How I Healed My Injury With Bone Broth And Bootstrapped A $540K/Year Business
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
I’m an elite ultramarathon runner, the world’s best wolf-dog dad, and the founder of Bluebird Provisions Bone Broth, North America's fastest-growing bone broth brand.
In 2017, I was told by doctors I would never run again due to a devastating foot injury that left me depressed. Using bone broth, I eventually healed my foot and got back to winning ultra marathons.
I quit my job and became obsessed with sharing bone broth with anyone who can benefit as he did. Today Bluebird Provisions sells the most delicious bone broth you’ll ever try at Whole Foods, on our website, and Amazon.
Now we’re doing 49,000 per month and growing 50% year over year. Our customers are active individuals aged 30-60 who are looking for natural ways to get better skin, and gut health and improve joint pain. We’ve increased our customer base by 5000% since we started.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
Born out of the kitchen of a broken-down ultramarathon runner, Bluebird Provisions began as I sought out unconventional ways to heal my ailing body.
Running injuries threw my life completely off track starting in August 2016. I experimented with different methods of healing, including lifestyle and natural dietary approaches: herbs, spices, balms, strange protocols; you name it.
I tried bone broth, a drink made from simmering bones to extract minerals and collagen. I read all I could about making the best bone broth because no one was selling it at the time.
Cooking weekly batches, I drank bone broth like water. I couldn’t get enough of it.
After a month, I noticed some positive changes in my body. Fast forward to now, my foot is fully healed, and I am back to running and winning ultra marathons.
My conviction told me that I had to share bone broth with the world. I quit my job at a software startup, rented a commercial kitchen to make it, and got it listed in local markets. There was little competition in Canada (where we started) in 2017, so I felt like I had to move quickly within Canada to gain market share before we expanded to the US.
While the bone broth was a new category, google trends data showed me it was a perfect opportunity to get into a growth category.
We existed as a wholesale brand selling in grocery stores for 2 years until COVID.
COVID hit and we almost went bankrupt because grocery store sales tanked. We had $500 in the bank account. We pivoted to direct to consumer and gradually saved the business. Now we are thriving online with an SEO-focused strategy.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
With food products, taste comes first and nutrition/function comes second. Because of this, I am obsessed with product development. Reading every book and talking to every bone broth expert/ chef I could find. I meticulously tracked every batch of bone broth in a spreadsheet with the types of bones used, temperature, cook time, and more. To date, I’ve made over 200,000L of bone broth, and we are still tweaking and improving the recipe.
For design, I got referred to a junior designer who did a good job, considering our $500 budget. Basic sticker labels got us launched and communicated our value proposition, however, we made some catastrophic mistakes.
For example, the Food Inspection Agency eventually cracked down on our labels, demanding we change them. Then a competitor filed a complaint resulting in the government demanding we change our name within 60 days or get taken off store shelves. These two issues caused immense stress.
As for compliance, insurance, and startup costs, I filed all the incorporation and licensing documents myself, thanks to search engines. We got started with $20,000 to buy equipment, get a lease and buy packaging and ingredients for our first batch. We filed a trademark, but this is a waste of money at this stage.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Bluebird Provisions is 100% bootstrapped. I funded it with $20,000 I had saved from working for tech startups. From my startup days, I became friendly with the owner of a local newspaper. He agreed to do a profile on me right when we launched. This got us our first $10,000 in sales.
From there I got introductions to a local online retailer who was our first retail account. Then it was me cold-calling and hitting the pavement with samples, trying to get our products on the shelf in any store that would take them. I got so many rejections but some success that I kept pushing.
At this point, I would make and package the bone broth from 6 am-2 pm, then deliver it to grocery stores out of my Corolla from 2-5 pm. At night I worked on our website and social media. I put everything into learning eCommerce. This included listening to entire podcast archives (600+ episodes of the unofficial Shopify podcast, eCommerce fuel, and eCommerce influence) and joining Facebook groups to learn and network with other small business owners.
Through this process, I taught myself how to build a Shopify website with a solid eCommerce-friendly theme.
It was a hectic first year of business, but necessary to grow our brand locally.
I learned that you need to eat crow sometimes to grow something meaningful. I treated our first year as my right of passage into entrepreneurship. The food industry is old-school and all about relationships. As such, it is difficult for young, up-and-coming businesses to find footing on store shelves.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
When COVID hit, we had $500 in the bank account and should have gone bankrupt. I immediately pivoted our business from wholesale to online/direct to consumer. We needed traffic and sales to save the business, so I invested in three things: referrals, email marketing, and SEO.
Referrals and email marketing brought in immediate sales to keep the lights on and SEO built the foundation for our ongoing growth and sales, without relying on paid ad spending. I obsessed over email marketing, learning how to automate everything using Klaviyo. Pretty soon, we were gaining 60% of total revenue from email marketing. It is important to ensure you’re capturing the emails of at least 2.5% of total website traffic. More if you do not have SEO-based traffic.
We had zero dollars to spend on paid traffic sources at this time. No Facebook or Google ads. I felt like we needed a real foundation of traffic to build the business properly. I couldn't afford to waste money trying to get ads to convert profitably.
Next was referral marketing. I constantly reminded our customers in emails, texts, and order confirmations about our referral program where they could earn money for referring new customers. We used no fancy software, simply written content and email scripts they could copy and paste to tell their friends. The take-home is that you need to make it easy for your customers to refer.
The referral program brought up $5000 per month for the first 3 months. This doesn’t seem like a ton, but for us it kept our business going while we built revenue in other channels.
SEO is the foundation of our traffic and sales. As of April 2022, we are getting 50,000 unique visitors per month from organic search. This is where all of our new customer acquisition is coming from. No paying for leads or sales. I learned on-page SEO, writing long-form content, and using content clusters to rank articles no matter your website domain authority. All of my SEO is learned from podcasts (Niche Pursuits and SEO for the Rest of Us) and Facebook Groups (Google SEO Mastermind).
Currently, we publish 2 articles per week that are at least 1500 words in length. I run the editorial and put together a ‘brief’ with an outline with keyword phrases, all H2s and H3s to include, and questions to answer for each article. Then I ship this document off to a freelancer we found on Upwork to do the writing.
These efforts lead to PR coverage as long as you publish original content. We got featured in a HuffPost buyers guide which drove $10,000 in sales.
Lastly, we’ve recently invested in Amazon which is profitable and driving about 1/3rd of total revenue. Amazon takes some time to get going, but the results are great. You must be ready for launch with a review strategy and aggressive strategy to get initial sales. Or else you will fail.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today, we are profitable but investing most of the profits into growth. Gross margins should be 75% on food products you are selling online. Or else you will not have a viable long-term business. Customer acquisition costs for us are zero for online sales. We are paying on Amazon, but it works out to around $7.
Monthly traffic is 50,000 unique visitors, all from organic search. Our conversion rate on this organic traffic is 0.6-1%, depending on the country. It might seem low, but you have to remember that search traffic is very low intent.
Email subscribers are growing 10% per month and are at 9000 as of April 2022. We are growing 60% YoY.
I see too many businesses that are zombies masquerading as businesses because they do not have the unit economics of a viable business.
In terms of distribution, we are about 1/3rd amazon, 1/3rd Shopify, and 1/3rd retail. This will shift to ¼ amazon, ½ Shopify, and ¼ retail as we grow. As far as operations, we can grow with a lean team. I am the only full-time, employee, and we have a fantastic team of part-time contractors who help with support, logistics, and distribution. Production, storage, and fulfillment are 100% outsourced.
Our goal is to grow 70% YoY through 2024 and to have a profitable, long-term business that is a fantastic place to work.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The biggest thing I’ve learned in starting a business is that anyone can do it. None of us is particularly smart or skilled. We just have the conviction to get started. With that, you should know that starting a business can cause stress. It is how you deal with stress that allows you to thrive long-term. Your body treats all stress the same, and it takes the same amount of pressure to start a big business as it does to start a small-scale business. So you might as well swing for the fences because you will be stressed out no matter what you start.
Work to develop a strong conviction in whatever you do. You can succeed without it, but it is way easier if you are passionate about your business.
I wish I had more of a sales background leading into this business. Fundamentals can be learned, but sales take reps, and it is difficult to learn on the job when you need these early opportunities to convert. Every aspiring founder should learn sales on someone else's dime.
As far as mistakes go, I’ve made tons, but I am still here. It is about avoiding massive mistakes that matter. Make decisions fast and triage the consequences. Inertia will kill you in business and life.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
Our tech stack for the business includes the following:
- Google Sheets (our whole business is duct taped together with spreadsheets :))
- Recharge for subscriptions
- Rebuy for cart conversions
- A2X for accounting automation
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
The Laws of Human Nature and The Courage to be Disliked are the two most influential non-fiction books I’ve ever read. They are both about psychology and how to understand people and how they work. You can use them to build relationships, identify when people are trying to persuade you, and to understand your customer better.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Work to develop a strong conviction in whatever you do. You can succeed without it, but it is way easier if you are passionate about your business. And if you are not, then you will eventually get outworked by a competitor who is.
For direct-to-consumer businesses, step one is to understand your gross margin and your contribution margin. You need to know exactly your costs so that you can set your pricing correctly. I see too many businesses that are zombies masquerading as businesses because they do not have the unit economics of a viable business.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
Yes! We are hiring a TikTok creator who is familiar with health food, and trends and can produce educational and on-trend videos for us. The position is remote and part-time as a contractor. You can make your hours, the deliverables are 3-5 videos per week. Feel free to email: bluebirdhireme(at)gmail(dot)com.
Where can we go to learn more?
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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