Sometimes the simplest success stories are the most enlightening. Earlier this week, I was fortunate enough to stumble across FYM Hot Sauce and creator Dane Wilcox’s story.
This is a tale of old school hustle on a new school platform. It also reminds us that brilliant marketing doesn’t come off as marketing.
On top of this being a great grassroots success story, this strikes a familiar chord with me. You see, in my free time, I make my own family recipe salsa and sell it by the pint. So naturally, I’m pulling for anyone who is selling any type of hot sauce.
The Run Down
You probably haven’t heard of FYM Hot Sauce. In fact, not a single person had heard of it until recently; FYM Hot Sauce didn’t exist until late 2012.
After a summer of gardening, creator Dane Wilcox ended up with a murderer’s row of fresh peppers. What does one do with a king’s bounty of peppers? Take their love of gardening and love of all things spicy and make their own hot sauce, of course.
Within that year, Wilcox and his family have taken the pursuit of the perfect hot sauce from just a bunch of seeds in soil to a Kickstarter campaign that hit their funding goal within 12 hours (as of the time of this writing, they’ve exceeded their goal 6 times over)!
So what were the ingredients to successful grassroots growth for FYM Hot Sauce?
Besides the obvious foundation (passion), Wilcox used a couple of online platforms and a lot of hustle to spin a web of interest that far exceeded what he could have done locally.
Here’s a simple outline of the key ingredients:
- Great product
Kickstarter and Reddit
A few years ago we might have referred to Facebook and Twitter a cutting edge platforms. In 2014, the social media giants are already looked at as old hat. Though, I’d imagine that most people have encountered a Kickstarter campaign at this point, there are still many who are wondering what the heck a Reddit is.
A key to FYM’s successful strategy was not resorting to Kickstarter until a lot of work had been put in to drum up interest; Reddit was the primary vehicle for building that interest.
The Front Page of the Internet
Referring to itself as ‘the front page of the Internet’, Reddit is a massively popular site which had 115 million unique visitors as of April.
Known as a time sink with a stronger gravitational pull than a black hole, Reddit’s users can submit anything they find interesting to millions of other users. A key appeal of Reddit is how it is structured into an endless web of subreddits (which are all user created, as well).
Want to see the latest round of funny pictures on the Internet? You can wait until your Aunt Bessie shares it on Facebook months from now, or you can browse /r/funny along with 5.9 million other Reddit users subscribed (that figure doesn’t count the mass volume of users who browse anonymously).
Communities of all types form within these subreddits every day. From a subreddit devoted to explaining anything you ask about so that even a 5 year old could understand it, to local based subreddits a la /r/Nashville, or even the bizarre such as /r/Kangabros.
Active subreddits might have anywhere from a handful of people to thousands to millions.
From a communications perspective, this ability to reach masses, but also pinpoint the most relevant is rousing.
Summary – How he made it work
As we’ll see, Wilcox spent time perfecting the sauce. He was able to get immediate feedback by distibuting it locally and iterate from there.
The equation was simple from there:
- Make something he loved
- Find a few people who also love it
- Find a way to share the love with the masses
With this basis, it’s clear that Wilcox saw spreading his creation to as many people as he could find as more of a benevolent obligation than anything.
He started working out packaging and delivery logistics as he developed more variants of FYM Hot Sauce.
From there, he continued to work on using Reddit as a means to find the people who would love his hot sauce.
Remember the hustle part? Instead of trying to convince people to buy his hot sauce, he insisted that anyone who wanted to try it got to; to the tune of over 2000 samples given away for free (“unforgiveable”)!
And after a lot of time and a lot of work (the ingredient that we often overlook in success stories), he got the machine running.
The other cool thing about driving interest via Reddit is that it lays out the history right in front of us. So let’s trace back to where it all started and breakdown the timeline.
“I made hot sauce”
If you use Reddit as a lens for viewing FYM’s history, you’ll see that nothing about it was an overnight success.
According to the company profile on the FYM website there was a lot of experimentation put in to developing the hot sauce.
FYM Hot Sauce’s first pulse on Reddit was in October of 2012. A link to a picture titled, “I made hot sauce” took its first steps and promptly fell down into total obscurity, netting 2 comments and 2 upvotes (upvotes are basically a vote of confidence in whatever you share and help more people see it).
From what we know of the FYM story, it’s a safe assumption to guess that this was near the time that the recipe had been perfected.
The picture was viewed a little over 1300 times.
Total obscurity by Reddit standards, especially in a huge subreddit like /r/Pics. However, one of the 2 commenters remarking, “I’d buy it,” could only be a sign of good things to come.
“Tell me the best place in Portland, I will send you a free bottle of hot sauce.”
Over a year passed before the next radar blip. By the time December of 2013 rolled around, the hot sauce had progressed enough for its return to Reddit.
Here we witness the product development process first hand.
In a post titled ‘Tell me the best place in Portland, I will send you a free bottle of hot sauce,’ he mentioned to another reddit user, mochaspice, that he had not beeng selling it in stores yet, but had been, “in the process of getting everything tested and certified”.
Even though he had devoted over a year to the project already, the next phase was 5 months away.
I WANT YOU! – to try my hot sauce!
In late April of 2014, the time finally came to give the world the tasty fire breathing gift of FYM Hot Sauce.
In addition to several other social media outlets (even a spotting on the FatWallet.com freebie forums), he focused his efforts on the following 3 subreddits:
|Subreddit||# of Subscribers|
|/r/Hotsauce||~2400 *this was a trending subreddit on 5/15, the subscriber base grew by 500 since the time I started writing this|
How did each post fare? Let’s take a look at the success relative to each subreddit.
In /r/hotsauce’s 5 years of existence his free sample post ranks 4th all time with 41 upvotes.
His follow-up post about sending out 2 thousand samples ranks 1st with 188 upvote.
His follow-up post in the /r/portland subreddit was the 8th most popular post this month (based on upvotes).
His post offering free samples garnered 54 comments, most of which were people asking for a sample, posting a positive testimonial, and constructive, immediately feedback.
Relatively speaking, not quite as mercurial as the Hot Sauce subreddit, but being a much more diverse subreddit, still very successful.
His free sample post in /r/Freedbies only ranked 31st in the last month, but it garnered 92 comments.
For perspective, the average comment total for the top 100 submissions within the last month was 30. In fact, only 5 other submissions had more comments than his post in the past month. And just for the heck of it, the average for the top 100 submissions of all time on the freebies subreddit is just above 100.
Sending out 2 thousand free samples
Almost 3 weeks later and a tireless amount of work, he came back to Reddit detailing the process of sending 2000 samples in an image gallery (check it out for yourself!):
Since Reddit ordered more than 2 thousand samples of my hot sauce, I have been working like crazy. Here are all the samples I mailed out along with some pictures of the process – Link to Reddit Submission
Not only did Wilcox and his family send out 2000 samples, but the level of interest rocketed well beyond that.
Reddit user SpintheCork estimated that the cost of fulfilling all those sample orders totaled around $4200, to which Wilcox remarked, “you are in the ballpark. I am very passionate about this stuff and want people to try it!”
Of course, the samples were only the start of the burgeoning interest.
His follow-up post was even more successful than his initial free sample announcement. This time he submitted the post to the following subreddits: /r/Portland, /r/hotsauce, /r/spicy, a subreddit dedicated to all things spicy; and /r/Pics, a massive subreddit with 5.8 million subscribers.
The submissions to /r/Pics hit the Reddit jackpot; the frontpage. It got 3779 upvotes and 2106 comments.
The photo album on imgur was viewed over 370,000 times.
Meanwhile, he launched his Kickstarter campaign with a goal of $5,500. There’s currently $43,179 pledged with 26 days left.
The numbers don’t even tell the entire success story. There was an overwhelming amount of support and testimonials in the comments themselves, including an offer to help him get distribution from an employee at a large grocery distribution center.
And this is only delving into what we can find on Reddit and Kickstarter. We can almost certainly assume that there’s many more exciting things in the works behind the scenes.
Not a blueprint, a guidebook
As an Entrepreneurship major in undergrad, we threw around the phrase Market, Margin, Me until there wasn’t a dead horse to beat, just bones and soil, but this was a textbook marriage of ‘Me’ and ‘Market’. With all the work that’s been put into FYM thus far, we can assume that the Margin will be there, too.
It’s impossible to not love watching a belief and love of something take form into something greater. As observers, we were lucky to have Reddit as a platform to tangibly analyze its effectiveness.
Each subreddit gives us a microcosm of demographics and interests. Wilcox was wise in his specific choice of subreddit, while using his enthusiasm to come off as honest to a group of people who, traditionally, tend to be very skeptical and wary of any marketers.
He wasn’t marketing to make money, he was marketing because he loved his product and he knew other people would, too. In a sense, the marketing was incidental.
Subreddits, Targeting, and Random Affinities
If he were a fisherman, you could say that Wilcox used a harpoon in the small pond of /r/Hotsauce, a hook and fishing rod in Lake /r/Portland, and a net in the Sea of /r/Freebies.
From a marketer’s perspective, we can see how effective target markets are; knowing who to target, where to find them, and how to do it authenticly.
His subreddit (aka target audience) choices were wildly effective, and highlight how powerful random affinities are.
There are a lot of takeways from the FYM Hot Sauce story. To bullet point a small collection of thoughts:
- Passion and authenticity are invaluable, but also intangible
- Once again, the Internet lets us reach more people than we ever thought possible
- Finding places where you can align the interests of users and your business is a no-brainer
- Newer platforms (e.g., Reddit) are still uncharted territories
- Twitter, Facebook, etc., while still powerful, are oversaturated and in a lot of ways ‘mature’ platforms
- Trying to sell an idea is more important than trying to sell a thing
- If all you want to do is make a buck, people will know and people will be turned off
Marketing by Unmarketing
In the digital marketing world, Reddit is starting to surface in a lot of conversation, but Reddit has subsisted without the over influence of marketers for so long because marketers are like outsiders trying to hop the great wall. If you’re not one of them, it will be painfully obvious. If you’re trying to serve yourself (or business) first, they will know.
(I should note, though, that there is definitely some ‘gaming’ of the system by marketers that is less overt just as there was with Digg back when Digg was the big man on campus)
Contrary to what some might say, inbound marketing is not dead. It’s as alive as ever.
For instance, what’s really stopping a company such as ours from taking some of our ad spend and saying, “hey, our business is all about giving away free stuff, like most people, we love memes, and we love delighting people. Let’s take a different meme each month and give away a hundred t-shirts of one of the latest memes/trends/whatever to /r/Freebies.”
It might kind of sound like I am saying market by not marketing, promote by not promoting, and well, I am.
And I’m not.
Look at it this way, if we tried out that idea and said to ourselves, “we’d be entirely fine if nobody even visits our website as a result (let alone convert),” it still creates value for us. For one, it demonstrates our expertise in what our business is supposed to do (put logos on things). Secondly, it builds brand equity. Third, technically speaking we are still getting eyeballs. Instead of jamming them into a Google search or Facebook newsfeed, the viewers are actually clicking their way to the exposure.
More importantly, if the entire idea totally backfired then we’d still have a better idea about where and how to connect to people who want to know us and we want to know. You can’t put a price tag on that; especially when you find out what works; tons of bonus points if nobody else is doing it yet.
For Dane Wilcox and FYM Hot Sauce, we got to witness an entire process of experimentation. We also got to witness the point when experimentation, passion, and promotion clicked. His path isn’t a blueprint for success, because merely replicating what others have done results in rapidly diminishing returns, but it is a great guidebook.
If an American staple such as The New York Times, with all their resources, struggles with yet yearns for experimentation, what does that say about us smaller players?
Now if you excuse me, I need to go make my kickstarter pledge. I hear this stuff is amazing and must know for myself.