In episode 53, we talk with Steve Dogiakos, Co-owner of Choteau Spice Company. Steve has been working on the web for several years and has his hands in eCommerce through several sites. Today we talk about his bootstrapped company, WooCommerce and some thoughts on what it takes to sell spices online.
We chatted about:
- Why Steve chose to use WordPress and what plugin he decided on
- The biggest challenge he has faced selling online
- How he found the learning curve was for WooCommerce and whether there was any part that was harder to learn
- What it’s like to sell spices online
- What has worked the best in helping him promote Choteau Spice Co.
Bob Dunn: Hey everyone and welcome back to the WP eCommerce show. Bob Dunn here, also known as BobWP on the web. As you know, we like to occasionally bring on shop owners to share their stories about some of the challenges and successes they've had online. Today, we are going to be chatting with Steve Dogiakos from Choteau Spice Company. Hey Steve, welcome to the show and did I butcher your name or your company name?
Meet Steve Dogiakos, Co-owner of Choteau Spice Company
Steve Dogiakos: No, you got it spot on. Well done. Yeah, so I am co-owner of Choteau Spice Company. I have been doing web development and mostly website maintenance for about ten years. Choteau Spice has been open for, probably, eight months now.
Bob Dunn: I just have to bring this up because I was looking at your Facebook page. Are you also involved with your local Chamber of Commerce?
Steve Dogiakos: Yeah, absolutely. Both my business partner and I. So, in addition to Choteau Spice, I own another company that does Amazon and Ebay retail kind of stuff. My business partner also has an Etsy shop where she does artsy kind of stuff and through one of our three businesses, we are both on our Chamber of Commerce’s board, actually.
Bob Dunn: Oh, very cool so wow, sounds like you have your hands in a lot of different things.
Steve Dogiakos: Yeah, always.
Bob Dunn: Always, yeah, I know the feeling. Well, I'm intrigued with this whole thing of selling spices online because well, one thing is I love spices, I mean, who doesn't like spices? I'm anxious to really hear about what you do. I had somebody on a little while back and they sell tea online.
Steve Dogiakos: Okay.
WordPress and WooCommerce working hand in hand
Bob Dunn: Sometimes, they have their special little challenges, so tell us a little bit about your online store. Why did you choose WordPress and what eCommerce plugin did you end up using and was there a reason behind that as well?
Steve Dogiakos: Sure. I use WordPress. I've been using it to build websites, nothing phenomenal or anything like that. I've been doing it for about ten years now, though. I bought hosting back in 2007 and was just playing around with the concept of building websites. It's just what I've become most familiar with. I've looked at Drupal. I've looked at a couple of other different content management systems and I just like WordPress the best. It's easiest to use, it's what I'm most familiar with now. We ended up going with WooCommerce for our eCommerce platform, played around with it a little bit, I also had played around with Shopify before that. I like WooCommerce because of how well it integrates with WordPress and how much control I had.
Bob Dunn: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Steve Dogiakos: Of course, it's free.
Bob Dunn: Yeah. That makes it nice too, right?
Steve Dogiakos: Absolutely.
Bob Dunn: I imagine you had to purchase a few extensions along the way.
Steve Dogiakos: Yep, yep.
What’s been Steve’s biggest challenge with his online store?
Bob Dunn: It sounds like you have a lot of experience with online sales. I mean, not just with this business but your other business. With this specific store, what has been the biggest challenge you've had to overcome with selling online?
Steve Dogiakos: Sure. A little bit of backstory with Choteau Spice. In Choteau, population 1,800, we have what is also the largest other spice company in Montana. It's called Alpine Touch and it's a plug in for the competitor but they are known as like the Montana spice. My business partner and I kinda wanted something a little different than what they offer so we just went and did it. The short story is the biggest challenge we've had selling online is competing with them in terms of SEO and their presence on the web. They've just been established forever like, 70 years, 60 years, something like that and of course, been on the web forever. Dealing with that has been a big challenge for us.
Bob Dunn: As far as the SEO and I'm kind of just throwing this in as a secondary question to this, have you brought anybody in to do the SEO or have you been doing it with, obviously you've been building sites so you have the experience. Have you been having to tackle a lot of it yourself?
A DIY approach
Steve Dogiakos: Yep. A lot of what goes into Choteau Spice is bootstrapping. I've done all the web stuff, all the tech stuff on my own, for better or for worse. I've been doing it on my own including the SEO and building links and building back links to make sure that Choteau Spice is coming to the top for some of that stuff, for some of those keywords that we're looking for.
Bob Dunn: Yeah.
Steve Dogiakos: It's like I said, Alpine Touch has a very long-term, broad appeal on Google and Facebook and stuff.
WooCommerce’s learning curve
Bob Dunn: When you dove into WooCommerce and obviously you probably had a little bit up compared to some people that are just diving into the whole space of WordPress and everything. Was there any challenges you had with WooCommerce? Was it easy to learn or did you find that some particular pieces were harder than others or was it just like okay, I've done this, I've worked with software, this is pretty intuitive?
Steve Dogiakos: There was a lot of intuitiveness. The biggest struggle I had was doing the products right. I had a couple of, I do Merch by Amazon through my other business. I was trying to do some affiliate links to t-shirts that I had designed to go along with stuff. Because the spices are so light, I had to get the weight correct for shipping stuff, so with some of that kind of minutia configuration stuff, it took me a while to iron out kinks to make sure we weren't overcharging people, yet make sure we were getting enough money to cover shipping. That was probably the biggest struggle and the biggest learning curve with WooCommerce but it's so plug-and-play with WordPress that a lot of it was really intuitive.
Managing the inventory
Bob Dunn: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Speaking of shipping, how does your inventory work? I mean, how do you, do you have to keep a certain amount or how are you working with your inventory?
Steve Dogiakos: Yeah, so I actually integrated with Square, Square Up on the WooCommerce back end to manage the inventory. We actually do a one-to-one, minute count of our inventory. Whenever we do our grinding, we expect to have 1,010 units of each of our five and just kind of manage it that way and keep track of when we do sales at farmer's markets, keep track of when do sales online and it stays fairly consistent. We have to do a reconciliation once every, probably every three months or so to make sure that our inventory levels are accurate but we keep on top of it.
Bob Dunn: So you don't have a brick-and-mortar shop. It's the online and then through farmer's markets?
Steve Dogiakos: Exactly.
An online-offline selling strategy
Bob Dunn: I don't want you to divulge your sales or anything but where initially, have you had the most success, online or in the farmer's market and is the farmer's market because hey, you're there, you’re local, and people know you?
Steve Dogiakos: Yeah, so the farmer's market is what we focused on over the summer. We probably did, for the whole of 2016, which we only started in June but for the whole of 2016, we did 60% of our sales at farmer's markets and then 40% online. Most of that came from the holiday season.
Biggest challenge with selling spices online
Bob Dunn: Interesting. Now, selling spices, when I was talking with this other person about teas, they had specific challenges around selling teas and I'm thinking there's gotta be something with spices as far as again, whether it's inventory, shipping, whatever that you have found with selling spices.
Steve Dogiakos: Yeah, absolutely, shipping like you said, is hard. It's lightweight and relatively bulky once it's in our packaging. We are going for the, my business partner will probably slap me if I say it wrong, but like a boutique-style packaging. It's big and it's a little fragile. It's paper bag kind of stuff on the outside so that we have to pack it really well and pack it tight and make sure that it doesn't get crumpled and it looks nice when our customers get it. That can add costs to the shipping side of it. Then, from just the production of spices, like I said in the beginning, Choteau's a town of 1,800, so finding a commercial kitchen was a little bit of a hassle and finding an affordable commercial kitchen continues to be an ongoing challenge for us.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, so you actually receive them in bulk and then you ... Yeah, I'm just curious about the whole thing.
Steve Dogiakos: Absolutely, so we yeah, we order it in bulk. We've got a supplier. We use two different suppliers, one in California, one in Arizona. They ship it here UPS. We also use Uline to order all of our packing supplies, our stickers and all that kind of stuff. It all arrives about the same time and then we go to our commercial kitchen. We have recipes, we do it by weight and we measure everything out, mix it up, grind it and then package it. The packaging just takes forever and ever and ever. You have to measure out exactly two ounces of spices per package. We seal it up, slap it in the paper bags and then we store 'em until we're ready to pull 'em for shipping or taking to farmer's markets.
Best marketing result so far
Bob Dunn: Wow. Now, I'm going to have to, my wife and I are going to have to gonna get online and look at your store a little closer and get some of those spices. It's got me thinking about all the great stuff you must have. Well, kinda stepping away from that part of it, what's been the most successful you've had as far as the marketing aspect of your site? Is it emails, social, Google Ads, or a good mix of everything?
Steve Dogiakos: No, honestly, the best results I've had for our site is Facebook marketing. We did a Facebook ad over the holidays, targeting guys who like barbecuing and who own Traeger grills, which is a smoking, barbecue smoking device, apparatus. We had huge success from that, got great ROI. It was absolutely fantastic. I've actually been a little negligent in my email list but definitely, Facebook ads have definitely done us very well.
Bob Dunn: Yeah, and you can vary, you can focus really target market through Facebook and yeah, that's interesting. Do you get many orders outside of the U.S.?
Steve Dogiakos: We actually don't ship internationally so it's all just been inside the U.S. I don't think we've had any from Alaska or Hawaii so so far, it's only been the lower 48. We have sent them all over the country, California, the East Coast, all over the Midwest, Texas.
Bob Dunn: Oh, cool, yeah, that shipping across country borders, we had somebody talking just about the sales and the landed costs and all that stuff, it sounds like a nightmare to me.
Steve Dogiakos: Agreed.
‘Bootstrapping’ for success
Bob Dunn: Well, is there anything else like some words of wisdom you might want t pass on to somebody actually starting online with a store?
Steve Dogiakos: I am a big fan of boot strapping, you know, do it yourself. Work through the numbers to make sure that you are profitable from the start. And and test. Constantly test what works. The great thing about the bootstrapping mindset, and I am also an adherent of Dave Ramsey so I don't do debt at all, is you can do tests on small scales with ads, with recipes, with just about any aspect of your business with very little risk when you're just paying cash out of pocket. There's no credit card to pay off. There's no debt to pay back if the test fails. That's been my philosophy and it's worked pretty well for me so far.
Bob Dunn: Excellent. I used to ask my guests a couple questions and I'm thinking maybe I'll ask you one of these only because of where you live. First of all where, what is the population where you live?
Steve Dogiakos: Yep, so Choteau, population of Choteau is 1,800, the State of Montana is just about 1 million. I think we surpassed the 1 million mark a year or two ago according to the census.
What is Steve’s biggest challenge when shopping online?
Bob Dunn: Do you do much shopping online?
Steve Dogiakos: I do a lot of shopping online. The nearest Walmart is over an hour away so I order a lot. I have Amazon Prime, I'm also an Amazon seller so I do a lot of that kind of back and forth with Amazon and so yeah, we do order a lot online.
Bob Dunn: Okay. Now, are there any challenges where you live as far as ordering online? Any limitations or are you pretty much set? I know before the show, we talked a little bit about, you were saying about the shipping zone you're in. Just kind of wanted to hear what was going on with that.
Steve Dogiakos: Montana and a lot of the northern part of the Rocky Mountains is in Zone 3 for UPS and with FedEx and I think even USPS, it's in an extended zone, where things just take forever to get here. I'm originally from Chicago, born and raised on the north side and trying to get any type of frozen pizza, deep dish pizza, any type of frozen sausage, meats or anything like that, it's impossible. It's either impossible or it costs a fortune I mean like $100 to ship a pound of bratwurst. It's unseemly, seriously unseemly.
Bob Dunn: Oh no. Oh, wow, so there are certain things you just, you crave that they're out of reach.
Steve Dogiakos: Exactly.
Where to find Steve online
Bob Dunn: This has been interesting. I'm really intrigued with the whole thing and I might have to explore your site. Where else can people find you? Where do you like people to find you on the web besides your website?
Steve Dogiakos: The best place to find us is our Facebook page. It's Choteau Spice Co. We do our best maintaining that and frequently we post recipes and show the demos of what our customers and friends have done have done with our spices. We're on Twitter, though that's less frequently updated but we are on Twitter as well.
Bob Dunn: I notice on your website, it looks like you also have some great recipes.
Steve Dogiakos: Oh yeah, we do our best to test out and try our recipes ourselves and share what our friends and customers use.
Bob Dunn: Oh, cool so definitely check out the site. You can do some shopping for some cool spices but also to check out the recipes and give 'em a try. I just want to thank you for taking the time to tell us a little bit more about how you started, what you're doing and the experience that you've had, really appreciate your time, Steve.
Steve Dogiakos: My pleasure. It's been great talking to you.