Makin' the bacon with online buzz and laughs

Justin Esch and Dave Lefkow were two co-workers with an Internet background, a great sense of humor and mutual love for bacon. What started as a joke on a business trip, to create a bacon flavored salt, has turned them into partners with a million dollar business. Their products BaconSalt and Baconnaise are Internet sensations with demand all across the world.

In 2007, the guys used $5000 that Dave won for submitting a video to America’s Funniest Home Videos to order 3000 samples of BaconSalt and sell it on the web. By the end of their first official week of business, their fun side project was already in the black. The most impressive part of their story is how they managed to build their buzz solely on the Internet.

I sat down with Justin to get the inside scoop on how their laidback and humorous approach to business has made BaconSalt.com bigger than they ever imagined possible!

How did you even think up the concept of BaconSalt?

I grew up in Telluride, Colorado and there was a BBQ joint called Fat Alley BBQ. Their signature drink was a shot of Maker’s Mark bourbon with a bacon garnish. It was just this random weird thing that I always got when I went home. My brother and I were at Jewish wedding for a childhood friend and to be a smartass, my brother ordered this drink. They obviously didn’t have it but our table started talking about bacon and we decided then that the world needed bacon-flavored salt. Two months later, I was in Miami with Dave for business. We were out to dinner with another co-worker and I told them the idea for bacon salt and they about jumped out of their chairs. We talked about it all night over a bunch of drinks. At 2am, we said, ‘Lets just do it right now’ and go 50/50. We bought the rights to baconsalt.com right then and there off a Blackberry. When we woke up the next morning, we had started a food company and didn’t have any idea what we were doing.

How did you figure out the food part and create the recipe?

I am not an extremely religious person but this whole thing has been fated. People talk about things that were meant to be and just happened and the whole beginning of this project was people just helping us. Dave grew up in Chicago and went to school in Iowa. I grew up in Colorado and went to school in Washington. For whatever reason with the culmination of all our experiences together, we actually knew everybody we needed to know to pull this off. The father of one of my best friends from college turned out to be the CEO of one of the largest dry food and spice manufacturing companies in the Western US. We called him up and asked him for advice. Everyone came together and helped us put this business together. It was just for fun and we didn’t put any money into it. It was just knocking around and seeing what we could get for free. Then the development stuff comes back and its going to be $4800 to produce 3000 bottles of BaconSalt – 1000 bottles of each flavor. The original flavors were Original, Hickory and Pepper. This included the bottles, the caps, the labels, the packaging—soup to nuts. So that week Dave was in the backyard playing tee ball with his three-year-old son. His wife videotaped Dave getting hit in the face with the ball and convinced him to send it to America’s Funniest Home Videos. He won five grand. Dave calls me and is like, “Lets just do this – someone wants us to do this.”

Were you still employed by other jobs at this point?

On July 16th, 2007, the site went live. I was home in Colorado and had just received an offer letter to go work for LinkedIn. All our expertise was in social media. We started a blog and searched through MySpace for “I love Bacon” imbedded in profiles. I found 37,000 people that had that and I spent three days inviting them with a note that said, “I heard you like bacon, you should check out this salt.” I did the same on Facebook and then Googled “bacon” and found all these websites dedicated to it. I started emailing them, “Hey, I know you have this bacon related web site. I love bacon as well and I have this bacon salt that you should check it out.” At this point we didn’t even have bottles of bacon salt yet. We just had these little one ounce bottles we bought off this web site and shrank the labels down on a laser jet printer and then scotch taped them on, filled them up and sent them out as samples. It just took off. We sent these out to the bacon media and it cost us all of nothing—just time and research. Then we started getting all these emails from people that said this was either the greatest joke in the world or you guys are going to be millionaires.

When did the site officially launch?

The site launched on Monday, July 16th 2007 and by Friday we had sold out all 3000 bottles of BaconSalt in three states and twelve countries. All of the sudden we were back ordered by three weeks. On July 16th, Dave and I took day off work. We bought a case of beer and had a roll of scotch tape and twenty boxes in his garage. We didn’t even know how to use Pay Pal—which was on our account as our shipping tool. We thought we’d get an order or two. And all of the sudden, we had hundreds of orders. The company went in the black like hour sixty-one and we never looked back. We still thought it was a weird Internet fluke. Monday comes around and I’m back at work and Dave calls me at like 8 am. In this really accusatory tone he says, ‘What have you done? 70,000 people went to the web site this morning!’ Well, someone from MSN, the second most visited web site in the world, got a hold of an email we sent around about BaconSalt, put something about us right on the home page and that really was it. It just went and all of the sudden we were backordered for months. We started grinding it out. We quit our jobs, got a small warehouse, had just one employee and we figured out how to market a food product for free using just the Internet and built a strategy around that.

What other things have you done on the Internet to grow the brand?

We went after all the majors . . . that’s really how we did this. Daily Candy was our original Oprah. They put us on their “Everywhere Edition.” We were calling independent grocery stores to sell our product because no major chain would touch us at this point. We tried getting on radio shows to tell our story and went after sites like AOL/Food, Thrillist, Salon, Daily Candy, all the BBQ web sites and funny web sites like holytaco.com. We found that all these content web sites out there would do something on us and were Internet gold. We could advance the brand with them and drive people back to our Myspace profile, Twitter account, Facebook . . Our Facebook group has like 10,000 followers. That allowed us to interact with our followers and make it sound like they were participating in the growth of a company. We told the story online that we were just two guys who had no idea what we were doing and you could follow our failures and successes everyday and just laugh about it. People would go out and champion our brand and story. People have gotten BaconSalt tattoos. We don’t spend any money on marketing. I do all the press and communications for the company fulltime. I just find people who are interested in hearing a funny story and want to move the brand forward.

How many bottles did you sell when launched in 07?

I have no idea. 250,000 – something like that? Way over a million now. Including Dave and myself, we now have five fulltime employees and a host of part-time hourly warehouse employees as well.

You introduced some new products . . . talk about Baconnaise.

With Baconnaise, introducing that product was much more challenging. In the spice aisle at grocery store where BaconSalt is, there are 1000 products in that space. In the same amount of shelf space in the mayo category, there’s a max of ten products. It’s just really hard to break into that space and we’ve been just really fortunate. Its prob in 4000 stores now. We laid a solid foundation of how to manufacture and co-package products with BaconSalt and cut our teeth on that learning curve. So when Baconnaise launched on October 30th of 2008, we were just ready for it and knew how to do it at max speed. We leveraged all the media contacts we had. In one week, we were on the Oprah Winfrey Show for ten minutes, The Daily Show, The Tonight Show, ABC World News—all in one five day period. We’ve been on The Today Show, Fox and Friends and in People magazine. We jumped from the bacon press to things like Daily Candy and Yelp to business press like the Wall Street Journal and then mainstream network media. One other product we have is bacon lip balm. We did it as joke and it’s a number one selling product. It costs nothing to produce and then you can sell it for $4.

Are you hearing from major players trying to buy you out or are you worried about them jumping into your category?

Well, the official response is we are not for sale but yeah we hear things. No one has said we want to buy your company. Its more like we’re at these shows, we know people now and everyone wants to meet us and talk to us and know what the secret sauce is to do what we did. We just figure that if we keep having fun and doing what we do and moving the company forward and launching new and unique products that if someone wants to buy us, they will and if we are ready to sell – we will.

What’s been your biggest surprise?

I don’t want to say how successful we’ve been but how much fun this has been and what a great experience. Starting your own company – you work seven days a week. I work eighteen hours a day – I haven’t taken a vacation in two years. My girlfriend hates me because of this but it’s an incredible experience. And here’s my biggest surprise. I worked for two start ups before my own company and can’t believe how beneficial that experience was. I worked for housevalues.com out of college and they had 100 employees and doing a million in sales and money was falling from sky. The I was at Jobster which didn’t work out. I watched a $58 million startup tank. Being involved in those to see what happened from the ground level and what decisions were made really prepared me for starting my own company.

What do you think your best business move has been?

Staying lean and spending as little as possible.

Worst?

So many . . .I’m trying to think of dumbest thing we did was and sorting through top 1000 right now. The worst was not listening to our instincts. We’d sit down and talk about something and say okay we don’t know the answer to this but this is what seems right to us. But then we allowed ourselves to be influenced by other peoples’ advice and feedback. That’s why you have advisers and we have great business advisers but I don’t think we stayed true to ourselves in certain situations whether it was making too much of product or using the wrong shipping vendor or hiring the wrong employee. For whatever reason we didn’t listen to our gut instinct on it and the biggest mistake was not being true to what we believed.

What’s next for you guys?

I have no idea. At this point, we have three solid product lines in distribution. We rewrite our priorities all the time on this big white board that’s in our office. Right now, it’s to make as many products as we can and make sure it shows up on time. Dave’s really big focus has been on tightening the bolts and working with vendors and suppliers to make us money by saving us money and renegotiating with the vendors as the business grows. And then for me, it’s to sell and push the products. We like to launch with a fun product like bacon lipgloss and then another for mainstream grocery. People should be on the lookout for our next launch in the next six months.

Click here to visit BaconSalt.com

See the "America's Funniest Home Video" that started it all - Click Here

To follow the guys on Twitter Click Here:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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