By Ami Varsanyi, Luv Macarons
"Let's do one hand at a time, to spare my boyfriend from having to deal with any... personal hygiene issues," I said.
Sigh. After 25 years in high-tech, carpal tunnel had caught up with me. I'd tried various non-surgical treatments, but they'd only provide temporary relief. After a neurosurgeon performed a nerve conduction test, it was confirmed that I had severe carpal tunnel and surgery was my only option.
This was in the fall of 2013 - really just a few months ago. After the two surgeries, my hands weren't any better. Even today, I continue to undergo hand therapy, and more surgery seems to be on the horizon. But last September, I just knew that I couldn't sit around and wait to heal; I had to start a new career. It began in the kitchen, and ended with me starting a store on Shopify.
I couldn't go back into IT. The hours of meetings, note-taking, emails, text messages, smartphones at all hours of the night - it would just be too physically painful. What was I going to do? I was starting to feel a bit panicky and anxious about the situation. I made a mental list of some things I had a passion for: wine (I'd gone through schooling and testing and become a Certified Sommelier in 2010); food; cosmetics; France.
That night, I had a dream. I was making the most beautiful French macarons, the kind I'd seen and tasted during a 2012 trip to Paris. They were all the colors of a magnificent eye shadow palette, and I ate them while drinking champagne. I woke up so alert after the dream, even though it was only 4 am.
I knew then what I had to do. I would somehow combine my fondness for beautiful things with my passion for food and my knowledge of wine. I would make beautiful, delicious French macarons and pair them with wine!
I went to my therapist that day and told her my plan. I knew she would be supportive because, frankly, she's even more weird and quirky than I am, so I wasn't afraid to tell her where my idea came from. She asked if I could make some macarons and bring them to her.
Huh. I'd never made one of the bloody things! It couldn't be that difficult. I'd deal with it after I put together a business plan.
A couple of weeks passed, and the business plan was underway when I decided to try my hand at macarons. If you've ever Googled these things, you'll know that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of heartbreaking blog posts and troubleshooting guides. I had no idea that they were so temperamental! I bought the basic ingredients and tried a couple of batches. Wow; this was going to be painful.
In the meantime, I'd asked many of my neighbors if they'd help critique the cookies. I believe the fourth batch was actually decent! I took some to them, and to my therapist too. I'd made simple, uncolored shells with dark chocolate ganache filling. Everyone raved! My confidence went up! My therapist even gave one to another client of hers, who said he'd buy a box! Of course, that was the only good batch for a while...
After another couple of weeks of tears and frustration; highs and lows, I'd gotten a pretty solid understanding of a recipe that worked for me. My business plan was finished, and I'd presented it to my boyfriend, and he supported taking the next step: finding a commercial kitchen.
Until you've looked into commercial kitchens, you have no idea how expensive they can be. I could have easily paid over $1000 a month for one that I'd have to share with many, many other people, companies and food trucks. You usually have to pay a la carte for dry storage, refrigerated storage, and freezer space too!
I lucked out. My boyfriend found a listing looking for someone to share a small kitchen nearby for a flat monthly rate. I signed a contract and moved in that week.
Now, my ego had gotten a little large due to the recent success in my home kitchen - which was good, because it was about to be obliterated by something called a "cyclonic fan."
Commercial convection ovens are nothing like your home oven. They are mean, beastly, windy, HOT appliances from hell. Well, that's how I felt after I couldn't get a decent batch of cookies for weeks. There wasn't a way to turn off the fan, so the light meringue macaron shells were getting blown all over the place. When that wasn't happening, they were erupting like little volcanoes. I was in tears every day and documenting all of this for my friends via social media.
Finally, I stepped back, took some time to read many, many of those troubleshooting guides, and I started tweaking things one at a time. By mid-November, I'd made enough progress that I decided I'd ship my first box the week of Thanksgiving.
Now I had a product to sell and I started working on a web storefront for it. I started with one vendor whose backend integrations with shipping partners and payment options were attractive, BZZT. What a waste of time and effort. I ended up spending as much time on the storefront as I did in the kitchen, and the site was still very poor.
Because I needed to get exposure, I kept the site up until I hit a slower period, I also desperately needed to rebrand. I'd chosen a very stupid name for my company, and it was early enough to fix it without being too expensive.
Finally, after blowing through another vendor, I settled on Shopify. I had my basic site running in ONE DAY! There are also so many third-party applications for it that I'll never run out of options and expansion opportunities. Their support has also been far superior to other vendors. They allow me to focus on my business and my product, and the site just... runs.
Okay, good product... check. Web storefront... check. Marketing... ugh. Just not my strong suit.
I spent quite a bit of money on social media advertising and search engine ads. They delivered a few people to my site, but didn't result in sales. I sent free boxes with my friends and neighbors to any event they attended: PTA meetings; classes; work. Any exposure and feedback was valuable.
The positive word-of-mouth started building. I participated in a small event before Christmas at a local farm. In order to get the word out, I sent an email to people that belonged to French and wine Meetups in my area. It may have been a bit "spammy," but the email went through, and quite a few of them came out to taste and buy my product.
Another extremely helpful tidbit: I joined a very good women's networking group. I've met so many supportive, friendly, knowledgeable women through this group. I've been honored with opportunities that I never would have had otherwise: making custom gift boxes for a local country club, providing customer Valentine's Day gifts for a large mortgage company, and access to a local wine tasting room for event hosting. I was so skeptical that anyone would want to help me, but I've been blown away by the authentic support I've been given.
I've also been a little unconventional. As I mentioned earlier, I love cosmetics. One of the things I do to unwind is watch "Beauty Gurus" on Youtube - young women (mostly) that do make-up tutorials and new product reviews. Some of these ladies have 100,000-5 million people following them! I decided to send a few of them unsolicited gift cards. One of them used it, and I offered to send her a coupon code for her Youtube followers.
I was baking, and I always have Google Analytics going on my laptop so I can see if/when people are on my store. Usually there are no more than 3 people, and quite often it's zero. I turned around, and there were 41 people on. Then it was 69. Then over 80.
I went to look at my social media and found that the Beauty Guru had posted a picture of my cookies, along with a recommendation and the coupon code I'd given her. It cost me $5 to send that box of macarons out, and it resulted in 50 boxes being ordered!
We're still a teeny company. I now have three part-time employees working here, because I made the decision to pay people to help me scale instead of paying myself. We just had our first big show last weekend, and we went through over 2,000 French macarons. Hopefully I can pay myself in 2014!
Here are some of the most important things I learned along the way:
- Fail early and get up and move on.
- Don't let your tools become a time sync. Shopify saved me.
- Leverage your family, friends and neighbors. They really don't seem to mind.
- Get your product in front of as many people as often as you can, and ask for honest feedback.
- Join a GOOD networking group. This is invaluable.
- Utilize "unconventional" and inexpensive means to market; ways that feel authentic to you.
Ami Varsanyi is a sommelier who started Luv Macarons in late 2013. We use high-quality ingredients, and always strive to make macarons as close as possible to the Parisian standard. Many of our clients have tried Parisian macarons, and have said that ours are the best outside of France!
This year, Shopify's Build A Business Competition is bigger than ever. Shopify is giving away more than $500,000 in cash, prizes and mentorship in its fourth annual competition. Contestants create a store and try to sell the most in their category for a chance to win $50,000 and a VIP trip to NYC to meet their mentor.