Lou Matera wanted to create a nutritional product for young athletes that would help with their training and be a convenient alternative to unhealthy snacks from vending machines. From leaving a comfortable corporate job to convincing manufacturers to take a chance on him, Lou built Youth Sport Nutrition from scratch by diving headfirst into working on the business full time. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Lou Matera shares how he developed a new product by hosting taste tests, gathered sales through in-person events, and fine-tuned digital strategies to achieve the best conversion hacks.
For the full transcript of this episode, click here.
- Store: Youth Sport Nutrition
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: Sam Ovens, SEMRush, CrazyEgg, Pre-Order Now (Shopify app)
Taking the plunge to leave corporate comfort behind
Felix: Your goal was to escape your 9-to-5, Was this your first attempt at starting a business to do that?
Lou: It's something that I'd wanted to do for quite a while, but it's kind of a lot of external factors that aligned that allowed me to step into entrepreneurship. It's not an easy path, and it's one that you're constantly learning. I wanted to be on the Shopify Masters, as they were by no means masters at the trade, but it's one of the things you learn as you go and you get better.
Felix How ready were you to make that leap into business full time?
Lou: I kind of took the plunge quite quickly. I think that the good part about that was that it kind of put a lot of external pressure on me to deliver. I think at the time when I quit my corporate job, obviously, the lifestyle, having a car, a nice flat, and out on the weekends, it cost a lot. Having that income stream stops, it kind of got real a lot quicker, got a lot of pressure on me to be able to put things together and move things forward. Because basically, if you look at it as of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, the basic needs still weren't covered. So I needed to find something to keep my head above water, and ideally find a way to merge passion and profession.
How to develop a new nutrition product
Felix: What was the product that you came up with and the market landscape?
Lou: We're in the sports nutrition industry, but what we did is we developed the world's first fortified recovery shake for active youths. So what it does, it's there to support their macro and micronutrient needs. What it is in a nutshell, it's kind of specifically developed with relative amounts of wholesome nutrients, so they've got the fats, the proteins, the carbs, and 16 essential micronutrients. And what it's there for, it's designed to replace the most inconvenient meal after training, so when whole food isn't available, or in a lot of cases it's there to counter selective eating habits. The key differentiator between our product and, say, a mass-market product is that this is very specifically developed and tailored to youths. We work with elite athletes and active youths, they participate in high-level sports, so they've got quite a lot of commitment from a training load and from the matches as well.
Ideally, they would have food ready but they're very reliant on their parents, parents who've got busy lives, full-time jobs, they've got the commute. They're away from the kitchen as well when they're at the training ground or training facilities. And what they would tend to do is generally just grab food on the go at a gas station or a vending machine, which would generally be chocolate, crisps, vending machine energy drinks, that sort of thing, which really doesn't fit in alignment with their goals or objectives. So the nutritional profile that we put together is basically based on the common nutritional deficiencies and also the heightened need for specific nutrients to support them through rapid periods of growth.
Felix: Are teenagers or their parents making the purchase?
Lou: This is not so much a barrier to entry for us, but it makes things difficult because obviously the end-users of our product are youths. But our market, and who obviously has the purchasing power, are parents. So our marketing is very much parent-led. Obviously, there's a lot of regulations around actually marketing to youths as well from an ethical standpoint, so it fits quite well for us to actually directly market to parents, and it's generally those who have the problems because they can't get their kids to eat right. Obviously, they've got a lot of pressure on them. They haven't got much time, and then a big thing is that they don't generally have the education around nutrition to be able to put together wholesome meals, so this fills the gap quite nicely for them.
Felix: How do you know what the marketing message should be when you are marketing to someone that is not the actual end-user?
Lou: I think it's very much around meeting them, so designing and developing the ad copy to meet their needs and their values. So when you think mass-market supplements or meal replacements, it's all about big, strong, muscly guys or really skinny girls, and obviously there's an ethical component to that. And I think typically it's always been guided towards babies, so infant formula, bodybuilders, where you've got the association with steroids, large, big, muscly men. In reality, the product itself, all it is is just a convenient source of nutrients. So it's about communicating that message, getting over the stereotype, and really hammering home that this product, it's not going to make them bigger, it's not going to make them fitter, it's not going to make them faster. That's what they do the training for. What this product does is it’s as an absolute minimum to have what they have nutritionally to support their recovery, health, and normal development where going for convenient junk food wouldn't fit the bill.
Felix: What did you have to do to learn what the marketing message should be?
Lou: I think it's a combination of a lot of things, but first and foremost I would say it's A/B tests and trial and understanding what it is from a parent's perspective, so we did a lot of case studies in the early days because we've never had a marketing budget. We spent a lot of time speaking to parents, so we're trying to understand what their values are, what they're looking for, what their struggles are, and then obviously trying to pull all of that together and keep it concise, and into something that resonates with them, something that they understand, and obviously something that meets the problem head-on.
Felix: What do you have to take into consideration from the teens in this case, when it comes to marketing, especially when they don't have any of this purchasing power?
Lou: They're taste-orientated. Again, that's part of the reason why they don't have a proper diet, they don't eat right. They don't like the taste of fruit, they don't like the taste of vegetables. So obviously, getting that feedback from them and understanding that it's something that they enjoy. And I suppose there's a prestige element to it as well, and showing that they've got their nutrition cared for. They're working with quite a cool new brand. It was kind of working with them on the journey.
Felix: When it comes to developing the product that is both effective and meets the taste of your end-user?
Lou: It's incredibly difficult. I think even if you just look at it from a raw manufacturing side of things, when I first started, I must've phoned 50+ companies. No one wanted to take the risk. I think that the concept itself is very much ahead of the innovation curve. It's obviously never been done before. It's a very niche market, so I think from their side, if you're looking at new product development, it would have required a larger time commitment. When I got to speak to one who we still work with to this day, what he said is that they get a lot of people with just ideas. It's a huge time constraint for the manufacturers, so they've got to filter out those who aren't serious and those who actually might actually hit on something new that might take off. It's very tricky to get a product to market that doesn't exist today, so a lot of the larger companies], we couldn't get any traction with. We actually found a smaller manufacturer who eventually we got to take upon us to try an idea. It took just under two years in R&D to bring the product to market. And one of the biggest barriers was the taste profile because obviously we've got specific amounts of nutrients that we need to make the product effective. So it's about putting all of that together and then still making it taste nice without loading it full of sugar as well. So what we did was we got a couple of iterations of the product, and we blind tested them with young athletes themselves, and they picked the best three. We looked at the mass market, we basically copied the flavor variants that McDonald's milkshakes are offered in, so it's vanilla, strawberry, and chocolate.
Felix: What was it about your pitch that convinced the manufacturers to work with you?
Lou: I've had the idea for quite some time and I scoured the market to see if there's anyone doing it already, if it was possible, obviously if it was commercially viable as well. So I think it's the fact that no one's obviously brought this to market. It's a big risk for them, but it's also potentially quite lucrative if we can get it to take off. So I think they saw through that. They saw the drive and the passion on my side, and they took upon based on that.
Managing time and building a reputation from scratch
Felix: When you dove into starting your business full time, what did you spend your first 30 days focused on?
Lou: I think first and foremost, for me it was around ensuring that we can communicate and bring this product together, obviously make it commercially viable, make it safe, and make it something that adds value. Then a lot of time centered and focused on how can we actually get this in front of our target audience? What are the schemes, what are the tactics, what work is it going to require? Where are we going to have to go, what are we going to have to learn? So it was very much planning first, to be fair. And a lot of that you don't actually find out what does or doesn't work until you've actually tried it, failed, come up with a couple of different iterations, and tried different things.
Felix: Were there any moments that you can remember that made you really question if you made the right decision or not?
Lou: I would say following launch, I would say, it took us so long in R&D to actually put the product together when it actually came down to launch. We've never had a marketing budget, the first day when we launched, I think we only got two sales. And it continued dripping through like that for about two or three months until we managed to find what was working. So that was obviously the hardest because you've taken the leap and we don't have any safety net. From a marketing perspective, looking at it from a success perspective, you're not getting very many sales through. But it was understanding that it's not necessarily because the product isn't great. It's more so because we aren't getting enough eyes on the website. We're not promoting it efficiently enough. And the big barrier with our end-user not being the buyer is that there's a big social element and proofing involved in it. Obviously, the parents for a new conception that's never been tried or done before, they want to see it working with other people, so obviously not having the success stories, not having the testimonials, not having the reviews at the start was really difficult. When you're first starting up, you have to start from somewhere. Obviously, you have to start building that. You need a platform from which to build on. So that was very, very tricky for us because we knew we obviously weren't going to go and write fake reviews. We weren't going to make things up. It had to be authentic. It had to be directly from our users, and we had to keep it transparent so that, obviously, we can keep the trust of the parents from the outset.
Felix: What made it easier to convince customers to try out your product for the first time?
Lou: So what I used to do, is to actually travel the country on weekends, and we'd go to large sporting meets. Obviously, we'd have a captive audience. The parents would be there from, say, eight in the morning till four or five o'clock. Then we'd partner with clubs separately and deliver short burst nutrition talks with a little small plug on the product at the end. So that was what we had to do to get the traction, again, because from a digital perspective we didn't have any sort of direction pushing traffic to the website. Once we were able to be there speaking to the parents, getting them to try it with taste tests, they would be pretty much our first 300 to 500 customers. And from that, obviously, they'd be return customers, so they would come to the website. We'd then be able to leverage them for reviews.
Moving from in person sales to online marketing
Felix: Eventually you were able to get to the point where you start investing more in marketing online, how did you drive traffic and customers from Facebook to your products?
Lou: We did events for about a year and a half, until we built the repeat custom enough so that we didn't have to do events. What we did is we thought we'd take a step back, regroup, and we'd start to align this with the original vision, which was to have this business as an outsourced automated architecture and the digital business, because going to events every weekend and the setup and the travel and time involved wasn't scalable. So as soon as we could, we started looking into graphic design, web design, SEO, all of the digital strategies. One of the biggest tools for us, even to this day, was Facebook ads. It's obviously really effective at demonstrating your cost per click. There was obviously AdWords as well. It's all something I've had to channel hours and hours into putting in and trying.
Felix: Starting with Facebook, how do you recommend someone out there get started if they have a limited budget?
Lou: it's really just having some sort of minimal budget, having different ad copies, and then just trying, just getting ads out there, I'd say between two and seven days. Analyze it. Has it worked? Even if it hasn't worked, if you got one or two sales off it, lock in the demographics and then draw the data from that, compile it separately in a spreadsheet, and then you've got the start of something which you can really, really dig into. It took a long time and it's still something that I wouldn't say I'm masterful at. There's obviously a lot of new features that change there, the UI quite a bit. But one of the key things that I figured out how to do which allowed us basically to scale to the moon was to put an automation rule in. The rule was to double the ad budget on occasion, and daily if the ad was performing ahead of KPI, the KPI obviously saying you want your acquisition cost per sale to be between one and three pounds. If that's the case and the ad's performing within that range, then it would automatically double it. There's a lot of things that you can do to obviously make it better. Your copy, obviously, because you're always going to be competing. There will be crossover with other businesses, even if it's not for the same product. And the audience is, obviously, there's a battle of eyeballs. So just really understanding how Facebook wants and needs their users to be enjoying things, and obviously things that don't annoy them, things that are interesting, things that are engaging. So really spending some time understanding, from Facebook's side, what they want their users to see.
Optimizing digital strategies that led to better results
Felix: How do you come up with new advertising angles?
Lou: I suppose it's relative to your product or service. Obviously, whatever it is that you're promoting or selling, you'll have features, you'll have benefits. And some features or benefits will be more relevant to certain audiences than others. So you look at ours as an example, you can go down the convenience route, you can go down the taste route, you can go down the ingredients route. There are obviously lots of different angles that you can push a product, and obviously help people to understand. And the pain points that people have, they will resonate with different ones so you really have to understand what it is that they're looking for.
Felix: What are the goals of your ads that you set up?
Lou: We set ours for conversions, so it'll typically go straight to the home page or product page. There's a lot of UI, a lot of design, a lot of back end psychology that goes into producing your website. Again, I knew absolutely none of this when I first started. There's an app, Crazy Egg, which is really good. They test your front end on your website so that you can kind of move things around, you can look at and understand the way that someone scans a website and a webpage, obviously, what it is that they're looking for, the graphics, the text, and just trying to really get into their mind and understand what it is that they're looking for and how your product best meets or creates a solution for their problem.
Felix: What’s your strategy for Google AdWords?
Lou: There are multiple facets of Google, so obviously you've got your analytics where you can manage everything, which is great for looking at results. But then you've got your merchant center, obviously you've got your reviews, you've got the AdWords component. Again, AdWords is very similar to Facebook in that it is. As the CEO, you have to really learn and understand that this is a full time job for a paid position for someone professional, but it's your role to come in and learn and really understand it. Obviously, not necessarily to the depth or breadth of a paid professional, but at least understanding the elementary basics of it and then being able to understand the difference between long and short term tail keywords, keyword manager. So what you're looking for, key search phrases or similar type of pain points that people are going to be putting into Google to search that will have some sort of relevance so that you're not just directing anyone to your website. Ideally, you want qualified traffic, so those that obviously meet your ideal profile. Again, it's just spending a lot of time learning, playing around, finding what works, and then obviously just trying to repeat what works and just get better with it over time.
Felix: How do you manage organic traffic and search engine optimization?
Lou: If you're looking for free traffic from an SEO perspective, it's looking at the copy that translates onto your website as well. Good, efficient way of doing that, especially for those who are good at what they do and they really understand, not just the product, but the needs and wants of the market is to write blogs, to write forums and post that on their website because indirectly that's going to be getting traffic filtering through your website, obviously including hyperlinks or deep links in there to the product as well. It's very much about understanding some of the key phrases and terminologies that your prospective customers are going to be searching in to obviously look for a product, not necessarily look for a product. Sometimes as well it's just to get a better understanding of a specific concept. So again, if you can understand this you can obviously translate that into the web copy via blog, via forum, something that ideally follows a strategy of adding a lot of value first and then having some sort of deep link or hyperlink over to your product once they're on your page.
Apps and tools that help to optimize operational flow
Felix: Are there any tools that you use to manage Facebook, Adwords, and SEO?
Lou: There's a good website, I think the majority of it's free, called SEMrush. Really good for looking for keywords, looking for bit analysis as well and what customers are typically typing in to Google to look for, and obviously end up on your product page. It's really good for your key web planning as well, so if you are looking to bid on specific keywords on Google for your ads, obviously to get you higher up the rankings, that's really good and I think a lot of it's free as well.
Felix: With heat mapping tools, how did you set up on your site to learn more about your customers?
Lou: It's really understanding what the customer journey is. It's free for a couple of weeks for those who want to try it, and it's relatively inexpensive, but it's a really powerful tool because it allows you to see your website, whether it's on mobile or whether it's on desktop or tablet, it shows you the user journey, it shows you where they're looking, what time they're spending on which sections of the website, what they're reading, what they're not reading, where the clicks are. It gives you a good understanding of what on your front end on your website is actually important and what isn't. What are people reading? What path are they following that actually gets them to checkout? So once you understand that and you've got that data, it allows you to retrospectively construct your website with just what's important for the consumer. All of a sudden you're not finding your way in the dark; you've got an objective result, objective funnels for your user, and you can understand how they interact with your website. And once you know that, you can oversee redesign or put certain elements, or even remove certain elements so that cuts it out and it keeps them ideally in a really, really short, Amazon-esque flow to get them to the checkout.
Felix: How does the pre-ordering work for your site? How do you build up demand for pre-orders?
Lou: The app is on Shopify. It's called Pre-order Now. One of our biggest problems, at the start we didn't have much cash. So we ordered in quite small volumes, which meant our margins are very small. So what we had to do is we had to sell out probably between 80 and 90% of our product before we had enough residual cash to reorder. So our lead times are typically between six and eight weeks, or almost two months, so that potentially meant going that same amount of time or period without having any stock in. Obviously it would generally be of a specific variant of the three that we have. It takes that long because they have to special order in our ingredients with them being so high grade, and also we go through a separate process of batch screening with a company called Informed Sport. Again, a lot of our users are elite athletes, youth athletes, so again, it's kind of an extra layer of assurance for them that there's no banned substances in the product. So because of this, it caused us quite a bit of trouble, so having the capacity because we were constantly oversubscribed, having the pre-order function allowed us to let the customer know real time, "This is how many we've got on order. This is how many available. This is when it's going to be available. If you want to reserve yours now, then you've got the opportunity to do so."
Felix: How has the subscription program worked?
Lou: This is relatively new so we used to have a customer rewards loyalty scheme with a app called Marsello in the backend of Shopify, which basically rewarded customers based on their spend. What we wanted to do was to have a subscription service built into the back end of the website so that it has a lot of benefits for us. And then that obviously would have monthly recurring revenue, but also allows us to have live inventory so we can project at which point based on the current volume when we need to reorder so we can kind of preempt that. It offers a lot of value to the customer as well because they can just set it and leave it. We don't lock them in. We give them full control. If they want to skip an order, if they want to cancel it, if they want to change the flavor, we give them full autonomy over that.
Felix: What would you say is the biggest lesson that you learned last year that you are putting into effect this year?
Lou: Offering value, whether that's just in the form of a blog, whether that's in the form of advice, whether it's giving, because the brand, aside from the product, is also multifaceted. So this feeds back into the fact that we've never really had any sort of marketing budget. We run a free webinar now, which saves us having to go physically to clubs. That's run by our in-house nutritionist, Emmy. We have a good partner scheme where we give quarterly free bundle packs to the clubs in return for affiliation. We also can have sponsored athletes in future programs where we give before, and then obviously that reciprocates in turn because it ends up being inadvertent marketing for us. So it's always to try and give as much value as you can to the customer, obviously understand what the needs are, what's going to add the most value to them, and then obviously only ask once you've provided some sort of value.