Niche Made To Order Products & Leveraging Oprah’s Favorite Things List – Kim Strassner – EP 52

The Strategies of Starting and Managing Profitable Businesses During the Coronavirus Pandemic.

What does it take to run a seasonal business that is prone to any disasters like the COVID-19? What if there are effective strategies that can change people’s minds about buying even though their reasons for buying change?

In this episode of the Page One Podcast, Luke Peters speaks with Kim Strassner about her business and how it has been affected by the pandemic. Kim is the co-founder of Words with Boards, an online gift shop that deals with unique wooden personalized and custom products.

Listen in to learn the online strategies that Kim has used during the pandemic to lift her company from making losses earlier in the year to make

profits now. You will also learn how to recognize a need that can turn into a profitable business opportunity.

Key Takeaways:

  • How to use SEO on your website to attract buying customers without paid ads.
  • How to take advantage of a need in a certain niche and start a profitable company to solve the problem.
  • The importance of effective PR campaigns to build credibility and grow sales for your company.

Episode Timeline:

  • [0:35] Intro
  • [1:41] Kim describes their personalized products at Words for Boards all made in the USA and their tree planting initiative
  • [2:30] She explains what makes their products different from any other in the market.
  • [4:19] The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their business and the online strategies they have used to improve that.
  • [7:33] How they started a face mask company when they saw a business opportunity.
  • [9:03] How they generated $100k in sales in 3 weeks with their new company through word of mouth and press mentions.
  • [11:42] She describes the manpower of her company plus the comparison of sales between the website and other means.
  • [13:32] She mentions some of the PR strategies they have been involved in that brought immense sales and credibility.
  • [16:02] She narrates the story of how she lucked out with focused and effective employees.
  • [17:59] Why they plant a tree for each product purchased through their website as something they believe in.
  • [19:49] How to communicate to your customers with authenticity during this time.

Relevant Links:

Websites: https://wordswithboards.com/ & https://qualitymasksupply.com/

LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/kim-strassner-573624101/

Speaker 1: Welcome to the Page One podcast, a podcast featuring a variety of guests and thought leaders on topics ranging from digital marketing, sales channel strategies, influencer marketing, best in class product launches and all the details about how to accelerate sales. Now here’s your host, Luke Peters.

Luke Peters: Thanks for joining us on the Page One podcast. I’m your host, Luke Peters, CEO of Newair Appliances and Retail Band Digital Strategy Agency. We’re now in a coronavirus world and I know that’s on everyone’s mind. So I’m going to adapt all of these interviews to ensure that you listeners are getting the most out of this podcast. So we’re going to get right to the important episode here. In this episode, you’re going to learn from entrepreneur Kim Strassner on how to bootstrap a business and make products right here in the USA. And also how Kim has just started a new business.

Luke Peters: And it’s kind of related to the coronavirus problems we’re having in this world. And she’s kind of partnered with other companies and we’ll get into that and talk about that soon. Kim Strassner is co-founder of Words with Boards, an online gift shop, that’s redefining the art of thoughtful gift giving through its unique personalized product line. They’re best known for their personalized cutting boards, which landed on Oprah’s favorite things holiday list and list all consumer brands want to be on. Welcome to the show, Kim.

Kim Strassner: Thank you, happy to be here.

Luke Peters: Awesome. So I know we’ve got a lot to talk about today with coronavirus and how you guys are navigating that, but why don’t you just quickly describe your key products at Words with Boards.

Kim Strassner: Yeah. So as you mentioned, we’re best known for our personalized cutting boards, which are all hand cut with the scroll saw. So a lot of the products out there that you see personalized are laser engraved. So we don’t do that. Everything is hand cut with a scroll saw and we have cutting boards and lazy Susans and many other wooden [inaudible 00:02:00] made in the USA. All of our products are sourced. All of our materials are sourced in the USA. All of our wood is sustainably forested and we give a dollar to which enables one tree planting in the US, so for every product sold a tree is planted.

Luke Peters: Awesome. So these are cutting boards. Give us maybe your most popular product. What’s the size of it and what is it? What differentiates it? What special change have you made on it that’s really engaging customers?

Kim Strassner: Yeah. So they’re personalized. And like I mentioned, they’re all, so the word… It’s really hard to explain. It’s more of a visual product as you probably haven’t seen anything like it before, but we hand cut words, letters, name, whatever you want out of butcher block, either maple, cherry or Walnut wood. And so our most popular is our large, which is 12 and a half by 16, and they’re pretty thick. They’re all an inch and an eighth thick. So it’s a really nice, good, solid cutting board or serving board. And people also, we’ve heard over and over they’re so nice and they’re personalized so they keep them out on the countertop as display, as almost decoration for the kitchen.

Luke Peters: That’s awesome. And I’m sorry if this is obvious, but so they’re personalized, you guys do sell in some boutique stores. Does that mean that you’ll make some already ready cut models that are just have popular themes to them or is every single one going to be kind of personalized for the customer at point of sale or they order a personalized version, it’s made and then shipped to them later?

Kim Strassner: So we knew how some non-personalized boards right now, a really popular one is happy hour. There’s happy hour on it, or our bar board that says bar on it. So these are some popular ones right now. So we have a line of non custom boards. So boutique retailers, they carry those as well as they have one custom board that they display that they take orders from.

Luke Peters: Got it. That’s awesome. Thanks for giving us that intro and why don’t we just jump into coronavirus? Talk to me a little bit, how it’s affected the business. I know we were chatting pre podcast and March was a tough month, but then you guys, sounds like you guys really rebounded. So let’s hear about that.

Kim Strassner: Yeah, we did. So March, we were down probably 38% was March and then April came along and we were up about 17%. So I think that online sales, I think in general are up and our products are mostly given as gifts. So a wedding gift, the shower gifts this time of year, that’s a real popular gift. And weddings were getting canceled, the showers were getting canceled, but all of a sudden people were getting very, “What can we do? The shower’s canceled, but now we’re going to do a drive by shower.” Literally.

Luke Peters: That’s so cool.

Kim Strassner: Things our customers are telling us. Yeah, they’re buying a personalized cutting board and then taking it to the drive by shower.

Luke Peters: That’s great. And through what sales channels are you seeing this now? Is this mostly through your D to C website or are you also seeing this with some of your other sales channels?

Kim Strassner: Yeah, so our website wordswithboards.com saw the biggest increase last month, but we’re also on zola.com, were on thegrommet.com and uncommongoods.com. And towards the end of the month, we started seeing more of an increase in those platforms. But our biggest increase last month with direct to our website.

Luke Peters: That’s great to hear. Now, is this due to any special marketing efforts? Are you able to kind of share maybe what you’ve seen work in paid advertising or social media, or anything in particular that’s helped that?

Kim Strassner: Yeah, it’s hard to pinpoint, isn’t it? We really don’t do any paid advertising right now. I was doing a lot of work on our website on the SEO part of our website and writing a lot of blogs and just doing a lot of SEO work at the beginning and towards the end of last year and the beginning of this year. And I really saw the needle jumped on that. So as far as traffic to our website and that kind of thing. So that probably helped us a little bit, the SEO work that I did a few months ago, and then the end of February, which I know we’ll talk about, we started another company and really, I haven’t done anything with Words with Boards. It’s just, people just found us and word of mouth and we have a lot of repeat customers as well. Luke Peters: Wow, that’s great. What platform are you guys on? Are you guys on Shopify or any of the larger platforms?

Kim Strassner: We are on Shopify.

Luke Peters: Yeah. Good for you. It’s so good to hear that. There’s a lot of stories of people having the challenging times now and you guys are succeeding and I know we had talked probably like about a month ago or so. And it was, I think it was a different story then, so it’s good to hear the rebound. And why don’t you talk about the new business idea? So I can just kind of lay the groundwork here. It sounds like things were looking tough, like they were for everybody in March, and then you said, “Wow, I better get out and look for another opportunity.” And you went and started a new business with some other business partners.

Kim Strassner: Yeah. So my husband actually, he was seeing online all these healthcare workers making masks and this was in February. And so we went to a local company, [Joe Anders 00:07:48] down, Joe is a couture dressmaker, and also another local business, Dan with Imperium Shaving and my husband and the two of them met and said, “We need to do something. Here’s a need and we need to figure out how we can pivot.” All of our companies are luxury brands. We make luxury products and at the time sales were down and we were struggling. And so we said let’s make masks. So within five days of that meeting, we had a website up and so now we employ about 40 home sellers in the Baltimore area. And we’ve just grown as you can imagine with the CDC saying that everybody needs to wear a face mask and then locally in Maryland, there was the governor said everybody needs to wear a face mask if you’re in a store or on public transportation. So we just really got this up and going at the perfect time.

Luke Peters: That is so cool. And talk a bit about sales. Are you able to share kind of any type of volume or give the listeners an idea of what you’ve done? And then also, how have you generated those sales?

Kim Strassner: So we generated the sales through some press. So we got a local magazine wrote about us and then a local TV station did a story on us. So definitely the press that we receive locally was a huge part of that, in addition to, like I said, the CDC and the state of Maryland saying you have to have face masks. There’s not many people at least locally at the time that were making nonmedical organic cotton face masks. A lot of people were making them for the hospitals and the healthcare workers. Our niche was the individual everyday people who also needed a mask. And so we filled a niche that nobody else was filling at the time.

Luke Peters: That’s awesome. And so has this venture, I mean, has it actually… I know you’re doing something that’s helpful and you’re selling some masks, but how about just economically, has it been something that’s generating some cash for you guys? Or is it maybe not there yet, but you think it could be in the future?

Kim Strassner: Yeah, no, it is definitely generating income. I mean it’s split three ways, but it is definitely generating and profitable. We are also donating masks as well to some community organizations for that part of it. Giving back to the community, which we’re all very much is in our DNA to do. But no, it’s very profitable and we grew so quickly within, I think three weeks we were at a hundred thousand dollars in sales.

Luke Peters: That’s so awesome. That’s great.

Kim Strassner: Last month is a complete blur with starting this new company. And then on top of it, Words with Boards is up 17%. So it’s been some good times.

Luke Peters: Yeah well, good for you and congratulations. I mean, that’s a real number. That’s awesome. And also to do it so quickly. So it sounds like you’ve diversified your income streams and a lot of good things about that. Cool. So let’s move on more about your company kind of before we get into, I really want to learn how your other marketplaces are doing, say from The Grommet to anywhere else you might be selling. Before we get into that, can you give the listeners a quick breakdown just on the business overall, where are you operating kind of the footprint and number of total staff that would be helpful to understand?

Kim Strassner: Sure, so our wood shop and studio is located in Baltimore City in Maryland, and we are a little bit seasonal. So during November, December, we probably have about 10 employees and then we scale that back to about six employees throughout the rest of the year. And we have one autistic adult that we employ as well. And we have people who cut the boards, we have people who sand the boards. We have people who help with packing and shipping and then it’s my husband and I.

Luke Peters: Okay, thanks a lot for that, Kim. And then, can you also fill us in kind of on the sales mix? So you’re talking about The Grommet earlier, are you able to give us a percentage of sales say from your website versus what you’re selling elsewhere on the internet?

Kim Strassner: So it’s probably 60% direct to our website and 40% with other, like The Grommet, Uncommon Goods. And those are [inaudible 00:12:49] are probably the three bigger ones. But that mix does shift from year to year. I mean, we’re trying to get more, obviously direct to website sales, but we do love our relationship with The Grommet and Uncommon Goods as well.

Luke Peters: Yeah. And again, it’s good to have diversified. And how long have you been selling? When was your website created? So how long has the business really been operational and functional?

Kim Strassner: So we’ve been in business seven years since 2013.

Luke Peters: That’s great. And why don’t we talk about PR, how has that helped your brand? I know you got some probably amazing PR from Oprah. It’d be great to kind of hear the story or anything specific you can share about that.

Kim Strassner: Yeah. PR has been a big reason why our web sales are what they are. So it first started out, we got in the hands of Martha Stewart originally, and yeah, we were on her website. And at the time she had an American made store on eBay, which we were part of. And so that really gave us credibility. It didn’t really translate much into sales, but the credibility piece was priceless for us because that was early on, that was probably like end of 2013, 2014. And then, so after Martha Stewart, then we got into Uncommon Goods, that was a huge part of our sales early on. And then we got into the hands of Oprah and we ended up on her holiday list, 2015, which was huge. It really took our business to the next level. And we really haven’t looked back since then.

Kim Strassner: I mean, even to this day, we still get orders and then when I’m able to ask customers where they heard about us, some people say, “Oh, you were on Oprah’s Favorite Things list.” So how many years later, three years later, it’s still a force to be reckoned with. And then also the other PR that we’ve gotten is on national and national holiday gift guides are big for us too. Those are always helpful. And I’ve done a combination of hired PR agencies and done PR and my own. The PR I’ve done on my own, which was Martha Stewart and Oprah, the big one, that definitely generated the most publicity and sales versus hiring a PR agency. It’s kind of interesting. I hire an agency because I don’t have the time, but really when I do it, that’s when I get the best results.

Luke Peters: Unfortunately that happens all the time with entrepreneurs. It’s too bad we don’t have six heads and 12 arms, but eventually you get to a point where you got to have someone else do it. But yeah, it’s not the first time I’ve heard someone tell me that. Talk about being an autism friendly employer. I’d love to know what that means, what you’ve learned, how that’s affected you.

Kim Strassner: Yes. So when we moved into our wood shop and studio in 2015, there was a local company within walking distance to us and they were… The name of them is Itineris. And so they have autistic adults that come to them and spend the day with them. And some of these adults are able to work outside of Itineris and outside of the home. So we were able to partner with them and hire an autistic adult. And he comes in and helps us with the packaging. So he makes our boxes and he does anything around the packaging, he even makes our mineral oil bottle and does stuff in the wood shop. Nothing related to equipment but he’ll vacuum the wood shop.

Kim Strassner: So lots of different things. And they are just the best employees, really. They always show up on time. They always show up. And not that we really had a problem with that, but they are very focused. You give them a task to do, and that’s what they do. I often have to say, “You need to take a break. Do you want some water? Do you need to go to the bathroom?” Because they’re very focused on their job.

Luke Peters: Man, that’s got to be really rewarding too. That’s a cool story. And then in addition to that, you have a sustainable business model. You kind of talked about that earlier. One product sold is one tree planted. And then you also, I think just in some back and forth writing that we had mentioned, that you have to be really truthful and authentic because you’ll get called out on it if you’re kind of overemphasizing it, but I’d love for you to share what other businesses can learn from this. How it has helped in marketing and just in branding of your company.

Kim Strassner: Yeah. I mean, this is something that was really important to my husband and I early on just to give back in any way that we can. So it was really done not so much because it’s the thing to do right now. I mean it was done because it’s really something that we believe in and we believe in the environment and doing what we can for the environment. And we’re wood products and so it makes sense to plant the tree. And then the wood that we buy is also sustainably forested, which means more is planted than what is torn down.

Kim Strassner: And because our products are butcher block, the butcher block material that you use, the wood that you use to put your block or board is really mostly stuff that would be thrown away because it’s smaller pieces because you’re gluing together small pieces. And the reason why you do that for our cutting board is so it doesn’t warp. So yeah, I mean, it just makes sense. So it’s every product sold through our website, we plant a tree and I mean, I don’t know if that has really made us to have more sales because we do that. I just think that it was just something important to my husband and I.

Luke Peters: Yeah. Well, I mean, it fits in with a lot of the other things you’re doing. So American made and just a lot of the other trends and maybe the authenticity, I’m sure that really helps out with the brand. So it probably helps out more than you know. Yeah, no, listen, really enjoyed getting to talk to you a second time here and also getting to hear about the new developments with the business that you’ve started. And I guess before I let you go here, you’ve shared a lot about your business. What’s maybe the best practical bit of advice you can give other entrepreneurs to successfully make it through this COVID-19 situation that we’re all in?

Kim Strassner: I think that, again, being authentic, being in communication with your customers is key right now. If you are making and shipping, you need to let them know that. If you’re pivoting like we are, you need to let them know that. And I think just be authentic and truthful and tell them exactly what you’re going through. And also for us, we have started back having our employees come back, but we’re doing it in a way that we’re not all there at the same time. So somebody come early in the morning and then we wipe everything down and then we come in and then we wipe everything down and then our sander comes in at night and then we wipe everything down. So just being really careful and having staggering work shifts is what works for us.

Luke Peters: Well, listen, you got a couple of businesses now, so you’ve got more than you than you probably were thinking was going to happen in the last couple of months and it’s cool that you’re succeeding with the new business and your existing business with Words with Boards. So congratulations, really enjoyed having you here on the podcast. How can listeners get ahold of you or find more about you?

Kim Strassner: Yeah. So if you’re looking for a really awesome gift, either for personal guests or for corporate guests, you can go to wordswithboards.com. I’m also on LinkedIn at Kim Strassner at Words with Boards. We can be found on social media and then our mask company is qualitymasksupply.com.

Luke Peters: Great, and we’ll have all this in the show notes. And again, want to thank you again, Kim, for being on the Page One podcast, sponsored by Retail Band and hope everybody has enjoyed the interview today. Truly appreciate your reviews on iTunes and hope you join us for the next interview. Take care.

Kim Strassner: Thank you.

Speaker 1: Thanks for listening to the Page One podcast with Luke Peters. If you enjoyed this episode, please help us out by leaving us a rating on iTunes. Want to double your online sales? Check out www.retailband.com. And don’t forget to join us next week with our next amazing guests.

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Episode References:

Contact Kim Strassner: LinkedIn

Contact Luke: luke@retailband.comLinkedIn 

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