By Sharon McLoone
Monday, August 9, 2010; 22
On her cross-country travels as a software saleswoman, Laurie Forster often froze whenever she had to confront a long list of fancy wines at business dinners with clients. Her knowledge of ordering drinks largely had been confined to her beverage of choice -- a glass of Yuengling Lager, which retails for about $8.99 a six-pack.
Not exactly the best way to impress high-powered executives.
But Forster's ignorance sparked a desire to educate herself about wines, which turned into a hobby and now a business. As the Wine Coach, Forster dispenses her knowledge on the beverage to a growing list of clients throughout the country, including several in the Washington area -- MetLife, Intelsat, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the Congressional Club, Microsoft and Discovery Communications.
"As a salesperson, my role was to explain our high-tech product in a way that was easy to understand and highlight what value it could bring to our clients," said Forster, who was trained at the Capital Wine School in Washington and operates in Easton, Md. "I found I could use this same skill set to simplify what I learned about wine, too."
She started her business, trademarked as the Wine Coach but officially called Forster Ventures, mainly conducting events at parties. But thanks to word-of-mouth recommendations, corporations started asking her to lead wine seminars at conferences, festivals, parties and workshops. She does the crux of her work in Annapolis, Washington and Baltimore. She usually charges about $1,500 to $2,000 for up to three hours of wine class to a corporate group.
She's worked a variety of events -- such as a corporate pajama party that included belly-dancing lessons. "I'd never done a wine tasting in my pajamas," she said with a laugh.
After its inception in late 2004, her business steadily grew, but she began to notice a slowing in her corporate work last year -- and that's no surprise as the nation's economy was over a barrel.
"I wasn't able to predict it, but I could definitely feel it and at that point I knew I'd have to do something differently," said Forster, who is the company's only full-time staff.
"That's when I started employing some strategies that have helped me, and I'll have my best year yet in 2010," she said. Revenue from corporate work has doubled so far this year from this time last year.
She started to invest in her company by spending money.
Although revenue was dwindling, she brought on a bookkeeper and a member of her community who runs her weekly errands. She also hired a virtual assistant who handles the firm's online shopping cart and sends out weekly newsletters.
Forster invested in having her entire Web site redesigned, including better e-commerce technology, where consumers can purchase her book "The Sipping Point," a DVD and related materials.
"It can be a real cycle. The business isn't bringing in the money, so you don't invest in the business so you don't bring in the business," she said.
She also has found that direct mail has been a big sales booster. "I had relied almost entirely on e-mail communications, but today with clogged e-mail boxes, people are responding to a personal letter in their regular mail in the midst of catalogues and credit card offers."
In October, she joined a business mastermind group with 15 other small-business owners. The group members seek to raise the bar for each other.
Forster had to invest a "significant amount of money" to join, but she said it has been invaluable having peers who talk monthly and mentor each other.
She gave up her sales job and said she is grateful for her career change.
"What I love about teaching is you're always learning," she said. "I've been to Napa [Valley] and no one ever explains the wine. Everyone tries to pretend like they know it all, but we don't know it all."