Using Grassroots Marketing for Your Startup

Kickstarter is a powerful grassroots marketing platform for startups, and Alex Solomon from Chicago startup Tovala has figured out how to make it work. Here are his grassroots marketing tips for startups.

Alex Solomon is the marketing director at Tovala, a countertop oven and meal delivery service. Below is a transcript of his presentation at the January 27, 2017 Here’s How Startup Marketing Conference, where he shared advice for proving your concept with Kickstarter.

I'm Alex Solomon. I'm the marketing director at Tovala. At Tovala, we have two sides to the business.

So the first side is a connected countertop smart oven that we manufacture: it bakes, it broils, it steams and it switches between all those cooking methods to cook anything you need. So, you can encompass multiple culinary goals in the same appliance. So this thing, you put a chicken breast in it, it'll bake, steam for a while and then finish it off with a nice broil to get a piece of chicken that's really moist inside and has a nice crisp top. I'm obviously biased, but I think it's amazing.

So the second side is our meal service, which pairs with it. So, what that means is our awesome chef, he's Alinea-trained, comes up with cool meal ideas in our office. By the way, I think he's here today if you guys need any cooking advice, but he comes up with a meal in our test kitchen, in our office. He connects with our production kitchen in Gurney, they make it in mass quantities, ship it out to our customers, the customers take this out of the box, they scan the barcode on the meal, they put it in the oven, they press start, and it goes through a multi-step cooking routine to cook this thing perfectly without the customer having to do a single damn thing. It's awesome.

We've been around for about a year and a half, two years. I joined about a year ago, right after our team was admitted to Y Combinator. For those of you who aren't familiar, Y Combinator is a startup accelerator program based out of Silicon Valley. It's basically, you go through a two-and-a-half-month program where you go through a business development program that culminates in a high pressure, intense pitch in front of 600 of Silicon Valley's most prestigious investors, and Joe Montana.

And so, basically, at this point when I was brought on, I was faced with a ticking clock to prove viability for that pitch. We had to prove product market fit without having a product in the market. And we settled on Kickstarter.

I'm sure you can see that it ended up being successful for us, and if anybody out here is looking for a way to prove value to investors, I'm going to give away the ending to the presentation. It works. And it allowed us to prove viability and prove that people were interested in our product before we had any hardware in the market.

It's been especially valuable for a hardware startup like us, where it's a long cycle. You can't just iterate quite as rapidly as you would in a software startup or anything like that. So, the presentation was in mid-March. This was early January. So, given that we needed a few weeks of numbers... That we needed to have a few weeks of numbers before we got to this pitch, we just settled on March 6th for our Kickstarter campaign to kick off.

That meant, we had two months to get people excited and get a following before this thing started, so we could hit the ground running when the Kickstarter campaign started off.

So, our team was out in California, our founders were out in California. Our engineers were there with them to help build the machine and iterate as rapidly as they could. And so, in Chicago, it was just me and my intern, June. So we had to be extremely efficient with what we were doing, efficient with our time, with our money, because we didn't have a ton. So, here's how we did it.

1.  I identified our lowest friction customers

Given that we didn't have a lot of time or money to do the proper research on this, but the way it worked out is we just had a lot of conversations and used our intuition to divine that people who'd probably be most excited about this and had to be our lowest friction customers, or potential customers, would be time-starved, overworked, over-scheduled young urban professionals, for a couple of reasons.

Number one, they are tech-savvy, something like a connected oven is not going to freak them out. They might even be excited about it, hopefully. Number two, they are, at the very least, familiar with the Blue Aprons of the world. They're not afraid of fresh food delivery, and that's going to be a big hurdle with a lot of different demographics. And lastly, they have more money than time. So, they're looking for ways to spend that money to get back some of that time, and ultimately, that's one of the advantages of our product, as you don't have to do a thing to cook a good dinner.

2.  I got in front of them

So, one of the biggest problems with marketing our product is the fact that when you are selling us, you're selling the paired service with the hardware product and you have to actually try this food before you can believe it's actually good, right? You also are asked to put down several hundred dollars before you can taste how great this thing is. So, it's led us to do two things.

3.  I got them when they would be most interested

In this case, we wanted to get in front of these people using in-office demos, get to them in situation, get to them while they're hungry at lunch and let them try the food. Secondly, this summer, we bought a food truck, so we're running around Chicago and sampling food. So, if you guys look at @TovalaFoodTruck you can track us (not promoting, just mentioning it…).

So, yeah, besides the fact that these office demos allowed us to get to them at a time when they were going to be interested, when they'd be a captive audience, it allowed us to be selective about the people we were going to be talking to, the types of professionals we got in front of, based on the type of businesses that we would go do demos in front of.

So we opened up the Rolodex, we reached out to as many companies as we could in our right groups and we ended up doing more than 20 demos over the course of those two months. We got in front of a lot of people, they all tried the food, they all liked the food, it went really well.

4.  I got their info

But obviously, we had to convert these people, right? So, we got their info. It's very simple. We put our sign-up sheet down and if you give people free stuff, there's like a sense of reciprocity, they feel like if you ask gently, nicely, "If you're interested, put your name down, we'd really appreciate it." We ended up with a lot of names, and being the nice mid-westerners we are, we reached out shortly after, and thanked them for their time.

5.  I got them committed

We gently reminded them about the Kickstarter campaign that was coming up. And we got them committed. What I mean by that is, we offered them the chance to lock down the lowest price that the machine would ever be, for just a $10 deposit, which for this group isn't that big of a commitment. So that ended up with 168 advance deposits, which is not a huge amount, but what this really allowed us to do is the most important thing that we did in this, is we got them sharing. I'm talking about a grassroots effort that we did. Ultimately, the most important thing for something like this is to get people excited, get people able to share.

6.  I got them to share

You get people... An avenue to share, and in our case, we've given them an incentive to share. So what we did, is we used a platform called Queue to gamify sharing. What this platform does is it tracks the different methods in which people share, and assigns point values to them. So if I share on Facebook, I get... I don't remember, I get like 10 points. I share on Twitter, I get five points, over email, whatever. And it also can attribute the ultimate deposits to the people who started them off with a share. So those lead to more points and, ultimately, this was very successful for us.

We gave people something to be excited about. We gave them an avenue to share it, a reason to share it, and we gave them prizes for sharing. We gave out T-shirts, oven mitts, we gave out beta tests and, to the top share, we gave out a free oven. And this led to us getting 646 users that were in our sharing community. Got the word out. And I should say there are a lot of other activities that we did during this time.

Right after the Kickstarter campaign, we did a digital advertising campaign that led to some good responses. We had a strong press push as well. But we think this grassroots campaign directly influenced the fact that Chicago was our highest buyer city in the Kickstarter campaign. And in the end, it paid off with a $255,000 Kickstarter campaign. We got more than $100,000 pledged within our first 24 hours.

And most importantly, we had numbers for the Y Combinator pitch. It went very well. Our founder had a number to punctuate the pitch with. It ended up in us raising $1.6 million in seed funding. So again, I've said it a couple times, but what our greatest takeaway from all this is something that we're going to take with us when we put ovens in people's homes in the next two months, is that if we get people who are excited about our product, give them a way to share it, give them a reason to share it, then they'll get the word out for us and, ultimately, become our biggest advocates.

Thank you for listening.