Trial and error is an unavoidable part of the product development process. But 3D printing technology has given entrepreneurs a faster way to iterate and improve upon their product ideas.
In this episode of Shopify Masters, you’ll learn from an entrepreneur who 3D printed prototypes of his products before approaching manufacturers, an approach that greatly sped up testing and iterating times with his manufacturer.
Alex Commons is the founder of Bulat Kitchen: incredibly sharp, beautiful, and premium blade for a non-premium price.
We ended up making probably 15 different 3D printed models before it was all said and done and we had the one we liked.
Tune in to learn
- How to use 3D printing to prototype your product
- How to know what kind of educational content your customers care about
- How to craft a pitch to a PR outlet
Listen to the podcast below (or download it for later):
- Store: Bulat Kitchen
- Social Profiles: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram
- Recommendations: Ubersuggest(tool) , 3D Hubs, Narrative (Shopify theme) , Ingram Micro (3PL), MailChimp, ShipWire (Shopify app) , Order Desk (Shopify app)
Felix: Today, I’m joined by Alex Commons from Bulat Kitchen. Bulat Kitchen creates incredibly sharp, beautiful and premium blades for a non-premium price. It was started in 2016 and based out of Ottawa. Welcome, Alex.
Alex: Hey, Felix. How’s it going?
Felix: Good, good. Thanks so much. I explained very briefly in the introduction about your product. Tell us a little bit more about the customer. Who is the ideal customer behind that will purchase your products?
Alex: The philosophy behind the brand is to get good kitchen knives into more people’s hands. A lot of people have rubbish kitchen knives, so we wanted to change that to as much of an extent as we could. A lot of really good, high-quality kitchen knives have good, expensive steel and the markup that goes along with traditional retail multiplies that factor. We wanted to kind of go direct to consumer, trying to get better chef knives and kitchen knives into more people’s hands. So really, anyone from a chef to your mom could be an ideal customer.
Felix: Yeah, so give us a lay of the land in terms of what’s out there. Can you give us an idea or tell us how much … What are the prices for your products and what are the prices of competitors?
Alex: Yeah, so kitchen knives in general, you get the full range from dollar store knife for literally a dollar, all the way up to custom made, multi-thousands of dollars for truly incredible work, but it’s more of an art piece, and something that is … They are genuinely fantastic but that’s not for most people.
Felix: Mm-hmm (affirmative)
Alex: Our product is $120 US. It’s priced within reach of your average consumer. Most people are willing to spend that on a nice tool for the kitchen or a good appliance, something that makes the cooking experience more enjoyable and a little bit easier. Our target was around that range, $100 to $140. Whatever made sense really, in terms of both from a margin perspective to make the business work, as well as to what the market would bear.
The range for kitchen knives is an interesting market because really there is everything. A lot of people impulsively buy kitchen knives when they need them, or they [inaudible 00:03:20] and they’ll just go pick up whatever at Walmart. Typically, over time, they’ll realize that they get dull, and either they want to … They’ll have to go sharpen them and realize that that’s not really going to work, because the knives, even if they did sharpen them, they’d dull again in a month because the steel is kind of rubbish.
Typically, at this point that someone would look into doing the research of like, okay, what makes a good kitchen knife? That’s kind of where we come in. As someone who’s cooking more often, is using their kitchen knives, has maybe tried a good quality kitchen knife at a friend’s house or a family member’s house and wants to kind of step it up to the next level. That’s where we come in. Yeah.
Felix: You said lots of great things there. I want to dive into a couple of them. So you mentioned that this is priced at $120 it seems to start and you’re saying that this is a tool that people once they start getting serious about actually getting better equipment into their kitchen they’ll start considering. How do you capture them at that moment because it sounds like they have to go through the pain of having crappy knives or dollar store knives and then realizing that this break easily or they become dull very easily and now they’re ready to upgrade. How do you make sure that you’re in their mind or in their face during that period of their life for consideration?
Alex: I think a lot of that has to do with understanding a customer’s pain points. Doing research in terms of maybe even Google trends and looking at search traffic around what people are [inaudible 00:04:58] searching for chef knives and trying to address those things both through on-site content, ad content and potentially content that you’re pushing out via YouTube or blog posts which we’ve just started to crack the nut on. But in the case of chef knives, something the people are looking for a well-balanced knife that has excellent edge retention, and they’re looking for maybe specific angle for the edge because this may lead to the particular type of experience they’re looking for with the knife. It’s just understanding those various pain points and addressing them individually with your marketing or content.
Felix: Yes. I was going to ask that next. There’s lots of education involved what you’re getting at because the customer they’re going to want to consider things like the steel or the craftsmanship, whether it’s well-balanced or not. A lot of these factors that I personally don’t even know that these were factors that I need to consider so I’m probably not at that stage yet where I want to invest a knife. How did you know that these were the important factors that your customers cared about so that you could actually focus on creating content around these topics?
Alex: I think it started certainly as a pain point for me personally. I have a bunch of kitchen knives and I’ve been collecting them for a while but I always had this kind of there was this gap. There was some, all of the knives that were high in utility and were priced relatively reasonably around $100 all kind of felt ugly, so beyond even just utility, it was making something that kind of addressed the pain points, the utility points but also looked good.
That was kind of the seed of the brand, at least. I wanted something that like ticked all the right boxes but also stood out and I was like proud to use and enjoyed using on a daily basis and wasn’t like, “Well, okay. It’s a regular looking knife with a black handle that feels great but didn’t feel special. It worked well but didn’t feel special.”
Felix: I got it. You knew that these are the things that you cared about. When were you able to test and validate whether that the market also cared about these factors?
Alex: Early on it was a lot of just market research with Google Trends and looking at search traffic. In AdWords, there’s the keyword tool so you can kind of see, get a sense for what people are searching for. But then, at a certain point, you have to just go on a hunch and try it because trying to design something by [inaudible 00:07:46] also can lead to disappointing results. You had like, at some point, it was, okay, I knew there was something out there and I had to explore that, and we did a lot of prototyping actually to land on one design that we thought we’re confident enough that we could take to Kickstarter.
Felix: Got it. You mentioned some tools there Google Trends and also looking at search traffic. Can you get into a little more details on how others can use or I mean, specifically, how you use these tools to and what kind of questions you were trying to answer?
Alex: Yeah. If you’re going to … Actually, the most useful thing if you’re looking to address a particular question is like Google suggestions and there’s tools … I can’t remember the name but I think it’s called Ubersuggest is a good one.
Felix: Yes. [inaudible 00:08:36]
Alex: You can figure out what all of the Google suggestions are around a particular chain of thoughts. You’ll type in a few terms and you’ll see what the suggestions are for that kind of chain of terms.
Felix: You would look up something like why are my knives and then see what might be suggested, see what the people are searching for. Why my knives dull or why my knives not balanced? Then, you understand that these are factors that your [inaudible 00:09:03] customers care about.
Alex: Yeah, exactly, or like, and then, just doing regular, seeing what the discussion is all online around pain points and digging deeper by looking for, okay, what … Just doing a Google search even, what makes the best chef knife? Then, seeing what people are saying on forums and then figuring out from there what, expanding on some of those pain points. I have many chef knives and I’ve kind of been around the making of them for a while, so I knew … I had a sense of it but you end up in your own little silo particularly if you have experience in an industry you end up siloed on the experienced user end of the spectrum and it’s hard to put yourself in the shoes of someone who may be much less experienced.
There’s actually a feature of our knife that we did the research and led to us including a bit of a finger guard which is what prevent, it just prevents you from hurting your fingers kind of. From slipping off the grip and into the back of the blade while you’re cutting and this is like a professional chef would typically not want this in their knife but we found that there was an appetite for this kind of thing through some research.
Felix: Got it. So you would get this kind of feedback from using these tools like Ubersuggest, Google Trends or search traffic and also just essentially tuning into to put the community where it was talking about in the forums [inaudible 00:10:37] about, seeing what they were concerned about, and then, you were taking this information and then going back in and prototyping based on all of this?
Alex: Yes. Then, we did a bunch of prototyping both … Initially, we just did a bunch of physical, like 3D printing so we designed something and then tweaked it to see how that felt in our hands, and then, with physical prototyping after kind of later on. This has all happened before the Kickstarter. So, we had the prop the ultimate product ready to go by the time we launched the Kickstarter.
Felix: Got it. When you were prototyping and you got a couple of iterations, were you just getting them printed so you can try it out for yourselves or were you able to get into the hands of any potential customers? What was the next step after getting that feedback, creating the prototype, and then, how do you see that prototype needs to be improved on or not?
Alex: Yeah. So both, all of those things. Potential customers like lay people, my family, family and friends that kind of thing but also I got in touch with some chefs in Toronto who tested it out and provided feedback. We had a good feedback loop going on kind of like to really refine the design before we went more public with it. We spent a lot of time getting it right. I mean, it paid off but it was a bit risky.
Felix: Yeah, and you mentioned earlier about how you can’t really design by committee because it could essentially keep you in this loop forever of always making all these changes over and over again. How did you know what kind of feedback you should take and which ones you could either throw in a backlog or completely ignore?
Alex: Yeah. At some point, it’s just got to be a matter of taste, right? Some things aren’t going to work together, certain elements.
Felix: Can you give an example of that?
Alex: Yeah. In the case of a knife, a chef’s knife, in particular, you can’t really have like an easy to sharpen knife and a really tough knife. They move in opposite directions so in order … Like if I was building a knife that was very easy to sharpen it couldn’t have excellent edge retention because those things move in opposite directions and that’s kind of an oversimplification of it but that’s a good example of something.
Same with like that this finger guard, right? I knew that might be an issue for professional chefs who are sharpening their knife regularly and it kind of eats away at the blade and at some point it’s going to get to the point where you’re not going to be able to sharpen the bottom of the blade flat just because the finger guard is there and kind of gets in the way.
In order to address that, we moved, the finger guard doesn’t extend all the way down the heel of the blade. It goes three-quarters of the way, so it gives you some leeway to sharpen but …
Felix: You will look for a compromise or if there were the two pieces of feedback were on competing sides, you have to decide which one is essentially more core or which one’s more important to the core benefit that you are trying to offer with your product?
Alex: Yeah, and it ended up like shooting the design of the knife well [inaudible 00:13:57] working out [inaudible 00:13:59].
Felix: Based on what you’re saying so far or what you’ve been telling me, were you in a phase of, were you in some phase where you’re thinking about starting business and you looked at what kind of experience you had or were you already just an avid collector of knives, and then, fell into business? Which way did you come about creating this business?
Alex: I came to it from a more of a business background. I knew there’s a real opportunity right now with direct-to-consumer e-Commerce, and I knew this and I wanted to build a brand online for a number of reasons. I was going to be leaving the city I was in because my wife is a midwife, and so, we were kind of jumping around the province, and so, I knew I would have liked this … I wouldn’t be able to have a job in a city.
I was giving up [inaudible 00:14:54] my own business. I did a bunch of market research that kind of pointed me in the direction of starting a kitchenware business but particularly a knife business which worked out great because it was something I already had a ton of experience with both it was like, predominantly as like a user but also like an enthusiast. I got into knives actually not from kitchen knives, I became interested in kitchen knives because I was into throwing knives, which is a strange and small [inaudible 00:15:28]
Felix: Yeah, this sounds like a much larger market which you’re going after than throwing knives. Now, are there certain … I think what you’re saying about direct-to-consumer it’s certainly a very fast growing, I guess business model. You see ads, I see ads all the time now for a direct-to-consumer, I think, glasses and mattresses were one of the leading industries for bringing direct-to-consumer. Are there certain … Based on what you’ve seen now by going through this, are there certain aspects of an industry that can lend well to direct-to-consumer that might be right for that kind of disruption?
Alex: That’s the challenge I think is figuring out which kind of industries are kind of ready for the taking. It really depends on the industry. If you were to look at something like mattresses it was because previously shipping a mattress with coils in it, it wasn’t really possible until a few years ago, so that innovation led to you know squishing it into a box.
In our case, knives are a bit different. People are ordering them online but to a large extent, people still do want to hold and touch and feel this thing. If you use it a lot it becomes kind of an extension of your arm like if you get that comfortable with it. You want to be able to know where it is so you don’t hurt yourself with it. Having a good feel of it is usually pretty important. We get around that by being good about basically unlimited returns that are free, right? So if you don’t like it you can send it back.
Also, trying to show more than tell on the website. This has helped a bit. I feel like we can go a bit farther in that direction for sure but it gives people the confidence, at least, that this thing works well.
Felix: Yeah. Can you say more about this? I think this is an important point about show more than tell. Can you give an example of what telling would be and on the other side, what it would mean to show?
Alex: Yeah. Particularly, when it comes to knives it’s just like show the knife cutting effectively really in the hands of someone who knows what they’re doing, and we aren’t doing enough of this but in the past when we have done some of this in ads or on our Kickstarter page or even on our website, it works quite well and people, it resonates with people.
Felix: So [inaudible 00:18:01] this usually means like lots of images and videos and probably less focus on text?
Alex: Copy. Yeah. Minimal copy actually, very, very visual. I think people want to understand at a high level what makes your knife, what are the features of it but beyond that, they want to see, okay, like how does this, does this thing work well? The knives are a weird and the jury’s still out on this in terms of my opinion but because you can go get a knife that will work, at least, for one kitchen session for, like the price range is infinite, right? You can pay nothing all the way up to thousands of dollars.
I think knives are in a very unique place in the market where like utility, like raw utility to cut like a vegetable up is not as important and it’s like how it works, right? Maybe they are even unique in that way. A hammer, I’m sure … I may be oversimplifying this but if you were a contractor, a hammer is a hammer is a hammer to a large extent. I’m sure there are like specialized … Well, I know there are specialized framing hammers but basically, anything will do the trick but it’s about something that’s dangerous and as personal as a chef knife seems to be, have a lot more emotion tied to it.
Felix: I see. So it goes beyond just the actual use of the product there’s more behind just using it as a cutting tool essentially.
Alex: Absolutely. Yeah. Getting bogged down with features, I feel like it doesn’t really and capture, it doesn’t, wouldn’t move the needle if you just listed all the features of a chef knife.
Felix: Right. That makes sense. I want to talk a little about the process. Going back a little bit to the process of creating basically, the perfect knife to start shipping out. You went through lots of iterations of prototyping and you mentioned that you utilize 3D printing to help along with this. Talk to us about that. For someone out there that wants to go down this path of creating a product but they want to iterate over it or through it a bunch of times but they don’t have the funds to create a bunch of actual samples, how does 3D printing work? How did it work in your case?
Alex: It was good. It was bad, and then, it was really good. I had no CAD experience so I tried hiring someone and I was really hoping that that would work out but I tried two different contractors to help with turning a 2D design into a 3D model that we could then go 3D print, and it didn’t work out. I ended up having to invest time personally into learning CAD but once I did kind of get a sense of, okay, I can make this thing myself, being able to iterate on it was like infinitely useful.
We can print a 3D model of a knife for $30 instead of you know creating tooling which could cost a thousand dollars to iterate on a new version of a knife. I mean, it wouldn’t cost that much, you’d have to, you just make it by hand but if you have particular contours or you’re using different materials or whatever it might be, it can be really expensive, and I bet kitchen knives are probably at the cheaper end of the spectrum of something that you can just kind of make it by hand if you’re doing it at scale, whereas other products might be much more complicated.
We ended up making probably 15 different 3D printed models before it was all said and done and we had kind of the one we liked. This was mostly for the grip shape, so the handle and the bolster has like a groove in it, and just in terms of getting those things like really focused and feeling good. It took a bit of iteration. There’s only so much you can do on a computer. At the end of the day, it’s a knife, and you want to hold it in your hands and 3D printing like really made the difference on that.
We were using 3D Hubs I think is the name of the site, and it connects you with people who have 3D printers locally. You can get someone in your city to print your 3D model for you.
Felix: Very cool, and they need some CAD drawings in order to do this or what? [inaudible 00:22:44] step between the CAD and 3D printing?
Alex: Yeah. The CAD model is a 3D model, and then, you can export that into a format that someone can put into a 3D printer, and there’s a bit of, usually, the 4D printer will have some software that helps you kind of get it from a 3D model into something that’s printable but … Yeah. Usually, like if you can get the 3D model the printer should be able to help you out with that the rest of it.
Felix: Got it. Now, how far can you get with prototyping using 3D printing? I’m assuming at a certain point you might have wanted to graduate essentially to creating, something that looks more like the finished product?
Alex: Yeah. For sure. We did the last few iterations with the physical materials because it’s important. I had been testing the steel we were using or we are using for quite some time because we were trying to get excellent edge retention, and so, this is kind of a balance of the heat treatment program. We use computer-controlled heat treatments so we could kind of fiddle with things a little bit to try and get optimal edge retention for the kind of thinness and angle of our edge.
That’s really detailed but … Yeah, basically, we just wanted to really tune it so it was performing the way we wanted and you can’t do this with 3D printing. You really need to play around with the actual physical material. Same with the wooden handles, we wanted to just kind of try making some so we could figure out some of the kinks that might come up with full-scale production.
Felix: Got it. When you went to manufacture, were there assets that you could give them from your 3D printing work?
Alex: Yeah. Absolutely. The 3D models create some of the tooling to kind of cut out the shape of the blade and to form the contours of the bolster. Yeah, for sure. The 3D modeling was useful beyond just the prototyping stage. It was really useful for even communicating with the manufacturer around the specific, the exact specifics of the product.
Felix: Got it. Now, you mentioned Kickstarter a couple of times. Did you already have a finished product by the time you were ready to launch on Kickstarter?
Alex: Yeah. We did. We had the product that was pretty much ready for production but we just needed the funds to do an initial production run because you can’t just make one, a few because you’ll never get time on any reputable manufacturer’s line. It’s just kind of the reality. Yeah. I kind of saved up some money and the money was originally going to be used for an … I was never going to do Kickstarter. I was originally going to just use those money I had saved up to do, to fund an initial production run but it took longer than I expected to get like a product that I was comfortable making.
I ended up dipping into those savings just to kind of pay the rent and live, and then, realized Kickstarter was like a fantastic way to kind of test the market, build an audience and raise money for that initial production run all in one go. Initially, it was kind of, the plan was to just launch the product but Kickstarter ended up being a wonderful thing that I just fell into originally, and then, once we committed to Kickstarter, I did a bunch of research about marketing your Kickstarter and how to build a following there.
Felix: Yeah. You’re certainly on the very far end of having a developed product before launching at Kickstarter. Lots of people come in probably much earlier than you did but it wasn’t part of the original plan which is why you already had, a lot of this done already. How much do you think it helped your project to have pretty much a finished product and did it ever hurt your product, project at anyway?
Alex: No. I think this was done intentionally too because once we decided to go down the Kickstarter path, we really invested on trying to work out a lot of the kinks with production and getting the design right before we did the Kickstarter because I knew if the Kickstarter did well, if we disappoint people after the Kickstarter then we were sunk anyway. Getting the product out there in a reasonable amount of time and the reaction from those people being positive was absolutely paramount to the success of the business long-term and to get us to where we are now.
The reception was really good and I think a large part of that was the equity we built up initially in terms of getting the product right before launching on Kickstarter instead of trying to figure it out after.
Felix: Right, because you were so far along already you’re able to deliver probably much better than the expectations for other Kickstarter campaigns.
Alex: Exactly. That’s huge. Kickstarter people are amazing. I had no idea that this community was like so dedicated and vibrant and supportive. I mean, if you’re messing up they’ll let you know but I think on a large part they’re very, very supportive which was amazing. Even to this day, I’m in awe of how that all kind of played out.
Felix: Got it. So you mentioned to us before the podcast in the [inaudible 00:28:35] of your questions about how you were actually able to bootstrap this entire business to get to where it’s at today. How long did it take before, were you able to sell any products prior to Kickstarter or were the first sales after the campaign?
Alex: The first sales were as part of the Kickstarter, so that was all a pre-order from the Kickstarter onwards. I had just … I had saved up that money for about a year prior to that. I was working, I had a day job for the last eight years before that so. For the last year, I was just … I knew I had wanted to, I had always had this entrepreneurial bug and wanted to do my own thing so I’d been saving up some money to just be able to take time off work to spend the time in order to build this business.
You don’t need to do that. I don’t think. Yeah, you don’t need to quit your day job before you have other income coming in. I probably wouldn’t recommend that to most people until they have a product they’re quite confident has market fit. That was like quite scary. If the Kickstarter failed I was kind of, I’d be working at a coffee shop or whatever.
Felix: How much runway do you think you would recommend someone have if they were to follow your footsteps and to quit essentially before any revenue started to come in?
Alex: It depends on what you’re trying to do. If you’re trying to develop a new product in a busy market, I think it’s a bit riskier because there has to be a reception for that product. If you’re doing private labeling or just straight businessy stuff like arbitrage or drop shipping or something like that, I think there’s less risk there that you’re going to kind of, you can kind of … It’s more your marketing prowess that’s going to make it succeed or fail as opposed to the merits of the actual [crosstalk 00:30:39] …
Felix: Right. There’s less variables in place for success when you are launching just you know, like you’re saying focusing on being a retailer essentially rather than, in your case, you’re creating and inventing products and which is much, much, much more risky.
Alex: It’s risky upfront. I think, the thing you do, if you do hit on a product that works though you’ve built a moat around your product because nothing is 100% like the thing that you built you have to come, you have to come to me to buy a Bulat Knife, right?
Felix: Yeah, that makes sense. Now, so I think a big part of why you’re able to do this too or why you’re able to focus, while you’re able to quit your job and focus on this was probably around reducing costs and expenses. Any tips there on, what do you think or maybe to begin with, what do you think entrepreneurs typically spend a lot of money on that maybe they could cut out so they can bootstrap their way towards generating a profitable business?
Alex: Yeah. This is tricky. I mean, I had been doing web design and marketing as like that was my profession for a while, so I had a lot of the skills necessary, myself to kind of take this on. I did a lot of things that people would typically pay other people to do like web development or provide marketing expertise. I was just doing that myself. That said, everything I’ve learned I just learned online.
I didn’t learn this in school. If you want to learn how to build an online business and how to market it, the resources are absolutely at your disposal certainly now more than ever. Even compared to 10 years ago when I learned this, started learning this stuff. The resources are way, way better, and to a large extent, it’s changing all the time, so you need to be on top of it anyway.
Felix: Right. I think the key here then is the best way to keep costs and expenses down is to learn the skills that you would typically have to pay someone else to do for you in your business and you learn yourself and basically you do not pay someone else to do it, and then, also you get a better understanding I think of how the business works so that when you do get around to hiring someone to do it, you know what to look for in terms of what kind of person to hire and also how you should be delegating those tasks off.
I think it’s certainly a very worthwhile investment to learn a lot of these skills yourself.
Alex: That also gives you the … If you have some knowledge of the industry, it also gives you some taste in order to like understand how people are pricing their services and you know who’s offering something good versus bad and if the price is good or bad. It gives you a bit of that baseline knowledge even if you do, if you don’t have the time to let’s say design your own website, you’ll know enough, at least, to kind of where to begin the conversation.
Felix: One thing that you mentioned that you had to learn or spend time researching was how to run a successful crowdfunding Kickstarter campaign. Talk to us about that. What are some things that you found in your research that you knew you needed to apply towards your campaign?
Alex: Yeah. There was a few. I knew that PR plays a big role in the success, the big organic success of many Kickstarters. You need news coverage. The trick with that is you’re not going to get news coverage unless you’re partially funded because Kickstarter that’s sitting at $0 funding, no one’s going to write about that. So you need to get the ball rolling. A lot of that comes down to your personal network. The thing you can do ahead of time in terms of building a list but you need to have some awareness of what’s going on before you launch and people need to be primed to buy.
In my case, I kind of had done both. I had a bit of a list and had kind of warned a lot of people in my personal network that this thing was coming out and gauged interest in whether they would become backers and got them to back within the first day in order to get me to kind of 20% funded. Originally, we were trying to raise $25,000. Getting to 20% funded isn’t impossible but if no one wants to back your thing it’s going to be very, an uphill battle.
That’s very important is to get that early success will really help you a lot down the line. Once you have some of that early success, PR. Just you need to have a very well-thought-out PR strategy about who could potentially write about this and how you’re going to get it in front of them and why they would write about it. In our case, it was mostly just like we got a few random hits really from a long list of people we reached out to. The two biggest ones were Uncrate, which was kind of a gear and gadgets aggregator and that did really well.
Then, also on Gizmodo. Gizmodo did a kind of a Facebook live event where they were cooking or with our knife actually. They were just testing it on Facebook live and that was somewhat random but it worked extremely well.
Felix: These were both outlets that you actively pursued?
Alex: Yeah. I just sent emails that weren’t canned emails. I kind of tried to genuinely approach these people like people and give them a pitch that made sense for their audience, which is very time-consuming but and especially like PRs a numbers game. You need to reach out to a lot of people in order to get some hits because it, even if it is a fit for their audience it may not be the right time for the author or whatever. Just, yeah, putting in the time and effort to not send a canned email to a list of a thousand people but maybe send a very nicely brief but personalized email to a hundred people.
Felix: Now, is this the most successful channel for you still to this day, PR?
Alex: Yeah. PR and cross-promotion, so we’ve done some successful cross-promotions with other kitchenware brands. That have gone over really well but I would say probably mostly PR. We’ve had some really successful email campaigns. Email has worked extremely well for us. A bit of success with paid advertising and Facebook and stuff like that.
Felix: Cross promotion is definitely something interesting that I want to get to in a bit before we get there, the PR outreach that you’re doing, you mentioned that you got to be very intentional about who could potentially write about you and your product and also understand and communicate why they would want to write about it. You mentioned as well that it’s a numbers game. How do you balance that? How do you balance between let’s spend as little time as possible so we’re going to reach as many outlets as possible versus spending, hitting less outlets but folks spending a lot more time on creating the right pitch?
Alex: Yeah. You can probably … Like if you make a spreadsheet of everyone you want to hit, you can prioritize that by people who you think would be most likely to write about it but also would provide the greatest benefit to your campaign which is what I did. I just prioritized it by who are the 150 most likely to write about it, and then, the rest of the list if you get there you get there if you don’t you can send a spammy email, which I did. Like people don’t, I’ve done PR before people don’t, these people get thousands of emails a day potentially depending on the author so if you send them a canned email they’re just going to ignore it unless it’s about something they’ve already heard about which is unlikely.
So prioritizing lists and starting with the people you think are most likely to write about it.
Felix: Yeah. That’s important point about how you want to focus on who is basically the lowest-hanging fruit. Who’s ready to, who’s prime to write about you the most and rank it that way because now you also think about who would be the biggest benefit to you, right? Getting it on a place Uncrate or Gizmodo I think would be a huge benefit. Obviously, it was for you but they were probably less likely to write about you than some like no-name blog.
I’m guessing, right? How do you know in that situation, which, what’s more important? Is it the low-hanging fruit or the biggest benefit? Of course, if there’s both and that makes the most sense but when you have to choose between whether you should focus on the small publications versus the ones with the greatest reach, how do you decide to how to prioritize your time?
Alex: I think it’s most important to focus on your niche first, so like us there was a lot of push around cooking blogs, cooking websites and news sources around that industry. We ended up not having a lot of hits in that space, a couple but nothing major. It was mostly in the kind of the “gear” and sites like cool hunting and Uncrate and stuff like that, that kind of resonated more with, which in hindsight makes sense because those cooking sites don’t write about Kickstarters, right?
But it’s worth understanding who’s most likely to write about it, is it going to be covered on a, even a small cooking blog? Probably not because they don’t write about new things. They write about popular things. It does take a bit of legwork to kind of understand the audience and the type of content that that publication is putting out in order to kind of both focus who you’re spending time on but also the type of pitch you’re sending them.
You may be able to, the type of email you might send to a gear blog would be very different from someone like Gizmodo even because they’re somewhat different audiences. Particularly, if you were comparing a gear site with a kitchen blog.
Felix: Right. So we sit down to write this pitch, can you walk us through what kind of research you’re doing and what you make sure to include in the email?
Alex: Yeah. That was probably the most time-consuming part is writing these emails because you want, you don’t want it to be go unnoticed otherwise you’re just kind of shooting in the dark, and a lot of the time it will go, they won’t respond to you but that’s fine. That’s part of it. Being personal like reading, like reaching out to a particular author is always the best. Understanding what they write about typically, maybe what’s been on their radar most recently if there is a point of reference, if they’ve discussed something similar in the past then you at least have a good kind of touch off point and trying to keep it like, treat them like a human being and not like something who needs, someone who needs to do something for you is a good way to get attention.
Ironically, right? You can’t be, you’re not going to force them to do anything so like give them what they’re likely to be interested in is the best way to go, and if they ignore it they ignore it but if you catch them on the right day or they’re already thinking about doing something similar to what you’ve propositioned then it will make sense. I think it’s also important to frame your pitch according to the author and like have a couple different pitches kind of in the bag, so you can frame it around that author and their audience.
Felix: Can you say more about that what does that mean to frame it around their audience?
Alex: Yeah. In the example of a chef’s knife you may pitch to a cooking blog with something like be very focused on the features and the like, maybe like an incredibly balanced knife for a great price might be like the lead, whereas like a gear site would be more about like the technical specs of the steel or the wood or something. Just something that better caters to what their audience might be looking for.
Felix: What are your thoughts on templates? Did those work if you have templates that you’re using and kind of filling in the pieces around the specific PR outlet that you’re reaching out to?
Alex: I would say if you’re using a template, someone else had probably already sent it and will probably be ignored because they’re seeing that the person who’s receiving it had received that email, copy and paste a few different things a thousand times before. You can take the base elements of a template like what is the template, make that your own. I think that you probably get better results like that.
I certainly did that really. At some level, there’s going to be a commonality between all PR pitch emails but making it personal and unique goes a long way.
Felix: Got it. I want to talk now about the cross-promotion that you’ve been doing that has been successful for you. Well, what is a cross promotion?
Alex: Yeah. There’s kind of two buckets here. So when we did a Kickstarter, and then, after the Kickstarter ended while we were making the knives for all of those pre-orders, we started a IndieGoGo InDemand campaign which is the ability to continue to sell pre-orders after your finite campaign has ended, so whether you did a 30-day campaign on IndieGoGo or Kickstarter, you can migrate that to IndieGoGo afterwards so you can continue to do pre-orders. While we were doing both of those crowdfunding campaigns, we did cross-promotions with other crowdfunding campaigns and this worked quite well.
We just sourced those by reaching out to other campaigns that we felt might have some crossover audience, so anyone doing a Kickstarter that was in the kitchen space or anything like that, we had good success with cross promoting those. Usually, in updates, so you’re regularly discussing the development of your product with your audience, and you want to be at the bottom of those you just typically plug another campaign that your backers might be interested in.
Then, so that’s … We did that quite a bit during the crowdfunding campaigns, and then, afterwards we’ve kind of worked a bit more closely but like more intensely but less volume in terms of like cross promotions with bigger brands than us. We have a relationship with Anova which is a sous-vide, and so, they’re selling Bulat chef knives on their site as kind of an accessory to the sous-vide which is just kind of one example of a cross promotion.
Felix: Right, and when you do this kind of cross promotions do you have to focus on brands that are at the same level in size or in [inaudible 00:47:17] the customer list as you or can you shoot higher than that? What’s been your experience?
Alex: Yeah. I mean, I don’t think there’s any harm in shooting higher certainly because sometimes bigger brands are looking to both communicate value to their followers. If it makes sense for you this bigger brand to tell their audience about you and that bigger brand would see some value there, I think it makes sense and I’ve had some success with that for sure. They like, and it does add value, right?
Like if you are an appliance brand and typically you’re only talking about your own appliance that may tire your audience after some time, so introducing new things that this brand thinks is interesting could certainly kind of help them with engaging their audience and it kind of scratches our back in terms of sales, right? Those relationships are not, they’re asymmetrical though, right? Because while we would get sales out of it and they would get something more intangible like customer engagement.
Those can be a little bit harder to sell as opposed to someone who’s like a brand at your level kind of doing similar sales and you can, it’s kind of a mutual back-scratching but they can be done.
Felix: Got it. You were doing this initially using [inaudible 00:48:50] or I guess with your ongoing IndieGoGo InDemand campaign and you’re doing this through these updates that you’re going to send it to the contributors to the campaign but nowadays, are you using, what is it? How is it being done? Is it through email marketing where you’re doing these cross-promotions or what platforms are you cross promoting on?
Alex: Yeah. It’s become much less frequent now because I don’t want to be spamming any of my audience at all. A little bit via email, a little bit via ads just kind of like touting a relationship between the two. Yeah, but I would say the most success specifically we had with cross promotion to date was with crowdfunding. We have an interesting opportunity coming up with cross promotion but I’ll have to leave it at that.
Felix: Do you think that someone that doesn’t have existing crowdfunding campaign can they, would they, do you think crowdfunding creators would be receptive to them reaching out if they have an audience of their own and are willing to engage in that kind of, or do you think that the crowdfunding campaign creator would be willing to engage in that kind of agreement?
Alex: Yeah. I think, that they are … Because they’re … There’s like an established communication schedule within crowdfunding campaigns that most of them are quite receptive to that if you can expand their audience because you have an email list that you’re willing to promote their product to. I think that they would probably … Yeah, definitely be open to that. Most crowdfunding campaigns are looking for kind of any marketing they can get.
Felix: Especially since they’re looking to get in the very short period of time they might be more willing to work with as many people as possible. I want to talk a little about the site and the designs. A beautifully designed site, definitely recommend folks check it out, bulatkitchen.com. Was this designed by you?
Alex: Yes. It was.
Felix: Very nice. What went to the design? What was your approach to creating this site?
Alex: I knew that I wanted it to be very visual and the site is kind of a work in progress right now so I’ve laid the foundation for something that I’m going to be building on over time, and this was kind of then intentionally so that I could create landing pages that catered well to specific campaigns and adding other products in the future.
Felix: This is like a customer theme or did you use a free theme? What was it built on?
Alex: Yeah, the theme’s name is narrative, and it’s a free theme on the Shopify theme store and I used that as a foundation and kind of built off of that my own theme, and new … leveraged the kind of sections functionality a lot and was able to kind of build out a few pages that catered to my products but also built a foundation where I can layer in more products and more types of pages that all feel very similar within the design of the site.
Felix: Got it. Now, what other kind of apps or tools had you used on or off Shopify to help run the business?
Alex: We leveraged a 3PL, a third-party logistics company called Ingram Micro which is all synced through the Shipwire app, which is tremendously useful for fulfillment. We fulfill partly through Ingram Micro and partly through our home office, so we also use Order Desk, which is a good app for kind of creating some logic around when an order comes in what to do with it and how it gets fulfilled. That’s probably my favorite app recently. I’m excited on this fulfillment thing.
What else? We use a lot of the good reliable ones like MailChimp, Order Desk like an order printing app. Order Desk is the fulfillment one. Yeah. But, yeah, probably MailChimp is the other one that we use quite a bit for segmenting our lists.
Felix: Awesome. Very cool. Thank you so much for your time, Alex. Bulatkitchen.com, bulatkitchen.com is the website. What can we expect in the new year? What are some of the things that you … You said there are a few things in the works that you can’t mention but anything that the audience should look out for or look out from you, guys?
Alex: Yes. We’ve got some exciting partnerships within the next year but also some new products. Expanding on the line of the chef knife and paring knife that did really well on Kickstarter into some bread knife, and then, also coming out with some kind of very new fresh looking designs within the next year or so.
Felix: Awesome. Very exciting. We’ll certainly tune in to see what other amazing products come out of your company. Again, really appreciate you coming on.
Alex: Thanks so much, Felix.
Felix: Here’s a sneak peek for what’s in store in the next Shopify Masters episode.
Speaker 3: It’s all about imagining. You want your customer standing in front of your products and say, “Oh, you know, I see myself using those.”
Felix: Thanks for listening to Shopify Masters. The e-Commerce marketing podcast for ambitious entrepreneurs. To start your store today, visit shopify.com/masters to claim your extended 30-day free trial. Also, for this episode show notes, head over to shopify.com/blog.