by Samantha Thompson Hatem
photographs by Eve Kakassy Hobgood
Harriet Mills admits she’s a pretty good artist. But truthfully? She’s even better when there’s wine and a few friends involved.
Mills is gambling there are a lot more people out there who are just like her.
Five years after co-founding Wine and Design, a paint-and-sip art studio franchise, Mills has ambitious goals of at least doubling the business in the next few years, to more than 100 locations around the country. She has reason to be confident. Entrepreneur magazine recently ranked Wine and Design 31st on its list of the top 75 franchises launched in the last five years.
What Mills lacks in true artistry she makes up for in confidence, drive, and a convincing sales pitch. Wine and Design has gone from a single location in Five Points to 55 franchises in nine states, fueled largely by Mills’ marketing savvy, unrelenting moxie, and good old-fashioned word of mouth.
“Harriet doesn’t let anything stand in her way,” says Marianne Burt, one of Wine and Design’s first artists and its first franchisee. “She’s willing to try anything. She’s always looking to take Wine and Design to the next level and take us further than other paint parties.”
Wine and Design dominates the “paint-and-sip” category in the Triangle with seven studios, yet it’s one of about a dozen franchises competing nationally for customers seeking a relatively inexpensive night out – an alternative to dinner and drinks. Gather some friends or a date, buy some wine or beer, and hit the studio. For $35, students get step-by-step instructions from an artist to paint a picture. A few hours later, they leave with an impressive painted canvas – and often ready to sign up for another class.
“I deeply believe that everyone wants to be an artist,” Mills says. “When people get there, they’re nervous. But the alcohol helps loosen them up and make the painting look good.”
It wasn’t the type of business Mills, 34, envisioned having as a child, but she says she always knew she’d have her own company. Aside from lemonade stands and negotiating buy-one-get-one-free deals at the corner store in her hometown of Whiteville, she comes from impressive entrepreneurial stock. Her grandfather, Dr. George Edwards, was the co-founder of Affordable Dentures, a national franchise started in Kinston that has grown to 244 locations.
Mills got her start in the dental business as well, honing her business acumen by selling dental supplies after graduating from Peace College in 2003 with a communications degree. It wasn’t a glamorous start, but Mills, who admits she “can talk to a wall,” got essential lessons on how to sell. “They just threw me in there,” she says. “It was a fun job and I got great experience.”
She quickly moved up, landing in Raleigh selling toothbrushes and dental chairs throughout the region. She traded in dental supplies for dinnerware a few years later, selling Vietri dishes to boutiques.
When the economy tanked, Vietri laid her off. Mills, by then married to husband Patrick Mills with a young son, found herself at a crossroads. She decided to join her friend Emmy Preiss on a road trip to Charleston, S.C., where Preiss’ husband suggested they try Bottles and Brushes, a new paint-and-sip studio.
“We brought two bottles of wine and they taught me how to paint a French scene,” Mills says. “My painting was really good. I was so proud of it, but I thought it must be the wine. But the next morning, it was really good.”
Excited about the possibilities, the two came back to Raleigh and started crafting a business plan. “We knew people in Raleigh would love this,” Mills says. “They’re creative and smart.”
They knew that people were budget-minded during the recession, and Mills and Preiss thought $35 for an evening painting with friends hit a financial sweet spot. They leased a space on Bickett Boulevard, took out a Groupon ad, and started pushing the business through Facebook.
“We opened in three months and we held our breath,” Mills says.
Soon, people were coming to Wine and Design from places two or three hours away. Within a year, people were asking to open their own Wine and Design studios. The first franchise went to artists Marianne and Craig Burt, who opened in Cary’s Prestonwood in 2011, a location that continues to be one of the franchise’s most successful. They plan to open a second studio in Apex this year.
The Burts say part of what sets Wine and Design apart from other studios are the varied classes that reach new audiences. There are kids’ track out camps, corporate team-building activities, and even Wine and Design on Wheels for off-site events. Paint a portrait of your pet, throw a birthday paint party, or gather the girls for ladies’ night out to paint, ahem, nude male models.
Most franchisees come to them organically – after taking a class and falling in love with the process. Mills believes the affordability of the franchise, at $17,500, makes it appealing. Franchises often open within 60 days. “We make it so easy,” Mills says. “We have a business in a box. We teach them to clean a paintbrush, how to trace a canvas, everything.”
These days, it’s just Mills at the helm. Last fall, she took over the corporate and franchise part of Wine and Design after she and Preiss parted ways. Preiss still oversees the Wine and Design Raleigh location, which is now downtown on West Street.
“I wanted to grow the franchise,” Mills says. “She likes to paint. She’s an artist at heart.”
To accelerate growth, Mills reached out to her longtime mentor Laura Bingham, Peace’s former president and now a partner at the consulting firm Newport Board Group. “Since we’ve never spent a dime on marketing, I need a little guidance,” Mills says.
Bingham says Mills’ steely resolve, gritty determination, and good market timing have helped Wine and Design succeed. So has its ability to tap into the popularity of experiences that appeal to social-media-hungry millennials.
“Harriet sees challenges as opportunities,” Bingham says. “She’s been smart enough to reach out to people who can help her.”
Among those are Mark Street, a partner at Newport, and Maggie Barnes, who runs daily operations. Maggie is also preparing to open her own Wine and Design franchise in Durham.
With new infrastructure in place, Mills, who is now the mother of two children, says she’s ready to take Wine and Design to the next level. “I’ve seen hard work, and with a local business, you can’t just sit back,” she says. “You have to work to get where you want.”