Starting A $5K/Month Supplement Brand While Holding Down An 80 HR/Week Job
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hey everyone! My name is Ronell and I’m the founder of Pilly. We’re a health and wellness company focused on making all natural, herbal based supplements for a modern demographic. That means products with kick ass packaging, top quality all-natural ingredients, and formulations geared towards conditions you actually care about.
As of now, we currently have two products in the market; Stress Savior and Over Hang. Stress Savior (as you can probably guess) helps moderate the effects of stress and anxiety on people’s bodies - not just mask them like other products on the market today. Which, let’s be honest... is something that nearly everyone could use today, me included :). Overhang, our second product, helps relieve symptoms of hangovers (you know, the nausea, headaches, sick to your stomach feeling the morning after partying)? And call me crazy, but I have a pipeline of close to 8 other supplements I’m hoping to launch within the next year.
In terms of startups, we’re probably as new as they come. Although it took nearly 9 months to get to this point, we finally launched about a month and a half ago and are generating right around $5K in revenue per month. But I think the craziest part of this story is that I did all of this while holding down an 80 hour a week job…
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
I’ve heard it a million times… “you’re starting a business that sells WHAT?! There’s literally no way you’ll follow through with that.” Well, in order to understand why I got that reaction so often, I’ll have to give you all some context.
For the past three years, I worked as an investment banker at my company’s Consumer division. That means I had the privilege of advising on everything from IPO’s, mergers, acquisitions, and growth equity raises for some of the coolest consumer companies around in a lot of unique verticals - cosmetics, nutraceuticals, apparel, footwear, you name it.
You will hear “No” a million times. People will laugh. People will reject you. People will say your business idea is bad. But instead of proving them right, use that negativity as fuel to prove them wrong.
A HUGE drawback though are the hours, which can be anywhere from 70-100 hours a week on a bad week. As you can tell, it doesn’t leave too much room for anything else, let alone starting a business! In any case, for the last year or so I couldn't help but feel like something was missing. After all, I was helping all these founders realize their entrepreneurial dream, why couldn’t I focus on realizing mine?
About a year into my time at the investment bank, we signed a client that sold liquid herbal tinctures. For those of you who don’t know what that is, here’s a quick link. As any good banker would do, I decided to try their product to get a better sense of how they worked, and ended up picking a Kava based extract. It was supposed to help relieve stress, and hey, I had plenty of that so I figured I had nothing to lose. So I popped a few drops on my tongue, waited two minutes and...HOLY CRAP. My entire mouth and face went completely numb. Not only that, but I could FEEL a calmness comes over my entire body - I was hooked.
Still, there was something I couldn’t shake about the product itself. It obviously worked great, but there were so many issues with the experience of using it that I couldn’t bring myself to use it regularly. The labels and logo looked dated, the delivery system (via a dropper) wasn’t convenient at all, and the marketing was all off - I couldn’t find a single person in their ads that was my age. It felt like the product just wasn’t made for someone like me.
We ended up selling the company and everyone was happy, but I still couldn’t shake what I had felt before. How could a company with such an amazing product still makes me not want to use it? It was then that the little lightbulb in my head went off. Was it just this company that made me feel this way, or was there truly no company out there that had it all - modern appealing packaging, all-natural herbal ingredients, and marketing geared towards a more modern demographic? Turning to my good pal Google, I went to work. While a few companies popped up that satisfied some of my criteria, I still felt like none really hit the nail on the head.
After that, I was sold. I figured I had nothing to lose, and more importantly, I realized I had a real chance to make a difference and allow people to unleash their highest performing selves. Who in their right mind would say no to that? So with little more than enthusiasm and an idea, I got to work making a brand that would really stand out from the crowd. Before I did though, I wrote down the things I want my brand to have and do so that I wouldn’t lose sight of my goal:
- The company had to look and feel professional, with marketing, a website, and branding that were all top notch
- The product label had to be unique yet appeal to everyone, and eliminate that “medicinal” and “prescription pill” look of current supplements
- The ingredients had to be 100% natural, healthy, and effective without hiding behind “proprietary blends”, weak dosages, or fillers. In two words - ZERO COMPROMISE
- My products had to solve REAL issues people cared about
- I had to have fun, and love the entire process
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
...aaaand then I was stuck. I literally had no idea where to start. To make matters worse, I was getting absolutely crushed with work at my job and was really considering shelving the idea permanently. But then I got real with myself. I realized that if I never pursued this opportunity, I would regret it for the rest of my life. I would continue to see other people living out their dreams while I worked insane hours making their dreams a reality. Hell. No.
The next few months were an absolute blur. I would come home late at night, hit the gym, and immediately start working on Pilly right afterwards. I filed my LLC paperwork through Legal Zoom, skipped lunches to open a bank account for my business and get on calls with graphic designers, found label printing companies, and would spend my nights researching ingredients to use in my first few products.
After maybe 15 label iterations (you can see one of my earliest iterations and my current one below), multiple formulation changes, and tons of sleepless nights, I finally had some real momentum.
Probably my biggest break was finding a fantastic manufacturer two hours away from my house who had a low MOQ (minimum order quantity), great feedback on my ingredients and dosages, and fair pricing. Having had multiple manufacturers ghost me or not even take me seriously, I felt pretty lucky that I was able to find them. And so, about 3-4 months into my venture, I was no longer stuck, I was back in business.
After placing my order and waiting for two months, I was able to get my first batch of inventory. Given all the research and back and forth I had with my manufacturer, I was ecstatic that things went off without a hitch. The bottles and labels were exactly how I wanted them, and best of all, the products WORKED. After doing a quick victory lap, I called up a few friends and family that I had told about my business and asked them to try the products too. Luckily, their results were just as good as mine. At that point, I felt comfortable enough to bring my products to market. It was time to sell.
Describe the process of launching the business.
As my manufacturer told me, “Great, you made the product. Now you’re only 10% of the way there.” The other 90%? Marketing. In truth, he was right. It’s one thing to actually create a product, it’s something entirely different to try and reach people that would use it in a creative and cost efficient way. And now that I had my inventory, I had to set out to create a presence that was uniquely mine on the internet.
Nearly every day, I heard a little voice in my head telling me how crazy I was for pursuing this. But after I finally flipped my website live, that voice completely disappeared.
Making an online presence for Pilly was probably the area where I made the most mistakes. I tried to go the cheap route with a less than stellar website designer, hired someone to manage my social media accounts that really didn’t understand my brand, and didn’t really take the time to learn how to market my product. Sure, I could blame the long hours at work or my lack of understanding of marketing, but at the end of the day I knew I’d have to own my mistakes. After all, that’s really what entrepreneurship is - learning as you go, iterating a million times over, and finding ways to master practices you’ve never even done before.
After my initial setbacks, I was able to find an absolutely incredible website coder on 99 Designs to build my site, do some quick photoshoots with the help of my friends and family, get a pretty solid social media following, and ultimately launch. And let me tell you, flipping the website live was one of the most gratifying experiences of my life.
After 9 months of hard work bootstrapping and financing the entire business myself, I finally had a real business up and running. In retrospect, I think one of the biggest lessons learned on that day is not to doubt myself. Nearly every day since I decided to start the business, I heard a little voice in my head telling me how crazy I was for pursuing this. But after I finally flipped my website live, that voice completely disappeared.
As for the launch itself, I used everything at my disposal to try and drive traffic to my site. I posted on social media, told all my friends and family about it, and reached out to tons of influencers, writers, and pretty much anybody that I thought would enjoy my products. The result was pretty great, with sales starting at a slow trickle and then picking up consistently. To be honest, it gets tough at times to balance my current job and invest in Pilly’s growth, but the satisfaction of knowing that my products are helping real people is all the motivation I need to keep going.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since launch, we’ve seen a majority of our traffic (~70%) come from Google PPC ads. I think the beauty of google is that every search is intent driven, meaning that people are actively looking for a service or product when they google certain keywords.
So when people search for anxiety supplements, you know they WANT to buy our product. When people search for ways to relieve hangover symptoms, they’re actively looking for products that can help with that problem. It’s also helped to link my Google Ads account to Google Analytics, which is a super powerful tool that allows you to see all kinds of metrics about your web traffic.
I can’t give away all my secrets, but I will say that the two most impactful component of ads are your keywords and your ad copy. For keywords, Google allows you to bid on each click (thus ‘CPC’ or Cost per Click) that you drive towards your website. If you have super high quality keywords, you get more clicks. If you have low relevance keywords, which would be like me serving my adswhen someone searches for “chocolate cake”, you’re basically throwing your money away. For ad copy, we’ve seen HUGE swings in the profitability of our ads by changing a few words or phrases. For example, using the phrase “Hate your Hangover?” instead of “Hangover Pill” is way more engaging. For anyone working with Google Ads, learn to iterate and think like your customer. What can you write to immediately engage someone with your brand?
Approximately 20% of our customer traffic has come from Instagram, which is truly an amazing platform to interact with fans of our brand.
During lunches of breaks at work, I’m constantly on Instagram answering DM’s from people interested in Pilly. I’ve also been toying with facebook and Instagram ads as well, which I’ve heard have roughly a 40% lower CPA than Google Ads, so that’ll be something that I’ll look into more over the coming months.
I’ve also heard that email marketing is the holy grail of customer retention because it’s free, easy, and targeted towards people that clearly want your product. Unfortunately, I haven’t had time to really invest into some stellar email campaigns, but I’m hoping to do that very soon.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, things are going exactly as I’d hoped. Sales are ticking upwards, the feedback I get from people using my product is awesome, and I absolutely love watching the business grow.
Although the business is profitable, I think there’s always room for improvement. Our gross margins are right around 80% for each bottle we sell but we’re not netting as much as we can be because we haven’t optimized some of our ads (our CPA is higher than I’d like). Since marketing is our biggest expense now, lowering CPC and CPA is one of my highest priorities in the coming months.
In the medium to long term I have 3 main goals. The first is to find a top notch 3PL that I can use for product fulfillment. Given that I’m fulfilling every order myself now, taking that off my plate would give me an insane amount of time back. My second goal is to launch a few more products by the end of the year, including supplements for memory/focus, restful sleep, and energy. My third and probably most ambitious goal is to scale up my business to the point where I can work on it full time. Running this business has truly been one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done, and if I can get it to the point where I change it from side hustle to full time job, I’d be the happiest guy on earth.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful
As I’ve built this business, there’s been a lot of times when I’ve made mistakes, made the wrong choice, or just flat out messed up. But the important thing was that I learned from those times and made myself better because of them. If I had to distill down those lessons into a few points, it would probably be these 6:
Make. Good. Products. At the end of the day, business is insanely simple. People have problems, and they’re willing to pay to have those problems solved. Does your product or service fix those problems? Does your product or service create enough value where someone would pay for it? If the answer is yes, then you’ve got a good business. It’s as simple as that.
Wow Your Customers
There are trillions of products out there just like yours, so what makes yours so special? In order to stand out from the crowd, you have to go above and beyond to make them feel special, and make them feel like your product truly is the best.
With Pilly for example, every package we ship is custom branded, comes with a custom thank you card, and is wrapped in some super cool branded wrapping paper. It elevates the experience from normal to outstanding, and customers notice. So when you’re making your product ask yourself how you can wow and excite your customers.
Don’t be cheap
This one hits close to home, but sometimes it pays to not cut corners. I thought I was doing the right thing by getting a cheaper web designer for example, but all it ended up doing was costing me time and tons of money. When it comes to the core expenses of your business (ingredients, packaging, websites, etc.) go for quality. Always.
You will hear “No” a million times. People will laugh. People will reject you. People will say your business idea is bad. But instead of proving them right, use that negativity as fuel to prove them wrong. Find it in yourself to persevere even when it seems like nobody is in your corner. I guarantee it’ll make success that much sweeter.
Google is your friend
This is a no brainer, but literally anything you could ever want to know or do can be found on the internet. If you’re unsure how to do something, look it up and figure it out. Become a student of the game. Entrepreneurship isn’t easy, but there’s also no reason to say you didn’t know how to do something when you can easily look it up and learn how to do it in a day.
Embrace the F***ing hustle
Nothing worthwhile in this life is easy. If you want something, you go get it, and you don’t let anyone or anything stand in your way. Period. When I first didn’t have a place to store all my inventory, I made my apartment my storage space. When I didn’t know how to run ads, I taught myself. When I didn’t know how to apply for a tax license, I researched it. Hustle, grind, be resourceful, and persevere, and things will come.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
- Shopify for e-commerce. It’s truly a game changer for entrepreneurs
- GoAffPro for affiliate marketing. It integrates right into shopify
- Klayvio for email marketing
- 99 Designs for most freelance design work
- Instagram and Facebook for Marketing
- Google Ads and Facebook Ads for PPC advertisements
- Photographer - Nicole Albrecht(she’s amazing)
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
My favorite book by far has been The Millionaire Fastlane by MJ Demarco. Anyone who hasn’t read it absolutely should. His perspective and analogies are top notch and really make you see things from a different perspective.
As for podcasts, I think everyone should listen to The MFCEO Project by Andy Frisella. He’s a no bullshit, incredibly successful entrepreneur who tells it like it is. He’s probably one of the most motivational people I know with some of the most practical, actionable advice out there. On my commutes to and from work, it’s my go-to podcast for sure.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
If I had to leave anyone with one piece of advice, it’s to fail fast, fail often, and fail forward. Starting a business is tough, especially if you’re going at it alone in a field you have no expertise in. Understand that you will make mistakes (and you’ll probably make a lot of them) but don’t allow them to defeat you. Learn from them, see them as opportunities for growth, and use it as fuel to propel your brand to the next level.
Another piece of advice is to go out there and just do. At some point in history, there’s going to be someone that does that thing you really, really want to do. So why can’t it be you? Life isn’t meant to be lived on the sidelines, it’s meant to be enjoyed and lived to the fullest extent. So if you have an idea or a business you want to start, just start. The rest of it will fall into place and your life will be so much richer because of it.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
As of now we’re not looking to hire for any full time positions, but we’re always looking for more help in the following areas. If any readers have expertise in these areas we’d love to chat!
- Graphic Design
- Label Design & 3D mockups
- Instagram Influencer Outreach / Contact - We have an awesome affiliate program with 15% commissions. If anyone knows people in the field that would love to rep our products, let’s get in touch!
Where can we go to learn more?
- Website: GetPilly.com
- Instagram: @PillyLabs
- Email: [email protected]
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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