When Rowan Gormley entered Naked Wines into the Smarta 100 last year it was at a customer's suggestion and the small wine merchant saw it as a great opportunity to grow.
"We knew that the £1m turnover was probably some time away, so we asked ourselves what we could do to stand out from everyone else and how we could best do it. One of the answers was to enter some awards," he explains.
"We recruit our customers through our partners and they are often quite big companies like First Direct. When you're a new company and you call potential partners no one has ever heard of you. When people don't know who you they generally don't take you seriously."
The experience of winning has brought great publicity. "It's amazing how often we call a company, assuming they've never heard of us and they respond that actually they do know us because we won the Smarta 100," he says.
"Winning the Smarta 100 gave us instant credibility, which for a young company is very valuable."
As other companies vying for the awards, Gormley says he enjoyed the voting process. "It made us think about our message to the customers. I think it helped them to appreciate us more," he says. "When you stop to think about something that is normally just there you can realise that it is actually pretty damn good."
The team contacted customers through the website telling them they had entered the awards and explained customer votes were absolutely essential to the business being successful. "Afterwards when we told them that we had won they were very happy and pleased for us."
As for the prize money, Naked Wines decided to invest the £10,000 in a good cause, voted for by its customers. "We are a company that supports independent winemakers and we thought the obvious thing to do with the prize money was to keep supporting them, so we encouraged them to pitch their ideas to our customers. Some needed a new piece of kit, some wanted some more land, some had an idea for wine they wanted to make," says Gormley.
The successful pitch came from a winemaker in Argentina. "He lives in a rural area where schooling is not that great and he wanted his staff to have an option for better schooling. He effectively proposed setting up a scholarship for the children of his workers - if we gave him the money he pledged to match it, so that's what we did," says Gormley.
"This allowed three children to get decent schooling. One of them was called Melissa and as a thank you to our customers the winemaker made a wine called Melissa Malbec."
Asking the customers to choose the winning project was a no-brainer. "It felt like it was the customers who won it for us and to ask them to vote and then not reward them for that didn't feel right. The reason they support us is to get special wines at preferential prices so this is a way to achieve that," he explains.
But as the overall winner of the Smarta 100, Naked Wines also received money-can't-buy mentoring from O2. "The mentoring was all about how a small company would approach a big company to try to work with them and O2 were great. They put in a lot of time and were very helpful, speaking to the colleagues and getting feedback and input. It was very useful," says Gormley.
Since winning the business has gone from strength to strength and has now reached 100,000 angels on the Naked Wines membership scheme. Between them they invest over £2m every month towards future orders, to help the business fund winemakers.
"This year the business is more than 50% up on last year, so despite the recession we have done well," he says. "We don't want to be big for the sake of being big, we want to be at a certain price so that when we are approached by new winemakers, we can buy enough wines from them so they can actually make a living from it," says Gormley.
When asked for his advice to anyone thinking of entering this year he says it's all about your customers. "If you don't have an honest relationship with them don't bother entering," he says. "Customers feel proprietorial about the company and so I think if they aren't already on your side that's where you need to get them."
For all the information about the Smarta 100 and how to enter, click here.