Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I'm the Co-Founder and Creative Director of Cooking Gift Set Co., where we design and curate cooking kits that feed your culinary curiosity. From mastering Chinese soup dumplings to smoking meat on the grill, our kits teach classic techniques from all over the world.
Along with extensive recipe testing, we focus on beautiful packaging design with custom inserts that offer a gratifying unboxing experience. Each kit includes specialty tools, hard-to-find ingredients, and illustrated instructions that make it easy to level up your inner chef.
In 2020 we did $866,000 in sales with 70% on Amazon, 26% Wholesale, and 4% e-commerce.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
In 2012 I launched my first business, Fuze Branding, where I specialized in brand design and photography for small businesses. After 4 years of working with entrepreneurs, I started to realize that scaling such a highly skilled service was extremely difficult. There weren't the profit margins to hire another senior design without sacrificing my own income. And if I was sick or took a vacation, I made zilch. I wanted the freedom and flexibility that came with a scalable business model. One where the ROI for my time was more than just a one-time payment.
In 2016, I sat down with my best friend, Kim Hoffman, to brainstorm how we could use our personal strengths and interests to build a scalable business. We were always swapping recipes with each other, so the idea for our first kit came from our mutual love of cooking.
Customers don’t care about your product, they care about what it can do for them. We show our customers what it's really like to cook with one of our kits. We appeal to their taste buds, by showing mouthwatering food photos.
We started on Amazon because we didn’t want to worry about marketing or fulfillment operations. With 2-day shipping, Prime was becoming the perfect resource to buy last-minute gifts, but we noticed that the majority of products looked like crap. Knowing that design was our strength, we saw an opportunity to create a cooking experience that someone would be proud to give. We knew investing in packaging and design could create a lot of perceived value, especially compared to other products on Amazon.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
Our process started with cooking and experimenting. We aren’t professionally trained chefs, but we’re obsessed with cooking as much as our customers. When it came to kit development, if it wasn’t an approachable and enjoyable experience, we scratched the idea.
Combined skills are what makes a duo more powerful than a single business owner, but you have to be willing to give up control and trust the other person as the expert.
Because our product was a curated collection of existing tools, we were able to do most of the prototyping with items we bought from regular retail stores. We tested out a variety of recipes and tools to see what was really needed to create a delicious result. Once we figured out what we liked, we used Alibaba to work with manufacturers in China and showed them the samples.
For our packaging, we used whatever resources would support small minimums. Our first boxes were printed by EcoEnclose and our initial wood chip bags we sourced from Etsy. We hand-filled wood chip bags and assembled the boxes in Kim’s living room. It had been handmade, homemade, and bootstrapped together, but the goal was to prove that there was a market for it.
Describe the process of launching the business.
In 2016, Amazon wasn't as crowded as it is today so it was easy for us to get an account and get our product approved. We optimized our listing by using tools like Jungle Scout and Helium10 to find keyword phrases that had a lot of traffic, but more importantly, were possible to rank for.
Like most Amazon sellers, we kick-started our listing by doing a product giveaway in exchange for honest reviews. This created the sales conversions and social proof we needed to get the Amazon algorithm to rank our listing higher.
We launched with 300 units of our Wood Smoked BBQ kits, and in two weeks, we had completely sold out.
Since we both had full-time jobs, we were able to reinvest all of the revenue back into the company. We used the funds to finance a larger production run and the quantity discounts increased our profit margins. With that came a lot of improvements that were better suited for mass production. If you compare our current kit with the photo below, you can see we’ve made quite a few changes since our initial launch.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Unlike other search engines, the great thing about Amazon is that customers are searching to buy. If your listing is optimized, you can attract customers by organic search alone. In fact, 89% of our Amazon sales are organic and 11% is from pay-per-click advertising.
Retaining customers on Amazon is a challenge. You can’t communicate with your customers, which means you can't resolve customer issues or build a list to share new products or promos. And on every product listing, customers can easily comparison shop your competitors and leave your listing one click away.
So the constant question is why would customers choose you over all the other options? I think we’ve had success on Amazon because we created something more original. Since our launch, there have been copycats of our product, but people still choose us on Amazon because:
1. We were the first
This means we had a head start in establishing a baseline of hundreds of reviews, which is hard to catch up to. Social proof/user-generated content is the most powerful form of marketing there is. Customers will choose a 500 positive review product versus a 2 review product, every. single. day.
2. We invested in intellectual property
What makes us stand out is our packaging design and thoughtfully written instructions. More importantly, it’s something we can legally protect because they are original works of intellectual property. Copyright is usually automatically granted to the creator, but it's helpful to file official copyrights with the US government.
3. We have high-quality lifestyle photos
Customers don’t care about your product, they care about what it can do for them. We show our customers what it's really like to cook with one of our kits. We appeal to their taste buds, by showing mouthwatering food photos. Our product is never photoshopped onto fake backgrounds like a lot of other Amazon listings.
4. Our brand builds credibility
Building a brand can show you’re an expert and you can highlight that on Amazon with A+ Content and Amazon Stores. At Cooking Gift Set Co., we make it a point to be really knowledgeable about cooking and it shows with our focused product line. If you were selling a cooking kit, deodorant, and rat poison - I’d be highly suspect of any one of those items.
After investing around $15,000 over 6 months, we made around $300. I still cringe when I say it out loud and I’m embarrassed to admit it in writing. Before you hire anyone, check how they measure their success.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Our main goal for 2021 is to diversify and expand our other revenue channels.
Placing our product with strategic retailers will help us build credibility as a cooking brand, as well as the potential for additional revenue from future re-orders. One retailer relationship can become a big part of your business. We’ve worked with Uncommon Goods in the past and are very happy with that partnership.
For our own eCommerce store, we’re starting from scratch so the ROI will take time to evaluate. We used Privy to create really easy (and measurable) opt-ins and have recently switched to Klaviyo for our email marketing. Since our kits are about cooking, we're investing in content marketing with original recipes. The thought process is that if someone is searching for a Chinese Soup Dumpling recipe, buying a dumpling kitwouldn't be so far-fetched.
Lastly, we’ve shifted our operations to put a focus on product development and testing. Anyone can put things in a box, but ensuring that our customer has a delightful experience takes a lot more than that. With our kits being knocked off, we realize more than ever how important it is to build a brand, be able to talk to your customer and zero in on what our strengths are as a company. To guide our decisions, we found a SWOT analysis extremely helpful to identify our strengths and keep them top of mind.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Last year we hired a digital marketing agency to manage our social media account and run ads.
After investing around $15,000 over 6 months, we made around $300. I still cringe when I say it out loud and I’m embarrassed to admit it in writing.
But there were a few expensive lessons that we learned:
Before you hire anyone, check how they measure their success.
The company talked a lot about reporting conversions as the KPI. To us, conversions had always meant sales (that seemed obvious), or so we thought. We quickly learned that a conversion can mean other things like a click, like, sign-up, or subscribe, but that wasn’t specified. Get clear on EXACTLY what they're measuring and how they report it.
Facebook and Instagram can be great traffic drivers, but we didn’t have the offers, opt-ins, or newsletter sequences to nurture new subscribers. So traffic came and went without capturing much of anything. I’ve learned now that it’s more of a top-of-funnel strategy, but you have to have the bottom of that funnel built first!
There are better investments than Instagram.
I don’t think there’s a secret sauce to posting on Instagram that “experts'' know and you don’t. In fact, we had managed our account in-house with a part-time assistant and her results were practically the same (if not better) than the agency. Plain and simple, it takes good images, interesting content, and actually being social with people. I think there is a lot of pressure to “be on social media” but we stopped prioritizing posting because we didn’t see a good ROI.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Amazon Keyword Research: JungleScout
Amazon Accounting: Fetcher
Amazon Automated Review request: Feedback Five
SEO Keyword Research: Mangools
Email Marketing: Klaviyo
Messenger Marketing: Manychat
Reviews/User Generated Content: Okendo
Content Marketing Copywriting: Composely
Affiliate Marketing Program: Affiliatly
Carbon Neutral Shipping: Cloverly
Pop Up Opt Ins: Privy
Cold Emailing (for partnerships): MixMax
Easy Video Editing: ClipChamp
Video Hosting & Sharing: Vidyard
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
If you're planning on selling on Amazon, Jungle Scout and Helium10's online courses are an excellent rundown of everything you need to know.
- Money: Profit First
- For Courage: The Middle Finger Project
- Web Copy: Letting Go of the Words
- Productivity: The Compound Effect
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?
Your past experiences are not a waste.
I spent 8 years building Fuze Branding to only decide in the end that it wasn’t what I wanted. But it gave me the chance to sharpen my own design skills and ultimately become a better designer and photographer for my own products. I’ve found that talent, skills, and knowledge have a way of being recycled and reapplied towards anything you do.
Should you go into business with a friend?
I went into business with my best friend. My design and photography skills made a great compliment to her sourcing and financial expertise. Because of that, we were able to create a trusting business partnership where we can really divide and conquer. I’m really grateful for my business partner and we work great together.
But I’ve also seen partnerships go the other way for my close friends and colleagues. A bad match created an extremely painful experience that resulted in exhausting legal battles and broken friendships.
A business partnership is like a marriage, you’ll have legal obligations to each other, so I caution you to make sure it's the right fit.
If you’re considering a business partner, these practices have worked for us:
1. We talk about personal goals.
We’re honest with each other about what we want out of our company. For me, I want more freedom to travel and enjoy life. Once we were open about it we had a better understanding of each other’s motivations.
2. Partner with someone who has skills that you don’t.
Combined skills are what makes a duo more powerful than a single business owner, but you have to be willing to give up control and trust the other person as the expert. If this is something you can’t do, start a business on your own and consider hiring an employee.
3. Your opinions are not always enough.
As friends, you're used to expressing your opinions with no evidence or data. But as a business partner, your opinions can mean making or losing dollars. I found it helpful to back up my opinions with information, so we could truly evaluate if something was a good choice for our business, not just because I thought so.
4. Whatever decisions are made are considered made together.
Finger-pointing is a sure-fire way to kill your business partnership and ultimately your business. When we make a bad decision, we evaluate what went wrong, how to improve in the future and move on.
5. Settle the legal contact before you start.
Partnership agreements are the core of your legal obligations to one another. They should outline responsibilities and ownership, as well as what happens if one person wants to leave. Your partner would probably be legally entitled to a buyout. Don’t expect your partner to give you the business they also put their blood, sweat, and tears into. There should be a contingency plan that is signed and agreed on from the very beginning.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We’re not hiring any full-time positions at the moment. But we’re always looking for new recipe developers and food photographers to collaborate with.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
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