Founder Diaries is a new series where we follow the founder of an early-stage bootstrapped startup and get an inside view as they grow and scale. Follow along as the founder provides updates every month or quarter for an entire year.
Entry 1 – September 2022
Why This Former Investor Quit His Job to Bootstrap an Ecommerce Shop for Grilled Goods
Andrew Buehler started Urban Smokehouse in early September with a Kickstarter campaign and nearly 5,000 pounds of meat. While he considered building the startup in 2020, Andrew’s business is still fresh (off the grill?) – so we’re tracking its first-year progress.
This Founder Diary will follow Urban Smokehouse over the next 12 months as Andrew works to win customers, build revenue, and scale his business. The first year tests a startup like no other, but Andrew is ready to tackle the coming challenges.
He’s already done the hard part: launching an ecommerce business on his own. But unlike most founders, Andrew drew from a decade-long career in private investment to build a profitable business model for selling meat.
“I think a lot of people have great ideas, but they might not know the fundamentals of what makes an attractive or scalable business,” Andrew says. “That’s what I learned from investing for ten years. What makes a winning company versus a losing company? How do you build a company that can grow from a small business to a medium-sized business to an enterprise?”
While Urban Smokehouse is still early in its journey, Andrew has big plans to expand it in the coming months. Read on to discover how and why Andrew applied private investment strategies to bootstrap an ecommerce meat shop.
A Legacy of Family and Food
Some high schoolers join marching bands or basketball. Andrew Buehler joined the Grilling Society. Between classes and homework, Andrew met up with other foodies to turn his dad’s grilling lessons into delicious cooked meats. Chicken, steak, hamburgers – Andrew learned how to grill it all from his professional chef father.
Andrew’s dad is the president of Barbecue Select, which cooks those pre-packaged, ready-to-eat meats you see in the grocery store. He functions as both entrepreneur and grill master, infusing his business with his love for cooking.
From when he was old enough to hold a spatula, Andrew learned how to both grill and run a business from his dad. He started visiting rummage and garage sales in high schools to find cheap silver jewelry and baubles he could flip on eBay. When he attended Bates College in 2009, Andrew started a t-shirt business to sell to his fellow students at basketball and football games.
“I was always trying to make a dollar, whether selling t-shirts, making food, or flipping things at garage and rummage sales. But I didn’t know how to make something that was scalable,” Andrew says. “In college, I was fascinated about what makes a stock rise or fall or what makes a company more or less valuable. So I turned to investing, which is similar to flipping. You buy something at a garage sale that you think is worth ten dollars, but the seller thinks it’s worth two, so you buy it and sell it for more.”
Andrew studied economics and Chinese at Bates until he graduated in 2013. During that time, he started America’s second-ever collegiate competitive eating club. The Fat Cats would grill up hot dogs and other meats and then eat them as quickly as possible in campus competitions.
After graduation, Andrew’s only culinary outlet was cooking his meals, the thriving restaurant scene in New York, and family dinners back in Chicago. He started his first finance job in New York in September 2013 and wouldn’t pursue his foodie passions for another decade.
Learning Startup Strategies in the Finance World
When he moved to New York, Andrew started working for a family-owned firm called Ocean Road Advisors, where he invested money for Gray Advertising CEO, Ed Meyer. In the years to come, Andrew would invest money for three different “ultra-high net worth individuals” like Ed.
“I spent 10 years looking at private investment opportunities for some of the most successful people in the world. And I think that gave me a framework for what an attractive business model looks like,” Andrew says. “I learned from three different ultra-successful businessmen what made them successful and what types of businesses they wanted to invest in.”
He also learned which attributes were most appealing to these businessmen. “Was it recurring revenue? Was it particular sectors or industries? Was it a management style or financial profile?”
But Andrew didn’t act on these insights until isolated in his New York apartment during the Covid pandemic.
“If you trace my story outside of corporate America, I’ve always been passionate about food. And so that was the genesis of creating Urban Smokehouse.”
“Covid was that gentle nudge I needed to do something that I was passionate about,” Andrew says. “If you trace my story outside of corporate America, I’ve always been passionate about food. And so that was the genesis of creating Urban Smokehouse.”
At first, Andrew considered investing in emerging food brands or even forming an incubator to help other food entrepreneurs build. He only considered starting his own ecommerce business when the pandemic resulted in a huge uptick in grocery delivery.
Andrew had never seen so many people buy perishables like meat and produce online as he did during the pandemic. The lobby of his apartment building piled up with food boxes, and a friend who worked for Butcher Box told Andrew about its success in 2020.
Most people like to observe perishables in person, looking for blemishes or the best cut of meat. Now that Covid had opened the door to online grocery shopping, Andrew realized how profitable this new market could be.
“I saw an opportunity in barbecue. When most people grill, they cook hotdogs and hamburgers, maybe chicken and steak. But it’s a different person that says, ‘Hey guys, come over in five hours when the brisket’s ready. Come over in three hours when the ribs are ready.’ Because smoked meats and slow cooking are an inconvenience and natural deterrent for most people,” Andrew says.
By March 2022, Andrew seriously considered building an ecommerce store that addressed grilling inconvenience by delivering ready-to-eat barbecue to your doorstep.
Gauging Public Interest Through Preorders
Andrew’s first step in building Urban Smokehouse was to talk to his dad. His father had run industrial-sized kitchens for years, so Andrew spent most of March and April discussing manufacturers that could produce his meat at scale. He also met with storage and shipping companies known for working with perishable food so he could store and deliver his meat safely. Andrew also concocted the perfect barbecue sauce recipe to go with his grilled meats.
Andrew’s background in private investing helped him recognize what the product should look like, how he should price it, and how he could scale it. But he had no experience in web design or marketing to help him launch.
“At the end of the day, this is an online business. The operations piece is cooking and moving products around, but ultimately, our storefront is a website, and we gain customers through effective digital marketing,” Andrew says.
He reached out to his network of friends from high school and college to see if any digital marketers could help him.
“I can speak ribs and brisket. It’s harder for me to talk SEO and click-through,” Andrew says. “I have a friend who’s a digital marketer and they’ve helped me answer questions like, Do I promote a post on Instagram or Tiktok? What demographic should I select? What type of content is the most engaging and will get the most clicks?”
A close friend built Urban Smokehouse’s website and taught Andrew how to tweak it. Aside from this help, he manages the business on his own. He registered it as an LLC in May 2022 and prepared all summer for a formal launch in September.
Before launching, Andrew raised funding and brand awareness with a Kickstarter campaign. Andrew sold people half racks of ribs as preorders that he’d fulfill when the business started in September. Hundreds of customers paid over $30,000 in total to taste his meats.
“Ultimately, my product can go bad. It’s not something that can sit on the shelf for five years. With food, I needed to ensure I reached critical mass.”
“I didn’t view it as a way to raise money to make the business happen. We just needed to sell a certain amount of product to hit the switch,” Andrew says. “We’re in a perishable food category, where ultimately my product can go bad. It’s not something that can sit on the shelf for five years. With food, I needed to ensure I reached critical mass.”
With 700 half racks of ribs ordered, Andrew had plenty of product to keep him busy for the first month of his launch. He cooked all these ribs himself, making a few extras to serve as inventory for the store and pre-packaged goods he could sell at in-person pop-up events.
By the end of October, Andrew hopes to secure even more customers for Urban Smokehouse by making a name for himself at these pop-up events all over New York City.
Working to Build Brand Awareness
Every Sunday this fall, when Americans tune into local NFL games, Andrew plans to run a booth outside popular sports bars. He’ll grill ribs on the spot, offering them free to hungry football fans who can’t order food at the bar. Customers interested in more than just one rib can buy a half rack from him to take home later.
The best way to spread the word about Urban Smokehouse’s offering, Andrew argues, is to have potential customers taste the meat for themselves. Then, the next time they want a fresh, ready-to-cook rack of ribs, they’ll order from Andrew’s website.
He hopes to gain even more exposure at an event at the Marine Base in Brooklyn this month. With over 2,000 people in attendance, it’ll be a huge opportunity for potential customers to sample Urban Smokehouse ribs.
If this event doesn’t draw in enough leads to Andrew’s ecommerce shop, he hopes the new digital marketing firm he’s partnered with does.
“We’ll begin experimenting with real ad spend and campaigns. Our main goals are to experiment with demographics and to get our customer acquisition cost as low as possible (at least below profit for our smallest box). If this succeeds, we’ll be pouring significant capital into those campaigns,” Andrew says.
With luck, the campaigns will draw in enough customers to offset Urban Smokehouse’s largest expense: shipping costs. To compete with other ecommerce businesses, Andrew offers free shipping on all orders. He foots the massive bill himself to drive or fly his meat anywhere in the US in less than two days. But that cost ends up reflected in the price of each half rack.
“The packages are heavy because the meat’s heavy, and then it’s being shipped with ice in a styrofoam cooler. Right now I’m outsourcing this, but ultimately, I want to bring it in-house as the business grows,” Andrew says. “That’s where most of our costs are and where we can maybe lower our prices if we’re able to optimize this.”
While these costs might cripple other ecommerce founders, Andrew’s financial background has helped him extend Urban Smokehouse’s financial runway.
“It’s critical you understand as a bootstrapper how long you can survive making no money. Don’t assume you’ll make money in months one, two, or three. You need to have savings or access to credit or something to be able to pay your bills,” Andrew says.
“Your product needs to be profitable soon after launching, which is why I do everything myself. I can’t afford to have employees,” he adds. “It’s important for people to figure out how to make a product that can make a little bit of money early.”
To find out how Andrew’s sales have done since launching, check in next month for his latest Founder Diary update.
Entry 2 – October 2022
Want to Build Demand for Your Business? Sell Smaller Quotas to Bigger Audiences, Says Andrew
We’re back with Founder Diary Entry #2, tracking Andrew Buehler’s progress as a first-time founder in his first year of business.
Last month, we learned how Andrew wielded his skills as a former private investor to bootstrap a startup in September. For October, Andrew aimed to sell over 100 half-racks of ribs at his first vending event. And he wanted to launch new social media ads courtesy of a marketing agency.
While achieving these goals, Andrew learned how supply-and-demand economics could make his meat the most desirable on the market.
Sell Out Now to Earn Revenue Later
In Andrew’s mind, you don’t want to meet customer demand but narrowly miss it. Build anticipation with a limited run for your product or service and customers will clamor for more. Turning customers away is never easy, but it can reveal the power of scarcity.
Andrew learned this lesson a few weeks ago, after booking a vending gig at the 6th Communication Battalion Marine Base in Brooklyn. The Battalion’s Family Day event drew over 2,000 guests who mingled while kids played on inflatable obstacle courses and trick-or-treated out of car trunks.
While the Urban Smokehouse founder brought an extra grill for the occasion, he didn’t know only three food vendors would cover the event. Within hours, the lunchtime rush completely emptied his coolers full of ribs. Even though he’d packed triple what he usually would for an in-person event, he still had to turn customers away.
Surprisingly, Andrew thinks this worked in his favor.
“At the time, I wished I’d brought more ribs, but selling out helped us in the long run,” Andrew says. “It’s about building hype and branding. Let’s say a hundred people want it, but only eighty people get it. Those eighty people tell the twenty people exactly how great it was. And then those people start talking about it, creating more buzz.”
His digital marketing agency partner, The Unwelcome Corp., sent its staff to Andrew’s tent to help. While Andrew worked the grill, they handed out plates of ribs and walked around the site to spread the word about his meat.
Until now, Andrew’s primary form of marketing was word of mouth and inviting people to sample his meat in person. Selling out at a big event like the Battalion’s helped build brand awareness and anticipation for his next one. The event coordinator has already invited Andrew back for next year’s Family Day celebration and suggested he vend at more events throughout the year.
Andrew can expect a warm reception at future Battalion events. But more importantly, he hopes selling out will create demand for his product outside of these calendared get-togethers, where he can build consistent revenue to reinvest in his business.
Need a Reliable Partner? Try a Young and Hungry Startup
Why did Andrew choose to work with The Unwelcome Corp.? Because they’re “small, hungry, and ambitious” – just like Andrew.
“With startups, every dollar matters because you have so few of them,” Andrew says. “It’s hard to engage a marketing or PR firm that requires a big retainer fee or other financial commitment. And it’s rewarding when you find people who appreciate that you’re both startups, so everyone’s willing to do a little free work for each other. That’s how you build the most loyal and trusting customers.”
In the last few weeks, Andrew has met with Unwelcome Corp. to shoot hours of video for social media ads and content. The team knocked out dozens of one-liner intros, hooks, and action shots of Andrew placing Urban Smokehouse meat on the grill, drizzling sauce on it, packaging the product, and so on.
The ads will go live in the next week or so, and the marketing agency plans to track which demographics deserve more targeted content. If more middle-aged men click on Urban Smokehouse ads than women in their 20s, that’ll be the agency’s focus next month.
Andrew also plans to work with the agency on email marketing. Currently, he only sends order confirmation emails and the occasional nudge to people who leave items in their online cart. But Unwelcome Corp.’s new strategy will send emails to potential customers based on six different scenarios, including upselling and cross-selling new meat products.
SEO is Andrew’s third priority because it takes longer to see a return on investment. Once the ecommerce shop builds some revenue momentum, he’ll set up SEO processes that snag people searching for him or barbecued meats online.
Andrew thanks The Unwelcome Corp. for investing hundreds of hours into building his brand. Marketing agencies sometimes get a bad rap, but in Andrew’s case, they appear to have gone beyond what a traditional agency would do and help in all areas of his business.
“I’m forever grateful to these people and I’m super excited to work with them,” Andrew says. “They’re saying, ‘Hey, can we come to events? How can we help with the events you’re doing? Where else do you need help?’ They’ve just been very proactive, great listeners, and great helpers both within and beyond marketing.”
Don’t Be Afraid to Alter Your Business Plan
With The Unwelcome Corp. running content and ads on social media, Andrew’s plate was much lighter this month. He spent that time wondering what else he could do to grow revenue.
Andrew originally structured Urban Smokehouse as a D2C business first and a B2B business second. He figured the brand name could spread in the right circles and bring businesses (think wholesalers like Costco, Sam’s Club, and so on) to him in the next few years.
But in late October and early November, Andrew wondered if he could capture a different B2B market first. He’d spent every Sunday this fall selling ribs outside sports bars in New York. Now, he wondered if those same bars would be willing to buy 20 or 30 half-racks of Urban Smokehouse ribs to sell to bar patrons.
Andrew has already made plans with one bar to sample his ready-to-cook meat in mid-November.
“It makes sense to approach some of these small businesses because the orders feed themselves,” Andrew says. “We spend those profits on digital marketing, which hopefully produces more website orders. And then that builds the brand, which makes it easier to sell to fellow businesses because people know what it is. And that’s the circle.”
Prepare for the Most Wonderful (and Busy) Time of the Year
By December, Andrew hopes to see profitable results from The Unwelcome Corp.’s digital marketing campaign. Most of the ads should debut by mid-November, and the new email marketing strategies will launch by the end of the month.
If all goes well with the first bar sampling, Andrew will approach more hospitality establishments in New York, and hopefully, the bar owner will spread the word too.
And finally, with the holidays around the corner, Andrew plans to offer an incentive or discount package for D2C buyers. A $20 gift card for every $100 spent, for example, might encourage more people to order their Christmas ribs from Urban Smokehouse.
Andrew should be in a downright jolly mood the next time we hear from him. Stay tuned to see if his sales tactics pay off in next month’s Founder Diary update.
Entry 3 – November 2022
How to Turn Small Defeats into Future Victories
In November’s Founder Diary Entry, Andrew Buehler takes us through Urban Smokehouse’s highs and lows.
Last month, Andrew eagerly awaited the results of a new digital marketing campaign. He partnered with The Unwelcome Corp. to create promotional videos and social media posts, which have performed phenomenally.
Website traffic doubled in November, and sales grew 30 percent. In the first few weeks of December, about a month after social media ads went live, website traffic sales skyrocketed by 400 percent – yes, you read that right. Four hundred percent.
But Andrew learned a painful lesson about timing and planning his social media content during major shopping seasons. He also lost a hard-fought contest for a $10,000 small business grant, which could’ve stretched his marketing budget further.
How did Andrew turn these discouraging results into future successes?
Schedule Your Content to Target Seasonal Customers
On November 18, Urban Smokehouse debuted its Instagram and Facebook ads. Hours of shooting videos and photos resulted in an immediate uptick in sales, especially from western states.
The Unwelcome Corp. helped Andrew shoot dozens of promotional hooks, testing five videos to appeal to different audiences on TikTok and Instagram. When several paying customers engaged with one particular video, Andrew’s team turned off the other four to target NBA and Barstool Sports fans with new iterations of that video.
The plan is to shoot new ads and social media posts monthly. Originally, Andrew thought it would be a one to two-day turnaround, but The Unwelcome Corp. needs one to two weeks to select and edit the best shots together.
Unfortunately, this means that Andrew didn’t start shooting Christmas and holiday content until the beginning of December.
“I messed up because I needed to do the Christmas shoot last month,” Andrew says. “Even when you shoot these videos early in the month, they’re not usable for a week or two. And suddenly, it’s one to two weeks until Christmas.”
Andrew will still use the content from his November shoot to promote gift ideas for family and friends, but they won’t be holiday themed.
Hopefully, since Urban Smokehouse sells perishable goods, people won’t think about buying meat for their loved ones until a week or two before Christmas anyway. That’s Andrew’s line of thinking, but he knows he won’t repeat this mistake moving forward.
“We’ll create a calendar to make videos the month prior. In December, we’ll shoot a short Christmas promo and then one for New Year. In January, we’re going to film and start advertising for the Super Bowl, which is in February. And then in February, we’re going to film for March Madness,” Andrew says.
The Urban Smokehouse founder looks forward to testing more promotional material in the coming weeks to see what attracts his target audience. But if the ads don’t encourage more customers to buy, Andrew hopes his new email marketing campaign will do the job instead.
Creating One-and-Done Email Templates
Before hiring The Unwelcome Corp., Andrew did very little email marketing – just order confirmations and the occasional nudge to owners of abandoned carts. But now, he’s contracted a virtual assistant to build email templates and graphics for several customer scenarios.
These templates include “sexy pics” of Urban Smokehouse ribs and other “jazzed up” designs – a far cry from his previous “plain jane,” black-and-white email format. Andrew says they’re targeting four scenarios specifically: a welcome email for new subscribers, a more dedicated cart reminder, upgraded confirmation emails, and feedback forms.
In under a month, Andrew’s email subscribers have already shot up from 500 to over 3,000. He’s excited to introduce more templates in the future, especially when it comes time to launch new products.
“We can advertise the new product to thousands of customers on our email list,” Andrew says. “We’ll tell them when it’s coming out and maybe include a coupon code to encourage people to buy it.”
New Year, New Products to Launch
In November, Andrew narrowed down a list of potential new products to eight options. He’s now between beef brisket or pulled chicken as the next product to launch.
While the ribs have been successful, Andrew wants to include an option for people who don’t eat pork. Both beef and chicken satisfy different dietary restrictions, but Andrew’s considering the pros and cons of each.
“Pulled chicken is cheaper and more malleable. I could see people putting it on a salad or a sandwich. People might buy it more frequently than ribs, so we’ll see recurring website visitors,” Andrew says.
“Brisket goes in the opposite direction. It doubles down on the original pitch of Urban Smokehouse, where this meat is obnoxious to make yourself because it’s time and labor-intensive, so buy it from us. But then it hits the pain point of being a more expensive product.”
To help him decide, Andrew plans to poll his email subscribers and social media followers to see which option is popular with fans.
Before, Andrew relied on a Kickstarter campaign with thousands of preorders to help him hit critical mass. He has no such safety net moving forward and will have to launch new products based on customer interest.
No preorders also means no initial income from customers. He’ll need more capital to add an SKU to his business and buy updated packaging for the chicken or brisket. Originally, Andrew hoped to cover these costs with a $10,000 small business grant that he became a finalist for last month. But hopes don’t always translate into real-life outcomes.
You Can’t Win Them All
When Andrew and I spoke in early December, he was preparing a pitch for the 1010 WINS Small Business $10k Challenge, run by a local radio station in New York. He entered the competition a few months ago after a friend recommended he look into small business grants to help him bootstrap Urban Smokehouse.
Out of thousands of applicants, Andrew became one of 10 semifinalists and eventually five finalists. Competing against four fellow small businesses from New York, he presented a 90-second speed pitch to a panel of judges a few weeks ago.
Unfortunately, Urban Smokehouse lost to Trellus Same Day Delivery, which ships items from small businesses to local New Yorkers within 24 hours. After coming so far, Andrew felt devastated by the near-victory. He’d already envisioned what he’d do with the money he won.
“We’d spend the money on digital marketing and the new product launch,” Andrew says. “We just started digital marketing, but that’s where we’ll spend a lot of money in the next few months. It’s our sales engine for direct-to-consumer outside of our local market.
“And then we probably want to launch a new product in January or February. Adding an SKU means additional costs such as buying packaging and doing a marketing campaign around it.”
Though Andrew didn’t win the prize money, the 1010 WINS radio station wants to feature Andrew and his business in a one-off episode about his entrepreneurial journey.
The station aired his pitch during the competition, giving Andrew tons of free publicity. He saw a spike in sales the week of the contest, though Andrew credits the Unwelcome Corp.’s digital marketing for the new customers.
What About Andrew’s Chance to Go B2B?
Last month, Andrew scheduled a tasting with a local bar owner to persuade him to stock Urban Smokehouse meat. It was time to expand out of D2C and try some B2B tactics, Andrew thought, especially since he already sells ribs outside local bars on Sundays.
The bar owner introduced Andrew to a local investor who manages 14 establishments across New York. After tasting the ribs, this investor offered Andrew an opportunity he never saw coming.
“He’s opening a fifteenth restaurant and asked if I wanted to provide all of the food in that restaurant and essentially operate the kitchen,” Andrew says. “I told him I’m not interested in opening a restaurant right now. I’m more in the business of selling meat to people who’ll cook it.
“He was a little bit surprised by that. But now we’re shifting that conversation to my original question: ‘Is my product relevant for any of your 15 bars or restaurants?’”
While Andrew loved the “vote of confidence” in his ability to run a kitchen, he says it would be too much of a “distraction” from his main goals. He wants to establish Urban Smokehouse as a go-to, easy-to-cook meat brand that customers and bar chefs alike can enjoy. But he’s not opposed to a brick-and-mortar location sometime in the future.
Time to See the Snowball Effect in Action
Although November and early December dealt Andrew some hard blows, he’s excited about the New Year. Not only does he have a new product launch to plan, but he also gets to continue playing with the digital marketing ads to see what hooks his audience.
“I’m excited to see the snowball effect of our digital marketing. Before, our business mainly stemmed from pop-ups. I did a lot of sales on Sunday, and then throughout the week, some days there’d be no sales. It’s been very stutter-step,” Andrew says.
“Now, it’s more fun to see push notifications on my phone whenever I get orders. Oh, look, someone in a town I’ve never heard of in Arizona just ordered the product. I know they’re not aware of the in-person pop-ups in New York, so they’re finding us through Facebook and Instagram ads. That makes me excited.”
In the next few months, Andrew hopes to tell us that he’s receiving multiple orders every day. And he’ll update us on whether or not the investor stocks Urban Smokehouse at his local bars and restaurant. Prepare for a juicy update about Andrew’s new opportunities in next month’s Founder Diary entry.
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