Pix Wasn’t the Only Wine Tech Failure I’ve Seen Up-Close

If you’re lucky, you’ve been blissfully unaware of the hullabaloo (mostly on Twitter) surrounding my recent column for Jancis Robinson about the wine start-up Pix, and its failure to secure funding.

I’ve come in for all sorts of criticism about the article, ranging from the inane (‘shame on you for linking to a paywalled article’) to the defensive (‘you’ve mischaracterized how Wine Searcher works’) to the downright accusatory (‘you’re just trying to make the CEO of this start-up look better.’)

A number of people have specifically suggested that my implication that Pix’s failure says something negative about the wine industry is some combination of sour grapes and the deflection of blame for the company’s failure away from those who are responsible, namely the executives of the company.

Let’s be clear, when a start-up fails to get funding, it’s 100% the fault of the executive team. Their jobs, in addition to everything they do on a daily basis to keep the business running, is to sell the idea behind the business to investors. When investors don’t invest, it means the story wasn’t compelling enough.

But that doesn’t mean Pix’s failure to fund doesn’t also say something about the wine industry.

You see, Pix is not the first innovative wine tech start-up I’ve seen fail to fund. It’s the second.

Right Idea, Right Time

The first wine tech startup I saw fail was an incredibly innovative wine e-commerce business that a major wine industry player hired my design agency to help them bring to life.

Specifically, my agency was hired to help name and brand the new company. Then we conducted consumer and trade research that drove our design of a remarkable website and mobile experience providing a set of incredibly flexible and helpful tools for those who shop for fine wine with regularity.

We showed the designs to wineries and they said the site would fundamentally change the game for them and their customers.

We showed the designs to wine lovers who purchased wines weekly from both retailers and wineries, and many said some version of ‘this is the kind of thing I’ve needed for a long time.’

At that point our client went to the very same investors and board of directors who had pushed them to innovate in the first place, requesting the money to launch the business in full.

The board said no. They ‘just weren’t sure it was the right time.’

What these industry executives and venture capitalists ultimately failed to fund would have been one of the largest and most unique wine e-commerce sites on the internet.

It would have launched just in time to support the pandemic-fueled online wine shopping frenzy. You know, when we were all in lockdown in April of 2020 and online wine sales jumped 300-500% for some online retailers almost overnight?

Had it been built, I believe this website would have changed the fortunes of that particular company forever in addition to fundamentally setting a new standard for wine e-commerce.

You’ll have to take my word for that, however. But that’s not really the point.

When Will the Wine Industry Wake-up Come?

Just as with Pix, here we had an excellent idea, with a well-defended and interrogated business case and a great user experience that both the industry and consumers said would be great.

But the industry people with the money decided not to invest.

Hence my claim that the industry lacks the imagination and inclination to participate in the kinds of digital transformations that most other industries have found essential over the past few decades.

Make no mistake, it’s essential for the wine industry too. The question is whether they’ll get to it before they’ve lost the game, and all their digitally-native customers are entrenched customers of other types of beverage alcohol.

Image at top of cracked wine glass created with the AI software MidJourney.

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Pix—The Inside Story

American wine isn’t keeping up with the digital technology revolution, and it hasn’t been for a long while. I’m not talking about the surprising resistance of some wineries to invest the time and energy required to engage customers on social media. I’m talking about a lack of the deep-seated digital transformations that have occupied most other industries for the last decade.

The wine industry has a long history of eschewing what it calls ‘ecosphere’ investments (investments that contribute to the overall industry ecosystem) in favour of either proprietary systems or products. Put simply, the largest wine companies are more than happy to spend a bunch of money on software to help themselves operate more efficiently, or to spend a couple of million acquiring a new brand for their portfolio, but seem quite reluctant to invest in companies that benefit the broader industry.

Roughly two years ago, wine-technology evangelist and thought leader Paul Mabray launched a start-up named Pix, aimed at providing consumers easier ways of buying wine while giving the wine industry better tools for selling it. On 16 August, Pix laid off most of its staff and began searching for buyers, after some of the largest players in the wine industry opted not to participate in the company’s latest round of fundraising. Even though many of these companies were already enthusiastically paying for the services that Pix offered.

Explaining Pix

For the last 18 months or so, I served on Pix’s Board of Advisors. As some readers know, in addition to writing about wine, I have also had a long career as a consultant in technology marketing, design and digital strategy. As an advisor, I was given stock options in exchange for providing advice and perspective to Mabray and the rest of the executive leadership team. 

My involvement since the early days of the company gave me an intimate understanding of what Pix was getting right, and what challenges it faced. For all of those challenges, the business Pix was building proved not only financially sound, but also potentially game-changing for the wine industry.

Continue reading this article on JancisRobinson.Com

This article is my monthly column at JancisRobinson.Com, Alder on America, and is available only to subscribers of her website. If you’re not familiar with the site, I urge you to give it a try. It’s only £8.50 a month or £85 per year ($11/mo or $111 a year for you Americans) and well worth the cost, especially considering you basically get free, searchable access to the Oxford Companion to Wine ($65) and maps from the World Atlas of Wine ($50) as part of the subscription costs. Click here to sign up.

Image of a wine city of the future created by MidJourney.

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