This is a follow up story for Cave Tools. If you're interested in reading how they got started, published about 3 years ago, check it out here.
Hello again! Remind us who you are and what business you started.
Hi, my name is Michael “Medium Rare” O’Donnell and I’m the owner of Cave Tools and Grill Master University. We design, manufacture, and sell barbecue and cooking tools and accessories. We also provide online education classes that help people master the art of smoking meat.
The goal of the business is really all about bringing people and families closer together. You can be from different countries, different ethnicities, and even Republicans and Democrats in 2020. At the end of the day everyone bonds over food no matter how different their lives may be.
We believe that when you're confident about cooking, you cook more often. And when you cook more often, you end up spending more quality time and forming more in-depth relationships with the people you love.
One of the coolest ways we measure our progress and impact is by collecting and amplifying stories from our customers about how barbecue has made a positive difference in the relationships in their lives.
One of my favorite stories of all time was sent to us by Michael from Wyoming about how he was able to bridge the generational gap and use his Smoked Ribs to help form the basis of his relationship with his granddaughter.
Of course, there is more to their relationship than just his ribs, but when she grows up she will always remember her Grandpop and how he made the best-smoked ribs of all time.
We’re able to use our marketing channels to amplify stories like this so they are read by tens of thousands of people. If all this story did was influence one family to have dinner together one extra night per week then that’s a success in my book
Tell us about what you’ve been up to! Has the business been growing?
Last time we talked I was just getting Grill Master University off the ground. Cave Tools was doing well, but most of my focus was on Grill Master University so growth was stagnating a bit.
f you are feeling stuck, chances are you are doing too much. Instead of doing more, remove processes and simplify, and hyper-focus on the biggest drivers in your company.
As an entrepreneur, it’s not a good feeling when your growth trajectory starts to go sideways. I definitely split my bandwidth pretty thin for a while there because I was trying to focus on 2 separate business models at once.
But one of the things I did during this flat period was pay off all of our outstanding business debts and really get the company into a solid financial position with cash reserves in the bank to handle any black swan events.
That turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made because this year when Covid hit everyone who was overleveraged (most eCommerce businesses in my opinion) found themselves in a pinch. By slowing growth for a year and allowing the finances to catch up with the business, we were in a strong position to attack Covid head-on.
I knew logistics were going to be one of the first areas that would be impacted by the shutdowns so we started ramping up production early. In February I knew I wanted to get as much inventory as I could stateside so while our competitors were stocking out mid-summer and raising prices we could capture more market share.
Instead of ordering large chunks of inventory at a time like 6,000 units, for example, we would break the orders up into 3 orders of 2,000 units spaced a couple of weeks apart. This allowed us to have a steady incoming supply chain and we could divert the trailing shipments if anything changed to impact demand.
At around the same time in February I made some employee changes and also completely redesigned our advertising strategy from scratch. Instead of using automated bidding software or advertising agencies, I brought the entire process in house and decided we would manage our campaigns manually for maximum control.
Between February and March, we rebuilt over 1,200 individual advertising campaigns and were able to start spending 5-6 times more per week than we ever had before in advertising and much more profitably.
We experienced stock-outs and had our fair share of problems this year like everyone else, but I think we were much better prepared and we were able to capitalize on the opportunities that were presented. Right now we are looking at 2.5 to 3x growth on the year
What have been your biggest lessons learned in the last year?
Leverage can be a great tool to grow your business but it can also be very dangerous. The companies that succeed in the long run have staying power and part of that means protecting your downside risk instead of charging 100% for growth at all costs. This year proved more than ever how important it is to have 3-6 months of cash reserves set aside in your business.
Never underestimate the power of writing down your vision. In 2017, I wrote my first Vivid Vision, which is a process where you lean out for 3 years and describe every aspect of what your company will look like in the future. In 2017 I wrote in my vision that our company would be at the $5 million revenue mark by 2020.
Every year I lean out 3 more years and rewrite my vision for what the company will look like. Last year when I wrote my 2023 vision we were still in the mid $2 million revenue range and the $5 million marks still looked like a pipe dream. Now here we are in October 2020 and barring any more outrageous unforeseen circumstances (which honestly would not surprise me) we should absolutely hit the $5 million mark.
What’s in the plans for the upcoming year, and the next 5 years?
We made a lot of operational and strategic changes this year to generate the growth we are seeing. At the same time, the barbecue industry definitely received a Covid bump because more people were cooking at home than eating out at restaurants. How much of a bump and how long will it last is the true question? Was it 10%, 20%, or even as high as 50%?
My competitors are all private companies so I don’t know for sure how much they grew, but from the outside looking in I’d say we made by far the biggest gains this year which point towards the effectiveness of our strategy. Right now I’m focused on building the infrastructure, processes, and team to maintain our current growth trajectory.
Leaning out 5 more years I think growth by acquisition is a very interesting prospect for me. There are a lot of other barbecue businesses that are succeeding in market sectors we have not yet tapped into. By acquiring bolt-on businesses and integrating them into our world we can continue scaling.
Have you read any good books in the last year?
I’ve read more books this year than any other year of my life. The most impactful for me would have to be the Nassim Taleb Books
Advice for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to grow their business?
I’ll throw in another book here by Keith Cunningham called The Road Less Stupid which is all about scheduling in “Thinking Time” into your schedule. We spend so much time in front of our computers or doing the daily tasks in our businesses. If you are feeling stuck then one of the best pieces of advice would be to get away from everything digital that distracts you and spend an hour or more each week pondering the questions Keith provides in his book.
Another piece of advice is a concept that Nassim Taleb discusses at length in AntiFragile called Via Negativa. If you are feeling stuck, chances are you are doing too much. Instead of doing more, remove processes and simplify, and hyper-focus on the biggest drivers in your company.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are actually looking for a new social media manager at the moment since we promoted our previous social media manager. I’m not looking for an agency to fill this role. Ideally, it would be someone who is a strong cultural fit who wants to join our team as a freelancer at first and hopefully leverage their additional skill sets to take on more responsibility over time. If this sounds like something you would be interested in then please contact us at [email protected]
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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