Few people understand the anguish of mosquito bites more than Floridian moms.
When Kelley Higney’s six-month-old daughter experienced severe reactions to bug bites in the area, she tried every remedy on the market with zero luck. By chance, she landed on something that worked: a suction tool that extracts insect saliva and venom to alleviate the effects of bites. So along with her mother, Elle McAllister, the duo created the now cult-favorite line of products, Bug Bite Thing. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Kelley shares her strategy behind gathering thousands of positive reviews, geo targeting social media ads, and what happened after that memorable Shark Tank appearance.
For the full transcript of this episode, click here.
- Store: Bug Bite Thing
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: Refersion (Shopify App)
Getting bit by the entrepreneurial bug
Felix: You originally made this product for your daughter, right? Tell us more about that. Where did the idea come from?
Kelley: I made a big move. I had a job opportunity back in 2013. We relocated from California to South Florida. I had a young daughter at the time. She was six months old, and when we moved out here, one thing we were completely not anticipating was how bad the mosquito problem was. When I say bad, I mean it was completely affecting our quality of life. I was avoiding the outdoors at all costs. My daughter would get one mosquito bite, and she'd react so severely, it’d turn into a blister the size of golf ball sized welts, pain, itching, swelling.
We had just moved out, and instantly we were avoiding the outdoors. She was getting skin infections, I was suffering. I started doing some research. What products were available in the market? I tried every over the counter cream. I tried every home remedy. I was looking up home remedies on Pinterest, how to prevent mosquito bites, how to relieve mosquito bites. Nothing was working.
I came across a little known tool that was sold through some industrial first aid kits overseas. It would use a suction mechanism to remove the irritant so your body stops producing the uncomfortable symptoms like itching, swelling, stinging. It's the irritant that you're reacting to. The premise behind the tool was you remove the irritant so your body stops producing a reaction.
I ordered one not thinking much of it, because I'm a year into suffering, and nothing here that's available is working. I got a mosquito bite walking to my mailbox to get it, ironically, so I tried it. I was dumbfounded. All the itching, the swelling, the pain, within a matter of 30 seconds, just disappeared. And I was like, "What the heck? Why is this not here?"
"If this product is helping me so much, and helping my daughter so much, there's got to be other parents that would find the validity in this product, or other people that are suffering that need this."
I did some more research to figure out why. If this product is helping me so much, and helping my daughter so much, there's got to be other parents that would find the validity in this product, or other people that are suffering that need this. I was able to track down the manufacturer, and we teamed up together. I branded the product Bug Bite Thing. I wanted to launch here in the U.S. That's how I came across the product and started selling it.
Felix: How did you go from, “this is a problem” to, “I’m going to start a business to address these needs”? Do you have an entrepreneurial background?
Kelley: I actually come from a long line of entrepreneurs. My grandmother was an entrepreneur. My mother is an entrepreneur. She has an import/export business called A.C. Kerman. It's been in existence for 30 years. I literally grew up in an office. I started answering phones from the time I could talk. I was filing paperwork. I could recognize all the UPS/FedEx trucks, and all the names of them by the time I was 10. I always had that entrepreneurship gene instilled in me. I credit my mom a lot to that. My thought process on things is very different, than a lot of people think.
I always try to figure out how to make things a win/win. For this, there was a product on the market that worked amazing. It was little known, and I was a mom who saw it take away all my child's pain and suffering, and it was working on me. Why wouldn't I try to see if there was a need for it? That's what started the journey.
Testing a concept in your own community
Felix: It seems like your background and upbringing prepared you for this business in a lot of ways. How do you think that influenced you to keep persevering?
Kelley: I kept thinking, "Why is this not here?" Because it worked on me. The next step, honestly, was I started field testing it. I had one tool, and we're in South Florida, so mosquito bites are a huge problem out here. I had lots of test subjects. This is even before I ordered my first batch of real inventory. I'm talking about pre-sales. I was just testing the market to see if there was an interest. I was a mom. I was working, my daughter was in preschool, and I wasn't thinking of starting a new business. It came to me, and I couldn't get out of my head. I kept thinking, "If this could help me so much..." I was suffering. My daughter was on antibiotics, because she would get skin infections, and I hate that.
"I couldn't get out of my head. I was dreaming about it. I was thinking about it non-stop. I just knew I needed to make it available to anybody else that was suffering."
There had to be other parents. After talking to other moms and parents in my own community, there was a huge demand for a chemical free solution to this problem. I couldn't get out of my head. I was dreaming about it. I was thinking about it non-stop. I just knew I needed to make it available to anybody else that was suffering.
Felix: Throughout the development process, how were you going about validating the product and getting potential consumer feedback?
Kelley: Before I purchased our first batch of inventory–before I wanted to go full throttle–I did a lot of my market research at the preschool, because I was there. My daughter was there. There were other moms and parents there. Just talking to the preschool itself, there were kids coming into the nurse's station on a daily basis having to put cream on, because it has to be administered by a nurse, because there's chemicals in it. I would ask, "What are you guys using?" Everybody was using the exact same thing that wasn't working on them or myself. They were having to reapply creams over and over, because essentially, you're masking the problem. You're not getting to the root of the problem.
When an insect bites or stings you, they're injecting their saliva or venom under the surface of the skin. It's your own body that's reacting to that irritant that's causing those symptoms. So a cream is just, essentially, numbing those symptoms. Your body has to run its course. Our product removes the irritant, so your body doesn't even produce those symptoms. It's a game changer for a lot of people that get really severe reactions to mosquito bites, because you're removing it before they get so severe that you're having to get antibiotic creams and other things like that.
Felix: It’s interesting because I never thought there could be another solution in the bug bite cycle, where you put a cream on and stop the reaction before it even occurs.
Kelley: I'm determined to make this the first solution, because why wouldn't we try to make the option that's more effective, that has science behind it, clinical testing, why wouldn't we try to make that the first go-to method? Aside from trying to apply creams and chemicals over, and over, and over again on children and yourself, for that matter?
The journey to 30,000 positive reviews on Amazon
Felix: Once you recognized the need in the market, you went to the manufacturer, which might not be the stereotypical first step that most people go to. Tell us about that process.
Kelley: It's very simple. We tracked them down, and essentially pitched it. I explained how I was shocked that this wasn't here in the United States. How I felt that every parent should have this tool to be armed with for relief for their children. Everybody that enjoys time outside needed this product. We completely aligned. My background through my mother's companies, and my past entrepreneurship is all in marketing. I have a real knack for marketing, I love getting on a consumer level. I'm a consumer. I always put our customers first.
He saw my vision, and he gave me a chance. We had a contract that was signed. Essentially, my first contract was just for the United States. It was exclusive distribution rights for the first year. This was my very first contract before we hit our numbers. Essentially, I ordered my first batch of inventory, and I started selling it. I branded it Bug Bite Thing, and that's when I launched it. Ironically enough, I started right in my own backyard at my daughter's preschool bake sales.
Felix: I think a lot of new entrepreneurs can be intimidated by manufacturers for the first time. What was your strategy for these conversations? What did they look like?
Kelley: If you want my honest opinion, it was my passion that came through. To this day I'm on a mission, because this product is a game changer. At this point, we've got millions of people that have products in their hands. On Amazon alone, there's 30 thousand positive reviews. We're the number one best selling product on Amazon for insect bite relief.
"I'm on a mission, because this product is a game changer. At this point, we've got millions of people that have products in their hands."
I just needed people to know it existed. Having that mindset really resonated with our factory, and he believed in us since the beginning. We're three years down the roach, and we've partnered completely with them for global distribution rights. Just this year, we're launching into 25 countries. They don't sell any OEM product anymore in their headquarters. They've converted it to Bug Bite Thing headquarters, Europe. We’re in the U.S. and now Europe. We're tackling the world globally to make this a household name.
Felix: And it all started by selling it locally. The demand was there even before you had online sales.
Kelley: Yes. Grassroots. When I ordered my first batch of inventory I literally started in my own backyard. I started selling at bake sales, and that's where I got a good chunk of the consumer feedback on validity of the product. People were coming to me saying they were using it on bee stings and wasps, and red ants. That I worked on their child who had been suffering for years, and years, and years. Exactly the same thing that was happening with my child. Antibiotic creams, and miserable nights of waking up and itching, and nothing giving their children relief.
When I started selling, I recognized quickly that our product almost became an impulse item once people realized what it is and what it did. I could explain the science behind it. Then people were willing to give it a chance. That’s where I got my start.
Educating potential customers with a money back guarantee
Felix: In the early stages of market testing did you get any crucial feedback that ultimately informed the product development process?
Kelley: I realized very quickly that after a few bake sales, I had exhausted my customer base. Now it was figuring out how I bring this to online from selling them in person at bake sales, and seeing if there was even a bigger demand for our product.
Felix: You mentioned a major lesson was that you need to understand how your customers react to your product to be able to develop an effective marketing strategy. Can you tell us more about that?
Kelley: It means everything. Immediately, right when I started selling them in person, I knew the skepticism that was coming from people by the questions that were being asked. There's no way that will work. If it worked It would already be here. Something so simple can't work. There was no testimonials on it, there was no credibility on it. That was the negative feedback that I knew right off the bat that I had to figure out how to overcome when I launched through ecommerce.
One of the first things that I did was I made our product have 100% money back guarantee. I knew, once people used it, and they realized what it was, how it worked, and they used it for the first time, I knew that they were going to tell 10 more people about it. The obstacle became how do I get that first person to try it, test it, and now become part of the Bug Bite Thing family, but then tell 10 more people about it.
That was my strategy from day one. I didn't have a lot of funds to invest in marketing. Everything was grassroots. When I made the leap from quitting my job working with my mother to launching Bug Bite Thing full time—this was after I had done the testing at the trade shows—and I knew I wanted to go online, that's when I kind of flipped the switch. We ended up selling our house, and we moved into a rental house, and that paid for our first batch of inventory.
I started teaching myself social media marketing, because I didn't have the funds to invest in an agency at the beginning. There was a lot of figuring things out once I was able to prove the validity of my product. That there was a demand, that there was an interest, that people were responding to it.
Selling her house and go “all in” on Bug Bite Thing
Felix: It’s rare that people believe so wholly in their business they’re willing to sell their house and bet on it. What made you so confident to go all in like that? When did you know you were willing to bet it all?
Kelley: When I started having parents track me down in the parking lot to purchase product outside of bake sales. That's when I knew there was a demand for my product. It was growing by word of mouth just in my own backyard. I had people literally meeting me in the parking lot. I downloaded my Shopify pos system (point of sale) app, and I was literally taking orders from the trunk of my car selling Bug Bite Things.
"I started having parents track me down in the parking lot to purchase product outside of bake sales. That's when I knew there was a demand for my product."
That's how I knew there was a demand. If I could take what I did on a smaller level, and I could translate that to digital and get it out there on a bigger level, I was convinced that it was going to be the same response.
Felix: You had a 100% money back guarantee policy. Was there anything else you built into your marketing strategy in order to get people to just try the product to see how good it was?
Kelley: At the beginning, I was begging people to try it, and saying, "If it doesn't work, give it back to me, and I will give you your money back." That's literally what I did at the beginning. I had enough people that tried the product and ended up telling 10 more people about it, that it started growing like wildfire by word of mouth.
Felix: You have many amazing reviews. Was there anything in particular that you did–aside from having a superior product–to foster and encourage that kind of social proof?
Kelley: My number one marketing strategy is repurposing real testimonials and stories about our product. That's all I do. I never sell our product. I never want people to feel pressured to buy our product, because that's not what it was for me at the beginning. I was truly trying to find relief for my daughter. I want parents and other people who are really suffering to just give it a try. Because I have proof. It works on enough people, and the testimonials, when you read through them, they're not like, "It works." It's like, "They're life changing. Where has this been my entire life?"
"My number one marketing strategy is repurposing real testimonials and stories about our product. That's all I do. I never sell our product."
We have pediatric cancer doctors referring to our product. There's something in chemo treatment that makes children more susceptible to mosquito bites. The chemicals can be risky. We're a chemical free option we're providing to other people. It feels great to be helping that many people at the same time.
It was never really about selling the product. Consumers are smart, they can see authenticity. I never wanted to trick them into anything. I was always honest from the beginning.
Optimizing customer reviews for your marketing strategy
Felix: In what ways are you repurposing these reviews and feedback? How are you building that into your marketing strategy?
Kelley: We have a whole social strategy that we repurposes testimonials. We have the Shopify review app installed on our website. That creates a ton of SEO around our product. When people search, "Does the Bug Bite Thing work," Shopify reviews pop right up to help combat that. The consumer's smart. They know, at this stage, if they're fake reviews or not. By giving people that 100% money back guarantee, it just takes the guesswork out of the product. I'm not trying to make a sale, I'm trying to give people relief.
Felix: What have you been doing to optimize these reviews in your content? Can you tell us a little bit more about that?
Kelley: Just repurposing them into ad content. We use a lot of user-generated content that we will combine to showcase multiple people's viewpoints on our product. It's really just about displaying it everywhere. Anywhere that we can showcase a life changing situation or scenario, or something really impactful.
"Read through the testimonials. That's all I encourage people to do."
An example would be: somebody got stung by three bees in one spot and used our product and didn't have any reaction. Previously, they gave us an example where they had one bee sting, and they had to go to the emergency room. It’s stuff like that that comes in. It's so impactful for a brand to have a consumer reading that. If we could tell potential customers other people's experiences, not only does it help get the word out there, it's giving other people a tool that can help them get relief and not be in pain and avoid doctor's visits. Read through the testimonials. That's all I encourage people to do. You're just showcasing real life. It feels good. Again, we just need people to know what our product is and that it exists, and I think we're doing a pretty good job at that.
Discovering your target audience and marketing to multiple demographics
Felix: You had mentioned you thought your demographic would be male outdoorsmen. You were surprised to find out that wasn’t quite the case. Tell us about that journey of discovering your target audiences.
Kelley: It was honestly when I flipped to digital. I have all the consumer feedback from the preschool. We're rocking and rolling, I have people tracking me down. Then it came to how am I going to launch this thing online? I started teaching myself basic social media classes. I started doing target marketing. In my head, I picked a demographic. I thought that the male outdoors men who are spending time fishing, camping, hiking, would be the first demographic I would go after to really hit it hard online.
Although they remain a big part of our market, when I launched this, the skepticism that met me was 180 degrees backward from the response I was getting when I was able to sell and talk about it in person. I knew I had a problem. There was a big disconnect there. I had to pick it. That's when I started saying, "Okay, well, what was really working for me at the bake sales, and in the parking lot? Who was my customer?" They were all moms. They were all moms who were getting their husbands to use it, or who were getting their children to use it who were suffering. Who were telling their girlfriends about it, who were telling their family members about it.
I switched my social strategy back to moms, just like me. Almost instantly, I saw the turn. Traffic and everything started going in the right direction.
Felix: It's funny that the answer is kind of that simple, but a lot of times, we're so focused on maybe something else that we lose sight of what's already working.
Kelley: How easy, out of all the hiccups that I ran into, would it have been to just say, "You know what? This isn't going to work. I can't invest any more money. I can't invest time." There was a lot of that at the beginning. Figuring out how to really figure this out. It was the feedback. I say that in every interview that I'm on. The feedback was what really motivated and kept driving me, because at the end of the day, I founded this product because I was in the same boat as all these other people. I was suffering. My daughter was suffering. It was literally affecting our lives on a daily basis. There's a lot of other people around the world that are in the exact same boat as us.
Felix: Did you make any changes to marketing, branding etc to serve multiple demographics? As you said, outdoorsmen are still a part of your target audience.
Kelley: A lot of it was testing. I mean, we're on package version number five. On the retail level now. Again, I credit our customers. If you listen to your customers, they tell you how to run your business. In a way. They tell you the next products they want, the modifications, what they're happy with, what they're unhappy with. They tell you about the skepticism they have, they tell you about what got them to purchase the product. They're your key, right there. If you can figure out your own customers and decode what gets in their head to make it a win/win, then you’ll succeed. We've done that since the beginning. We listen to our customers.
"If you listen to your customers, they tell you how to run your business. In a way. They tell you the next products they want, the modifications, what they're happy with, what they're unhappy with."
Felix: You mentioned you’re on version five of the packaging. Can you tell us more about that? What kind of changes have you made over time to address some of these?
Kelley: This year is a big year for Bug Bite Thing. We're going to be launching in 25,000 retail locations this year. From Wal-Mart, to Lowe's, to Home Depot, to CVS. Prior to that, we had packaging issues. Our product is new to the market, so not only is our product new to the market, it's a new concept. Just like you had said earlier in the interview, when you think of a bug bite, your brain doesn't even go to another alternative. You don't even think there's another option. You're going to the store, and you're buying a cream to put on and let it run its course.
This year our product's going to be everywhere, and I think it's going to be really interesting to see what happens with Bug Bite Thing. In previous years, the feedback that we got, we started out with our packaging completely in a box. Think of it like a cream. It's completely hidden, it's behind a box. Even though we were calling out “insect bite relief suction tool,” people's brains don't go there when they're walking in a shop, and they see a cream, and then they see something similar on the shelf. They're thinking it's an alternative.
We failed, I would say, the first year we launched at retail. I was not happy with the results. I attribute that to not having enough education around our product. One of the things that we did—and we've done since we've revised our packaging over the last few years—is we now market, and we drive people to the stores in addition to educating them.
I have a program that we have called retail target marketing. Essentially, we work with the buyers of these big box stores, and we create a custom program. It's just geo-targeting around certain locations to really educate people around the retail stores that are going to be carrying our product. What our product is, what it does, and where they can purchase it. Working in conjunction with that has really helped us sell through at the retail level.
Life After Shark Tank Fame
Felix: So education seems to be a critical component of your marketing strategy, how are you going about educating potential customers?
Kelley: Just through ads. We have a lot of educational ads out. What our product is, what it does, the science behind the product, and then where they can purchase it. It's a mixture of things. I don't know if you know, we're a Shark Tank company. We had the chance to be featured on Shark Tank in 2019. That was because of my marketing. I'm self-taught, and it ended up catching the eyes of a producer at Shark Tank, and they tracked me down, and they encouraged me to audition for the show.
There's a whole combination of things going on now that I think is driving the success of Bug Bite Thing. We've got the Shark Tank validity, we've got retail, we've got international happening, we've got social media, we've got e-commerce. We're branching wherever we can. We’re currently in 52, distributing in 25 countries.
Last year, we had so much growth. Prior to Shark Tank airing, I was running inside my house. I had two employees. It was very small potatoes. When we aired on Shark Tank, we had to move very quickly. We moved into a 5,000 square foot facility. We outgrew that, so then we moved into a 10,000 square foot facility. We have over 30 employees now, this is all in just over a year. We had to figure everything out really quick and do the best we can.
Felix: Now that you’ve seen some pretty massive growth over the last year, what are some of the daily challenges that Bug Bit Thing is going through?
Kelley: Honestly, the challenges that we face are education around the product. That's still something that's at the forefront. Most of our attention on marketing is educating people what our product is, the science behind our product, and that it exists. That's been challenging. Keeping up with the growth and the demand with inventory requirements. Especially navigating all that during COVID. That has been a really big challenge for us, because at this level, we're producing them by the millions, so you have to have planning.
"The challenges that we face are education around the product. That's still something that's at the forefront."
That's been a challenge, but we've got everything in order this year. We ran into some inventory issues last year that we're ahead of the game on this year, so that will be good. It's just growing pains. At the very beginning, the challenges that we faced was figuring out who the right demographic was on social media. That was the big change from targeting male outdoorsmen to going back to my grassroots of what started this. There's a lot happening all at one time, and there's only so many hours in a day, and there's only so many people you can train in a day. So yeah, I would say that.
Customer experience: the key to scaling your business
Felix: When it comes to educating prospective customers, how do you dissertain what they need before they’re willing to buy?
Kelley: That's a great question, and I don't have an answer for that. I had to do a lot of testing. Going back to what we stay true to as a company, our consumer experience is number one for us, always. From their first interaction from hearing about our product, to ordering it on our website, to receiving it, to reviewing it. Everything is customer-driven. If you just focus on your customers, and listen to them, it gives you more insight than you think. Don't forget to listen to your own customers, and a lot of the times they give you what you need to pivot or change directions.
"Don't forget to listen to your own customers, and a lot of the times they give you what you need to pivot or change directions."
Felix: How do you use the affiliate marketing program to grow your business?
Kelley: Yeah. We created our own affiliate marketing program. I did this grassroots. Our customers have almost become like family to me. We treat everybody like they're a part of this. No matter if you're just a customer that used it for the first time and want to tell 10 more people about it, or you're an influencer with a big audience that you feel like you want to educate people about a chemical-free solution that's better, you can be involved in our program.
We're working on a loyalty program for customers. I believe there's a third party program that integrates, that's called Refersion that we use. That essentially is tracking, so we can track if a sale was made from a link that one of our influencers put out there.
We always teach our influencers and our affiliates, and whoever we're involved with that's going to be talking about Bug Bite Thing the same thing that they don't have to sell the product. We don't want people selling the product, because that's not who we are. We just need to educate people on what our product is, what it does, that it exists, and how many other people are getting relief from the product. Then we back it up with that 100% money back guarantee so there's no risk to try it.
Felix: What other key things does Bug Bite Thing do to improve the overall customer experience?
Kelley: We're still doing it. It's something that we will do as long as Bug Bite Thing is in existence. We roll new things out all the time. We just rolled out a live chat feature to help be more interactive with our customers. Our website is focused on our customers. One of things that we do often is keep the banner on our website updated so people know that we're there, we're relevant. We have a phone number. You can pick up the phone and call us. We have a team here ready to take your questions, or help you place an order.
"Your customers drive your product and they drive your business. It's critical to take care of them at all levels."
I grew up in a family-owned business, so I don't know another way. Maybe that's just me being naïve, but our customers drive our product, and they drive our business. It's critical to take care of them at all levels, and make sure that their experience is the best.
Felix: What are the changes you’ve made over the years to the website specifically to improve the customer experience?
Kelley: Well, the wonderful thing about Shopify is it can grow with your business. Let me tell you that. My first Shopify web front was terrible. I did it myself, but it still worked. The platform and the themes, they make it so easy. Even if you have no experience, and you think everything is terrible, it still looks good enough to put out there. Then you go off of that. You start tweaking. You start adding tools to help you get smarter. We have Google Analytics installed on our website. So we can track where people are falling off our web pages.
Customer experience. Where are customers hanging out on our website? What are they reading? What more can we put out there to get them to purchase? Again, just focusing your entire website around consumer experience.
Using trust and community to elevate your brand story
Felix: You mentioned you’ve been tracking analytics to see where people are spending time on the website. Are there any findings that have surprised you?
Kelley: Yeah, we actually are in the process of revamping some things on our website. There's a lot of people now–because of Shark Tank–that are hanging out on our Mom on a Mission section. A brand story is really important. We're in a day and age where there's a lot of distrust in the online community. There's a lot of counterfeit product out there, there're a lot of companies that aren't U.S. based companies, that you can't pick up the phone and call to find out why your product hasn't been here for three months that you paid for.
"A brand story is really important. We're in a day and age where there's a lot of distrust in the online community."
We're simplifying things a little bit. We want to be there for our customers and make things easy for them. We want to offer them a line of products, so we can be the trusted source that they come back to.
Kelley: Honestly, don't be afraid to pivot. That's the biggest thing I can tell companies. If you have a great idea and you do market research and get feedback from people, consumers, but if it's not what you think, don't be afraid to pivot and try that same approach just a different way, or to a different audience. Tweak it. Ask, "What could make this better?" Or, "What would make your experience better?" Don't be afraid to ask. A lot of brands get in their head, and they don't get down on the consumer level. These are just people that are taking their money, and they're purchasing something in hopes that they're going to get something out of it. How can you make that experience the best for them, and the easiest? Keep them coming back.
"Listen to the market. Even though you have an idea, it may not be 100% there. Mine wasn't."
Felix: There's something there about putting your original idea on a pedestal, where you do everything to protect and defend it when the market might tell you something different, instead of embracing new iterations.
Kelley: Yep, that's exactly my point. Listen to the market. Even though you have an idea, it may not be 100% there. Mine wasn't. I went after male outdoors men, if I would have stuck with that, I would never have grown at the pace that we're growing now. I wouldn't have even branched into that demographic as fast as I have if I didn't go back to the moms at the beginning that was what was driving this. It's really important to listen to your customer and feedback.