If you’re a fan of ABC’s hit TV show The Bachelor, you probably know Ben Flajnik as “Bachelor Ben,” the moppy-haired charmer who chose the wrong girl in Courtney Robertson (whom he subsequently dumped).
But 30-year-old Flajnik is also something of a rising star in the wine industry. Since 2008, he co-founded two startup labels, Envolve and Epilogue wines. Somewhere in between, he found the time to appear on both The Bachelorette and The Bachelor.
Contributing writer Matt Villano recently caught up with Flajnik in his native Sonoma, Calif., to discuss the rigors of running a business during two reality television shows, and how that visibility helped him build the brands.
Q: To what extent did brand-building factor into your decision to do the shows?
A: I didn’t do the programs specifically for business. It was more about story and adventure. The Bachelorette had an immediate impact on sales, but that tapered off quickly. It wasn’t until The Bachelor that there was a large increase in distribution and production.
Q: How did the shows impact company finances?
A: Maybe 50 percent. Probably more. We started at 2,400 cases with Envolve. Now we produce more than 20,000. To be honest, though, I’m sure other factors were involved, too. My co-founder is part of one of the most famous wine families in California: the Benzingers. There were times where we walked into distributors who had tasted our wines and all they wanted to talk about was Mike’s grandfather. I guess I’m saying that everything helped. If The Bachelor wasn’t getting us in the door, Mike’s family name was.
Q: At what point did you know you could parlay the programs into serious marketing?
A: It wasn’t until after the season premiere of The Bachelor. That night, Mike, our third co-founder (Danny Fay) and I we were hanging out together, just watching online orders fly in. We looked at each other and thought, ‘Holy crap, we have something big here.’ We had Epilogue, our second brand in the works for a while, and decided to move up the release in the hopes of capturing some of that interest. With that label, we went from zero cases to 15,000 cases in 2012 on the back of the television show. Now we’re talking about taking this brand into 50,000 and 100,000 cases this year.
Q: You want people to buy your wine for its merits, but I’m sure many people just buy it because of you. How do you reconcile that as a businessman?
A: It’s tough. It’s a tough balance. I consider myself a winemaker, but here in our tasting room, people are coming in and being rude about things in my personal life. It’s hard not to get defensive. I try to divert all of the attention back to the wine. The worst is some of the Yelp reviews. People say I take myself too seriously because I was “The Bachelor.” That couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Q: Where is the line in terms of leveraging fame for the success of the brand?
A: The line is always changing. I’m always separating “Ben the Bachelor” and “Ben the winemaker.” The reason I got here is because I’m a personable and hardworking guy. That’s what I try to relay during intimate winemaker dinners and private tastings.
Q: How much money have you put in to the labels?
A: With Envolve, except for two outstanding $50,000 loans from our families, all of the money we’ve put in has belonged to me and Mike. I’ve probably put about $750,000 of my own money into these brands over the years.
Q: What lessons can you share with other young entrepreneurs?
A: This isn’t my first startup. It’s my fifth. And it’s a lot of work. Mike and I are all on the road all the time. We’re all working 70- or 80-hour weeks still. The harder you work, though, the stronger your passion and the more you should succeed. And if you’re thinking of doing some sort of reality show to help the business, just make sure the business can stand on its own first.
-this interview was edited for clarity and brevity.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor in Healdsburg, Calif. He is a regular contributor to Entrepreneur, and has covered startups and entrepreneurship for The New York Times, TIME and CIO. He also covers a variety of other topics, including travel, parenting, education and -- seriously -- gambling. He can be found on his personal website, Whalehead.com.