Entrepreneurship requires consistent hustle, so it’s easy to see why FLO Wines is a company Marcus Johnson is proud of. Getting retailers to buy into your vision requires a lot of work and dedication. And making it even sweeter, Johnson, an independent jazz musician and entrepreneur, launched the successful lifestyle parent company, FLO Brands, an acronym of For the Love Of — as a testament to his personal philosophy.
In 2012, Johnson added wine to FLO Brands, which also creates the FLO Fest and FLO CDs. “I thought [wine] may be a great opportunity to supplement For the Love Of and to have a complimentary business so as to look at it from a perspective of lifestyle and passion,” he says. “You are already at this jazz club or you’re listening to jazz music. Well what makes it a little bit better? Wine.”
Today FLO wines are sold in such establishments as Whole Foods, Giant, Target, Harris Teeter, Total Wine and Food Lion in Washington DC, Maryland, Virginia, Illinois and North Carolina. Not one to keep the lessons he’s learned in business to himself, the 45-year-old recently released a self-help memoir, For the Love Of , which shares his unique recipes for creating personal and professional success. We spoke with him about how he brought his wines to the retail market and how other entrepreneurs can follow in his footsteps.
Ebony: What’s the first thing a business should do if they want to make the move to retail?
Marcus Johnson: I am always a student of the industry in which I operate. That means making sure you understand your supply chain, from your identification of a product to production to shipping to distribution to inventory to retail. You can then start looking at things like, “Okay, who are we going after?” That’s knowing your consumer. For me, I understood my target market on the wine side was very aligned with the target market on the big music side, which is African American women and women in general.
Ebony: Once you understand your business and your customer, what’s next?
MJ: Number two, would be to make sure that the product or service that you have is protected through intellectual property protection. A lot of people take things to market without having a service mark, trademark, patent, or copyright. If you put out your patentable idea without proper protection, you could risk losing the right to have that limited monopoly on your idea. There are many business schools and law schools that have small business clients. With these, you’ll get either law or business students who can shepherd you through the process. The first person that actually finished a trademark for FLO was a third-year law student that I worked with and ended up hiring from Howard University.
Ebony: How do you get your product in front of retailers?
MJ: We used relationships that we had [to build new ones]. For example, the head of supplier diversity at Giant Food introduced us to the head of supplier diversity at SuperValu. My deal with Food Lion came out of me speaking on a panel at a multicultural conference for another retailer. It really is talking to as many people as possible and developing relationships [that you work to maintain].
Ebony: Are there things you can do to improve those relationships?
MJ: You want to do things like invite the buyer out. Take them out to lunch. Go to the golf course. LinkedIn tells you everything now. Find out what they like, the organizations that they deal with. You’d be amazed by what people would do when you do simple things like that.
Ebony: What if you don’t have the relationships to leverage?
MJ: You can find a broker. Set aside some amount of funds that allow you to get into the seat of a broker or to create a relationship with a broker that can then introduce you to the people that could put your product on the shelf.
Ebony: What are some things you can do to help close the deal?
MJ: When you’re dealing with retailers, they want to know: Are you going to get foot traffic into my door? They need to know that you’re different than the other thousand people that they hear every year talking about, “I have the best new brand in the world.” Well, what makes yours different? Well, here’s what makes mine different. I can bring you this many social media followers. I can bring you this many on my email list. I can do this many in-store promotions. I have a publicist that will get me on TV when we have big promotions. I’m willing to spend money on this other stuff here that will get people to the stores.
Ebony: How do you determine what retailers to target?
MJ: People are like, “It’s either Target, Costco, or bust.” Yeah, well you and the other hundred million businesses in the world are trying to get their products there. Why not try something a little different? That’s why it’s key to know who you are and who your consumers are because when you know that, then you’re not just throwing something up against the wall. Even if it’s the dollar store, if your product’s best fit is the dollar store, you’re probably getting a larger percentage of the American population than you would if you were having your stock in Target.
Ebony: Any final words of advice?
MJ: The last nugget of advice is ‘you will hear no.’ To me, no means, “You didn’t hear me properly. Let me go back to the drawing board.” I just had a meeting with our distributor in North Carolina. Four years ago when we first launched the company, they passed on us. It was great to walk back in that office and meet with the dude who passed on us and for him to be like, “We appreciate you doing business with us.”