Bottle & Bottega CEO Nancy Bigley on Building and Leading a Brand

Bottle & Bottega CEO Nancy Bigley on Building and Leading a Brand

When Nancy Bigley arrived at Bottle & Bottega in 2011, it was called Bottles & Brushes and was doing all right as a small, pop-up business. The name wasn't particularly memorable though, says Bigley, whose mission was to transform the business into a national franchised brand. After some brainstorming, she awoke one morning and knew "bottega" was the word she was looking for.

For you non-artists out there, Merriam-Webster says a bottega is "the studio or workshop of a major artist in which other artists may participate in the execution of the projects or commissions of the major artist." For customers, it means a place they can go to spend an enjoyable few hours sipping wine and being instructed in by local artists in a safe, comfortable setting.

Fortunately, since the company had operated as a pop-up model before, there were no studios and signage to change. Bigley, who had spent time at Dunkin' Brands, Mr. Electric (The Dwyer Group), and American Leak Detection, began her work building the newly christened brand. The wine, along with the bottles in the logo, stayed.

Stephanie King-Myers, who started the company in 2009, 18 months before Bigley came on board, is the artist in the family. Bigley, who says she has "no artistic ability whatsoever," does, however, have an affinity for art.

"That makes me our typical consumer," she says: people who don't know how to paint, never picked up a paintbrush before, but who love and appreciate "Guests come in with very low expectations. They leave saying, 'Omigod, I can't believe I painted this. I'm going to buy a frame and put it on the wall!'"

Franchisees are hand-on owners from an operational and business perspective, but are not necessarily artists. Rather, says Bigley, they hire or contract out with local artists. "Their responsibility is to be the host of their studios and grow the business."

Most of the artists do other things full-time. The studios usually are held at night, so it provides them with supplemental income - and being artists, they have a passion for the work. "They love it," says Bigley.

The brand also hosts corporate team-building events in the afternoons, bachelorette parties (yes, with nude models if requested), date nights for couples, and private parties for 10 to 40 people. With 20 studios now open, Bigley is looking for 50 percent annual growth in the next 5 years, which will take the brand to about 100 units.

1) Building The Business

What has been the best and the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
Best: That I can execute my vision and my ideas how and when I see fit and get such gratification when we succeed.
Hardest: Being the leader of a company can be a lonely position. You have to be the visionary, cheerleader, brand and goal ambassador/enforcer, and everyone's rock and rudder every day to keep the business positive and forward. There are days when being that person is extremely tough. That's where girls night out helps.

How has your experience in running a franchise business been different from what you expected?
It's been extremely gratifying, which I did expect. I'd say it's been a lot more work and taken a lot more money than I expected. There is always something new to build or something existing that you want to be better. The evolution of the business just never stops.

How did you grow the brand at first? What changed as you expanded?
It was very at the beginning because we didn't have a lot of money. As we continue to grow, we are able to add more resources and people who help us move the needle faster with additional layers of expertise. It's not just Stephanie and me doing all the work anymore.

How did you transition from founding a brand to leading a brand?
We've tried really hard to keep our team focused on where we are trying to go and letting them know that the decisions we make today have to be scalable for future growth. Additionally, I knew I had to focus on getting my head out of the weeds and better delegating certain aspects of the business to my team. I've continued to work on myself and develop my own skills to be a better leader and CEO. As leaders, we have to keep up with all that is changing in the business world.

How would you describe your leadership style?
I'm a very hands-on, direct, results-driven leader. I work hard to be a calm and positive leader, especially in a crisis. I try to be the constant coach and role model helping develop my team in their roles and giving them opportunities to make mistakes and learn. Early in my career it was hard for me to let go and trust others to make decisions for me. I knew that to grow a business from the ground up I had to learn to let go and trust more. I continue to have to work hard at it, but it's getting easier.

What is the key to your company's success?
First and foremost, Bottle & Bottega is a great business. I mean who doesn't like to drink wine and paint? We were clear on our customer and differentiators from day one and have not deviated from that once. That clarity and focus has been huge. We center our decisions always with an eye toward our guest satisfaction and executing a high-quality, unique studio experience for them. We organize people's special events every day, so we have to get it right the first time. Our guests notice and appreciate that. Additionally, we've done a great job of building a strong headquarters team as well as franchise family. We work hard on the relationships and on seeking input from our franchisees on key initiatives to ensure we are on the right path so we don't have to lose time and money backtracking. Building a successful business is reliant on everyone in the brand moving in the same direction, believing in the same vision and strategies, and supporting each other. We got that part right.

2) Lessons And Advice

What's the most important lesson you've learned so far?
Listen to your gut - it's usually right on. Hire the best possible people you can who have great attitudes and a passion for your business. Working at a start-up is tough. It's a special employee who can stick with you through the growth.

If you could do one thing differently, what would it be?
Reverse bad hiring decisions faster. A bad hire or bad vendor partner doesn't usually get any better, but it can kill all of your momentum.

What's the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
That I don't always have to be the one with all the answers, I just need to know the right person to ask. That advice allowed me to take a lot of pressure off myself and ensure that I built a strong team of advisors I could quickly get advice and guidance from.

What advice would you give to others considering starting their own franchise brand?
Be well funded, have a strong, loyal, and experienced team you can trust, be confident in your decisions but don't be afraid to ask for help from experts, stay calm under pressure, don't take things too personally, and never stop being nice and helping others.

3) What's Ahead

What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
Maintaining and building strong, controlled growth with the right franchisees in the right markets. This will allow us to maintain strong metrics and relationships and continue to lead in innovation for our industry.

What's coming up that you're excited about?
I've added a new member to our headquarters team to take over our franchise sales department. He is a seasoned franchise sales leader who is innovative, conscientious, and gets results. We've worked together for years at other brands so I have tremendous trust in him and his decision and feel very lucky. With him in place, I will have more time to focus on developing and improving our products, programs, and systems, which will in turn move the brand forward faster. I'm super-excited to have that time back to better lead our company into the future.

Note: This is an excerpt from a longer interview, which appeared in Franchise Update magazine earlier this year (page 17).

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