This post was originally published at Rolling in Dough.
My business partner and I were sick of having to drive miles into the country to get really high quality pasture raised meats.
Driving to different farms and farmers markets always costs a lot of time and money, and we thought if there were other people who had the same problem, then now would be a great time to start a company that brought the best meats in the world right to your door.
Find your niche to get initial customer traction
We validated this idea through acquiring customers on Korean expat websites. We offer some specialty ethnic cuts, and we couldn’t order from our rancher until we met a minimum order.
We had a basic website that wasn’t as visually appealing as it is now, and we just asked friends and friends of friends if they wanted good meat, and we had our minimum order ~30 customers in about a month.
I was sick of my old job, and it was taking up more and more time which cut into my leisure activities.
At that point, we were getting a handful of customers and I figured I could get more of them if I was doing this full time, so I bit the bullet and put in my 2 weeks at my old job.
It took us about a year to start the subscription offering, the critical pieces were obviously a website, a billing system (Thank goodness we went with ChargeBee), a product, some processes, and prices!
Bootstrapped and profitable
We’re completely bootstrapped and profitable. We’ve dipped our feet into the funding pool, but it never really panned out, and we’ve always been profitable. Maybe we’ll do it in the future, but we’re okay with continuing our bootstrap journey.
We’ve sent out over 2500 shipments since September of 2013 and have grossed over $100,000 in that same time period.
Here’s what we asked ourselves about funding:
Are you fulfilling your service or product cycle with a very very low error rate ie >1% at your current operational level?
If you aren’t then I don’t think you’re ready for funding. You want funding when you’re ready to throw gasoline on the fire.
Do you have the advertising channels lined up or already open?
If you get funding and need to spend 3-6 months opening up these channels, you’re wasting time and money.
Do you have a plan for the next three orders of magnitude of growth?
Average entrepreneurs plans for one order of magnitude of growth. Above average entrepreneurs plan for two orders of magnitude of growth. Stellar entrepreneurs plan for three orders of magnitude of growth. You need a plan with milestones, expected problems and solution, and contingencies in order to scale.
Funding = scaling. If you aren’t ready to scale, then you aren’t ready to be funded.
Supply and Shipping
We have one supplier for each product and we went on a search for each supplier based on some metrics we have and good old fashioned taste testing.
We approached them over the phone first then in person. We’re still working on optimizing our supply chain, but it’s getting better.
They key is to minimize the number of places your product has to stop and make sure you pay your bills on time. Suppliers want to sell you stuff, so you don’t really need a “pitch.” The best pitch is a check!
We used this old google drive spreadsheet and copied orders and addresses manually from ChargeBee, to start with. We used this from the beginning to over 100 customers.
It was a huge pain, a massive time sink, and prone to human error. I couldn’t stand it, and started researching alternatives. I chose shipstation because Shipstation is the best of breed, and ever since they’ve updated their interface, they’ve only gotten better. It makes it easy to send shipping notifications, and since it plays nice with ChargeBee, it’s turned a 15hr plus task into ~1hr task.
We started with some small forums and social media outreaches to our friends. We also work with a handful of bloggers that do a great job of putting us in front of our desired demographic.
I read paleo blogs for enjoyment and to gain knowledge, so it was pretty easy for me to figure out which ones were big and had the right audience for us to target.
Our biggest customer acquisition came from Paleo bloggers. Their readers are knowledgable and want our product, so it’s a perfect product market fit.
We started with CrossFit, but our value proposition wasn’t enough for them because we don’t offer “performance” benefits to the degree they are looking for to justify the cost, but for a mom, who’s looking to feed her family with really high quality meats, we fit the bill perfectly.
Once our website was shared on a couple of bloggers sites, we have averaged over a customer a day for almost a year.
I guess if you’re looking for a metric based approach, I’d look at RSS subscribers, facebook followers, and how active someone is on Instagram and pinterest. Our biggest metric we check out their Facebook followers because women (our target demographic) tend to use facebook more than men.
We chose this niche initially based on our personal interests and past experiences. As a recreational reader, I knew that when a blog posted once or twice a week about high quality meats that this blog would be a good one to reach out to.
We pitch them by offering to send them free product. It’s pretty straight forward, but sometimes people say no. We have a couple of aces up our sleeves that we haven’t used yet, but once we do I’ll let you know!
Searching for forums is essentially reading articles and clicking link-backs or looking at people who share tweets or facebook statuses. I’d say at our current levels >90% of our growth has come from partnerships and social media.
Jeez, the site is so much different. I really wish I took more screenshots of the original design. The original site had horizontal scrolling, not a lot of text, but what text was there was unclear.
The original website was also just a customizable box that used a rather confusing points system that assigned a point value of one or two points to each cut of meat and the customer had to pick at least ten points and as many as 25. The pictures weren’t as good either. We were growing, but not very quickly.
We think having great pictures is one of the single biggest investments a startup can have. It helps set a great precedent for your product or service, and they’re a great one time investment because you can always repurpose pictures.
I have no coding experience. I never liked the old design, and felt I could do a better job so I used squarespace and built it myself. Its easy to use (drag and drop) designer templates are beautiful and responsive. Sales have only gotten faster since the design change.
I’m working on another redesign right now to focus on usability, unifying some disparate design elements, and enhancing our sales funnel, but the difference between V1.0 and V2.0 is insane. Fewer questions, more sales, and just a more pleasant experience. I’m hoping to have a bigger impact in V2.1
Tools of the Trade
I think that having a working knowledge of spreadsheets is absolutely critical for anyone interested in starting a small business.
Really it’s mostly google sheets. I use excel for graphs, and operational (product ordering) purposes. We haven’t found a SaaS that does inventory and ordering for our purposes, so I just use excel for that.
Outside of that excel is really useful for doing forecasting and predictions and graphing. Google sheets is good, but the functionality is just a step behind excel.
Here are some other tools that we use –
It helps if you are facing the same problems that your consumers are facing, but I don’t think it’s absolutely crucial. What is absolutely crucial is that you are passionate about solving the problems facing your customers.
It’s important to remember that whatever entrepreneurial adventure you’re working on is still work, so having passion is what helps you slog through the endless emails, customer complaints, and tedious aspects of starting up and running a business.
But, the silver lining is that passion is the same stuff that pushes you to solve problems and dream up really big, crazy ideas and turn them into a reality. So my advice is be passionate and love the problem you’re trying to solve.
The small stuff is a daily battle. As far as emails go, the best thing I could do was get a specific customer service management app that does ticketing and managing those tickets. We use Desk.com, but there are so many others like zendesk, freshdesk etc.
This cleaned up my personal inbox to focus on more operational and executive tasks, relieved a whole lot of stress, and allowed me to start tracking trends regarding our customer service experience. It took about a month for all the emails to route to that account exclusively.
I keep a running to do list that I am constantly rewriting and reorganizing. This prevents tasks from keeping on my mind or worrying me.
I’ll reorganize my list on paper once a twice a day to make sure my priorities are pointed in the right direction. I am also a firm believer of spending the night before or first thing in the morning planning out your day to focus on the biggest tasks you need to accomplish. Doing all of your tasks reactively is a recipe to burn out, and keeping a list, using it regularly,
I’ve tried productivity apps, but I haven’t found anything that I like or takes too much time to do. I’ll take a pen and paper to do list anyday!
Whenever I’m struggling I remind myself it will end eventually. Every bad situation ends, it may lead to a cancellation or you’d end up solving the problem and make the customer happier than before. Either way, you’ll learn, you just need to move on with that knowledge and not become stagnant.
I always remind myself to get enough sleep and take care of myself. I’d much rather have a very productive 7 hours than an unproductive 10 hour slog.
The last thing is always keep your customer in mind. Keep them happy, don’t worry about your pet projects in your business, and understand that your customers’ happiness is the only one that matter.