December 15, 2014
If asked, Pauline Shaw will be the first to admit that making sales calls to buyers is one of her least favorite business activities. So how has she managed to grow her company, ZENERO – a line of gluten-free baking mixes, so that it’s being carried in numerous small and mid-sized regional retailers in under a year? That’s what we wanted to know, so we asked!
Have you always been in the culinary industry? What were you doing before starting Zenero?
Prior to starting ZENERO after moving to the Pacific Northwest, I taught computer classes to seniors. With multiple classes ranging from beginners to intermediate users for PC and MAC I had about 60 senior students learning basic computer skills, email, MS Office, internet, sharing and saving digital files and computer security and backup systems as well as how to use their mobile devices that were gifts from their children. Along with teaching computer classes, I worked as a private chef preparing meals and teaching clients (in their home) how to prepare healthy nutritious meals for dietary restrictions / health issues such as high cholesterol, high blood pressure and diabetes. I’m very happy to say my food clients reported improved health and my computer students were happy to be able to connect with family and friends via their new skills.
ZENERO started after I spent several years experimenting and perfecting gluten free baked goods for my own enjoyment after I was diagnosed with Celiac disease in 2009. As a health-focused foodie, it was a challenge to find delicious nutritious gluten free baked products. Most of what I found on the market was overly sweet to compensate for taste. Most had a grittiness and an unpleasant aftertaste. And, most had ingredients starting with sugar or a white starch which is not healthy for those with Celiac because we are more prone to diabetes. After perfecting my recipes and hearing the very positive feedback from friends and taste testers I decided to bring the joy back to eating gluten free, and launched ZENERO in July 2014.
At what point did you decide this could be a real business and not just something you created for yourself and family/friends?
I realized this could be a real business when those who could enjoy gluten-ful products were not able to detect that my products were gluten free. Here is a testimonial that brings a smile to my face because the husband had refused to share in his wife’s gluten free journey until he tasted my products. “My husband couldn’t stop raving about the Pizza Crust, I had to keep reminding him it is gluten free! He said he wants this pizza at least once a week!” He loves pizza, and he’s Italian!
What were some of the hardest aspects of starting the business? How did you go about finding a co-packer, packaging company, etc that you felt comfortable with.
One of the most challenging aspects of starting the business was to keep focused. Without any business training or know-how it meant very long days and nights to research and learn. There were mistakes and challenges, and it was often difficult to not be overcome by the mistake. I soon realized there will be many more mistakes along the way, but that it was important to view the mistake, learn from it and move on and keep focused. Although ZENERO launched in 2014, the idea of starting a business came in 2012. It took me over a year to research and find a co-packer and packaging company. I contacted many companies inquiring about their services until I found a few that met my requirements and felt like a good fit. I arranged to tour the facility to ensure standards, processes and quality were as claimed, and just as important to put a face to the people I would be working with. I feel a good working relationship is key to long term success, so it took me awhile to determine which facility I would work with.
Your sales strategy is to focus mainly on wholesale sales. What challenges have you faced getting into retailers? How have you overcome those challenges?
The biggest challenge with getting into larger retailers is being a small business. Many of these retailers purchase exclusively via their distributor. It’s a difficult challenge because even if you want to work with a distributor to land the account, the distributor is not interested in working with a small startup company. It’s somewhat a no win situation right now. I have retailers who love my products but will place a purchase order only if I am with a distributor. You have to be big to play big so how does that really work for a small business? To overcome this challenge, I’m currently focusing on selling to retailers who are willing to do direct-store-delivery. I promote local, and offer incentives for their first order. I do my best to demonstrate outstanding customer service and build our relationship to hopefully get the re-order.
You’ve mentioned to me that you’re pretty persistent when it comes to knocking on doors and trying to get sales. Would you mind sharing with our readers how you motivate yourself to always be selling even though you don’t consider yourself a ‘saleswoman’?
Sales is definitely not my strength, and in all honesty it scares me to death. But if I don’t sell, my products aren’t going to sell itself so the motivation is knowing the opportunity to succeed is my choice. There’s no budget as a small business to hire a salesperson so the only road to possible success is to face my fears and just do it. It’s that or close my business and stop pretending I have a business. I schedule my day to make at least a dozen or more sales calls a day. Many will be the same calls I made a few days before. Before each call I tell myself I am the only one who is going to sell my product so take a deep breath and get on with it. I keep calling until I reach someone.
Have you noticed that retail buyers respond particularly well to one way of being contacted over another? Do you simply walk in and ask to talk to the buyer or send samples in advance or send emails, etc?
I have found simply walking is not well received mainly, and understandably, because the buyers are very busy. Emails have been the worse because I never know if they received the email unless they reply which isn’t generally going to happen. The best is to be able to get the buyer on the phone. I have found it is important to keep the phone call brief to respect the buyers time, but equally important to secure an in-person appointment during the call.
Have you done or are you planning to do any types of promotions to help increase your sales (could be things like in-store demos, coupons, etc)?
For every account I’ve secured I offer and do in-store demos. If the retailer has a kitchen for cooking classes, I will arrange to teach classes, speak, or contribute to their newsletters. These are all ways to promote my brand awareness. I’ve reached out the specific publications to, hopefully, get a review or mention of my products.
One challenge small entrepreneurs often have is getting their product to sell-through on the store shelves when you’re not there actively doing a promotion. How have you managed to build up brand loyalty so that customers are actively looking for and buying your products when they go into stores?
In-store demos definitely increase sales. To build brand awareness and loyalty I use social media, I network and if the opportunity is appropriate I’ll talk about my products, and I have donate my products to fundraisers and events where tasting and word of mouth can help.
Since we’re at the end of the year, it only makes sense to ask – what’s on tap for ZENERO in 2015?
Focus for 2015 is one step at a time. Continue to build brand awareness, and sell, sell, sell. Maybe, possibly review an opportunity that has come up with interest for our products from across the border. But mainly, stay focused and keep selling! And, budget for a trade show.