FireCreek Snacks was a third-generation brick and mortar butcher shop when Dustin Riechmann discovered it during a shopping trip. Drawn to its taste and story, Dustin pitched the idea of helping the business move into the ecommerce space to reach more customers. In This episode of Shopify Masters, Dustin shares lessons from how the company moved online, escaped bankruptcy, and found ideal partnerships for expansion.
For the full transcript of this episode, click here.
- Store: Firecreek Snacks
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: Loox (Shopify app), Bold Subscriptions (Shopify app), One Click Upsell (Shopify app), Postscript (Shopify app)
Discovering a company by chance, Investing in it by choice
Felix: You discovered FireCreek Snacks already at the brick-and-mortar shop. Tell us about your journey with the business.
Dustin: It was 2018, and it was a really interesting time in my life because I had just left an 18 year engineering career. I had always been in engineering consulting, but I was wanting to try some different things. I had numerous online businesses and side hustles, and I finally pulled the trigger in 2018.
I was looking for new opportunities, working with some local clients, some online clients and doing some marketing consulting. I was in a new butcher shop in our hometown in Edwardsville, Illinois, doing some shopping with my wife, checking out some of the selections. We got some hamburgers, and I found this bag of jerky–and it said FireCreek Jerky. It caught my eye because it had a really cool logo and I was into branding. So, I bought it and it was really good. I flipped it around and saw that it was actually made in Jerseyville, Illinois, which startled me because that was actually my hometown. I grew up there until I was 10 years old and then moved away. It's a very small farm town, about 75,000 people. It was really bizarre for me to see that this package was from Jerseyville.
I did a little research, and found out that the butcher shop was based in Jerseyville, Illinois also, even though it had a different brand name. I reached out and met the owner of this butcher shop and discovered that he also owned this, it was called FireCreek Jerky at that point.
We got to talking and I actually ended up working with him, his name is Ryan Hansen, to market his brick-and-mortar butcher shops. That was our first engagement there in 2018.
Felix: You mentioned a history of online businesses and side hustles. Were there successes and failures in your previous ventures that you transferred over to FireCreek Snacks?
Dustin: My very first online business still exists, it's called engagedmarriage.com. That's something I did with my wife. It was really growing out of our relationship and the things that we were doing through our church. It’s more of a creative outlet. Eventually, we started creating digital products. We have a membership site there. More with regards to the digital side of online marketing and blogging. That's been a big part of my history and kind of where I learned a lot. We wrote a book, did a lot of live presentations and keynotes.
Again, that's still active. It's more of a passive part of my life at this point. I started in 2009 but really it became something significant around 2015 when I started learning about digital marketing, going to conferences, doing online training and got a lot more sophisticated in how we were handling that business.
Aside from that, I've done all kinds of different side hustles. I used to buy golf clubs locally, clean them up and I became an eBay power seller back in the day. Then I had shin splints one time from training for a marathon, so I came up with this way to get rid of the shin splints pain and I ended up doing a YouTube video on that and it went viral, and a business grew out of that, where I was selling these treatment kits. Ice bags, foam rollers, et cetera.
What I developed through those years was an eye for opportunities and that's a mindset. I do a lot of business coaching now, mostly online. A lot of what we try to unpack is what's the true opportunity that you are passionate about and who do you actually want to serve, because there's an infinite number of things you could do, so you might as well choose something that you want to do.
I did a lot of these random businesses, things that were all based on my own life experiences. It culminated in FireCreek and there's been a lot more success with FireCreek, but I think there's no way that would've happened had I not had this wide variety of experience over the last 12 years.
An idea is worth pursuing–and a risk worth taking
Felix: It sounds like you really built out this methodology. How do you know when it’s time to decide to step back and decide whether you should keep pursuing something, or try a different avenue?
Dustin: I 100% believe in trying lots of different things. That's a quality I've really tried to instill in our three kids–to try to help them be entrepreneurial. It's a big mantra. A lot of things culminated in my life around 2018. I quit my job. I was getting in better shape and doing keto, and that was part of the reason I had an eye for these healthier meat snacks. With leaving my job, I was trying to do that for three years, and I finally came to the realization that leaving my engineering job was not a permanent decision.
I had put so much of my identity in it. I had a master's degree in it, and I had a successful career. It seemed really crazy to me to leave that and become self-employed. What I finally figured out–and I guess I had my own epiphany moment–was “hey, you know what? If I go and I do my own thing, and I have some other businesses, and I suck at it, I can just go back and do engineering. This is not a permanent decision.” It took a lot of pressure off my shoulders.
For anyone who's thinking about starting a business or maybe they have a business and they're not sure if they want to go full force into it, that's a healthy mindset. You can try things without this permanence and heaviness that it's all or nothing. A few decisions in life are permanent, but almost no decisions in life are actually permanent.
"You can try things without this permanence and heaviness that it's all or nothing. A few decisions in life are permanent, but almost no decisions in life are actually permanent."
Felix: You mentioned that you’ve gotten better over time at knowing a good opportunity when you see on. Can you tell us more about that?
Dustin: I'm inherently a problem solver. That's my engineering background, it really helps with that. I can typically see the end result and then the steps to get there. That helps me be a good business coach. It helps me sell snack sticks. It helps in a lot of ways. When I say “eye for opportunity,” a great example is last year my kids were home from school during the pandemic, and they were bored and we couldn't go anywhere, they said, "We want to be able to make money." I'm like, "Well, just think about some ways you could do that." They considered some services around our neighborhood. They talked about picking up dog waste, they talked about a few different things. I helped them think through that. What's the opportunity here and is this something you'd want to do? What would your hourly rate be?
Two of my kids decided they were going to do a trash can cleaning business. They did that, and did really well. They did that last summer and got through everyone in the neighborhood who wanted that service. This year, I said, "Hey, now we've got a customer list. You've got people that really love what you did last year. We've got their testimonials. Do you guys want to do it again?" Sure. I helped them post in a neighborhood Facebook group, they made flyers and expanded and now they do egress windows, because I told them, "Well, when you start meeting your neighbors and you do a good job, they're going to tip you, they're going to want you to do other jobs, they're going to want you to weed their gardens, they're going to want you to do these egress window clean outs." To me that's just an eye for opportunity. People drive around our neighborhood all the time. There's dirty trash cans, and this is the first time I've ever heard of anyone doing this kind of service.
It's just this idea that opportunity is everywhere. Everyone's got problems to solve, everyone's got life experiences that put them one step ahead of someone in a given path. Those are opportunities for businesses and opportunities to serve people.
Taking your idea to reality: Executing on your ambitions
Felix: So you mentioned being a natural problem solver, identifying the problems. How do you go about identifying the right solution for it? Talk to us about those two components a little bit.
Dustin: There’s limitless numbers of problems to solve. It really comes down to this intersection of what your skills are, what you're passionate about, and what your experience makes you excited to pursue. My kids aren't necessarily excited about cleaning trash cans, and there are life circumstances to consider. They can't drive yet, this was during the shutdowns, there were not a lot of other opportunities. They had a really nice set of boundaries, controls that said okay, you have a very limited thing that you can do. Now within that, what are the opportunities? We looked at neighborhood services. For me, I'm probably not the best to answer the question of how do you find the right opportunities because it has become problematic, right? It's easy for me to take on too much because I'm like, "Oh, that sounds exciting, and that's exciting." I can sometimes have too many projects going on at the same time.
Whenever I coach other people, almost all of them start off doing something based on their own life experience, right? Say I've been coaching a client who does online coaching for women with chronic illnesses. Why is that? Why that opportunity? Well, it's because it was her life story. She had juvenile diabetes when she was 17. She's had two organ transplants, and she's come through that with this attitude that that's her reality, but she still gets to choose her future.
We honed in on that and that's the opportunity. Once you define something you're really passionate about, you've got experience in it and it's something you can really help people with, that's the perfect combination of problems and solutions. For me, FireCreek was an excellent opportunity because I was eating keto, low carb. My kids have gluten intolerances. One kid has a food allergy. I'm a label reader. It was a local brand, it was from my hometown, and it had this amazing opportunity in the sense that it was only sold locally at the time that I found it, and I had the ability to partner and bring it online. There's a lot of factors there that made FireCreek an opportunity that was really worth my time.
Felix: I like that you mentioned an important consideration, which is: who are you trying to serve? A lot of people can overlook this aspect. How do you make sure you’re focusing on that, and not the other part, which is: how do you get customers and make money?
Dustin: When it comes to identifying your audience, it typically comes pretty naturally. It's the people that you like to serve, the ones that give you energy. It's often people that you're a few steps ahead of in the journey if you're doing coaching or consulting–services. Most people gravitate towards a niche based on their own life experiences.
In FireCreek we have many different audiences. They're not all going to be my best friend, but there are certain ones where, if I'm going to partner with them, be it on promotion, on their podcast, or their email list, it's going to be because that particular segment or target audience is someone that gets me excited. It’s someone that I know I can serve well based on my own personal experience.
Follow what ignites your passions
Felix: Is it just a matter of considering, “would I be excited to work with this person?”
Dustin: Yes. I’ll give you an example, let’s say it's a business coaching client. I can look at the surface level and see what they do. Is it something I believe in? I don't want to do something that would contradict deeply held personal beliefs. In those cases, my first step is always a free consultation call. Some people might think it’s a sales call to get someone to sign on as a client. It's the exact opposite. It's a transparent conversation. I want to understand their goals, their beliefs, their life experiences. How they're trying to serve and who they're trying to serve because I want to be a really good partner for them if I'm going to do something as deep as business coaching. It's more of a screening process to see if we're compatible. It's not as serious as a romantic relationship, but when it comes to those types of relationships it's like dating, right? You have to see if your personalities jive, and if you're a good fit.
That's true to a 10X level when it comes to business partnerships. We were talking about promotional partners or coaching clients. Those are important. You need to know that you're compatible and that you can really serve that person, but if you have a business partnership, like I have with Ryan, and I've had a couple in the past, that's much more like a marriage. It's a pretty high level of engagement. It requires a lot of trust and communication. It's the more mature, deeper version of some of these surface level relationships.
Felix: You also mentioned that you’re cultivating entrepreneurship in your children. What recommendations do you have for others about introducing children to entrepreneurship?
Dustin: It’s setting that example for them. In my case, it was fairly extreme. I went from being gone all the time working to being home all the time, doing my own thing. They're very used to me saying, "All right, I'm going to be in my office doing a call. Please watch the dog." They see how that works in a practical day-to-day sense. It's really about trying to cultivate their natural skills and interest.
I talked about my two kids cleaning trash cans. I have three kids. The middle one had no interest in that at all. Was I going to force her to go clean trash cans? No. My oldest is my only son, and then my youngest daughter, they're both very hands-on people. They like to be outside, they like to get dirty, they like to fish. That was a good fit for them. My middle daughter is very artistic. She's not the type that you would talk to and think, "Oh, she's entrepreneurial." However, heading into the holidays last year she got really into calligraphy and hand lettering. I said, "This is awesome. Do you mind if you do a few samples and I could post them online, on Facebook and some friends and family and see for Christmas gift tags or custom things for Christmas gifts." She got super excited about that. For her it's less about the money, it's more about people wanting to see her stuff. She's 14 years old. She got a lot of business. She was very busy heading up to Christmas. A lot of custom gift tags and things like that.
That was just meeting her where she's at. The chances she goes on to be a business person and an entrepreneur, probably low. It could be, but she loves art. Artists can certainly be entrepreneurs. I was really proud of her and really proud of that connection that she made, recognizing that her art has intrinsic value but it also has a market value if you put it out there and have some confidence in yourself.
Felix: It goes back to the concept of considering who you’re serving. Have you ever made that mistake, where you got sidetracked by considering where the biggest profit was, and not where your innate skills and interests can take you?
Dustin: Yeah. An example of that was when I was working in engineering–I was good at it. It was a good job. It was something I was very proud of. I was a partner in the engineering firm, it was a privately held company. In a sense it was a bit entrepreneurial, but I realized after a certain amount of time I was no longer challenged. I wasn't feeling day-to-day.
It wasn't about the money, so maybe that's where I'm a little bit unique. I'm probably not the type of guy who's going to go be a CEO at a large company, wear the suit, and do the nine-to-five thing. I wouldn’t go that route, even if it was big money. I'm much more driven by doing things I enjoy, where I feel like I'm serving people. I have freedom and I have the ability to have almost unlimited upside in what I do, but it's not going to be about a big quick payoff. I tend to attract clients that are also more purpose driven. It’s funny, because people would look externally at what I most visibly do–which is FireCreek–and they could say, "Well, you just sell snack sticks. You sell snack sticks online." What you don't see in that is the customer service, the passion, the going and sampling, being part of families' lives that are trying to eat better, and kids with food allergies.
We're doing a lot with snack sticks that you don’t see if you just walk in and see it on a shelf at a gas station. There's a lot more behind the brand than that, and that's important to me. That's part of the reason that FireCreek is one of the main things I do. It's because it's much more than just a snack stick.
That's my mindset. If you would've asked me 10 years ago. I did a lot of side hustles and things that just happened or they were opportunities. It was a way to make some extra money, pay off some debt, and help put food in my kids' mouths when my wife decided to stay home from work. I was doing things out of necessity. You can do that for a while, you can grind through that for six months or a year, but for me I found that once I realized there's a lot of other opportunities, I might as well be more conscious about what I take on, and enjoy it.
I'll be 42 soon. I feel like I'm at a point in my life where I've done the grind and I've done that stuff. I don't need to do that anymore. I want to do things that really make me excited to get up in the morning and allow me to have really cool relationships. That's another thing that I've come to really value the past several years, is the relationships. Whether it's a business partnership, a promotional partnership, or with a client, It's important to me to like the people I'm working with on a regular basis.
The foundation for creating successful partnerships in business
Felix: Is the relationship aspect something that comes very naturally to you?
Dustin: It comes pretty easy for me now. 25 year old Dustin, probably not. I was trying to make as much per hour as I could doing engineering work and working overtime. A lot of the way this happens is people have a story. They have done something that they are passionate about but they don't have the business foundation worked out yet, right?
The health coach example. She's had a personal experience. She's worked with numerous people and people have paid her money, but how do you take that and make it an actual business? There's a difference between having a hobby or having something you're passionate about and having a business. To make it a business it has to have a systematic way to get leads–clients–and systems in place to take care of those clients. A lot of time that's the piece I fill in. People come to me usually when they feel stuck. They say, “I've made some progress, I've got what I think is a really good business–or at least a good business idea–but how do I actually make this a consistent thing? How do I get it out there? How do I market it and find high quality leads that I know I'm going to love working with?”
That’s the harder part. You can answer what you’re passionate about, but there are some things you can be passionate about that would never be a business. Finding the intersection of something you're passionate about and something that has market value is two steps. Then step three is actually making it into a business that is going to give you whatever income and freedom that you personally desire. That's the customization part. That's the best part of being an entrepreneur and being able to create these opportunities for yourself.
Felix: I want to go back to your discovery of FireCreek Jerky. You discovered the brand, contacted the owner. Tell us about what happened after you established contact.
Dustin: In hindsight it’s really interesting to see how the dots got connected. I met Ryan. We hit it off. We're similar in age, similar in family, similar in values. Grew up in the same hometown, even though we didn't know each other at all. I was two years ahead of him and I moved out when I was 10.
He had this jerky brand. He had some partners in that. For a couple years they'd been trying to get some local distribution. It never really got any traction. It was a very difficult product to make consistently. He was trying to do an all natural jerky with no sugar added. It was difficult and it was expensive. He was getting frustrated with that. He knew the flavors that he had developed were amazing, and he wanted to put them into a snack stick format.
For your listeners that aren't familiar, traditionally when people think of a snack stick, they’d think of a Slim Jim. We're anti Slim Jim in the sense that we're craft, with all natural ingredients. It's very different, but that's the format of the snack. He was making that transition. His partners at that time were not really interested in being on that ride, and so he was getting out of that. He was at this point of transition where he had just taken over his family business full-time–the butcher shops–and he had this brand that he believed in but knew it needed a change, a pivot. That's around the time I started working with him on his marketing.
We started collaborating in late 2018. Another big belief of mine is that you lead and give other people wins as much as and as early on as possible. He was paying me for the marketing for the brick-and-mortar. I said, "Hey, I would love to work with you on this FireCreek thing. I'll help you rebrand it as FireCreek snacks, because it's not going to be just the jerky anymore. I will build the website." I built the Shopify site in 2018, all for free. I said, "We'll work it out. If the online sales start to come, you can give me a percentage of those. We can come to an agreement." That was the origin of all of this, was basically me working for free. I knew it was going to be a great product. I knew that it would have legs online. Ryan believed that too, but he had only done local business, so he did not have the skills or the ability to get it online. He didn’t know where to start.
It was really great timing for both of us. In 2019, we started selling online. It was a slow, steady grind as far as the sales on Shopify, but we actually jumped into wholesale in 2019 as well, so selling into other brick-and-mortars. We got into a bunch of golf courses. Ryan and I traveled to a dozen trade shows in 2019. We were gone a lot, going to as many trade shows as possible. I know I've given 5,000 people toe to toe samples. That did a lot of things for the company. It got us some sales, it got us some placement as far as being in different brick-and-mortars throughout the country. It gave us a lot of personal credibility, validation and confidence.
It wasn’t just us. Every person that tasted it was like, "Oh my gosh. This is amazing." It also gave us some objections that we knew we had to overcome, and it gave us the bullet points that you'll find on our website now. What do people actually care about? You find that out really quickly when you're standing in front of them, and you've just convinced them to try something they didn't want to try because they think it's like the other brands out there, and then you see their eyes light up.
We saw our target audience completely differently. It was expensive, it was time consuming, it was stressful. I'm an introvert, so it was very tiring to be 12 hours standing on a trade show floor talking to people and getting their feedback, but I don't think that we would do it any other way. That was baptism by fire, immersion into client or customer research and development.
Through all that we learned we've changed all our packaging and messaging. The brand has evolved. It was a year of torture in some ways but it was also very exciting. Then heading into 2020, we had continually grown our online sales, but everyone knows in 2020 what happened when COVID hit.
We're already focusing on growing our online sales based on all that we had learned at these trade shows, and a lot of people started being more comfortable with selling online. We had a huge spike in our online business, but we were well positioned for it because of our experience in 2019.
Getting vital product feedback from unexpected places
Felix: You mentioned that you were able to determine what objections customers had from these trade shows as well. What did you discover through sampling and how did you adjust your marketing around it?
Dustin: The number one was the need for education in our market. The massive problem we face is what I mentioned earlier, it's not just some traditional Jim Slim or Jack Link's. People have this memory of picking them up at a gas station and then having a headache because it has MSG, soy, or different food allergens. That's the reaction that we got way more than we would've ever expected.
We went to the PGA Merchandise Show. It was our very first trade show, in January 2019. We had no idea what we were doing. It was very expensive. We flew down there with a ton of samples. We expected golf pros. That's who we were thinking about as our customer at this show, because we wanted them to sample and then sell them at their golf shop or on the course.
They were there, of course. A lot of middle-aged men, and we thought, "Hey, we sell meat snacks. These middle-aged men are going to like meat snacks." And that was true. What we didn't expect was the moms and kids who came along to the trade shows. They would come by, I’d give them a sample and be like, "Hey, I know your four year old daughter would love this teriyaki stick." They would just look at us like we're crazy, like, "Oh, we don't eat that stuff." In their mind it was unhealthy, full of junk, and would have a bad texture, then they wouldn't be able to get the film off their mouth. That's the experience people have had with meat snacks in the past. That's the number one objection: “I'm just not going to like it. I can't eat that. I can't have soy, I can't have gluten, I can't have MSG.” All the stuff that's in these traditional impulse snacks.
The health things were a big objection, but even bigger than that was the fact that people just assumed they wouldn't like it. They assumed they wouldn't like the taste and texture. They assumed it was like a gas station snack. We originally thought that was our customer because that's the traditional demographic that's been targeted in this market. What we very quickly discovered is that those people will eat it but they only care about taste. Then there's the people who would only eat something uber clean who don't care about taste at all. There's other products in our category that are really, really, really clean. All grass-fed beef, Whole30 approved, but in my opinion their taste and texture is just not good.
What we learned was that we needed to lead with the taste, because people don't care about the health claims if it tastes horrible. We're not at a national health symposium. We're at a trade show with golf people and families. Once we convince them that it's going to taste good, all I have to do is get them to try a bite. Now they're convinced that this actually tastes awesome, the texture is really good, and it’s different. Now the exciting part is “okay mom, I want you to look at this carton, at the nutrition facts. There's no five syllable words, there's no dairy, wheat, soy.” All these major food allergens that parents are dealing with out there. There's no gluten. The clean ingredients become a super bonus. Not only do these taste good, but I can actually feel good sending them to my kid in their lunchbox or to baseball games because they don't have allergens in them.
That's the big message. On our website you'll see “exceptional taste, clean ingredients.” That's the two phrase summary of how we market. People care a lot about taste, but they also value clean ingredients. That's what we learned. Now we know, after looking back two years after that, 65-70% of the people that order from us online are female. They may be eating them themselves, they may be buying them for their family, their kids, or their husband. Women are the primary grocery buyer in most households. If you would've told me that in early 2019 that women would be out primary buys I would've thought you're crazy. Most people assume our audience is all male and it's actually not at all. It's primarily female, which is something we would've never guessed had we not been through these different experiences.
Product development: Creating the whole package
Felix: How has your packaging evolved over time?
Dustin: Our initial packaging was as cheap as you can get. It was just plastic with stickers for the different flavors. Similar to the stuff that Ryan sold in his meat shop, a family looking old fashioned type of label. When I got involved and it became FireCreek Snacks, we're still using stickers because stickers are just a cheaper way to do packaging, not on a per unit basis, but the startup cost to go beyond stickers is pretty high.
Then we realized it was time to go to a fully printed film–which is what we use now. It's a much more premium look. It gives you a ton of surface area to put messaging on, front and back. If you flip over the back on one of our snack sticks, you’ll find the ingredients and nutrition panel on the stick itself. Once we knew we were headed that way, we wanted to update the messaging. If you look at our sticks and the cartons that are on display at a store, they're very bold colors. We want people to understand there's now four different flavors and that they are very different flavors. They have food imagery on them. I'm looking at our sweet heat barbecue. It's got a barbecue sauce, some peppers, and it looks like an all natural food. If you didn't know what was in the box you would never guess it's a snack stick. It's also got all the claims that people actually care about–the health claims. It says gluten-free. That's a big objection in our space. Seven grams of protein, because we primarily get a lot of high protein, low sugar type people. It could be keto, it could just be people who don't like to eat a lot of sugar. No MSG, no soy.
The other thing you might notice is that it's a product from the USA. That's a big differentiator in our space. A lot of our more clean competitors who are using grass-fed beef, come from Argentina, Tasmania and New Zealand. Then of course a lot of people get their packaging supplies overseas for cost. We're pretty proud of the fact that we're a Midwest US company. We currently only sell in the US. We'll expand eventually, but the product coming from the USA is another thing that we found was important to people, and it's important to Ryan and I personally. That's also featured on our packaging.
Felix: What approach did you take when developing the packaging? How did you test what would work well?
Dustin: One of the basic things we would do is get prototypes of the cartons and things that would be on display in brick-and-mortar stores. There's a fancy name for it, a visual acuity test or something. We would go into a local retailer, grocery store, and we would put it on the shelf next to the competitors and then step away. We’d ask others whether it stands out? What's the first thing you notice? Does it look different than the things next to it? That's really helpful at the carton level, the display level. We also have a floor display that some retailers will tak. It's got those health claims front and center right on there too. It's got our logo up top, which looks like a big flame, so it catches your eye. On the sticks themselves, like what people would see on our website, the visuals there. The thing that most people notice is the significant difference in each package based on the color.
That was a crowdsource, basically It's asking. We had the benefit of having two brick-and-mortar stores. Ryan could put stuff out and ask people for feedback. Same thing when we're developing new flavors. He is a meat genius. I didn't mention, he's a third-generation owner of this family business. He's done this his whole life. He's really, really good at it. I value his opinion highly. The best thing you can do, whether it's trying out a different packaging or trying out a different flavor, is have real people buy it in actual stores and then get their feedback on the spot.
We're not super sophisticated in the sense of doing big market studies. We are much more hands-on. We like to let people try things and give us immediate feedback. We press them to be honest, because people tend to try to be too kind.
I mentioned we're on our fourth generation of packaging. I hope it's our last for a long time, because if people are not familiar with consumer packaged goods, when you're getting the individual stick packaging, and the cartons, and then we've got cases that hold the cartons. We've got this floor display. It’s all very expensive to do the initial run. You get plates made, and it costs thousands of dollars to get one of these things made. After that initial investment the per unit cost is actually much cheaper than doing it the way we did previously. The fully printed film is very efficient, but it's expensive to set up.
The other thing with our product is it's USDA inspected. Because it's a meat product and it goes over state lines, our manufacturing partners have USDA inspectors on site, federally inspected. It's got that on the packaging, but that also means all of our nutrition facts are verified and certified. It's also a slow process. Our fourth flavor, and newest is sweet heat barbecue. We have the original, which is like a jerky flavor. We have kicker, which is a spicy version of that. And then have teriyaki, which is our most popular.
We started developing that last year. We had the recipe, we knew exactly what we wanted last February, and then COVID happened. The USDA approval took like seven months. Then we had delays in getting materials. There was a plastic shortage this year because of supply chain issues. We ended up releasing it in March, 2021. It took over a year to get that from knowing exactly what we wanted to actually having it in our hands. It's a tough process if you're trying to make changes.
Spending thousands on paid ads—with nothing to show for it
Felix: Speaking of things that can kill your business, you mentioned that you had a bad experience with an agency when it came to paid ads, that could have had detrimental effects. Tell us more about that.
Dustin: This was a major lesson learned. At the very beginning of 2019 we're doing this trade show and then we're going to the next trade show, and the next trade show. We realized quickly that we're getting overextended on our wholesale business. It's tough, it's going to take time, and the profit margins aren't very good. Of course we wanted to get more online business. I should mention, there is a period here where I'm working for free. I'm advising, helping Ryan. I'm doing online marketing, but I had no part in the business.
He had a friend of a friend who had an agency, and they were very good people, but they were very expensive. For their thousands of dollars of fees they wanted to immediately spend a ton of money on Facebook Ads to justify their fees. They're used to working with big brands and things like that, and this is very much the startup stage.
Again, this is all Ryan's decision. I'm not blaming him, I didn't complain too hard, but I was like, "This might be pretty risky." In that first quarter of 2019, while we're busy traveling and doing other stuff, he says, "Okay, new agency, do your thing." They never did get a positive ROAS. It was four months that he was paying their fees plus losing money on the ads. We got sales, but it was not nearly enough to justify it. Yeah, that was basically coming out of Ryan's bank account at that point, and it was not an exaggeration to say it almost bankrupted things. It was a big mistake.
Then it opened up an opportunity for me in a sense because he was kind of like, "Oh no, this is not going well." I was able to buy in and become a partner in that second quarter of 2019, and have since increased my equity to where we're nearly equal partners now. Again, I don't really believe in coincidences. It was like well, this was really painful, but it opened his eyes into the value of having a partner onboard. At that point I had been traveling, and selling, getting the online sales that we had without those ads organically, and then he could see the value of what I was doing. It culminated in a really good opportunity for both of us, but it was definitely painful and very stressful.
Felix: What about today? Do you invest in any paid acquisition now?
Dustin: We do. We always have. After that experience I basically handled it. We've always done retargeting, basic things to get our product back in front of people that had been to our site or abandoned carts. That's always very profitable. In the last three months or so we've engaged with a much smaller agency. We're not quite hitting the goals that we established with them, but their fees aren't nearly as high to overcome and they're very high communication with us. We talk weekly. They take my input seriously.
We're going to stick with that route. We're not spending a ton. Our primary marketing channel is partnerships. We can talk about that if you'd like. I think people would probably find it interesting, all the ways that we've grown our online business for free, without paying for ads.
Podcasts: The future of business networking
Felix: What are your greatest tips for building and managing partnerships?
Dustin: Basically just getting your brand and product in front of someone else's audience, in a way that's mutually beneficial. It's the most basic thing, right? I'll come back to podcasts, because what we're doing right now is one of those channels. It's definitely the biggest for me personally because I love listening to podcasts, and I like being on podcasts. Some other things that we've done to open people's minds is we've been featured in a lot of different subscription boxes. The financials of that can be handled in different ways, but if we're in a box of keto snacks, that's a really good way for us to get in front of a highly qualified customer, usually for free or maybe with a donation of some product.
I've done things like getting email features from people in related industries that aren't competitors. An example of that would be I have a coaching client who is in the barbecue space–he's a brand ambassador. He creates content with grilling and smoking meat. The people on his email list like meat and they like smoked meat, and ours are made with real hickory smoke. People who like that flavor really like our product. So, I said, "Hey, if you'll do an honest review, take some photos and send it to your email list I'll give you a discount code so that they win, you win. I'll give you some direct payment for sponsoring your post." That's a partnership. I got in front of a highly qualified audience. It was a win for him, it was a win for us, and our ROI on that was great, even though we did spend some money. I've done lots of other giveaways with smaller people or people that aren't quite as targeted where there's no money involved, instead you’re just giving them some product to try out and review.
That's a really basic partnership, but the primary thing that I focus on is getting in front of other people's audiences. That could be a YouTube review or interview, it could be an Instagram live. I'm doing that with some keto influencers in about a week. We're going to do a giveaway, and they're going to promote it through their Instagram–for free–just because they like me. It came about because I was on their podcast, and we've developed a relationship. The major thing that anyone listening would be familiar with is podcasts.
If you have a good story and something of value that you can offer to an audience, it's a great long format opportunity. We talked for nearly an hour. These people will know the brand story, understand what the product's about, the pains we've been through, the accomplishments we've had. A lot of people will just want to try it just to support a small business and because they would like to eat this way too. That could be in a business podcast or an e-commerce podcast. I've been on gluten-free mom shows. I've been on several keto related podcasts. In any audience there is our customer. Some portion of that audience is someone who likes to eat a tasty, clean, protein snack, or they have kids that like tasty snacks.
For people listening and thinking about this, there’s an aspect of direct sales. I can give a coupon code today and hopefully some people will go buy some snacks. That's awesome. That makes it worthwhile on its own, but it goes so much deeper than that. The reason this is so much better–in my opinion–than Facebook Ads is it's long format, yes, but great relationships come out of our recording. Now Felix and I know each other. He may know another brand that I should talk to, a Facebook agency, or a potential partner. There's lots of people listening and maybe they have a brand, a Shopify store, that they think would like to sell our product as a wholesaler. Or they're a distributor, or they know someone.
This literally happened to me. I met the lead snacks buyer for protein at Walmart because someone heard me on a podcast. The cool thing about being in front of a reasonable size audience of people who are ambitious is they all either do things themselves or they know people. I'll hopefully get emails, we'll make connections. I'll have Zoom calls with people, and get to meet a lot of cool people.
The past two years, the best business relationships I've had have been because I've been on a podcast and someone resonated with some part of my story and reached out. I always give my email address. I'm very open to opportunities. The more technical thing is it's great for SEO, because there'll be backlinks from different websites if you're on their show. It gives you a lot of credibility. I've been on over 20 podcasts, and it adds legitimacy to the brand.
A lot of the coaching I do with business people is getting their business dialed in and ready, then helping them get on other people's platforms to benefit their business. I have a health coach. We can find podcasts to talk about chronic pain, chronic illness, and get her on there because she has a lot of value and her story is extremely touching. But you don't want to get on there until you're ready and you have a call to action, and you have a business purpose.
Anyone listening who's got a Shopify store, if you sell a product or do services in this area, there are some podcasts that you should target and prepare to try to get in front of those audiences and serve them. Do a really good job and then you'll see the returns, plus it's a lot of fun, and it's a lot better than spending thousands of dollars on Facebook agencies.
Felix: You mentioned that you have a discount code you want to share with our listeners?
Dustin: Yeah, absolutely. So, the store is just firecreeksnacks.com and the coupon code is Shopify. If you've been through the Shopify checkout–I'm sure everyone on here is familiar with the Shopify checkout–It'll take 15% off your order. I'd love to get some snacks in people's hands and get their feedback.
Integrating the Shopify checkout experience into your website
Felix: Speaking of the website, I noticed you had a unique landing page. Tell us about the design decisions behind your site's landing page.
Dustin: Some people think this is clever, some think it's cringey. It's just how it happened. If you go to firecreeksnacks.com, it’s actually a WordPress site. I'm very adept at WordPress and I can do the landing pages and those types of things. Then when you click buy now or shop, it takes you to shop.firecreeksnacks.com, which is a subdomain. From there, you’re on the Shopify site. One of the reasons it looks different is that the main homepage is not actually Shopify. It works really well. It's a simple page. It's our main website. It has the landing page you mentioned, it's got nutrition facts, and it's got a review section to see all the different testimonials and a contact form. Any time you click anything on that site that says shop, you're now immediately on the Shopify store page, which probably looks more like a traditional Shopify store, with all the products and product detail pages below. It's worked out really well.
Our conversion rate is 10 to 12%, which is really high. That's skewed because not all of our traffic makes it to Shopify, but once people get to Shopify they're very highly converting. It's something I may modify in the future, but that's how it ended up and it's worked really well, so I haven't changed it.
Felix: Are there any particular tools or apps that you rely on to help run the business?
Dustin: Some of those testimonials are from an app called Loox. That's basically our testimonial review capture tool. It’s an app on Shopify that automatically prompts people two weeks after their order, to come back and leave a review. If they leave an image or video in that review, then they get a coupon code for 20% off. It incentivizes people to leave good reviews.
I only started collecting those maybe last October or something, and I think we're over nearly 400. It's not a ton, but it's a huge improvement over zero. You can see it in the Shopify portion of the site and that homepage site, and also when we run promotions and have landing pages I always have a bunch of those reviews on there with real people. That helps a lot for me to get that education piece. When people see it's a mom or it's a kid eating the snack stick, like oh wait, this is different than what I think of when I think of snack sticks. It's kind of an instant way to not only give credibility but qualify people.
We use bold subscriptions. Subscriptions are a significant part of our business. When people buy they usually get a sampler pack the first time through, and then what they do is subscribe and save. They save additional money and get regular shipments.
I'm right in the process of adding one click upsell. We've had tons of success and I've done digital marketing for all these years. We have never even had an upsell on the site, which is a huge opportunity lost. So, we're adding that in. The other thing we're adding this month is Postscript, which is an SMS marketing tool. We've also not been collecting SMS. We do a lot of email marketing–and email marketing is our primary revenue driver from our existing customers–but definitely excited to get into SMS.
Felix: What would you say has been the biggest lesson you've learned over the last year that you're now applying moving forward?
Dustin: My biggest lesson in business is that partnerships are everything. I described several levels and several types of partnerships. When I say partnership, it's not necessarily a formal partnership. It's the win-win scenario, right? If you can provide value to someone, it's inevitable that that's going to come back to you. I describe that as a partnership. In business there's lots of ways that those can come about, but that's my number one lesson. I'm always on the lookout for great partnerships, new relationships, new friendships, new mastermind counterparts. I love to learn and I love to give and help people with the experiences that I've had.