By Kay Neth
Economic reality looks pretty forbidding these days: shaky consumer confidence, decreased consumer spending. You walk downtown and the real estate signs taped inside empty storefront windows tell you that small businesses are dying, and with them, dreams and jobs. Yet in spite of the gloomy financial climate, some small businesses are managing to thrive. Delicious Planet, owned by Randi Carter, is one of them.
Delicious Planet (http://www.delicious-planet.com) is an almost three-year-old organic-meal delivery service that charges about $100 for four to eight days' worth of dinner. The company has enjoyed a year of profit at the EBITDA level (earnings before interest, tax, depreciation and amortization). Yet its challenges are compounded by the fact that although the organic industry is doing well, agribusiness, pesticides, GMOs, heavy processing and Big Macs are the hallmarks of the American food chain.
So what is Randi Carter doing right?
Delicious Planet's pan-seared lemon rosemary tofu will release a bewitching choreography of flavor and texture on your tongue. Herb mingles with citrus, and with every bite the tofu's crisp browned edges collapse into its unctuous soft interior. But one thing that pan-seared lemon rosemary tofu will not do is sell itself. Nothing does.
So, when Carter took out a $44,000 business loan more than two years ago, about a quarter of it went into marketing. Carter hired a graphic design/ad expert who developed the business's motto ("Eat Healthy. Save Time. Enjoy Life.") and its logo (a bell pepper surrounded by Saturnine rings of produce: a strawberry, a mushroom, a broccoli stalk). Thousands of dollars were then channeled into buying ad space and printing color brochures, business cards and other promotional material-all as carefully coordinated in color and design as a boxed eight-piece tableware set. Was it worth it? Carter, who averages 50 to 70 customers a week, says yes.
But as a business owner you have to spend money strategically. For instance, mass mailings didn't win Delicious Planet any customers, notes Carter, who asks clients where they heard about the business to track the effectiveness of her marketing. "You know what my biggest mistake was?" says Carter, referring to the earliest days of Delicious Planet. "Not going for a target market." Which brings us to answer number two
In the spirit of niche marketing, Carter spends her advertising budget to reach a specific audience (with the aforementioned exception of community newspapers). Sound Consumer-the PCC newsletter-is the rare forum that attracts new business quickly. Carter's advertising in other media takes awhile to bring in new clients, but she says business owners shouldn't expect an instant response from advertising. An ad needs to run in the same publication, consistently, Carter advises, for at least six to eleven months. For instance, an ad in a natural-living magazine, The EcoVision Journal, appeared in the publication for months before it began to regularly attract orders every month.
Carter insists that networking doesn't come naturally to her. Visiting naturopaths (who might recommend her to their patients) and attending business breakfasts and other networking functions, she notes, is "a stretch." "To go out and sell yourself-that's hard for me," she says. But she believes that meeting a handful of the right kind of professionals on a regular basis, who can then refer her business to their customers, will mean more customers.
And, after a referral, "[T]o acknowledge that someone has referred you-it's a big deal," says Carter. Customers who've brought her new clients receive handwritten thank-you notes and an offer to knock 15 percent off their next order.
Much has changed since Delicious Planet beginnings, when Carter was posting ragtag flyers at the PCC, had set aside just $500 a month for advertising, and was guessing at what she should be charging customers rather than costing out materials and labor. "I had no experience with anything," says Carter, "except Bastyr University," where she studied nutrition. These days, she sees a business coach (Carter explains: "I feel like I have good ideas all the time, I just don't execute them."). She's also become a prolific reader of books offering business guidance, even ones with histrionic titles and promises that make her eyes roll-the ones that pledge doubled profits in the time it takes to read this sentence. And "I talk to everyone," Carter says, to learn more about "what the hell" she should be doing. She then sifts through the advice to find the pieces that make sense to her.
Even a profitable business has to review its strategy. During holidays, Carter's clientele drops. She compensates with catering. She's also had to experiment with different staff sizes; "I've been overstaffed, and I've been understaffed," Carter says. (Currently, she has four full-time and four part-time employees.) And, as noted, her marketing plan had to be refocused to reach a niche audience.
It's also important to be flexible with your marketing materials. Carter's original brochure had nutritional information listed after each menu item, specifically regarding carotenoids and antioxidants that help prevent cancer. Someone suggested that having the word "cancer" listed near food items was bad marketing. Carter agreed and rewrote the brochure.
Times are tricky for the entrepreneur. Those realtor signs in newly empty storefront windows can seem daunting. But you can persevere, even as large companies struggle, and sometimes sheer force of will brings success. "The most important thing, I think, is determination," says Carter. "There is something in me that will not stop."