It’s always a struggle to get a small business off the ground; but today, the Internet and social media have given entrepreneurs a number of tools with which to grow their businesses. Over the last few years, we’ve seen all sorts of foodmakers, from chocolatiers to kimchi makers to granola mixers, successfully use online means to sell their products, attract and connect with customers, and expand their businesses. We talked with some of these success stories to find out how they used the Internet to their advantage.
1. Sell your wares
If you’re just starting out making a product, and you don’t have a shop to sell it at, the Internet is a great place to set up a store. Sour Puss Pickles, a Brooklyn-based pickle company, set up an online shop at Foodzie, an Etsy-like site that provides a central platform for foodmakers to sell to their customers. The company has found that Foodzie was able to expand their geographic reach: “Foodzie has brought a lot of interest from the West Coast,” said Chris Forbes of Sour Puss, “since they’re based in San Francisco.” With a well-run online shop, potential customers who read about your product, online or elsewhere, can give it a try—no matter where they are.
2. Keep fans up to date
Before most businesses land their product in a major store or reach a point where they can set up a shop of their own, they rely on local appearances to sell what they’ve made: farmers’ markets, “pop-ups,” or one-time appearances at bars or restaurants. Twitter and Facebook are two of the easiest ways to get the word out—and, since it’s so easy to re-broadcast information on these platforms, it’s easy for your fans to let others know, too.
Fans might also want to know about new products you’re selling. Anton Nocito of P&H Soda, for instance, an all-natural small-batch soda syrup maker, uses Blogger to run the P&H website, so that he can easily update customers on new products or appearances. Nocito recently posted updates announcing the production of a new flavor (Flame Grapefruit), their syrups landing in two new Manhattan stores and a soda class in Brooklyn. “Be smart and interact as much as you can,” says Nocito. “You never know who is watching and when someone important will pick up on it.”
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3. Solicit feedback
Forget write-in comment cards or the toll-free phone line of the last century; with the Internet, user feedback is as easy as a click and a comment. Twitter, Facebook and blogs are all great ways to hear what your customers think. From specific feedback on a certain item (What do you think of our new pepper jelly?) to seasonal product lines (What vegetables do you think we should pickle this spring?), it’s a simple and free way to learn what your fans think. And think beyond your individual products; Brooklyn-based jam-maker Anarchy in a Jar uses these platforms to determine where to sell next (“So many outdoor summer markets to sell the jam at, but which do we choose? do you have a favorite summer market in NYC?”). Direct communication with the people consuming your product is a great way to refine your approach.
4. Connect with your customers
The sorts of shoppers who seek out products from small businesses are often interested in more than just the chocolate or jam or granola you're selling; they’re interested in the story behind it. Blogs, Twitter and Facebook are great ways to show the world more about who you are: why you started the business, how it came about, why you’re devoting so much of your time and energy to it. “Skimkim has a great blog,” says Stephanie Klose, who profiles foodmakers on SeriousEats.com, of Sam Kim’s kimchi business; “[her] Twitter feed gives you a sense of the person behind the company.”
5. Connect with colleagues
Ultimately, the best way to learn about how to start a food business is by connecting with others who’ve been down the same road. And Twitter and Facebook are great ways to do so. Is your breadmaking friend holding an event next week? Re-tweet the news, and perhaps you’ll get the favor back next time. Is a fellow baker tweeting about a shop he’s selling at? Connect with him and get the details; see if there’s room for another baker’s goods. Small-scale foodmakers can form tight-knit communities, and the Internet is a great place to forge relationships or continue conversations started offline.
6. But don't overdo it
While these tools are a great way to connect with your actual or potential fan base, it’s important to use them judiciously. “We don't want to saturate our 'fans' or 'followers' with too much information all the time, just the highlights,” says Chris Forbes of Sour Puss Pickles. “Be smart with your information you throw out there. There is a fine line between too much information and just enough. You want to keep your audience interested and excited about your product or philosophy.”