On Starting A Meal Planning Business & Growing To Thousands Of Customers

Published: October 21st, 2020
Joel Runyon
Ultimate Meal Plans
from Austin, TX, USA
started April 2012
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420 days
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Hi, I’m Joel Runyon and I’m an Athlete, Entrepreneur, and founder of Ultimate Meal Plans. Ultimate Meal Plans is a meal planning service that specializes in meal plans and recipes for Paleo, Low Carb, Ketogenic, AIP, Clean, and Banting diets.

Designed to be simple and easy for busy people, all our meals can be cooked in 15 minutes or less and make use of just 5 ingredients.

Users can choose the diet they are interested in, select the number of people they are cooking for, and every week they receive healthy, delicious recipes along with a weekly shopping list with everything they need to buy.

Users can also remove any specific food types they wish and we integrate with food delivery services in the US with one click, so you can set up orders automatically.

Today Ultimate Meal Plans has served thousands of loyal customers, we’re adding new recipes and diets and have big plans for the rest of this year.



What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?

My journey into entrepreneurship and online business started back in 2010 when I graduated from college.

Just do it, build something, ship something, and learn in the process.

I found myself thrown into a recession and job market where the opportunities weren’t there, after getting laid off from a parcel delivery job at UPS and turned down by Starbucks, I decided I had to do something radically different.

So, I created my blog, IMPOSSIBLE.

The idea was simple, I wrote a list of things I wanted to do that at the time seemed impossible to accomplish, and then, I just tried to do them.

Well, a decade later - I managed to cross off some of those things.

I became the youngest person ever to run an ultra marathon on every continent in the world. Doing a challenge where I ran 7 ultra marathons on 7 continents and raised money to build 7 schools (see 777 project).

I set up multiple businesses, traveled to over 40 countries, became completely location independent, and took control over my life.

So how does this all relate to the origin of Ultimate Meal Plans?

One of the first things on my list was to lose weight and get fit. In doing so, I learned a lot about health and fitness and ended up getting heavily into the Paleo diet. Paleo was gaining traction online and I jumped headfirst into living Paleo myself, seeing great results.

This led me to launch one of my first projects, Ultimate Paleo Guide which is a site focused on helping people get into the paleo diet and aims to be a wealth of information about all things paleo.

The site began to grow, becoming one of the largest resources on paleo online and becoming a small but fully-fledged company of its own.

I wrote recipes and guides, I set up other sites, I even built an iPhone app which helped people work out which foods are paleo and which are not.

Yet one thing kept coming back, people wanted to have everything they needed to eat paleo in one place, they wanted it to be as simple as possible. People wanted recipes, which were easy to cook, they wanted to know exactly what food to eat and exactly what to buy.

Let’s face it, following all diets can be tedious, but the Paleo diet can be especially tricky to adhere to at first, so I thought, what can I build that would make eating paleo as simple as humanly possible?

This is where the idea for Paleo Meal Plans (as it was then called) came from.

I wanted to create a resource that would make eating (then Paleo, now a whole range of diets) as easy as possible. Give people recipes, give them a plan and a shopping list, all to take away the inertia and indecision so many people face when following a new diet and save them hours of looking up recipes and ingredient lists.

Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.

The initial product wasn’t in any way like the service we have today, in-fact nothing is the same, we didn’t really start as a tech company at all. Frankly, it took me a while to even conceive of the service as an app or a SaaS product.

To begin with, literally, everything was manual.

The product started, with a landing page, a Paypal account, and manual emails.

When someone signed up, we got our nutritionist (from Ultimate Paleo Guide) to email them directly with a personalized plan, and that was it.

Incredibly simple.

We marketed this service to our existing mailing list with Ultimate Paleo Guide, and, to my surprise, we ended up with hundreds of customers. A nice problem to have, I suppose, but it very quickly became evident that:

  1. There was a lot of interest (good).
  2. There was no way we could serve all our potential customers with entirely manual service.

And so, I set about creating Paleo Meal Plans effectively as a SaaS solution.

Building a tool like this was tricky, especially as I don’t have a dev/tech background myself.

I know how to grow an authority site, manage an email list, etc. but I don’t have the skills to develop a product from scratch myself, and this was all pre ‘no-code’. I think if I had done things again now, I would probably have tried to keep as much as possible no-code, using tools like Webflow, Bubble.io, Airtable, etc, and used a developer for little bits in between.

The first thing I did was sit down and work out all of the customization features we needed. I wanted to give people a significant amount of customization, as close as possible to the service previous customers had received from the manual service.

We had great recipes, I knew which foods people should be eating and we could easily throw this onto a site, but I wanted this to be more than that, I wanted people to be able to customize everything to their exact needs.

The initial features I settled on were:

  • Ability to exclude certain items from recipes (very important for people with special dietary needs/allergies)
  • Flexibility for multiple people, everything is just totally different when cooking for a 5 person family than just for 1
  • Weekly shopping lists with all the items you needed for your recipes
  • 1 click integration with online retailers for easy shopping

Sounds simple, but I had no idea how to build something like this at the time.

Tech stack wise, my only thoughts at the outset was that I wanted to build the app to sit on Wordpress as it was a platform I was comfortable with at the time.

So, I hired a developer and we built out all of the functionality above in a simple web app. Meanwhile, I spent hours working on recipes, tasting, writing, re-writing, as well as getting food photography put together and preparing ourselves for launch.

For those interested, the tech stack we used initially was:

  • Wordpress (main & app site)
  • Thrivecart (cart system)
  • Restrict content pro (content gating)
  • Convertkit (for email marketing)
  • Active Campaign (for transactional emails)

And that was it.

Describe the process of launching the business.

Launching the business was perhaps easier and less sophisticated than for most mini startups because we already had an existing audience with Ultimate Paleo Guide.

At the time, the paleo diet (which is all we initially offered) was still massively growing in popularity and I was frankly very fortunate to have been able to ride that trend in the years up to launching the meal planning service. Just having a reasonably large email list alone was everything, really for our initial launch of the app.

Our first homepage, circa 2015

Before our initial launch, I did a lot of email marketing to the list I had with Ultimate Paleo Guide and this really was the main source of all our initial customers.

Money-wise, I bootstrapped the whole project and I didn’t have much budget to play with at launch. I did some very simple Facebook ads based on lookalike audiences from our list but frankly didn’t see great results here.

Reflecting on launching the product as an app, and what I learned.

It was deceptively easy to get to a small nucleus of users. At the initial launch, having a dedicated following who were interested in Paleo and who reached out wanting this product meant, well, it was quite easy to onboard them!

But, this did teach me wrong lessons in a way, because while the first couple of hundred users were easy to come by, the few next hundred, not so much.

Of course, it goes without saying that achieving consistent scalable growth is a real challenge in making these kinds of projects viable. We also very quickly found out that with our product-level issues, we needed more recipes, more variety, and an easier UX to use.

Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?

As basic as it sounds, one of the main things we did to retain customers was just to improve the customer experience at the product level. We listened closely to our users' feedback and I plowed almost all our income back into improving things.

The main point was clear, people wanted more recipes and more variety, especially if they were going to stay using our service in the long-long term. With users often using our meal plans for years, this is in many ways a good barometer of our success, are we able to help people stick with their chosen diet?

So, we set about massively increasing the number of recipes available. Who wants repetitive meals, right?

Secondly, I realized the importance of community in sticking to a new diet and I wanted to bring this into the product as well.

People wanted a community, not just the meal plans themselves, they wanted to be connected with other people who were changing their diet, losing weight, getting fitter, dealing with autoimmune issues. Whatever their goals, people wanted to be connected to others in the same boat.

We set up a Facebook group and I focused really hard on creating a community around the paleo diet and the whole paleo lifestyle in addition to the meal planning service.

In terms of bringing in a new customer base outside our initial email list, I leaned on the Ultimate Paleo Guide from an organic SEO point of view. We rank well for a lot of paleo terms and bring in 50k users a month or so to the site.

I went through all the pages on the site and ensured that wherever appropriate we linked back to the meal plan business.

While initially, this was all focused on organic SEO from the sister site, today Ultimate Meal Plans does well in a host of meal planning keywords in its own right. I started laying the foundations for SEO for the meal planning site, writing the right content, hunting down backlinks, this was obviously a much longer payoff, but entirely worth it. Organic SEO is a key source of new customers to this day.

Again, it’s a product piece, but we also hugely expanded our user base by simply offering more diets and in doing so rebranded as Ultimate Meal Plans.

The Ketogenic Diet was gaining in popularity. Banting was very popular in South Africa after some public health messaging put the diet on the map, and for people with autoimmune issues, AIP (AutoImmune Protocol) can be a godsend.

All of these diets are fairly tricky to follow and stick to and supporting them opened up a world of new customers for us.

Once we’d started supporting a broader range of diets, one of the things which worked well was creating a quiz/questionnaire which helps people find their ideal diet, based on:

  • Their goals - eg: weight loss
  • Their current health situation
  • Dietary needs
  • Medical issues and the like

The quiz takes the above into account and gives the user a recommended diet of best-fit, some information about the diet, and an invitation to trial our meal planning service.

We found the quiz to be a useful lead generation tool and run paid ads on FaceBook with some success.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

Today, Ultimate Meal Plans supports a whole range of diets:

  • Paleo
  • Keto
  • AIP (AutoImmune Protocol)
  • Banting
  • Low Carb (increasingly popular, interestingly)
  • Clean

We’re adding more recipes, and working to add more specialist and specific diets. For example, recommended diets for people suffering from Kidney issues and other medical protocols where meal planning is essential.

Something we noticed is that a lot of customers collect coupons and are interested in deals where they can find them. So we’ve partnered with other retailers to offer deals for products that complement the diets we have. For example, a bottle of paleo-friendly, natural wine for a cent, and like. Interestingly, customers really appreciate this.

On the community side, I hired Chelsea to organize the community side of the business, and this is something we’ll be focusing on more and more in the future. Meal planning is a valuable service to people, but when you combine it with a supportive community, experience says this makes all the difference for people looking to make a real change in their lives.

We’re a completely remote team and I also recently brought on a marketing and operations guy from London.

I think the future for us is a three-pronged approach of:

  1. Listening to user feedback and continuing to improve on the product level.

  2. More diets, more partnerships with organizations and authorities around those diets.

  3. What we’ve already been doing - organic SEO, FB ads occasionally, email marketing, customer referrals, and the like.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

I learned so much about setting up Ultimate Meal Plans, it’s hard to know where to start.

Frankly, I was very lucky to have ridden the first ‘Paleo Diet’ wave before setting up the site. Having an existing audience, authority site, email list and the like were completely essential to getting the site up and running.

It’s hard to know how I would have been able to get the activation energy (if you like) to get the product off the ground without that existing audience.

If I could do things today, I would have started by thinking about this as a technology product. I would have built a community in which people want to be a part of first, probably using something like circle or tribe, and then built the app on top of that.

As generic and cliche as it may sound, the most important thing in building out a product like Ultimate Meal Plans is to listen to customers closely and make sure you’re responsive, that’s what people appreciate.

As a simple example, in 2020, because of the coronavirus pandemic, a lot of our users were doing more grocery shopping online, we introduced a 1 click integration with amazon fresh and other delivery services. Users could click through from their shopping list directly and everything would be ordered automatically. A simple feature, but very valuable to a lot of customers.

That’s my two cents.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

Tool List:

Webflow - marketing site

Wordpress - app-based site

ActiveCampaign - handles our transactional emails

Zapier - integrations with the active campaign for user-specific data

Interact - Runs our ‘choose your diet’ quiz

Restrict content pro - user gating

Thrivecart - checkout system

Convertkit - marketing emails

FOMO - On-site notifications for users

Obvious ones (not sure whether to include these)

Google Analytics


Paypal (outside us etc)

AHRefs - for SEO work

Serpfox - SEO also

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

Podcasts are the main thing for me, I like listening to things while I move, am traveling, and the like. My main recommendations are:

Tropical MBA - love these guys

Breakroom Breakdown (how to hustle while you're at your job)

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting?

The most obvious advice is to just do it, build something, ship something, and learn in the process. There’s no need to spend a tonne of money (at least not in the internet business space, at least) and if it doesn’t go well the first time, you’ll learn a huge amount.

When I first started my blog and working online, I didn’t think for one moment that I would be where I am now. Literally, living in my mum’s basement having lost my job as a parcel delivery driver, I know how it feels when everything seems ‘impossible’, trust me, it’s not.

Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?

Honestly, not really. But anyone who’s got any ideas or thoughts on the site, please email my operations guy George.

Where can we go to learn more?

If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!

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