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Honest Talk with Hannah from Honest Beef: Staying True to You While Growing a Business

We talked with Hannah from Honest Beef about building a business through grit, why they don’t offer discounts, and what being an entrepreneur is really like.

Josh:   Hannah, great to meet you! Why don’t we start by you telling me a little bit about you and your business.

Hannah:  I grew up on a cattle ranch in Nebraska and the number one thing for us is transparency. We have to be able to trace every cut that goes out our door back to the animal that it came from. Even though that's TMI for a lot of people, on principle, the fact that we can say here's the animal that your steak came from, and not only that but we are able to show the category pedigree of the animal, which is probably way TMI for most people but again, on principle, the fact that we can say-

Okay, so normally there are five to six transfers in ownership from the live animal from where it's born to the plate including distributors and packing plants and feed lots and backgrounders and all over the supply chain. So what we’ve done at Honest Beef is condensed that down to two: The rancher and then Honest Beef. In reality my family is also the ranchers, so it is a single transfer from rancher to consumer.

In order to do that we actually take a step before I buy cattle from my parents, we ultrasound everything. We use the same technology as with babies and we put it on the ribeye primal of the animal to tell which ones are most likely to be prime. When we've decided which ones are most likely to be prime we know which ones to buy. 

Josh: So, everything is direct to the consumer?

Hannah: Yes, and it's all online. We only accept orders through our website, honestbeefco.com.  We're not interested in doing wholesale because nobody can tell our story the way that we can. It's so, so important to us as a small business that the integrity of the story remains intact. So, it's all B to C, we don't do any wholesale.

Josh: How long have you been doing this?

Hannah: About a year. I think our first orders went out in last May (2016).

Josh: Oh that's awesome, congratulations. I feel like the one year mark is the, that's the survival moment.

Hannah: Oh, I don't know about that. It's hard. You know, it is so hard.

Josh:  It's a really hard world. I think most entrepreneurs would agree.

Hannah: And it's lonely sometimes. The best thing about it is also the worse thing about it, which is that you reap what you sow so I decide how hard I want to work and then it's not always a direct correlation but the harder I work and the more gumption that I have usually that pays off in some way, shape or form in the future.

So, that's also the hardest part about it though is because some days I wake up and, I would do anything to have somebody tell me what to do; to have somebody boss me around today, I would do anything for that.

Josh: Instead of having to grab the momentum constantly, right?

Hannah: Yeah, and also figure it out. I don't know exactly what the next thing that I should be doing is even though I had a strategy and my goals and everything, it's still the hardest part about it.

Josh: When you started this, were you consciously aware of how hard it would be?

Hannah: Yeah, I think so. Anything worthwhile is hard and I think I knew that. But I don't think I knew how isolated it could feel sometimes. I am the only employee in Boston. Everyone else is in Nebraska.

Josh: That's a pretty common scenario, where at least for a while, most entrepreneurs end up working by themselves. On the one hand, it’s great, because you're in total control, and on the other hand, it can be very lonely.

Hannah: I try to make a habit out of coming to places like this coffee shop where I don't care if I d know anybody that's fine, but I is just to have the energy, the bodies and beating hearts around. I keep telling my mom I need to get a dog or something - another beating heart in my apartment!

Josh:  I know that you’re using Privy to capture email addresses and you’re sending email through Mailchimp. Let’s talk about the email marketing you’re doing.

Hannah: I really try to treat my email list with great respect. If somebody trusted me enough to give me their email address, I'm so, so careful with what I send and try to not to abuse it. I want to make sure that every email I send adds value to their day in some shape or form.

I very rarely will send an email more frequently than two weeks apart unless it's a holiday or promotion. And I only send emails if I really feel like I have something that is going to add value to their day.

I'm pretty aware of who my audience is. I know that most of the people on my email list are male, 35 plus years old, a lot of them are in finance, and I know how to write to them. So if I write an article about the business of beef genetics or the finance behind beef genetics… I know they'll be interested and I feel really comfortable sending it out.

And I very rarely run a sale because I don't believe in devaluing my product in any way. So, I'll do a Memorial Day special and we'll do something for 4th of July. But not much more than that.

Josh: When you send an email do you almost always get sales back?

Hannah: Yeah, I don't know that I've ever not gotten sales from an email.

Privy is also something I like a lot, but I don’t overdo the messages. It's more important for me to maintain the quality of email subscribers than the quantity. I don’t even use exit intent. I don't think it's even on a timer. I had one on the timer before but right now it's just the full screen bar at the top, it's bright green and it's for a free jerky sample with your first order. So people have to actively click on it and it doesn't, it's not super intrusive.

Josh: That’s great! You mentioned earlier that you don’t really believe in discounting your products. You have used a free seasoning offer before and now you have the free jerky sample offer, which one of those is better? How do you think about what's going to entice someone?

Hannah: Again, it was really important to me that if someone is going to give me their email address, l want it to be a fair exchange. So I try to give them something of equal or greater value in return. A lot of that just has to do with what I have access to at any time.

For example, the seasoning - that's a family friend who has a company and I was helping them out at the same time and it's really good seasoning that my family has used for a decade. So, it's just a one ounce bottle that people would get with their order. I had access to it and it felt like a good, nice trade off. People liked that too!

And then the same thing with the jerky. Actually, the thing I love about what we do with the jerk is that when somebody uses the code that they get from Privy, it gives me a chance to have another interaction with them. I send the jerky box myself in a cute package that's got a stamp on it and I get to write them a hand-written note.

Josh: That’s a great brand experience.

Hannah: Yeah, it's just something personal from me that I get to have another really intimate point of contact with them because they gave me their email address.

Josh: Switching gears, are you trying to grow really fast?

Hannah: No, for a couple of reasons. Number one, I don't yet know what would be sustainable if we grew really quickly. And number two, so much of Honest Beef is telling the story of not only the cattle and the ranch and grass and the land, but the people.

I have found that our customers connect deeply when I do a profile of my dad or my brothers or I post something stupid that my brother did. That's the kind of stuff that makes them feel like they know the people who are raising their food. Being able to look into their eyes, whether it is a photograph or video of the person who is in charge of feeding you is what resonates with my customers.

If we grow super quickly and I had to give up being the one to talk to the customer, or if I had to give up designing or putting my personality into our content, that's going to be kind of a sad day, because I don't want that yet and I don't think that we're old enough or mature enough to have a solid voice and for somebody else to take that on and replicate it.

Josh: Yeah, that's really interesting. In the e-commerce “conversation”, there's a lot of people telling you how to “hack your way to massive growth”, and when I think about it, it's like “don't try to cheat the system.”

So many people want make tons of money without putting in the work and it bugs me a little bit, so it's really nice to hear the way you think about it. I have a seven year old so I'm always trying to teach him “buddy, you have to try hard. It's okay to do things that are hard.” Hard things return positive results.

What are some of the challenges you face in trying to grow the business or trying keep the business afloat?

Hannah: Deciding what to do is really hard. We've been lucky because of our email list and we got some great media in this first year.

Josh: Have you chased media?

Hannah: Yes, yes. And that's still really good ROI for me at this point. What I am doing is pretty unique compared to other pitches they hear. And because I do it myself, I think it's more effective than if it was coming from a PR firm.

To this day, we have not spent any money on marketing, besides making sure thatterms like local meats and Honest Beef are ours on Google and what not. But deciding when and how to spend marketing dollars is something that I still don't know how to do confidently and I don't know that there's a good template for me to figure that out.

Josh: I think you're recognizing what's working and just saying, by treating your email list with respect and not giving them crap, people haven't tuned it out so you're on to something.

What are some other challenges you’re facing?

Hannah: Dealing with the emotion of ups and downs. We'll have really exciting things that happen and sometimes it's really quiet and you don't know what to do next.  The emotional rollercoaster is really challenging.

Logistics are hard too. Just balancing a carcass is what we call it. So, because we do nose to tail we have to get rid of every part of the animal. We try to get rid of every part of the animal because economically it's better and even moreso, out of respect for the animal. Figuring out how to move product and price product at the right price so it moves at the same rate. Moving ground beef at the same rate as rib eye, etc. There's a lot of figuring out financial models and how to price it and how to market it.

And then I think never sacrificing our story for sales. I've been approached by companies who like to buy and resell for wholesale which is great from a volume perspective but again, I don't trust anybody else can tell our story as well as we can.

Maintaining the integrity of our brand is not challenging, but it's tempting to not do it, it's tempting to water it down it would be so much easier to get sales that way.

We have a social mission. For every share that somebody purchases on our website, we donate ground beef to a real family of poverty in Nebraska and it would be really easy to wave that flag all over the place. To really make that part of our marketing mission. But I wouldn't feel great about that. It doesn't feel right to me to do that and so, keeping dignity, the integrity and trust in our brand is challenging because it's tempting to do it the other way.

Josh:  Yeah, that's awesome. What words of wisdom for someone who is thinking “I have a really good idea, but this is going to be hard and I am not sure I can do it.”

Hannah: Don't give up. And don’t get ahead of yourself.  Some people make bad decisions and even though they have a really good idea, they are terrible at execution and spend money foolishly or buy T-Shirts before they've even launched. I meet a lot of people who say they are about to launch their company and then you talk to them two years later and they still haven't done it.

Just get started and do your own thing and don't get wrapped up in all of the things that you “should” be doing because there isn't a should, I don't think.

I just keep thinking about the word grit. You gotta have grit.

Josh: Yeah, I agree.

Hannah: And use Privy.

Josh: Yes, use Privy always! Ha!  Thanks for sharing your awesome, inspiring story and way of looking at the world. And best of luck with Honest Beef.

Shop for yourself at honestbeefco.com

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Written by Josh Mendelsohn

Josh brings his marketing chops and lifelong passion for jam bands, craft beer, and SMBs to the team at Privy. Having spent time working at SMB and ecommerce leaders like Constant Contact and Salsify, he has a deep understanding of how to help small and medium sized ecommerce businesses be all that they can be. In addition to leading Privy's marketing team, Josh spends too much of his time managing his pug Marvin's instagram account.

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