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Mark Evans

WineAlign finally uncorks success Add to ...

When Bryan McCaw started Toronto-based WineAlign, he never thought it would take three years for it to catch fire.

Armed with a passion for wine and entrepreneurial enthusiasm, Mr. McCaw decided to launch WineAlign because he saw a need for a service that would let Ontario wine consumers make smarter buying decisions when they went to the Liquor Control Board of Ontario.

Unfortunately, WineAlign didn’t take off as quickly as he expected. In fact, it only experienced modest growth despite the fact the service received a positive reception when people discovered it or Mr. McCaw told them about it.

A year ago, however, WineAlign’s fortunes started to dramatically change – even though Mr. McCaw isn’t quite sure what exactly accounts for it because the company was playing with a variety of marketing tools.

A key element, he said during a recent interview, was fixing a long-standing bug within WineAlign’s technology that did not allow Google to completely index the website.

“Once we got that fixed, our organic search started taking off,” he said. “It was the biggest thing we did.”

While the bug fix solved a major problem given the importance of search for startups striving to attract the spotlight, Mr. McCaw said another important factor was the decision to aggressively spend on Google AdWords, which is advertising that appears alongside search results.

Even though he is spending thousands of dollars a month, WineAlign is attracting enough new users to easily justify it, Mr. McCaw said.

“Google is god,” he said. “Whatever you play with, it comes back to Google. I have run three or four major campaigns in major digital properties that are wine-oriented. The return on that investment was 20 times worse than Google. It was like I took the money and blew it out the window. I am a huge Google fan.”

While Mr. McCaw doesn’t give Google all the credit for WineAlign’s success, there is no doubt the Toronto-based startup has started to enjoyed hockey stick-like growth.

This month, Mr. McCaw said, WineAlign will hit more than 100,000 visitors for the first time.

Reaching that was an important milestone because it provides WineAlign with more credibility with advertisers, which still spend most of their marketing budgets on print advertising. “The market is changing and, thankfully, the 100,000 number is a big number.”

Another bonus, he said, is a growing number of wine critics who were skeptical about WineAlign’s prospects are starting to approach Mr. McCaw about contributing reviews.

If anything, Mr. McCaw has been extremely patient, particularly given that he bootstrapped WineAlign until raising a small round of financing earlier this year.

“The advice I give to people is it will always take twice as long and cost twice as much,” he said.

With the wind finally at WineAlign’s back, Mr. McCaw said he has bullish plans for 2012. It will kick off with the release of an iPad app, and then continue with a move into British Columbia in the first quarter.

Just as important, Mr. McCaw said he is finally ready to hire a full-time employees after running WineAlign as a lean and mean operation.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Evans is the principal with ME Consulting, a communications and marketing strategic consultancy that works with startups and fast-growing companies to create compelling and effective messaging to drive their sales and marketing activities. Mark has worked with four startups – Blanketware, b5Media, PlanetEye and Sysomos. He was a technology reporter for more than a decade with The Globe and Mail, Bloomberg News and the Financial Post. Mark is also one of the co-organizers of the mesh, meshmarketing and meshwest conferences.

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