so I found out also, you know, very interesting that you used the stories and your positioning to compete and be heard and you know win in the marketplace so I really find that so interesting and so inspiring, Selena, just one question before we move to the last part of the call, I know your…you said you have three kids and it’s been crazy from day one, since you started the business.

Just…what is the one productivity tip, your best productivity tip you can share with us today?

Selena Cuffe: The best productivity tip….oh boy, the best productivity tip that I can really offer is to say thank you to people and to be nice because I…in order to get done what we need to get done, we take this, my very crappy team of seven, we had to rely on probably seventy other people and without the thank you’s and the nice behavior, we could never get them to do what they do voluntarily. So when I think about…okay, what is….it’s productive, it’s the fact that we have galvanized an army so to speak for any ambassador to [Inaudible] a word about our company and our brand and they’re doing it with no compensation so…really us being humble and being able to be gracious in the way that we accept and appreciate their time and effort has helped us overall with our productivity.

Faheem: Lovely, lovely, I never heard of productivity tip in that profile, so thank you so much for sharing that, I love that, so final question before I let you go Selena, if you had four to six weeks to train me to start a business like yours and yours is that your brand management company helps, imports any food product, not just wine, so if I was looking to do that and you had four to six weeks to train that person, to start that kind of business, what would you have that person do?

Selena Cuffe: Honestly, this is probably a very simple answer, I would just have them shadow, this is the type of business where you can read as much as you want but the only way to really get going is to get going and so I think, you have to just throw yourself in wherever you land and begin to connect the dots, connect the dots, especially since this industry is incredibly regulated and with that regulation required probably more time than six weeks would allow, now to get license as an importer in the US market, that requires four months of waiting for the US government to look into every aspect of who you are in your life and so during that four weeks, I would just say “Hey, come and check things out so that you can determine whether or not it’s truly something you want to do and go through the hassle” because there is a lot of regulatory issues from [Inaudible] because every state operates within its own separate entity.

Faheem: And is there anything else that you can talk about that would help any other business owners in this place?

Selena Cuffe: Sample. Sample lots of wine, sampling and testing would be the other things. Testing customers, that would be taking the wines you really like and bring it in front of a group of friends and let them provide feedback on what it is that you are thinking about importing.

Faheem: That’s such a great way to end the show, I always… whoever I speak with, I say get feedback from the customers… that’s such an important step in entrepreneurship and I love that we are ending the conversation on such an important point, Selena Cuffe, thank you so much for joining me on the show, this interview is shorter than the usual interviews that I do but I had a lot of fun and I have learned a lot from you and thank you so much, I hope you come back some other day and talk to me for much longer.

Selena Cuffe: Ok, sounds good.

Faheem: Thanks Selena, take care and enjoy your day. There is one more thing, if people want to learn more about you and your business, where do they go?

Selena Cuffe: Heritage link brands dot com.

Faheem: Right, thanks Selena, I will let you go, take care. Alright folks, that was Selena Cuffe of heritage link brands, if you want to learn more about Selena and her company then go to heritage link brands dot com, I hope you enjoyed that case study and I certainly had a lot of fun talking about her road to success so again, if you guys are enjoying these case studies and you want more and if you don’t want to miss a show then please subscribe to the mailing list at radical tribe dot com slash subscribe and that way, you will never miss a show and if you want to email me and you have a comment or a clarification, just send me an email at faheem at radical tribe dot com and I promise to write back to you, thanks for listening and I will see you in the next show.


Selena Cuffe Heritage Link BrandsAbout Selena Cuffe:
Selena is the founder of Heritage Link Brands LLC, an importer of wine produced from South Africa and the African Diaspora.









    1 Comment

  1. Hi I live in SA and was wondering if you perhaps had on your wine list a wine named Katrina? I googled and came up with this website.

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