Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Laura, and I’m the founder of The Food Diary Co. We currently sell one key product: a food diary for people who want to track their food, symptoms, and wellness. Our diary was originally created for people with digestive and/or chronic illnesses such as Irritable Bowel Syndrome, IBD, Coeliac and more, to better understand their trigger foods and digestive upsets, but it can help anyone better understand the effects of their diet on their overall health.
The diary is a gorgeous, leather-look journal encompassing three months’ worth of tracking, with a special design to help you discover what food and non-food triggers have the most impact on your health. The Daily Page is set up for you to track not just your diet and symptoms, but also key non-food triggers such as sleep quality, exercise, stress levels, and medicines.
Then comes the important part: the Monthly Page prompts you to sit down and take the time to analyse the previous 30 days, and asks specific questions to help you spot patterns and the things that are having a negative (or positive!) effect on your health. It’s a bag-friendly A5 size for carrying around with you, and the pages are undated so you can get tracking straight away. Best of all, the design is discreet and stylish - so no-one will know what you’re tracking (unless you want to tell them!).
We’re based and ship from the UK, but we sell our diaries worldwide. In fact, the USA, Canada and Australia are our biggest markets after the UK. The greatest thing about selling this product is connecting with the people who buy it: we share stories of diary users on our blog and social media regularly, and hearing how this diary is helping people all over the world absolutely makes my day.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
The diary was born, like so many things, out of my own needs.
I had spent nearly two years feeling sick from constant nausea, cramps, bowel issues and a complete lack of energy. Eventually, after pinging back and forth to several GPs, I met with a specialist - a gastroenterologist - and was diagnosed with IBS and possible Coeliac Disease.
At that point, I knew it was finally time to get a grip on my diet and figure out exactly what was causing my symptoms.
Which meant I needed a food diary, stat.
Being a stationery junkie, and having read that 1 in 5 people in the UK have IBS (not to mention around 45 million people in the USA who are affected by autoimmune and digestive issues), I assumed there would be something like this out there already.
But an exhaustive search in stores and online came up with nothing designed for me. Zip. Zilch.
Everything was designed for people who wanted to lose weight. So I did what everyone had to do up until now: I bought a regular notepad and made my own food diary. It was a lot of trial and error - some days forgetting to record this particular data, getting frustrated with drawing out my format every damn day.
Focus on you, what you want your business to achieve, and how you’re going to do it. There is so much happening in the world, and we have access to tune into all of it, but the smart thing to do is to tune 99% of it out.
Sometimes it wasn’t easy to maintain the motivation to work when you had 2 hours of commuting a day and long work days, but I was determined to see the project to fruition.
There were phone apps, and I gave them a shot, but I found I was spending ages having to input the food data - I cook a lot (you have to when you have intolerances or are following a diet with an exclusionary period) and I massively disliked the amount of time it would take me to input even a single meal. Some apps wanted way too much info, even down to the brand of chicken breast or spices I was using! Who has that kind of time!?
After a few months with my notebook, I had pinpointed the trigger foods and issues that had been plaguing me, and my health had done a complete 180. Removing gluten had been the key thing, but through using my food diary I realised that I couldn’t even touch caffeine anymore, that half an apple was fine but a whole one was too much, that a lot of mushrooms spelled a day of cramps, and that erratic sleep hours did a huge number on me.
I knew I wanted to continue with using the diary to maintain my good health, and I couldn’t stop thinking about creating a beautiful diary of my own. Eventually, I decided it was time to get it made: not just for me, but for everyone else out there who needed something similar. I bounced ideas off my dad, who is an entrepreneur himself and has decades of business experience, and then got to work creating our Food Diary!
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
During the start of the business, I was working full time in-house as a Digital Manager in the charity sector, so everything had to be done outside of work hours. Sometimes it wasn’t easy to maintain the motivation to work when you had 2 hours of commuting a day and long work days, but I was determined to see the project to fruition: I really believed in it and its potential to help people.
Initially, we were talking to a UK printer about the design, but small features of the design we were after (and now have) prompted the printer to suggest we looked at factories in Europe. Google and Pinterest were my main friends in finding factory details.
First I found stationery products that were similar in style to what I was looking for, then I did all the Google sleuthing I could to trace their origins. Eventually, I found a factory with similar designs to what I was looking for, and when I spoke to my dad about it he said it happened to be in the town he and my mum were flying into for a holiday in a few weeks. It felt serendipitous to say the least!
Given that my dad has worked with many factories over the course of his career, I was absolutely over the moon that he didn’t mind taking the time to meet with them, to check it out and let me know whether or not it was worth taking the risk on. The start-up money for the diaries was coming out of my own savings, so it was important that we ensured everything would work as well as we could.
The initial factory meeting was a success and I got to work liaising with our lead at the factory to mock-up the diary. Within a few weeks, I had a notebook mock-up! Holding even just the prototype in my hands felt like the biggest boost that kept me going.
Eventually, after double and triple checking the design for typos/mistakes, I hit send on the full order for the first run of diaries. Never known nerves like it! Our first order had to be 1,000 diaries, which is an expensive first print run, but I had to take a leap of faith.
Describe the process of launching the business.
As a digital manager, creating the website was my favourite part. I was lucky in a way - my background meant I had a solid grasp on analytics, tracking, e-commerce, user journeys, and all that jazz.
Here is the current design of the website:
It’s clean and minimal because a) I like that sort of thing and b) I want to keep the focus on the diary.
I’ve worked with several CMS’ but began the site using Squarespace primarily because of the ease of setting up the e-commerce part of the site, and because they had a couple of themes that really appealed to me. If I were doing this again, I would look more carefully into spending money on a good Wordpress or ShowIt, because there are a few things that I need Squarespace to do that it is not very good at (primarily integrating advanced Google Ecommerce Analytics and certain design needs).
Because I had spent a lot of time on Instagram personally while I was going through my own health issues, I felt like I had a firm, gut instinct as to who our core customers would be...which meant I had a good direction to work in when designing the brand aesthetic.
Less than 1% of people are truly going to move on that idea that’s been knocking around in their head for a while. Action is what sets those people apart - and it’s got to be what sets you apart too.
During the design of the process itself, I paid a talented designer friend to professionally interpret my drawings of the logo and page design, which meant I had a little basis for building the brand around. All of this came out of my own savings, so I tried to bootstrap as much as I could get away with.
The launch itself was ‘soft’ at best - it was basically a Facebook post to my friends and the quiet creation of our Instagram and Facebook pages.
Part of it was fear (what if I was wrong about who needs this? What if no-one buys? Perhaps just quietly, quietly...) and part of it was lack of time to engineer a full roll-out.
My first customers were my friends, but the validating part of that was that only one of them purchased a diary simply to support me - everyone else bought it because they needed it for themselves or a friend. And when the first order from a person I didn’t know rolled in a couple of weeks later...that felt pretty darn great.
If I could re-do the launch, I would certainly take an online course or two in launching a new programme and be bolder, and braver in the roll-out.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
Since launching I’ve tried a few different things, marketing-wise, and most of it has been on a minimal to-no budget.
I’ve tested facebook ads but found it a little difficult because of rules Facebook has around the wording of health-related adverts. Google ads did great at bringing traffic to the website, but the conversion rate was low. So instead, I’ve been happy to focus on organic marketing and growth.
We (myself and family as support) did a couple of in-person shows and events, which were great but not only was the ££ outlay pretty heavy, it made me realise how important it was for me to be there in person to connect with the customer about the origin story of the diary. As I’m traveling for a little while, those sorts of events are off the table for a bit.
Working with instagram influencers through offering them a free diary to try or give away has been key for this business.
If you do want to pitch influencers however, be sure to do several things:
Personalise your pitch to the influencer
Don’t just dash off the same pitch to everyone. Let them know you understand their audience and/or personal things they’ve talked about that lead you to believe they would really benefit from using your product and sharing it with their followers.
Be patient and polite.
The Instagrammer may not be able to talk about your product straight away; from pitch, to acceptance, to your product appearing on their feed could take months.
Track the response from their posts when they do happen.
This is especially important for giveaways. I found that more niche instagrammers with smaller audiences provided the greater feedback and engagement for us: we’ve had a few instagrammers with tens or hundreds of thousands of followers post and felt only the smallest lift in engagement.
However, we’ve had bloggers or instagrammers with just a thousand or couple of thousand followers (but super-niche and super-engaged audiences) talk about the diary, and had several orders off the back of that one post or Story.
We’ve been lucky too, to get a lot of organic chat about our diary online from people who love it, and I always make time to share and boost that positive feedback where possible.
If you’re a small company, whilst working on getting samples to influencers, I would also say look at building an online tribe around you of people whose work complements yours. Going after the big influencers is exciting, but don’t neglect your peers who are building audiences at the same time; you can team up to create content, do platform takeovers, create free downloads and more, all of which will mutually help you build audiences and improve your SEO.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
Today the business is still a side-business, as I’m currently travelling and building my freelance comms and photography work. We still distribute from the UK, and I love that I can do the majority of the work from anywhere in the world.
All of our sales are through our online storefront, and I’m really lucky to have the support of my family, who help me with the physical things that need doing back in the UK - without them, this wouldn’t currently be possible.
For the future I’m focusing on beefing up our SEO, getting back into a regular email newsletter and growing our list, and looking into other forms of marketing that I think would really mesh well with this company’s product (mainly Pinterest and affiliate marketing).
I also have plenty of new product ideas knocking around in my head and want to figure out ways to better serve our customers in our international markets. As I’m juggling many things at the minute, the diary occasionally gets pushed to one side, but I work on it at least one day per week.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Starting the business has been such a growth thing for me, personally. I’d never created a product before - never even considered it - and I stop every now and then to remind myself that something that existed only in my head is now available for people to buy online. And that they love it, return for more, and tell me how great it is? That’s the cherry on top.
For running a side-business, I’ve learned that carving out time in your schedule to do work and timer alarms are your friend. Doing something for 15 minutes is better than not doing anything at all. Not only that, but getting clear on your goals for the coming months, and working backwards to where you are, so you can try and figure out the vital things you need to do is really important. There will always be a million, not-so-pressing things on your to-do list that mask the One Big Scary Thing you need to do to keep your project or business moving forward. Do that task first: you’ll be surprised how Not Scary it can be. Also, even if something is terrifying the first time, by the third, fifth, tenth time it’ll be old hat to you and you’ll wonder what the fuss was about!
There was a Reddit thread once from an entrepreneur who said, share with me your idea and I’ll see if I can help you with some advice to get moving. A lot of people responded with ‘why would I share this on a public forum - won’t you, or someone else, steal it?’ The entrepreneur’s response was: less than 1% of people are truly going to move on that idea that’s been knocking around in their head for a while. Action is what sets those people apart - and it’s got to be what sets you apart too.
You’ll have dips and lulls, and moments where you wonder why you decided to do this in the first place. But if you can keep your reason for starting this close to your heart at all times, it’ll be the little fire that keeps you going.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
I run The Food Diary Co through Squarespace but I’m currently looking into other platforms (mainly Wordpress) to improve the analytical capability and to remove a monthly cost that doesn’t seem too worth it currently. For shipping we ship Royal Mail from the UK and for email newsletters I use MailChimp; I have several years of working with this platform, and not only is the free version great and exactly what we need right now, but I know what excellent tools are awaiting me if and when we progress to paying for the service.
If you’re new and starting up your online business I really recommend getting someone to properly set up Google Analytics (especially advanced ecommerce) on your site, and doing Google’s free analytics Academy courses. They’re a little tough going at times, but analytics are the foundation of marketing, so if you’re going to handle that side of things yourself you’re going to need to understand it.
I love using Buffer for social media scheduling, and if you’re really into the Instagram stuff, Planoly is a fantastic tool. They have a useful email newsletter with Instagram tips and interviews with digital managers etc, but fair warning it skews towards millennial women, so while the information is very helpful, the aesthetic of that newsletter isn’t for everyone!
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Books-wise I would heartily recommend reading Essentialism by Greg McKeown, and Deep Work by Cal Newport. Both of them will help you focus on what’s important to you and your business, and to help block out time wasting stuff. Podcast-wise I love listening to Online Marketing made Easyby Amy Porterfield and NPR’s How I Built This. Hurdle is also an interesting one for people who are building businesses in the wellness space.
I find that I need a mix of reminders of how to focus and be productive, and bigger-picture things to help me dream and generate ideas. I find it’s really tough at times not to get distracted by what other people are doing, so I come back to these books and podcasts a lot to help me tune out all the noise. For the more specific ‘how-to’ of marketing, the Social Media Examiner and Neil Patel websites are really great.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
My number one tip is: focus on you, what you want your business to achieve, and how you’re going to do it. There is so much happening in the world, and we have access to tune into all of it, but the smart thing to do is to tune 99% of it out. Always try to go back to what you started and why, because it will sustain you when you’re having a tough day or a tough week.
Be playful and experimentive where possible, and test test test! If you have an idea, whether it’s for marketing or anything else, figure out what you need to make it possible and go for it! Don’t wait for something to be perfect: perfect is very definitely the enemy of the good, and if you let it it’ll stop you from just getting something out there and moving.
Be careful about what you pour your money into at the beginning. If you’re an online-only business, do you need all those business cards or the stationery or flyers? On the flip side, good design, good website work - the things that are the foundations of your business - these will always be worth paying for.
Make sure your financials are in order from the very beginning: open a dedicated money account, get advice from someone you trust (or a professional!) about the legal stuff, keep impeccable records so that tax season is easy.
Find a peer group, or a mastermind, of people at a similar phase to yourself. Meet regularly, even over skype or google hangout, and bounce ideas off each other. We can’t do these things alone!
And most of all: have fun! You’re starting a business, and that’s exciting! Be proud of yourself for having the drive to push it forward.
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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