On Creating A Keto Meal Replacement
Hello! Who are you and what are you working on?
I’m Chris Bair, I’m a bit of a technology geek and most of my life I’ve worked as a computer systems engineer. A few years ago, I became quite passionate about the ketogenic diet and started making a nutritionally complete meal replacement shake designed for my own use to make doing Keto easier.
I decided to name it Keto Chow in a nod to the fake “Bachelor Chow” product on Futurama since it’s literally all you need to eat, if you’re so inclined. Making Keto Chow for myself turned into a small company which soon exploded into a rapidly growing company.
That’s what I do full-time now along with 11 full time employees and a handful of part-time. We mostly cater to people looking to make getting the right nutrition for a ketogenic diet easier, it helps a lot that people love the product since it tastes like melted ice cream.
What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?
I’ve been doing stuff with computers, networks, enough programming to be dangerous, and the like ever since I was quite young. I really like fixing problems and I’m excessively lazy… er I mean “relentlessly optimizing” =) If I can save time in the future by taking a few hours now, I’ll do it.
You do not need to take outside investment unless you absolutely have to move fast and gulp up market share. Don’t be afraid to take it slow.
My father ran a small business when I was growing up and I remember stating on several occasions that there was no way I would take on the hassle of dealing with regulations and payroll and all that by owning my own business, yet here I am! A lot of the founding principals come from my dad’s business philosophy so I must have been paying attention, even if I had no intention of following his footsteps at the time.
Give people genuinely good information for free, believe in what you’re doing, don’t trick people into something they don’t genuinely need to fatten your wallet and it’ll all work out. That’s how he worked, that’s how I work. We’ll see if any of my kids pick up on it =)
Part of all that is the absolute confidence in the product, to that end in January 2019 I decided I would publicly document my experience eating ONLY Keto Chow for all of my food for 100 days. 298 consecutive meals of just the meal replacement I make (I forgot to eat twice, wasn’t hungry or it would be 300) - it’s one thing to advertise that your product is healthy and all-that. It’s something else entirely to actually LIVE on only your product. I’d actually recommend that more company presidents try something similar.
Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?
I “open sourced” the original recipe for Keto Chow back in January 2015 and you can still use the last version that can be made with reasonably easy to acquire ingredients to mix your own. The stuff we make now takes advantage of massive economies of scale and there’s not an easy way to make it without industrial scale machinery and ingredients by the truckload. Still we have a large community of users that make their own, mostly because they live in areas of the world where shipping Keto Chow costs a lot, so they make their own.
With that original version 0.6 recipe, I continued to improve and change ingredients as my knowledge of human nutrition and ketogenic diets improved. People frequently ask where I went to school to learn all this. I typically say “well I was a computer engineer and sysadmin, so naturally I got into human nutrition - it’s like exactly the same thing!” Oddly, there is a lot of cross-over. Once I had the recipe going I started to have people that didn’t want to buy all the ingredients and mix their own, so I started selling the pre-mixed version on a small WooCommerce shopping cart that was integrated into the blog I was posting to 4-5 times a week. The company kept growing and we moved to a contract manufacturer/co-packer that enabled us to really scale. We moved the fulfilment out of my dining room and into a 4000 square foot warehouse with forklifts and pallet racking in September 2016, that lasted until July 2019 when we moved to a 17,500 square foot warehouse to cope with the massive growth.
Up until December 2018, the only advertising we did was an ad on the Keto SubReddit - everything else was organic growth. I didn’t start all this in an attempt to create a company or make a lot of money, I was really just looking for something to use myself and it turns out it fills a need that a lot of other people have. I was fortunate to have started the company when I did so I could establish the groundwork for the company ahead of Keto becoming popular. I don’t know if I would have been successful in starting a business with the massive demand there is now, as it was the entire operation was bootstrapped with 0 debt, 0 investment. It’s a slow process but it worked for me with my previous full-time job.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Right now we’re attempting to cope with the explosive growth of having a Facebook ad video made by the same team that’s responsible for the Squatty Potty, Purple Mattress, and ChatBooks advertisements. It was a leap of faith to invest that much into a video but it’s worked out fantastically. As the 100% owner of the company, I have the luxury of not having to disclose any growth metrics or figures so I don’t - I can say we’re doing amazing. We’ve been profitable since day 1 with cash flow covering all the expenses and growth. We’ve ruined the averages for the marketing company we started using in December 2019, according to them: our Return on Ad Spend, conversion rates and other metrics eclipse everything else they’re working on.
We are doing the majority of the actual order fulfilment here in our own warehouse, with some Amazon Prime fulfilment. We prefer to have control of the fulfilment as it allows us to control the quality of the customer order experience. Our defect rates are low and we ship quickly. If I had to do it all over again, I might have looked more into using a fulfilment partner but when we started nobody would even return my calls (I tend to return the favor now) and by the time we became big enough to be taken seriously we already had the facility and employees. I’d prefer to (over)pay people I know to do a great job helping people change their lives than shipping stuff off to a fulfilment center.
All that said, we’re getting close to having regulatory approval to have Keto Chow distributed in Canada where we will have to use a fulfilment center to handle those orders. It’s a fair trade off given the problems of International commerce.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
One of my fellow small keto business owner friends has a philosophy that when you identify something you are not good at - you need to hire your weaknesses. This is something that we’re still working on here. My wife is handling the HR side and the creative part. I’m actually really good at customer service and troubleshooting but adding the “human touch” usually doesn't even occur to me, so we have people that are taking over that portion (though I still will get up to my elbows answering questions on the weekends). I rarely do the actual packing of an order. My wife reminds me to do what I’m best at (and that I haven’t yet been able to “give up” and hire someone to do). Always something to work towards! =)
I’ve learned that it’s really easy to get distracted by new exciting projects, especially when you answer to no one but yourself. I’ve found that I need to make sure that I’m not letting the new shiny things take away from the stuff we/I’m best at: our core competencies. Sure we could do X but is that what we *DO*? If we do X will we be able to keep moving forward with what makes the business what it is?
The regulations surrounding running a business - I understand why they are present, but they drive me nuts. Hiring employees, collecting sales tax in dozens of states, it’s so far outside my core competencies; but where there’s a forced regulation, there’s a way.
When you start to work with business partners: whether it’s a manufacturer, a shipping service, fulfilment partner, or anything; know that nobody cares about your product like you do. A manufacturer will want to optimize their end and use the ingredients and processes that are most profitable for them but if that brings down the quality of your product, it doesn’t work. Sometimes you gotta insist and take a lower margin for a product you are honestly pleased with.
We’ve also learned that when you deal with people it often takes 6 or more interactions for the relationship to really develop. You’ll meet them at a trade show (nothing), then at some other event (recognition), again (awkwardly can’t remember your name), another show (knows what you do), etc...
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
We started our shopping cart on WooCommerce, honestly it’s a fantastic platform with amazing capabilities… for the first 1 million in sales, then it got slow. Now we’re using Shopify and it’s working quite well for us.
We use ShipStation to tie together all our sales channels together and do fulfilment, we’ve tried other services and they didn’t work for our process. We’re using eComdash to manage inventory, it allows me to hand that part over to employees and it syncs product across a bunch of channels.
We use Re:Amaze for email, chat, facebook, instagram, and twitter for customer support. It allows our entire team to get in and take care of requests and collaborate, it also ties right into shopify and shipstation. I finally got us switched over to g-Suite for email and such, still working on getting people (including myself) off our personal accounts and onto that.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Most of what I listen to are specific to the ketogenic diet and lifestyle or technology focused (Diet Doctor Podcast, 2 Keto Dudes, LLVLC). I’ve been trying to find time to read Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and I’m about half-way through “What If?” by Randall Munroe - it’s an involved read.
I try to spend time going through Feedly to get up to date on tech news, most of what I get comes from Ars Technica, Engadget or Slashdot. I also spend a lot of time on Reddit, mostly on /r/keto but I often play cat herder on /r/ketochow too.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
When you first starting a business you’re probably going to hire family, friends, and neighbors. Just make sure you’re aware that it’s awkward to fire a neighbor, hard to fire a friend, and firing family will give grandma a heart attack (OK, not really, but it’s really difficult) so put some thought into what you’re doing and look for people that care about your success.
You do not need to take outside investment unless you absolutely have to move fast and gulp up market share. Don’t be afraid to take it slow. If something’s a good business it should be able to survive on its own merit (you know unlike that Amazon thing that took how many years to turn a profit, that’ll never work out =)
Where can we go to learn more?
You can find the Keto Chow wordpress blog with posts going back 2014 at https://www.ketochow.xyz/.
- The shopping cart is at https://shop.ketochow.xyz/
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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