Face to Face with…Craig Ceccanti

Face to Face with…Craig Ceccanti

Mar 22, 2013, 5:00am CDT

Many art studios tout the concept of painting while sipping on a glass of wine, but Houston-based Pinot’s Palette doesn’t aim to groom the next Salvador Dalí or Claude Monet.

Rather, CEO and co-founder Craig Ceccanti says it’s all about the experience of having a good time — checking the stress of daily life at the door and putting paint to canvas, step by step, with a glass of vino in hand.

Since 2009, patrons have been coming in droves to the Montrose, Galleria and Memorial City locations to create a piece of art with their friends during bachelorette parties, date nights and team-building workshops, under the instruction of experienced artists.

The company opened nine studios in 2012 and plans to be at 40 franchise studios across the country by the end of this year. “We didn’t invent this idea. People have been painting and drinking wine together for a long time,” he said. “We just learned to commercialize it well.”

The idea for the business came to Ceccanti, he says, after attending a painting class with his mother in Louisiana.

“I discovered something about myself,” he said. “I enjoyed being creative, and I was actually not that bad at it.”

Three years later, he found himself in Houston attending Rice University’s MBA program and talking over the venture with roommate, and later co-founder, Charles Willis. In 2009, the two men, along with Beth Willis, Charles’ wife, partnered on the venture.

The Houston-area locations host the creation of some 25,000 paintings a year.

“That’s about 75,000 paintings in Houston — hanging on people’s walls, in office buildings — that didn’t exist before,” he said. “It’s kind of neat to think about.”

Ceccanti sat down with Houston Business Journal reporter Shaina Zucker to discuss the challenges of his entrepreneurial journey and why it was worth it.

What’s the competition like for this type of venture?

It has multiplied, especially with the success of our first and second studio. There are a lot of people who come in and say, ‘This looks easy,’ and think they can do it, too, independently in a basement somewhere. People who do that quickly find out that they don’t have the supplies they need. We have added details that make the night better, like real wine glasses versus disposable ones. That makes a big difference. We have great sound systems, and the artist is microphoned.

How has your background in computer science helped you with Pinot’s?

We take about 300 reservations per studio per week, which is almost like running an airline. The class is like a flight. We wrote software to handle all of that. That’s where our background came into play. We are the only offering that has that technology support, and we offer that system to our franchisees.

What kind of art background do you have?

I took one art class in undergrad. Since then, I’ve had about 30 classes at Pinot’s Palette. I have no formal art background at all. What’s important, we realized, for our studios is to take care of the business, paying rent, marketing, legal, getting the artists ready to do what they do best.

What’s something you wish you were better at

One of my goals for this year for myself is to become a better leader. I’ve read 50 books on leadership. It’s like a Zen thing — you really have to get into the flow of it. Managing people takes a lot of experience. I think that’s one goal for Charles (Willis) and I both to learn how to lead a company from this size to a much bigger size — do it proficiently so we aren’t making mistakes.

Who is your personal hero?

My dad, without a doubt. He had a knack for management and leadership. I learned a lot about management from him, but also a lot of how to be a principal, how to be ethical and treat people with respect. Management is not just about getting X’s and O’s, but being proud of a team you’ve built and what you’ve accomplished together.

What advice do you have for young entrepreneurs?

Build a support network that understands small business. You need a balance of people who are going to ground you to reality and people who are going to encourage you.

Shaina Zucker covers commercial and residential real estate, construction, retail and hospitality.

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