Hello and good day!
After 15 years in business, you'd think we'd know by now how to choose a hit product.
But we don't.
What we've become good at is trying and failing and recalibrating as we gather information.
About a month ago, we started making soft serve. Coming into the summer, we figured we needed a hot weather product for our shops. We wanted to offer a dairy free product because where we live and operate there are a lot of vegans and folks who are lactose intolerant. But we didn't want to sacrifice quality. The soft serve had to be creamy and delicious, and this required us to formulate our own mix.
We weren't willing to simply buy an off the shelf mix and serve it up.
Displaying a stunning lack of insight, I requested that our chocolatier Javier, and his team, begin work on two flavors, vanilla and strawberry. I figured that you can't not offer vanilla. Vanilla is a staple.
And then I figured that a fruit flavor would be refreshing for the summer. Both came out great, and in particular, I loved the strawberry because we make it with real strawberries. Javier is a genius at figuring out how to make products. Both had lovely texture, and neither was overly sweet.
Almost immediately, a very good friend, local customer, and supporter of ours pointed out that it was outright silly not to offer a chocolate flavor. We are a chocolate company and soft serve made with our chocolate was sure to be unique and delicious. And customers would certainly demand chocolate soft serve.
I told him that we had plans to offer our chocolate products as toppings. This way customers would have the best of all worlds, two soft serve flavors and chocolate as toppings. Not to mention all the chocolate products available for sampling and purchase in our shops.
My friend didn't mince words. He told me that I was making a big mistake, but I didn't believe him. After all, who has fifteen years in the chocolate business around here?
Me? Or him?
Our soft serve received a very lukewarm response. People liked it and said it was pretty good. But we weren't getting lines out the door like I thought we might. And we weren't seeing very many repeat customers. And most importantly, nobody appeared to be bringing in their friends or shouting us out online.
Several months ago, I ceased all paid digital marketing. I don't want to spend any more money with Meta or Google.
We would prefer to spend that budget line item by sending more money down to our cacao farm partners or giving it back to customers through lower prices or through our word-of-mouth program. This means that we are completely reliant on customers helping us spread the word.
But customers aren't going to spread the word unless they feel sure that their friends will like and appreciate the recommendation.
After weeks of beating my head against the wall, working really hard trying to get people to come into the shop to try our soft serve, it occurred to me that my friend was right, and we were offering the wrong products.
I asked Javier to start working on chocolate soft serve made with our chocolate and he started to move on it. The first iterations were grainy and didn't taste enough like our chocolate. We wanted to use real chocolate instead of cocoa powder and we don't bust our tails buying and processing extraordinary cacao just to use the resulting chocolate as a colorant.
The soft serve actually had to taste like our chocolate.
Last Thursday, I visited our kitchen and Javier had a proud smile on his face. He told me to try the soft serve in the machine.
Quickly, can I just acknowledge what a blessed life I live? An important and legitimate part of my workday is taste testing chocolate ice cream.
If you'd have told me when I was studying for a master's degree in accounting that someday I'd be part owner of a company that makes and sells chocolate soft serve, I would have struggled to understand how things could have turned out so right.
Anyhow, the chocolate soft serve recipe was perfect! Smooth, chocolatey, not overly sweet. We all agreed that we should proceed with launching it in the stores the very next day.
Within a day, we had huge crowds in the shop buying soft serve. People immediately brought in their friends and started posting online. See the photo above.
Our wonderful friend and customer who insisted on this move was satisfied and I believe that he will come in every single day since Friday to buy a cone. I'm thinking about giving him a free soft serve for life card.
Or maybe I'll have a t-shirt made for him that reads, "The Soft Serve Whisperer".
Of course, the lessons learned here go far beyond ice cream. The first is that just because you have a track record doesn't necessarily mean that you are right. In fact, it may be that your successful track record creates a false confidence in your ability. Especially if you are endeavoring into a new field where your expertise doesn't apply.
This kind of thing happens all the time. Just because you are an expert in one field doesn't mean you are a universal genius. It is super important to be humble and pick up good ideas wherever you can find them.
On the other hand, almost everything I've ever done that has been successful took three to five years and several iterations before it truly turned into whatever it was destined to turn into. I know that going in and accept that we'll likely fail and need to pivot before we succeed.
Therefore, just getting started and being in the game is a victory, even if the launch doesn't achieve the spectacular results you were dreaming of. By being in the game you generate the information needed to get at the real solution.
And a final lesson, which we already know, but which is great to keep learning over and over again, is that the purpose of business is to improve the lives of your customers. It isn't to feed your ego or just make a ton of money. You might make a ton of money as a byproduct of the value that you add.
But the real, true, underlying purpose is service. You can only serve well if you know what people really want so that you can give it to them.
Thank you so much for your time today.
I hope that you have a truly blessed day!