How a Hospital Gurney, a Phone Call, and Oprah Changed My Business

michael-volpatt

In early September 2016, I was being wheeled into a CT scan room to check my belly for diverticulitis. As the orderly wheeled me on the gurney and closer to the exam room, my phone rang and I immediately recognized the number. It was an extension from Hearst Magazines, and the call that I had been waiting for.

“Hi, Michael, this is Raeann from O! The Oprah Magazine.” I immediately asked the orderly to slow down as she told me our biscuit mix and honey were being considered for the Oprah’s Favorite Things list. That singular moment changed our business, Big Bottom Market, and took us from a small town gourmet deli making a tiny bit of profit to a national brand with opportunities to sell our products across the country and greatly increase our profitability.

The process was a huge learning experience for my team and me, as we had to grow from producing and selling 50 bags of mix and jars of honey a month to the staggering 12,000 that Amazon.com estimated would be sold in only two months. We learned a number of lessons along the way, and they continue to morph as we move beyond the holiday season and scale this business for expanded growth.

Prepare to scale up and be ready to scale back

When we first learned about the designation from Oprah, we took stock in our ability to fulfill an increased number of orders of both the biscuit mix and the honey. We also needed to find a place to do production because our space was not that big. The first thing we did was partner with Amazon to help with fulfillment, and they told us that given the price of our product and the type of product we were selling that we could likely do 12,000 units between November and December.

That meant we needed to print bags (we were using a stamp to mark the front of the bag and printed labels on our own printer for the back of the bag) and find a supplier that could deliver these printed bags in a short period of time. We also needed to identify a local honey supplier that could deliver 12,000 jars of honey. This is in addition to figuring out how much flour, sugar, and salt we need to make such a vast quantity of mix. And, of course, we had to calculate labor and find a facility for production.

It took us about a week of hard work and creative thinking to get our ducks in a row. We had a space, a team of part time employees that were available and wanted extra cash during the holidays, and a group of partners/suppliers that were willing to jump in and help out.

We were clear with everyone that at times we would need to scale up production, because of various promotions happening around the Oprah’s Favorite Things list throughout November and December. And also scale back when our supplies were caught up and inventory was where it needed to be.

We meet once a week with the team from Amazon and also our internal team to assess what needs to happen from week to week and ensure that we are not under or over producing.

In-market sales also surprised us. We had no idea that people would travel from far and wide to get their hands on the mix and honey. So we altered our production to make sure that we had enough mix in the store each and every day to satisfy demand. In the first weekend alone we sold close to 500 bags of mix.

Let the people who know better, do better

We immediately turned to Amazon to handle all of our fulfillment. This peeled away about 30% of our margins and also relieved us from the burden of pick, pack, and ship as well as customer service. Once the packages arrive at Amazon, they take over and handle the end-to-end consumer experience. They also provide a seller’s dashboard that helps to keep us organized with real time insight into the amount of inventory we have.

Test paid promotions and think beyond the publicity

While having the Oprah designation is an amazing feat and helped to catapult sales, we never rested on our laurels. We immediately put together a daily social media plan and promoted articles that hit, recipes around the biscuits, and more. We also began testing Facebook boosts, Google AdWords, and Amazon keyword promotion. Our team monitored these paid opportunities daily to see what was working and adjusted spend based on sales.

We also got creative and looked for key partnerships that would help to drive additional sales beyond Amazon. Since our market is located in wine country, we reached out to a few wineries that are now offering the mix and honey gift set paired with their wines. A few local retailers are carrying the mix in-store, and we reached out to some large major high-end retailers that are considering carrying in-store and/or working with us on a co-branded product.

The opportunities keep coming at us, and we vet each one from a product production standpoint, a marketing standpoint, and, of course, a cost standpoint. And the most important thing that we do every single day is say, “Yes we can!” This one philosophy keeps all of us grounded and on the same page. When we come up against a hurdle, we huddle and figure out how to leap over it. We don’t always make it, so we just get back up and jump again.


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