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Eric Kunisawa, Founder of Grappos, Shares His Successful Bootstrapped Journey

Laura MacPherson March 17, 2021

This post is part of our “Startup Stories” series – where we feature select Designli clients with the goal of highlighting their products, their inspiration, and what has motivated them to tackle the world of building a digital startup.

Eric Kunisawa launched a software solution for the wine industry in 2008. Grappos has grown into a powerhouse that serves some of the biggest and most popular labels today. We chatted with him to learn how he was inspired to start the company and to hear the advice he has for others following the entrepreneurial path.

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Tell me about your company. 

Grappos provides product locator software to wine, beer, and spirits producers, marketers, and distributors. We offer a managed solution — we don’t just license our software, but we also provide the service of making sure all the data is kept up to date, within the locator itself. We do all the heavy lifting for our customers. 

What’s your origin story? How did your company come to be?

My wife, Jill, asked me to pick up her favorite bottle of wine. Normally, I would just go across the street to our great little wine shop and pick it up, but they stopped selling it. I found myself searching LA for this $12 bottle of wine that should be easy to find but it wasn’t. I thought, there has to be a better way to do this, and I can’t be the only person who is having this problem. So that’s how we got started. 

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Has your idea changed since you first launched? Have you had to pivot in any way?

Yes, I started out by trying to solve the problem I had — how to find a particular wine nearby. The original idea was a website and mobile app that consumers could use to find wines available locally. 

But as we began talking with the producers and distributors, we realized that the bigger need was a software solution that wineries could use on their own websites to create their own brand-specific locators. So we pivoted to create software that they could use to direct their customers to their local wine retailers. In the end, we ended up solving the consumer problem, but in a different way, a better way. 

After we pivoted to the software solution, we started to see that our customers didn’t have the resources to consistently manage the locator data updates themselves. So we began offering a managed solution – we provided the software and the service to keep the locator up-to-date. 

And again, based on listening to our customers, we created our SearchTracker for reporting, our own homegrown analytics system. It tracks locator searches, and it’s been invaluable to companies looking to gain insights into where consumers are looking for their products.

Then we expanded to beer and spirits, and all the little subgenres of alcoholic products — the seltzers, and even tea and coffees. Now we’re in talks with some brands outside of these categories that are completely new to us. We’re basically just always listening to our customers coming up with new ways to solve their problems.

What’s the most rewarding thing about running your company? 

Being able to solve customers’ problems — it’s really satisfying and rewarding when we can solve something they’ve struggled with for years. 

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And what’s the hardest? 

The hardest thing is probably staying focused on a core set of features that are the most meaningful to our customers. There are a lot of things we could do, but we have to discern what just adds complexity and what provides real value. So just sticking to the things that are really meaningful.

Who inspires you? 

Other bootstrap entrepreneurs. I started with my own money, and it’s not easy to start a business without a ton of cash. Legal, finance. . . all these things are very expensive, especially when you’re just getting started. It takes guts to make that leap of faith and stick with it. Especially when people around you are telling you, you’re nuts. So it’s great to see someone out there starting up and bootstrapping it.

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What’s the best advice you’ve ever received? 

Working in advertising for 15 years, I learned the importance of focusing on customers. I saw the impact of building trust and investing in relationships and being a good communicator. Service is the secret sauce. It boosts retention and growth. And it’s what’s made us successful. Our clients include some of the biggest wine brands in the country, and we’ve had them for over 10 years — it’s because we take excellent care of them. 

What advice would you offer to new startup founders or those who are in the early stages of starting a company? 

The first thing is, don’t give up. And make sure your idea is solid and simple. Be willing to pivot if you have to, like we did several times. And listen to your customers and potential customers — that will take you to places that you would never have thought of yourself. 

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Follow Eric on his journey by visiting Grappos on the web, at Grappos.com

Ready to chat with the Designli team about bringing your own startup to life? We’re here to help. Contact us here.

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