Jordan Kivelstadt co-founded Free Flow Wines in 2009 and has been leading the growth of the wine on tap category since its inception. Jordan was trained as an engineer at Tufts University, before moving on to management consulting. In 2006, Jordan began his career in the wine industry at The Donum Estate and Copain, which in turn led him to make wine in four countries. In 2007, he founded Kivelstadt Cellars, a small, Sonoma-based winery. Today, Jordan not only leads the wine on tap movement, but focuses the wine industry on alternative packaging and sustainability.
Tell me about your early career.
I was an engineer and pre-med in college, and after deciding that medical school was not for me, I spent three years at a small management consulting company in Boston, where I also went to school. I learned a ton about business, pricing, and market disruption. After burning out, I moved back to California (born and raised in San Francisco), and wanted to do something different, more tangible. I met with a friend, Dan Donahoe, who helped me get my first harvest internship at Copain. This was a total blast, and so radically different from the conceptual business world I was in. That led me to Australia for a harvest (Vasse Felix in Margaret River), and then back as an associate winemaker at the Donum Estate in Sonoma. After two years there, I was offered a harvest winemaking position in Argentina (O. Fournier) which aligned well with me personally, and also gave me the time to plan Free Flow.
How did the concept for Free Flow Wines come about?
The genesis for Free Flow arose from a bad bottling day at Donum. We simply had every problem in the book – bad labels, bottles, line went down multiple times – and I went back into the winery frustrated, and kicked one of our topping kegs, asking “Why can’t we just sell wine in one of these?!” For reference, every winery in the world uses kegs. We use them to store small portions of wine that are too little for a barrel. I wrote the business plan while in Argentina, and then came back and pitched Dan (my business partner), and we started the company in July 2009.
What was your marketing strategy?
Initially, we were a branded company called Silvertap Wines. We launched the first nationally-distributed, premium wine in keg. We focused on demonstrating to restaurants and consumers that you can get a great glass of wine on tap. This continued for three years (2010-2013) as our focus, but by 2012, we saw a bigger need for restaurants to offer more brands by the glass, and more wineries came to us asking for help. We started pivoting the company in 2012 to what Free Flow is today: a packing and logistics company that is the category engine for wine on tap in the U.S. Today, we use a variety of methods, both direct sales through our Biz Dev team, and in partnership with our more than 200 wine brands, to grow the market.
How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We grew Silvertap rapidly (in the wine world), in 2010-2012, to around 10,000 cases a year. But the real growth started in 2013, once the company pivoted to Free Flow and became the category engine. Since then, we’ve grown more than 40-fold, and now are looking at almost 200,000 kegs (450,000 cases) this year.
How do you define success?
For me, success has always been a double bottom line. I believe that it is incumbent upon my generation (funny enough, I just learned I am an Xennial) to build successful, scalable businesses that also do something to further the planet. Therefore, success for me includes building a highly-profitable business, but also making a long-term impact. Thanks to the sustainability of kegs, we will have removed 20,000,000 pounds from landfills this year, and saved (through our innovative water recycling system) more than 5,000,000 gallons of water. To me, the combination of these two metrics (business and planet) is how real success should be gauged.
What is the key to success?
Focus and grit. Staying focused on our mission to change and improve how people consume wine, while helping the planet, informs our decisions and drives the company forward. In addition, like may entrepreneurs, this path has been very challenging at times. Always believing you can get there, and never stopping, is critical. I have stared at the company folding at least half a dozen times in nine years, but always knew we could get through it.
What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Innovation is hard, and when you are dealing with real things (not like the tech industry), it can be even more challenging. However, perseverance and great people make it possible. Today, we have 75 employees, two facilities, and are growing very quickly. None of that would be possible without determination and a great team to execute.
What are some quotes that you live by?
“In Vine Veritas” (“In wine there is truth”)
“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”
“There is no ‘I’ in team”
What are some of your favorite books?
Tough one, as with the company and two small children, reading is not a luxury that is much afforded to me right now. Most of my reading these days are kid’s books 🙂 I do read Inc., NPR, CNBC, and my news aggregators (both local and industry) every day. I have also become a huge fan of podcasts, as they are great on the move. Love the TED Radio Hour, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!, and How Stuff Works.
Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
A couple of years ago, right after the pivot to Free Flow, we were raising capital. I had a term sheet from a family office in place, and we were finalizing the deal. We hit some speed bumps and it was during our company holiday party that I got a call from the then-chair of the board of the family office that they were pulling out. We had less than thirty days of cash, it was the holidays, and I had to go back into a room with twenty employees and keep a smile on for another two hours.
When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The knowledge that what we are doing is right, changing the world, and improving people’s experiences with something (wine) I am passionate about. Plus, I wouldn’t give up the challenge, ups and downs, and gratification of a job well done, for anything. Being an entrepreneur is what I was born to do.
What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
It is harder than it looks, but if you are passionate, hard-working, and willing to never give up, you should always chase your dreams. For the rewards, and there are many, outway the sacrifices. The other crucial one is that family comes first. Too many entrepreneurs lose site of this due to the success or stress of running a company. Your family, or partner, is the rock that keeps you grounded. Never forget that, lean on them throughout the process, and keep the dialogue alive. Long-term, this is what really matters.
This interview was conducted for research purposes by author Jason Navallo for his upcoming book, Underdog.
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