Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
Hi, I’m Virginie! I am the owner of Heritage Cookbook. I’m actually the new owner of Heritage as this was a business that was started by my mom close to 20 years ago, but was taken over by my sister and me about 10 years ago, and finally by me three years ago when I bought it from my sister to run it full time.
We are an online website that allows people to make their own custom cookbooks. We sell books to families and individuals (often around special events like a wedding, family reunion, or holiday), fundraising organizations or individuals, entrepreneurs (think bloggers, restaurants, caterers), and corporations making employee books as team-building exercises or for employee gifts.
When mom started the company, it was a very small company, making a little bit of money here and there. Her start-up cost was about $10,000 for a bare-bones website. But over the course of 20 years, it’s been re-invented completely and is now a viable company that makes enough for me to have quit my full-time job in publishing and work on this exclusively. And I’m about a month away from a relaunch that I’ve been working on for close to three years since I bought my sister's shares out. I have big ambitions for Heritage to become the number one site for recipe preservation. My mission is to grow globally and empower every person with the tools to share their food stories. I believe Heritage can create joy while helping people preserve their most treasured food memories in a simple and beautiful way
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
When my mom started the company, she thought it would be a good tool for people to preserve family memories. Although my mom was Canadian, she married a French man and moved to France. My sister and I were both born in France and lived there until our mid-teens. When she moved back to North America, my mom brought with her a love of family recipes and of course, good food. Although online publishing was not really a thing 20 years ago, and self-publishing certainly wasn’t, she cooked up this idea (pun intended) and put together a simple little site for people to make cookbooks. She hit a nerve because, before long, the company was actually starting to make money and grow, although modestly.
Sadly, my mom passed away from breast cancer at the young age of 64, and my sister and I ended up with the company. My sister was a full-time mom, and I had a career in publishing as well as two young kids. I worked as an editor for a hugely popular women’s interest magazine.
When we inherited the company, it was already about ten years old and the website was looking tired and dated. But people loved it, and it had potential. We decided to re-design the look and feel of it to appeal to a younger, larger audience. After spending about $80,000, (about $10,000 on design and $70,000 on programming), we had a fresh new look, and within a year, the company doubled its sales.
Do something that you know or love. You will work really hard, all the time, so it should be in a field that you at least understand, or have some passion or experience in.
For about three years, I juggled both jobs. HeritageCookbook had huge growth after that initial redesign and was starting to make enough money for me to quit my job in publishing (it seemed to me that print was dying, while online was growing), and work on this with my sister, while also doing freelance work as an interior designer (yes, I wear many hats).
About four years after that, our programmer announced he was quitting, my sister told me she wasn’t interested in working at the company anymore, and I had a big decision to make.
So I scrounge together enough money to buy her shares out and went about looking for a new development team to rebrand the business and hit new markets and high growth targets.
I knew people loved the business, loved the product, and demand was growing for online self-publishing tools. Plus, food was having a huge moment with the Food Network, and food bloggers taking over the internet! It felt like the right moment to invest and rebrand.
Take us through the process of designing your first
The first version of the website was pretty hokey. The look of it was brown and yellow, and the logo was based on a book and knife, and fork. The demographic was definitely church ladies and people interested in genealogy. We only printed one type of book, which was a little plastic coil-bound book. Here’s the original logo and original book format, along with our best-selling cover template.
The look of the old site was not going to cut it with a younger savvy generation, so we turned to some of my contacts from the publishing industry to redesign the logo, and launch about 50 new templates and 3 new bindings.
Designing the templates was fun- I would just look online to see what was popular and trendy, and work with our designer to come up with a new template package. Some of our most popular templates were the chalkboard one as well as the rooster one.
For bindings, we worked with our printer to figure out what would make sense, but also be cost-effective. Along with the classic plastic coil, we started offering a hardcover book, softcover book, and wire-bound book. Our printer is a very experienced digital printer, and it didn’t take too long to figure out the right size and look of the books, and also get them at a price that would be competitive with the other new sites that were starting to pop up and offer online cookbook publishing.
The look of the website was also completely redesigned- the logo was updated to this with fresh new colors to reflect the new look.
The user experience in building their books was totally re-skinned to reflect the new look and feel. We were very worried that we would lose the older customers and what we thought was our core demographic. So we kept the “I’m a real person” vibe of the site, with lots of photos of me, lots of “I’m here to help” links, and a voice that was friendly and casual. We wanted customers to continue to feel connected to me personally, not just to the brand.
We also launched an Instagram account, a Facebook page, a Twitter account, and a Pinterest account.
All in, we spent about $80,000 on the redesign, split between my sister and me. It turned out to be a great investment as within a year sales doubled, and then doubled again the following year. We didn’t really do too much- just watched as word of mouth and google searches sent the business growing.
Describe the process of launching the business.
Relaunching the new site was pretty worrisome. We had a demographic that was already loyal and happy, and we were so worried they would be put off by the more modern look and feel.
But we were pretty confident that a new demographic was out there, and they're still wasn’t much competition out there. So we just prepared some email blasts for our customers, and rolled the new site out with our fingers crossed. There was no formal marketing campaign, no social media campaign, just a hope and a prayer, and a good track record.
Turns out it was a great decision. Google recognized our business because it was the oldest one out there offering this type of product, and so as demand for this type of business grew, so did google searches, and we just kept showing up in the top two or three positions. Those first few years after the redesign was amazing. But my sister and I were busy moms, and I had my side interior design business, and we weren’t really paying attention. After two years of growth, sales plateaued, and then started to nosedive. Two or three competitor sites had aggressively gone after our market, and were now outranking us in google, and taking our business. That’s when our programmer quit, and my sister lost interest. It was pretty stressful.
We considered closing down the business completely- just closing out the current sales and packing it in.
I did some pretty serious soul searching to figure out what I should do. I knew I had a potential gold mine on my hands. All signs pointed to customers being out there, but in order to reach them, I was going to have to find a new tech team, and find the money to buy my sister's shares out.
Don’t do things you don’t know how to do. Reach out to find professionals who will know how to do it faster and better than you. It’s worth the money!
I hired a personal coach at the cost of about $5000 to help me sort out what I wanted, big picture, out of life. She helped me set 1 year, 5 years, and 10-year goals. It became clear that Heritage could offer me financial security, a creative outlet in the form of a redesign, and a balanced lifestyle.
It’s been about two and a half years since I bought out my sister's shares (and we are still friends) and decided to completely re-work the business. To save the business, I had to hire the following:
- Web designer with UX design experience
- Branding company
Let’s just say it’s been a journey. The first designer and programmer did not get along, and about a year into the project, the designer quit the job. No problem, I had lots of contacts from the publishing world, so I found a new partner. But that cost me two or three months, because of course the new designer wanted to start from scratch.
Then two years into the redesign, my programmer (who had told me it would be a year-long project) told me he was giving the project two more months or he was going to renegotiate my rate at an exorbitant rate. Plus he was not interested in supporting the site after launch. So I had to very quickly find a new programmer that would take over what I thought was an almost finished website. That cost me about two or three months.
Oh, and there was a global pandemic. Which turned out to be a blessing. The pandemic meant my business had a 200% growth, which in turn meant that I was able to finance all this never-ending work.
My original budget to redesign the site was about $100,000. When all is said and done, I think I’ll be in for close to $250,000. Yikes. But fortunately, sales growth meant that I was able to continue to bootstrap finance the project. There were a few close moments though when I thought it was all going to fall apart. To have a cushion in place, I was also able to obtain a $140,000 low interest loan from the government (it helped that I had a good sales record)..
I’m glad to say the new site is set to launch on October 15, 2021.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
I’m very confident the new launch will translate into huge growth. I saw it happen before. I know that with the new program and new products, Heritagecookbook is going to be the best company out there for anyone wanting to make a cookbook.
We will have the best program to make your book (I have 10 years of customer feedback that I based the new user experience on), we offer the best array of products (compared to our competitor, all of our options are better) and our pricing is competitive for the product we offer.
Here are some screenshots of the old UX, and the new one about the launch.
OLD HOME PAGE:
NEW HOME PAGE:
OLD BOOK BUILDING TOOL:
NEW BOOK BUILDING TOOL:
But I’ve spent almost a quarter-million dollars getting there, and I need aggressive growth to make that back!
I know from experience that google searches are my best foot forward. I had the disastrous experience of hiring an SEO company before the site was ready to launch (did I mention it's over 24 month late?), and that cost me $25,000. But I now have an amazing freelance SEO adviser who is working with the tech team to make sure the new site transfers over with no google search loss, and is helping me put together an online marketing strategy. I know Google placement is my best strategy to find new customers, so that’s where I’m putting my efforts right now.
Once I have four months of data, I’ll figure out the next strategy, specifically when it comes to social media and cross-promotions. Fortunately the Christmas season is when we do about 50% of our sales, and I’m really hoping that with the SEO investment, and a better conversion rate with the new site, I will see a real return. I know that I lose a lot of customers once they reach the home page, so that’s something I’ve really worked on.
I know with a better offering, a better experience, a new price structure, I won’t have the same engagement loss. For 10 years, I’ve been studying how users interact with the site, and I see easy opportunities to increase sales by simply changing the user experience, which is what I’ve focussed on with the new site.
I’m spending about $5000/month for my marketing consultant to work with the team in rolling the new site over. On top of that, once the site is launched, I plan to spend about $5000/month on Google and Facebook ads.
Programmers cost about $20,000/month, so I need to use their time very wisely once the new site is out!
I know I get a lot of traffic from our Pinterest page- we have few posts that have really gone wild, like this one.
I’ve spent some money having a food stylist shoot a lot of recipes, so our image library is close to 1000 images now that people can load into their books. I think that gives me a lot of social media potential. Here are a few:
But running a social media campaign is a full time job, and I just don’t have time right now. So I’m focussing on what I know will give immediate results- google SEO, and conversion rates.
I’m also considering TikTok as a good place to produce food videos, but that’s a lot of work too!
Word of mouth is also really powerful for me, and I’ve worked with big companies like Google and Facebook that both made corporate books with us last year, so I’m thinking about how I can leverage their experience into word of mouth growth.
How have you monetized the tool?
We are currently making money, although there’s been a slight drop since last year, when people were all stuck at home with nothing to do, and making family cookbooks!
When the new site launches, I am completely changing the financial structure. In the past, users would get a free month to make their books, then they would have to pay for a membership ranging from $19.95 to $59.95. While that accounted for about 30% of my profit, I also think it was a big barrier to people signing up.
For the new site, I’m introducing a two-tier approach. Users can build a book for free, using one of 10 templates, and a single font. But there will also be a $29.95 yearly membership that will give users access to all templates, 10 fonts, an online recipe box (lots of potential there for future growth), as well as a free ebook. I’m hoping that translates to more membership sales. I’m developing an email blast strategy to push the premium accounts.
I’m also changing my financial relationship with my printer. Whereas in the past customers remitted payment for their books directly to the printer, and I took a commission, I will now be collecting the money and paying the printer. This gives me more flexibility with my margins, and the potential for international growth with a network of print partners. I’ve changed my margins from 15% to 30% while maintaining or lowering pricing by working with the printer to fine-tune the pricing structure.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
There are a lot of growth opportunities, and I just need about a year of data before deciding what the most lucrative will be.
Here are my thoughts.
Within the next two years:
I’ve already registered thecookbookstore.com, and my plan is to create a platform for people to sell their books. Once they have made their book with us, they will be able to list it for sale. There are a lot of details to work out, not the least of which is distribution. 90% of my business is in the US, but my printer is in Canada, so shipping is too expensive for single book orders. But this is easily surmounted.
Within 5 years:
I already have an international market- again, printing and shipping are the roadblocks, but easy to overcome. I plan on aggressively going after the European and Australian markets, where I already have demand. Then cloning the site to go after the Spanish speaking market, in Central and South America.
Within the year:
The online recipe box also has potential for growth, especially for people to be able to share their recipes from their recipe box, which will help with SEO and getting new customers. It will also translate into higher conversions to premium memberships, which are 100% profit. I’m projecting we can do $1 million in sales this year.
And there’s just keeping the site up to date- adding fonts, adding features, adding photos, adding bindings, reacting to user experience, enhancing the photo loading experience etc. Making sure users that land on the homepage is converting to customers.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
Being an entrepreneur is hard. Sometimes I feel like I’m just doing a lot of things that I don’t know anything about. And it takes courage. The money part was the hardest for me. I don’t come from a financial background, so the structure of getting investors felt way too scary, and something I just don’t understand. So I had to bootstrap it, which was really scary. I’ve put a lot of my savings into this.
I’ve also learned some things along the way:
- Get a coach or someone that can help set personal and professional goals.
- Don’t do things you don’t know how to do. Reach out to find professionals who will know how to do it faster and better than you. It’s worth the money!
- Talk to everyone you know- word of mouth is a big deal. Not just in promoting sales, but in sharing ideas and hearing about people and ideas that can help you
- Join communities- online, in person. Being an entrepreneur can be pretty lonely. Whether it's office sharing, monthly meetups, or workshops, having the opportunity to share with other business owners is really helpful.
- Also, lawyers are really expensive! Get as much free advice as you can before hiring a lawyer.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
In developing the new site, we all used Asana as a project management tool.
Part of my site is built on Wordpress, which I don’t love, but find useful.
We work with FedEx for order shipping- they’ve been a reliable partner even during the pandemic.
My last programmer was in Paris, so for email blasts, we use MailJet.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
Nothing! I tend to operate on gut and observation. I did read the Lean Startup, but given that I wasn’t really in a startup position, some of it was not helpful in designing the new version of the site.
I also joined a business community hub which helped give me confidence in myself as a business person, and helped me figure out what I was and wasn’t good at.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Do something that you know or love. You will work really hard, all the time, so it should be in a field that you at least understand, or have some passion or experience in. I love cooking, and publishing, so while I didn’t choose to create this business, when it came my way, it was something I was interested in.
Also, be kind and ethical in business. I have great relationships with everyone I’ve worked with, and they will go out of their way to help me, refer me to their friends, promote me and otherwise support me. All of the relationships I made in my past life as a magazine editor were helpful because I have good relationships with them- they helped with PR, design, or just an ear to bounce ideas off of.
Do things you understand. I never gave out shares of my business, because I just don’t understand the business part of that. I moved slowly as a result of that because I didn’t have a huge cash injection, but I always felt in control of what was happening.
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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