Changemaker: A Wine Startup With a Can-Do Attitude
Looking beyond bottles to make wine more accessible and sustainable.
“Maker really started out of a class project in Startup Garage. We got our first seed check the second year of school, and that set us off on this journey.” Sarah Hoffman, MBA ’19, and her co-founders Kendra Kawala, MBA ’19, and Zoe Victor, MBA ’15, came from tech and corporate strategy.
In this ongoing video series, we showcase Stanford GSB alumni who are striving to change lives, organizations, and the world.
None of them looked back when they pivoted to wine, partnering with small Northern California vintners and to make their products more accessible and sustainable. Their plan: Put premium wine in a can. “Why has wine always been in these super stuffy, unapproachable, heavy glass bottles?” Victor asks.
Launching a canned-wine business during the early days of the pandemic made for some difficult lessons, but the trio tapped into the Stanford GSB alumni community to spread the word through virtual tastings. “It was really leaning on the network that helped ultimately get us off the ground during a really tough time,” Kawala says.
Kendra Kawala: We launched with product in market in January of 2020. We had imagined doing events and concerts, and selling in restaurants. All of that disappeared overnight. We found ourselves with about 40,000 cans of wine, and no way to get them out there. My background is actually not in wine, I was previously in healthcare and consulting.
Zoe Victor: I worked in corporate strategy and corporate development.
Sarah Hoffman: I worked in marketing in San Francisco. I did get burnt out in technology and wanted to do something different.
Kendra Kawala: While at Stanford, I met my now co-founder and best friend, Sarah.
Sarah Hoffman: I had asked her to be my partner for this class, startup garage, to explore the canned wine idea because she was the smartest person that I knew.
Kendra Kawala: We spent six months meeting with wineries, ideating on our concept and our business model. What this allowed us to do was pressure test our ideas and start to build up a network in wine, in the startup ecosystem. It was roughly six months later when we were first connected to, now our third co-founder, Zoe.
Zoe Victor: Through the GSB network, I was introduced to Sarah and Kendra.
Kendra Kawala: As soon as we started working together, we knew that Zoe needed to be a part of our team.
Sarah Hoffman: Now the three of us really are inseparable.
Kendra Kawala: Maker Wine is a new kind of wine company. We partner with small, independent wineries and we can their flagship wines. We started Maker to create a new kind of company that shined a light on small, independent wineries. They are farmers, and artists, and scientists, not marketers, and sales people, or distributors.
Zoe Victor: We’re working very hard to keep the little guys alive so that we always get to experience this amazing craft.
Kendra Kawala: And then we started to think about what type of experience was missing as millennial wine lovers and wine consumers ourselves, and that’s when we really had the aha moment with cans.
Zoe Victor: Why has wine always been in these super stuffy, unapproachable, heavy glass bottles?
Sarah Hoffman: Super old school, outdated.
Zoe Victor: The label tells you nothing.
Sarah Hoffman: Not technology forward.
Zoe Victor: You never know if the price is indicative of the quality.
Sarah Hoffman: I have a passion and background in the craft beer industry and saw cans really take over that industry because of the sustainability benefits.
Kendra Kawala: A lot of people don’t know that glass is actually very hard to recycle. It’s recycled in just about 40% of recycling facilities across the United States.
Zoe Victor: The aluminum format also weighs much less than a bottle of wine, and so if you think about the carbon emissions transporting wine across the world, much better for the environment there.
Kendra Kawala: All of those reasons really got us excited about cans. We actually canned our first three wines less than two months after graduation. It was a wild time to launch a company. We really had to get creative in how we launched a new type of wine product during the global pandemic. And candidly, the GSB and greater Stanford community was a huge part of what helped us make that happen. What we started doing was hosting virtual wine tastings, and we did more than 150 in our launch year, and so it was really leaning on the network that helped ultimately get us off the ground during a really tough time.
Sarah Hoffman: Stanford GSB definitely changed my life. I would not be here today as a CEO of Maker if I hadn’t gone to the GSB and met my co-founders, and met the people who backed our business from the very beginning.
Zoe Victor: I don’t know that I would’ve started this business without the confidence that the GSB gave me. You walk out of there and you feel like you can do anything.
Kendra Kawala: I chose the GSB because I wanted to be in a community of people with not only business smarts, but that were really conscientious humans.
Sarah Hoffman: Everyone that I met that went to GSB was passionate, excited, doing something really unique. I wanted to be around those people and be inspired to build something great, too.
Kendra Kawala: The motto of the GSB is, “Changing lives. Changing organizations. Change the world.” On the whole, why we are building Maker, why we consider ourselves a mission-driven wine company, is so that we can make wine better.
Sarah Hoffman: I really want Maker to be this incredible platform for these independent producers. To get to highlight minority and women-owned wineries and make those stories more visible, I think has had an impact.
Kendra Kawala: When we are successful, wine as an industry really should put the human at the center.
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