Winning the Dragons' Den E-commerce Crash Course contest couldn't have come at a better time for B.C.-based Rootside Provisions. This year-old start-up that makes cocktail and ginger tea mixers, is preparing to expand beyond its initial business-to-business channel and into the online consumer retail space.
As the winners of the contest, which was sponsored by CBC's Dragons' Den and Canada Post, Rootside received $10,000 worth of free shipping and direct mail services through Canada Post Solutions for Small Business™ program, as well as a face-to-face consultation with Michele Romanow from Dragons' Den.
Canada Post caught up with founders Michela Byl and Quinn Palmer in Toronto right after they met with Romanow. We talked about everything from bad drinks to trusting your gut, to the art of frantic YouTubes.
There's a story behind where you got the idea for Rootside – can you share it?
Quinn Palmer (QP): It basically stems from a bad drink. One of our favourite things to do is go to a bar or restaurant and sit up at the counter and watch people make food and drinks. We analyze every little detail and craft in our mind what we would do in those scenarios.
We noticed that at a lot of bars and restaurants someone would order, say, a Moscow Mule which is ginger beer, vodka and lime juice. They'd crack a bottle of carbonated ginger beer, pour half in the glass, set the bottle aside and then if no one else orders it for an hour, it's gone flat and they've got to crack open another one.
We were at this bar in downtown Vancouver one day, ordered a Moscow mule, watched this whole process in front of us and… it just didn't taste good. And it was 12 bucks.
We were literally sitting at the bar, I got out my phone, and typed in how do you make ginger beer? Then we said, we can do this better. And it just kind of snowballed from there.
You entered the Dragons' Den E-commerce Crash Course Contest after receiving a promo for it in an e-newsletter from Canada Post Solutions for Small Business. What was your reaction when you won and what will the prizing allow you to do?
Michela Byl (MB): We receive so many emails, but this contest stood out. We just thought, why wouldn't we enter it? When we got the call, we couldn't believe it. And right away we knew what we were going to do with the prizing.
We've primarily been selling to restaurants and bars and we're turning now to selling to consumers, through our e-commerce channel. So we want to use part of the prizing to send customers samples.
With samples, we can show them how to use our product, because there's an education component to it. We'll use the direct mail to pique their interest – and the free shipping means we won't have to pay up front for the cost of shipping the samples. Ultimately we can get product in hand, which has always been our first step in creating relationships.
We're also going to be able to play with our shipping options. We'll be able to test what shipping prices and delivery ranges work best and what ultimately entices people to purchase our product online.
What about the mentor component with Michele Romanow? What did you most want to know from her?
QP: Our product is a bit more of a niche product. One of the biggest questions we wanted to pose to Michele was whether there was an appetite for the public to purchase this kind of product online and bypass big chain grocery stores, which historically tend to take a pretty good chunk of our margins.
She echoed our gut feeling that while it's difficult to introduce people to a new product like ours in that grocery store kind of environment, online there's a lot more opportunities to show people how to use the product and what they can make with it at home.
She also opened our eyes to the possibilities of e-commerce and how, logistically and through marketing, we can take our business from primarily selling in just B.C. to expanding across Canada.
MB: We also talked about the value of iterating – of not waiting for everything to be perfect, but to perfect as you go along. That was valuable to hear.
Launching a start-up is incredibly difficult. What do you credit your success to so far?
MB: Along with a huge support system, probably our tenacity. There's been so many challenges and tasks that we've come across that we've just had to figure out.
I'll give an example. We had been operating out of a shared production space in Vancouver. We were at our limit and we had to move to a space of our own. Right away we knew we needed a walk-in cooler. We put the deposit down, but it never arrived. We had to start a new production run in two and half weeks. But to order a new one it would have been five to seven weeks.
QP: So it was either wait five to seven weeks and not be able to produce and miss out on a variety of opportunities we were scheduled for. Or just figure it out.
So we ended up building our own walk-in cooler. We had to learn how to do framing, roofing, insulation, refrigeration – we ended up modifying an AC unit to reach refrigeration temperatures. We had no idea how to do any of this. It was a lot of frantic YouTubes and Googling.
But we figured it out and it works like a charm.
What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs – and what does the future hold for Rootside.
MB: Advice? To trust your gut.
QP: Agreed. If your gut tells you to do something or to walk away, listen to it. As for the future, we have a lot planned that we're excited about. But… you'll have to wait and see.