In this article we intend to share detailed insight into how we launched and grew a healthy snacking brand to a near 7 figure turnover – in just 18 months.
All that we’ve learned on our journey: What worked, what didn’t, and the big mistakes we made in the process.
My intention for sharing this, is so that other people who are considering launching a similar business can benefit from our experience and put it to valuable use with their own brand.
We’re very transparent as an agency about the brands we’ve built in-house. I hope also, as we continue to help other grow, it builds trust and confidence in our expertise.
So, we have gone through the hardships that come with building a brand from scratch to a thriving business. Experience and knowledge, that is like gold-dust. Launching a product brand is tough, especially in the food and drink sector, so its good to connect with those who have been through the trenches to hear those valuable insights from their journey, to help you avoid the common mistakes many make when starting out.
Our Keto snacks brand began as an idea and turned into a fully operational business. From branding to e-commerce, and then strategy to sales, even managing exports post-Brexit – we’ve done it all in the past two years.
We haven’t taken investment but rather bootstrapped the entire journey. We too have to make decisions where best to use the funds and where we think we can get the best result at that particular time. However with that being said, at the time we started KetoKeto, we had already been involved with many brands over the 8 years prior, both successes and failures. So we had an advantage. The benefits of learning from their experiences and mistakes of others.
Using this experience and the knowledge, we want to help you enjoy the same success we have with our Keto snack brand.
Please note before continuing; I’m not the best copywriter and my intention was to share this story as I would share it in conversation, and I can talk fast. There is also a lot here to take in, so take 20 minutes and make some notes. Please also be sure to sign up for our Brand Growth Newsletter to stay connected and receive regular, real-world insights of what is working day to day here at muchmore. and KetoKeto.
How Our Brand Began…
We started KetoKeto in late 2018, early 2019, but we didn’t launch the brand and the first two flavours of bars until 16th December 2019. Being honest from the outset; one of the main reasons we began our own project (our own brand) as an agency team, was to prove to ourselves we could do it.
I was a little frustrated, when clients decided not to work with us for their projects in the past. We pitched for work many times and didn’t win, and watched as those projects would go to other less experienced agencies, who didn’t know food and drink as well as we did (they just had a better pitch). It was so difficult to watch those same clients not get the real value that we knew we could offer them. Nowadays I usually speak to at least one founder each week who has had a bad experience with an agency in regards to their product launch.
By the time we started KetoKeto, I had personally worked with lots of food startups. Many that had failed and some that succeeded, but none without some very tough times. All this would help as we got in the trenches ourselves – with the launch of KetoKeto.
Please note before moving on with this article, it’s important to emphasise:
- We are at an incredible advantage having an agency team that can move fast and produce work that would otherwise be very expensive to source out.
- We had worked on a lot of healthy food projects before KetoKeto. We know from our own experience and from hearing the stories of other business founders, that the journey to building a successful brand is scattered with struggles. You’re likely to come across the same challenges.
- Finally, there were many times during the journey that if something wasn’t right, or something didn’t meet our predetermined criteria, we would know immediately and stop before we got too far ahead. Unfortunately, many people continue with the same projects even when it isn’t working or doesn’t meet requirements. It’s difficult to let go of something you’ve invested in, but in our experience, it’s best to quit before you lose more time and money.
- The food and snacking industry is hard, really hard! It’s sometimes better for you, your team and your family, to not invest too much before you realise it isn’t working. Know how to position, know how to launch and grow at the right speed without running out of money. Know when to stop.
Developing The Right Product
We knew for a while that we wanted to build our own little brand. I say little, as we only intended for it to be a small thing. Something we could show in our portfolio and move on to the next one. We enjoy the design and the building of a product, more than the operations (which we now have a team to do for KetoKeto).
Firstly, we were patient for the right niche. From experience with other brands, I felt it was more effective to pick a very specific niche. We had also learned from other experiences (which hadn’t gone so well), to not attempt to be everything to everyone. Many start-ups fail because they try to be too much to too many people. Trying to cater to too many benefits usually ends up with an array of problems, including a very expensive product, little margin for growth and problems manufacturing and scaling up.
Late in 2018, lots of our friends and family were on Keto. It became a topic at meetups; what people were making in their kitchens at home, and what snacks they could get hold of. This led me to do a little research, looking for Keto bars and Keto snacks online, to see what was out there and whether there was a gap in the market.
It looked positive, and to be honest at the time it had a high demand. I feel if we had nailed the product sooner at the beginning of the business, we could have gained even more ground than we did. If we had got to market sooner, we could be twice as big now. Nonetheless, we were one of the first adopters of the concept here in the UK.
We decided the niche for KetoKeto would focus on two specific concepts: Keto (and low carb) as the primary focus, and the Vegan plant based concept as the second. Two USPs – that’s all. Despite there being many other benefits about our products that we could happily shout about, we knew from experience that it’s best to focus on one or two aspects for your niche.
We also knew from working with other clients and their projects, that trying to be everything to everyone doesn’t work. If you attempt to be every Free From, high in protein, Vegan and Keto product, it’s too much! It really doesn’t work.
With the advantage of already being in the world of healthy snacks, it meant we had some connections to recipe developers and manufacturers. We were able to connect with a great recipe development consultancy we had done some design for previously, and use them to help develop the product we had in mind. (Note: we also had some great connections to buyers in the retail space too, however don’t get too carried away, we don’t want to burn those bridges until we’ve made a dent in the market.)
We were confident we would have the product recipe developed and trials in bakeries or manufacturers within 3 months. However we were caught off guard as it was much harder than expected. We didn’t realise that most health bars that exist are bound together by dried fruits and dates, all things unsuitable for Keto. So we had real issues developing a bar that would hold shape and stick together, as well as be high in fat, yet not so moist that it would grow mould within a couple of weeks!
As we’re being so honest, our first KetoKeto product (version 1) that we took to a manufacturer trial and the test production run, went mouldy in two weeks. Altogether it took 9 months to get a recipe we were happy with and run a successful trial. Only then did we decide that we had a product we could launch a brand around.
Most importantly, our KetoKeto product passed the test criteria we had established at the beginning. If this criteria hadn’t been met, we would have known for sure to stop and let it go. Something many struggle to do, even when they should.
The Steps To Launch
Launching a brand was fortunately something we knew how to do well. With our agreement in place with the manufacturer, we already had the contacts for label printers, box printers and all the know-how in house to launch it well online and through social media.
Around the same time, we had been involved in a few naming processes for brands, something we do a lot more of nowadays. I had grown fond of the ‘does what it says on the tin’ approach; a name that clearly says what the product is. We also found the brands that had taken this approach were doing incredibly well.
I had seen a brand in another sector take a name and double it up, it worked terrifically. I tried it with Keto and so, KetoKeto was born. I won’t tell you the name of the brand I had seen do it by the way, I’ll keep that one to myself!
We developed the brand and had packaging at print pretty soon after. 18 months after that, we completely uplifted our KetoKeto packaging. However I was happy with the original design and packaging for the launch, it carried a clean, clear message, and I knew it would do well.
Funny side story. Our first design of KetoKeto had the phrase “100% Vegan” under the logo. It was only when we gathered interest from a Spanish distributor several months after launch, that we asked the company if they would like us to share with them our brand assets, including stamps. For some reason they didn’t want the 100% Vegan widget. When I asked why, they said, well it makes no sense. It wouldn’t exactly be 80% Vegan, otherwise it’s not Vegan…Good point. When we uplifted our packaging in 2021, that was first to go!
The First Production Run
There are different quantities and agreements regarding production runs and volume with manufacturers, depending on the type of food or drink you’re planning to make and distribute.
For example, canned drinks are expected to be produced in large volumes to make it worthwhile. So if you’re considering launching a canned drink product, you’re going to need substantial start-up capital to launch. You would also need to have brilliant momentum from the get-go, to shift the volume of stock fast enough so it still has a good shelf life by the time it reaches the consumer. We were fortunate that the volumes for our first production run were reasonable.
It’s also important that you build a good relationship with your manufacturer from the start. Demonstrate that you mean business and you’re wholly invested in your project, so they know they can trust you as a serious business. For example, to show that we were serious about seeing our project through, I made sure to pay upfront for every trial day and production run – before the day of production.
Here We Go – Let’s Launch!
Our stock was due to arrive with us on the 17th December 2019. Well, technically not with us, with Amazon FBA :). We decided to focus our efforts on one channel first, and to take our growth into our own hands.
Sidenote: Many brands we had seen fail in the past would launch first, and then cold call/email retailers, with very little success. We felt this approach was flawed from the beginning. I was confident that if we grew a brand digitally along with an online captive audience, then retailers and supermarkets would take notice. Thankfully it worked as expected for KetoKeto, a few months after launch we began to see retailers approach us.
Launching on Amazon was a great move for us. We were able to build a strong listing and focus on targeted keywords in our niche. Having done this for other clients previously, we were quickly able to rank on page 1 for many of the terms we were targeting. It went so well, that the pallet from our first production run sold out in 3 weeks! I remember calling the manufacturer over the Christmas break to book in the next run immediately. This was unexpected for his team, and they had none of the ingredients on site because they hadn’t expected to hear from us for at least a few months!
Sidenote: I’m glad we launched KetoKeto when we did. I think we were still early to the game, and since then many more brands have appeared on the scene. I would probably still do it now, just because of the team we have backing the project and the experience we bring to the table, however I can see it being much harder starting later in the game.
A little more about our launch set up…
All our stock was on Amazon, but we also set up a Shopify site. A simple one page site with two ‘Add to cart’ buttons for each flavour. We knew from the off that we didn’t want to be boxing products up and sending them off ourselves. (This was the original plan, but I’m glad we changed our minds as we’d be sending out stock all day long now as we’ve grown so well).
In fact, we were able to use an app that connected our Shopify to our Amazon account. If anyone did order through our website, they would receive their order in an Amazon box. Essentially, the app pushed the order to Amazon and created an order in our account. This worked extremely well, until we began receiving retail interest, and experiencing issues with customer orders. I think it’s good for those reading this to know, we didn’t have everything perfect at the moment of launch. We had planned to phase the launch in steps. So the website you see at KetoKeto now is far more developed than that which we launched with in 2019.
The two main things that made this system obsolete for our brand several months after launch, were very much linked to our success and growth. We had some retail interest (very small stockists), and the only way to provide them with a greater quantity of boxes – without a big cost to ourselves, was to do a removal order from Amazon. Unfortunately, removal orders are not prioritised and can take several weeks, so as you can imagine this quickly started to create issues.
The second concern was that Amazon charged us a flat FBA fee per box sold. This meant if a customer ordered 2 or more boxes, we received no financial benefit from the bulk buy. This was clearly not the best way to continue. Even still, looking back I’m glad we focused on one channel to begin with and had it from the start. It allowed us to save money with minimal setbacks (apart from the few complaints we received for the surprise Amazon box!) For us, it was the best way to launch our brand.
Four months after launch, we began holding stock in a Fulfilment Centre (a recommendation from previous clients), and hooked up our Shopify site to them instead. We built the website out a little more at this point too; introduced product description pages and began preparing a little more content strategy for future growth.
The Nitty-Gritty Financials
It’s difficult to remember the exact figures now, but I know we were averaging £15-20k revenue on Amazon and possibly £1-2k a month on Shopify at this point. Please note, we hadn’t really implemented any digital or paid ad strategy to drive traffic to the website – that came later. But we were certainly building a brand, and the UK Keto community had started to notice us; we became a part of the UK Keto conversation.
I was really pleased with our progress at this point and one of the big wins was the quality of our product. I thought and still think now, we have a terrific product. Our Keto bars are a very unique handmade recipe, that although not cheap, taste great and establish us as a strong Keto brand.
Sidenote: If a product is poor quality or lacks value, no amount of marketing or hype is going to establish it or build a successful brand. We have seen this problem many times over. I think there are currently some great healthy snack brands in the UK market that have a fantastic concept, but unfortunately the product isn’t strong enough.
As a result, it’s likely these brands will see good sales to begin with as people like the concept. But unfortunately, momentum will probably fade because a substandard product will struggle to maintain a loyal consumer base. I think it’s really important you seriously consider these factors when conceptualising your product.
The Decisions That Helped Us Grow
At 9 months in, we had a Shopify site, a strong Amazon listing, and people were beginning to contact me about stocking our product. This was the point at which I hired an extra staff member to manage some operations: stock levels, customer order issues (mainly Yodel! Now we only use DPD!) and stockist enquiries, as these were starting to take up large amounts of my time. At this point KetoKeto was still a side project, and I had an agency to run. I was spending way more time designing and building brands for our clients than I was for my own at this stage.
The big lesson for us was AOV, which means Average Order Value. We soon realised that with a product cost of £22, we were barely making any money after we had covered expenses for advertising, fulfilment fees (picking and packing) and couriers. It cost us around £4-5 to acquire a customer through paid ads. (2022 Update: This is way more expensive now and you should consider whether Facebook is effective nowadays).
Once our expenses were covered, at best we broke even and at worst we lost money, to gain customers. This was something we were prepared to absorb for a limited time, for the lifetime value of the customer and our retention strategies. However, we quickly realised this wasn’t a sustainable business model.
Hearing many experts in the ecommerce space share their experiences on AOV, we knew it was always best to get that value above the £50 mark, and even better, nearer the £100 mark. This wasn’t easily achievable when we only had three products.
Our solution: Create a Mixed Box product that was superior to the standard box of 12. We knew we had to create a bigger box that would have a higher price point, and allow us to absorb a higher ad spend to acquire the customer. With our banana bread flavour launching around this time, it was the perfect time to do this.
Nonetheless, it was a challenge – more packaging had to be ordered, and we incurred extra labour costs to make the mixed boxes at the Fulfilment Centre. However, because we knew we could charge more for this bigger product, it was a no-brainer. It had already been a heavily requested option from our online customers, and to this day, it’s one of the best decisions we made as a company. It has been our best selling product ever since.
Mistakes I Definitely Don’t Regret
In all honesty, there were two costly things that I really don’t regret, and I think it’s incredibly important to share this aspect of our journey. I have always been a firm believer in a particular concept I once heard on a podcast by Seth Godin: ‘If the plane takes off from the airport and goes off course during the flight, you never go back to the airport you came from, you simply adjust the course’.
The first costly mistake was that our original recipe wasn’t perfectly right. Listening to feedback from our customers, we realised our bars would be a far better Keto product if we reduced the sweetener Xylitol, and instead used Erythritol. It was frustrating that we didn’t recognise this from the beginning, that Erythritol was the preferred Sweetener both in the Keto community and from research. We had tested our bars and seen great results, but they could have been even better.
So we made the decision to change our recipe. This of course cost time and money, with trial days at the manufacturer and additional plate charges when we changed packaging. All costs that aren’t easy to swallow when you’re a small startup.
On reflection, perhaps if we had slowed down the process and taken the time to pause and ensure we got it right, we could have avoided the additional cost. In reality though, we will likely encounter plenty more of these types of unregrettable mistakes. In fact, we are experiencing something quite similar right now with a different product, but I’ll save that story for another time!
The second mistake we made was producing too much stock. At the time we were still working through testing to have our shelf-life extended. In the early days of KetoKeto, we could only put 5 months of shelf-life on the product. This was a real deal-breaker for many export customers as by the time they received the product, they had already lost a month of shelf-life. It was a painful process getting to grips with balancing the right amount of stock. We had to ensure we had enough stock available to meet demand when it was high, but at the same time make sure the stock people received from us had more than a few weeks of shelf-life left. Nowadays post-Brexit, it would be impossible to get our products to customers on time with only a 5 month shelf-life. Thankfully we now have 12 months shelf-life on our product!
At the end of 2020 once the shelf-life on our products had been extended, I made the tough decision to throw away about £5,000 worth of product. It was a very tough pill to swallow, but from what I hear, a common experience on the journey to creating food products.
The Year We Took On Far Too Much
In 2021, our second year of KetoKeto, I’d say I became a little too ambitious about where Keto was going. Growth was good and we had built great traction with some wholesalers that were supplying to some bigger retailers (e.g. Wholefoods). By around June 2021, 18 months into the project, we had sold about a million bars. Not too bad for a small side project. Our email list had grown to about 5,000 and we had a good following and traffic on all channels.
Some of our journey, straight out of one of our retailer pitch decks
In 2021, we took on three projects back-to-back for KetoKeto. Firstly we launched our fifth flavour, Lemon & Poppy Seed. Secondly we made the decision to uplift our packaging when we went through a compliance and Brexit-ready process. Brexit had brought lots of problems for many companies and we were fast to move on changing our packaging to meet the requirements and make sure our pallets didn’t get stuck at customs in the EU.
Thirdly, we had been working throughout 2021 on our new product for KetoKeto, Keto Crisps, which we planned to launch in October 2021. These three huge projects for any small startup, all came over the space of about 4 months from June 2021 – October 2021. They were expensive changes and additions, but something we really wanted to do. We felt they were the next right steps to carry our brand forward into the future.
We knew Lemon & Poppy Seed flavour was a fantastic addition to our range. By this point we were marketing KetoKeto bars as a product that would replace your ‘afternoon cake with coffee’. Cherry Bakewell had done so well for us, we wanted to emulate this with more cake-like flavours.
As already mentioned, Brexit brought lots of issues for many people. We were able to uplift our front packaging design to ensure we had all the right translated copy for the EU, and all the relevant information needed to help push our exports in the future. This change once again brought additional costs: New plate charges, wasted packaging and more expensive print costs as we moved to a coated pantone finish across all products.
Sidenote: Not sure if i had mentioned yet – until now, that KetoKeto is completely self-funded. I haven’t received any external investment and have grown this brand solely from my personal invested capital. So when I have to throw away £2,000 of packaging, or pay out a few thousand on plate charges, believe me – the pain hits my heart and soul!
Launching the KetoKeto Crunch Puffs was a big move for us. We really felt there was space for a Vegan Keto Crisp on the market, and we had feedback from our audience that crisps were a greatly missed food while on Keto. As I said earlier, manufacturing costs can vary, and crisps have a little higher entry point than our bars. From the very start we planned to do a mix box through Shopify, we thought this would be a more enticing and favourable product than the shelf ready packs.
As the crisps are quite a recent launch, I think I’ll create another post later on, to share greater insight into their production process (be sure to sign up to the newsletter so you don’t miss it!)
As with the other products, we made a few errors along the way that we’ve had to fix in more recent months. I think it’s important to share and be highly transparent – at this stage the crisps have not been as big a hit online as the bars. That being said, our Keto crisps have got more attention from retailers and are selling in larger volumes in shops, thanks to impulse buys for grab-’n’-go snacking.
In fact it’s thanks to the crisps that we have just won two major supermarkets in the UK. They opened the door to our brand with an interest in our bars as well as the crisps. As a result, the retailers are taking a range of our products.
I think this comes down to the nature of ecommerce, consumers aren’t looking to buy a big bag of crisps online. Whereas our bars are often used as a meal replacement, and therefore more likely to be bought in bulk online, making them a more attractive purchase to online consumers.
Significant Strategies We Implemented
2021 was a big year for us, and I wouldn’t change any of it. But when you’re giving so much of yourself to get as many ideas and innovations as possible off the ground, it can get uncomfortable, even painful at times. So much so, that occasionally I’ve questioned myself about whether this project is working and worth all the effort! I’m sure many of you launching your own brands have felt the same way.
In addition to this, we (and many others) began to notice how many digital ad streams were not performing the way they used to. Thankfully we had worked hard to build a customer base we could easily retarget, and so at the end of 2021 we began amplifying these efforts.
This came in the form of: adding subscriptions to our shopify, launching referral programmes, creating bundle products and offers to increase AOV and finally, implementing a better content strategy. We knew it was important to give more value to our community and increase new and repeat visits to our site.
These strategies all worked well. At the point of writing we’re continuing to explore novel ways to acquire new customers and increase the lifetime value of the ones we have (all of which will be shared in future updates, so make sure you sign up below to stay informed).
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As we look ahead into 2022 we’re focusing on our talks with retailers in the UK and the EU. This is accessible for us because we have great connections, and we’ve already experienced so much success, so retailers are interested and ready to listen.
When you’re able to show your growth and increased sales along with current enthusiasm for your product, it’s great leverage. It’s also a fantastic idea to send samples to potential buyers to grab their attention and encourage them to consider stocking your product in their stores.
We are aware of the problems retail can bring though. We know it’s one thing to get listed, and another to stay listed. We also know that if our product doesn’t perform well and we lose a listing, it is very difficult to then speak to other major supermarkets. If you didn’t do well in that store, why would you do well in others? Again, watch this space as we share updates about how this goes for us, and what does and doesn’t work.
We still mostly adopt a digital-led approach when it comes to growth, and we have big plans to keep advancing with these channels in the near future. However, as I will share below, retail and wholesale orders are growing. We think this could be a very steady source of income in the future, without the need for heavy marketing spend behind it.
I am aware that supermarkets expect a high amount of investment in marketing. In our case – with our experience and the team we have in place, I am confident we can achieve this for less cost than a brand without the same expertise at their disposal. But only time will tell.
How Well Is KetoKeto Actually Doing?
I think it’s hugely valuable to other startup brands to share our growth in numbers; the breakdown of each year on Amazon, Shopify and retail, and how it’s grown:
It’s clear KetoKeto has become established as a business in its own right, rather than just the side-business we originally intended. Let’s break it down by channel. (Note financials here for 2021 taken September 2021, so not quite year end).
Amazon has stayed pretty consistent these past two years from launch to current day. We worked incredibly hard to put everything into our Amazon launch, which helped us establish a strong listing from the start. Thanks to that initial effort, we were able to let that run organically for the majority of 2021.
We haven’t given the Amazon listings all the attention they deserve, and with more competitors entering the market, we have seen steady numbers here as opposed to growth. We don’t currently have an Amazon Manager in-house, but it’s something I’m considering – especially as we intend to open all our EU Amazon stores in late 2022.
In balance, I’m very pleased with the Amazon numbers and not put off by the slow increase, as I’m very aware our attention has been on other things over the past year. There are so many other components to get right within the business that Amazon became a self-serving aspect for a while.
As you can see, Shopify sales grew! In all honesty so did our ad spend. As finances have become more difficult in 2022, I expect this growth will be very similar this year, possibly slightly less, as we focus more on retail and reassess new ad channels to drive traffic.
Facebook and Instagram ads are performing terribly right now, so we need to find new ways to bring traffic to our site. I really dislike the thought of using TikTok as I disagree with the platform in so many ways (particularly the damage it does to young people). However, it is where attention is moving to, so we may need to take advantage of this at some point. My team are currently working on this strategy, so keep an eye out for how it goes in future newsletter updates!
Finally retail. Big growth here. Note that for the majority of these two years we contacted noone in retail. We’re very proud to say that our product spoke for itself, and they reached out to us. We’re really excited to see what happens when we decide to take a more proactive approach in this area.
We have the contacts, and now we’re beginning to speak to some very friendly buyers in this category. Again, it’s a shame we often don’t have sufficient time to focus on it, but I’m growing my team to allow us to focus more energy on it going forward.
Supermarkets do run innovative programmes for new and upcoming brands such as ours, to help them get through the door. I think we would be an ideal candidate for them. But I seem to keep missing the cut-offs for these programmes! It’s frustrating, but with an agency to run, KetoKeto has been a little lower on the priority list compared to clients. But as things grow, that’s beginning to change, and the future looks bright!
Since writing the first draft of this article we have just been listed in two major supermarkets in the UK, totalling just under 200 stores in all. I expect this to have big impact on our retail numbers, but only time will tell.
So that’s the story so far…Filled with many experiences, good and bad, that provide valuable insights for us and others. I’m sure there are even more I’ve forgotten to relay here, but as they come back to me, I’ll continue to share.
Be sure to sign up to our newsletter for more details and regular updates about what we’re doing here at muchmore – to launch brands and continue with the growth of our own.
I hope you’ve gained some important information and valuable details from our shared story to help you succeed with your own brand journey.
P.S. we don’t do trade shows (not yet anyways, and for good reason) but I’m happy for you to convince me otherwise!