How to successfully run an oatmeal business online.
In conversation with Hunter Williams
In this episode of eCommerce Experts Talk, Marc Bishop interviewed Hunter, a health enthusiast who owns a business online. He reveals how he got inspired, what are his challenges and how he utilises digital marketing strategies to upkeep his business. Watch now for some profound insights.
Everyone, welcome to another episode of WytPod, the online community for e-commerce entrepreneurs and business owners. Now today we have a very special guest with us. He is the founder and owner of Zeroats.com (zero oats), and his name is Hunter Williams. Hunter, thanks a lot for joining us today. How are you?
Great. So let's get going, then. First of all, so we can just get to know you a little bit better. Would you mind sharing a little bit of your background?
Yes. So just a little bit of background. I’m from North Carolina, the Raleigh area, and grew up here. And I’ve been an athlete my whole life. So I was a football player, went to play football at Wake Forest University. And being an athlete, I’ve always been super passionate about health, fitness, nutrition and everything. And I guess, you know, every one of you to do the podcast and everything everybody talks about, you have like your entrepreneur story where you’re selling a wellness day, that lemonade stand or whatever. I never really had that, but I grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, so my dad owned a landscaping company, so that was just my world. That was kind of what I knew growing up and what my experience was. So after I played football, I tried to do the whole NFL thing, wasn’t good enough, and didn’t make it there, which is probably a blessing in disguise.
I think you are.
Yeah. And I played linebacker too, so I definitely had my fair share of headshots and everything. But it was still I mean, I still love football and I’ve got three younger brothers and they’ve all played as well. So it’s definitely something I enjoy it and also kind of ties into what we’re doing with the business. One of the motivations I had with the business but anyway so.
So what do you think that the to a tagovailoa what happened to that guy? I mean, that was pretty scary, didn't it?
Yeah, well, at least now we’re more cognizant of what’s going on there because when I played and I’ve been done playing my last year was 2015 and then I played the SCC. So at that time, they were just starting to have like this concussion review protocol during games. They would have a doctor evaluate people and they would have a doctor in the booth that would be looking for people the whole game. To make sure. But you know, it’s rare because the player and I have been in this situation, the player is always going to say, coach, I’m good, I remember. And this will probably be frowned upon, but I can tell it. So I remember my senior year we were practising and we were playing Notre Dame at Notre Dame that week and we weren’t that good. But it was my senior year and it was kind of, you know, Notre Dame was maybe ranked like three or four. It’s like there is no way I am not playing this game. And on the Thursday practice before the game, which is more of a walkthrough practice, I remember I collided with a receiver in practice and both of us were because we weren’t looking, we run at full speed, we were breaking on the ball. And both of us went down and I had been hit so much on the head before I knew kind of how to throw the trainers off. And I was like, okay, get up. And just that’s like, everything’s cool. And he was down and he was out for another week or so and I was like, in my head, I was thinking, there’s no way I did all of this. Like went through Little League, high school and all of the stuff. I went through college to not get to play against Notre Dame my senior year. And so as a player, that’s what you’re thinking. And I know that’s what to watch thinking of like, Hey, put me in the game, my team is important.
He was like, Oh, it's my back. Yeah.
Exactly. But the problem is those started to compound and you saw it the next week when they played the Bengals that he probably still had some shock going on and everything there. And you know, that’s when you saw the hand lock up. Everything. So it’s scary. At the same time, I think the NFL’s doing a better job of trying to monitor this stuff. But there’s a reason that everyone loves football. If that stuff wasn’t there, if you didn’t have that nature of the game, it’d be probably as popular as dolphins. There’s a reason that on some days, you know, there’s that’s what everybody watches.
There's nothing I love more than watching a big tight end just crumble down the field and run people over. That's my favourite play.
I love that. Yeah. So sorry. I guess we got sidetracked a little bit, but it's great to talk to you about that because I'm a huge football fan. So. Yeah. All right, cool. So let's get onto your business. What inspired you? I kind of know already, but if you'd like to share with them, what inspired you to start selling oats online?
Yes. So the previous six years, I had worked as a residential real estate agent, and that process, started when I was 23 years old in real estate. Absolutely nothing. My background in college was in finance, so I thought I was going to work in an investment bank or work on Wall Street, all that stuff. I did that actually briefly and absolutely hated it. I was like, This is soul-sucking and I don’t want to do this for ten years and then show up and realize that I hate it. One day it’s like I’m out. So I moved home and got my real estate license. I was like, At least real estate is a business that you can start on your own with a little amount of money. And through that process, I got really, really good at understanding the nature of digital marketing. Now, by no means I am an expert or guru, but I taught myself a lot of these things related to online lead generation sales, funnels, CRMs, automation and all those things. And I got really good at understanding that, and that’s actually what helped propel me to have success in real estate. A lot of people get into real estate, especially the residential section, like, Oh, I want to have my own schedule and be my own boss. And for me I was thinking, how do I build a list of people that I can possibly transact with? And when I focus on that every single day, that led me to have success. Now you get to the point in real estate, usually depending on how fast you move, it’s four or five years in where you’re actually really busy and you’re successful, but you hit the threshold of, Hey, I can’t really work any more hours that I’m working and scale what I’m doing. And other people have done this, but it was not something that I had the desire to spend the next. Ten years working on it. And you kind of go from this vision of, okay, I’ve got to make money today to what am I creating that’s going to have intrinsic value in the world five, ten years from now? And one of my mentors is a guy named Jay Campbell. And I remember as kind of this phase, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, but I was like, I would love to do something around health, nutrition, fitness, maybe start a healthy food brand. I’m the guy that walks into a grocery store and will be there for an extra 30 minutes because I’m looking at every ingredient label because that’s how conscious I am with nutrition and passionate about that stuff. Like, Oh, this is a health product, but it’s not really healthy. And so that’s something that I was just always passionate about. But my mentor, a guy named Jay, he had actually built a skincare company, E-Commerce, and he’s kind of a smaller time influencer and he’s explaining to me about all these things. I was like, Man, that’s really cool. I would love to do something in the food space to create a product that I would buy at the grocery store and sell via E-commerce. Now, because that’s a possibility. Whereas like 15, 20 years ago in the CPG space, it’s an old boys’ network of trying to break into retail distribution channels and everything. And so I was like, I’ve got this idea, what if I could create sugar-free flavoured oatmeal? Because oatmeal, is something I eat every day, I have to flavour it myself with natural flavour alternatives because all the flavour we get from the grocery store really online is going to contain some sort of added sugar. And so no new like nothing about the food business, CPG, I think the kind of the Internet infrastructure didn’t know as much about e-commerce, but at least from like the Internet side of how to build websites, yeah, I kind to go through all that. So I started working on that. I was looking back actually the day I filed my LLC in September 2021. So it’s been a little over a year now, but it took me. It is probably like seven months to understand what it actually means to have a food business, how to clear all the regulatory hurdles, how to order ingredients from suppliers, and how to get your product formulated and made. So I kind of went through everything, just trial by fire. I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m going to I think there’s the book, it’s a ready fire. And I was like, I’ve got this idea. I’ve got a vision for it. Let’s buy the website and just go in and figure it out as we go. So that’s kind of what led me here. But as far as the business itself, it was something that, you know, a lot of people will get into these like super data-driven analytics of what product should I create and who’s the exact author avatar of who I’m going to build around. And for me, it was like, I’ve got this problem. I want to solve it myself. And I think it would be something that other people would also use. So we’re still kind of in that testing phase of figuring that out. But, you know, a lot of people in the e-commerce world, they’re like, you got to have an exact audience and person, which is true to an extent. But for me, this is just something that I am really passionate about. I wanted to build a product and bring it into the world and see where it went.
That's it must be very rewarding to do what you love and what you care about. That's fantastic. Know. So it doesn't even feel like going to work every day.
I guess now is one of those things which I have always kind of been more of the opinion of, like, I want to be excited about what I’m working on. And for me, that could be even doing something as simple as like spreading mulch in people’s yards. Because I grew up landscaping with my dad. I have the ownership stake in it, and I know that what I’m working on is bringing value to someone that they’re excited about, what I bring them, bringing them that motivates me. And so a lot of people kind of get stuck in this trap of their lives of I’ve got to work to make money to live, to do all those things. And if you open your eyes and see there’s so much opportunity in the world, might not be something that you’re super passionate about, but you find that along the way and I had always kind of dreamed of doing something related to health and nutrition. I didn’t know it would be an oatmeal company or anything like that, but all the experiences I had kind of led me to get there.
Cool. I remember in my younger days, I used to lay tile. I used to be a towel setter and I got a real pump at the end. If I had a happy customer, you know, they saw the finished work and they were really happy. So it was very rewarding. Now I get where you come from. I do. All right. So what are some of the,. You mentioned some already, but what are some of the other challenges that you faced when you started your e-commerce business? And how do you overcome them with supply chain issues or things of that nature?
So yeah, the supply chain is definitely an issue. The first thing for me was actually figuring out how to source ingredients and obviously, that’s still a work in process. But to go from Okay, I just experimented with this formulation in my kitchen to now I’ve got certain vendors that have the exact supply of what I need. Luckily, I’ve kind of crossed at least that initial chasm to get there where I know who my vendor for whom I suppliers are, and how long it’s going to take me to get the product so that I can work on doing inventory. I think one of the initial hurdles for me was going through the regulatory process of launching a food company. So I have no idea how to do that. So first I actually was thinking I would need a code manufacturer to do this, and so I was going to call manufacturers and they’re like, Well, we want 25 or 50 grand and you may or may not like the product that we bring you, because I had the idea of what I wanted them to do. I was like, you know, I’m not going to do that. I’m going to build this on my own. And I found out you can go to a commercial kitchen where I could bring the ingredients on my own, have them produced in a local commercial kitchen where I’m kind of controlling the process, and then a standard operating procedure built around that. And then hopefully once we get to the point where co-manufacturer is a viable option for us from a cash flow standpoint, I already have everything structured such stuff because I’d be like, here’s going to be the suppliers will send you the ingredients and then this is going to be the process. So that was actually like looking back. I’m very glad I did that because a lot of these manufacturers, you kind of go to them with an idea and then you might you have no idea what you’re going to get back from them.
That was good. But that was definitely like the longest part of the process was getting all those things out, especially when you’re trying to navigate the industry and you don’t have any contacts or anybody that’s kind of guiding you along the way. But I would say from there, once we got all of the infrastructure and all the legal stuff, all that dialled in, the next part is okay, yeah. And it took us like eight or nine months to get there excited. A ton of flavour iterations that sucked that people were like, Wow, I wouldn’t feed this to my dog. So now where we know like 90% of the feedback that we get from in-person events and online is that, wow, this is a really good product. So once we got to that point, the next point is, okay, well, how to do. We. Get the world to know about it. Because you could have a cure for cancer, but if nobody knows about it, nobody’s going to buy it and you’re not going to have a viable business. So that’s kind of the next phase that we’re at. I understand a lot of the traffic side of things, and I even have funnels built that were working well, but it’s always what I would call a 30-day cash flow cycle, being able to spend money on pay traffic, hopefully, break even on the front end to acquire customers. And really and that sounds like you know, you start kind of disconnected from the market when you talk like that as like, hey, we got to break even to acquire customers. But really all that’s doing is convincing someone that you have a solution to their problem. And if you can figure out how to do that and we’ve run those and we’ve had good success, but. It’s. One of those things where you never know where your cash flow is at because you’re always waiting on, first of all, the return from the sale, from your payment processes, everything. And then also to one of the biggest things about our company is we want people to be repeat customers and the dynamics are tough, like a unit economics standpoint of getting to that point. Okay. Like in the first 90 days, what percentage of people are going to reorder and what am I doing from a branding and communication perspective with those customers to convince them to reorder? Because for most people, it’s kind of funny. Even without that good of a back-end follow-up, they’ll get a sample of our product and immediately within like one or two days they’ll come and place a bigger order. So we know through reviews and just the behaviour of people like that.
You know, it tastes good.
Yeah, exactly. They’re not like one thing in a way. But yeah, I would say the biggest challenge right now is taking something when, you know, you have a good product and then getting as many people to find out about that as possible.
So that's the goal right now. Absolutely. That resonates and that's a familiar story. You know, when I talk to other entrepreneurs. Yeah. How do you spread the word when you are solving a problem? You know, because I think everyone can relate. That is really difficult to find high-quality food. That's not killing you, slowly or not so slowly. And then if you do, you have to drive a couple of places. You have to look through five different products, as you said. I'm like you. I think it's easier for me. So I'm like this. So I'm saying they're reading all the ingredients. First on the list is sugar or partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. But that one.
Don’t get me started. That’s like another. When I’m done with all this I don’t know when I’ll be done with it or if I’ll be done with it, but that’s like a huge, passionate thing. I’m like, we have to transition people from understanding that vegetable oils are toxic.
The levels are so evil, right? Yeah, it's crazy and people don't know it. So, you know, it's criminal what happens to people, you know? So I really appreciate what you're doing and must be like I said, it must be rewarding. So what's your best-selling flavour?
So the most re-ordered flavour, because the way we structure it is the front-end offer that we get most people through. Whether it’s the paid traffic or just doing stuff with influencers is a variety pack. So we have four flavours. There’s classic, which is kind of the maple and brown sugar flavour. It doesn’t have enough of a maple flavour, but it has hints of that. So we call it classic. And then we’ve got blueberry, toasted cinnamon and French vanilla. And funny enough, when I started, I actually had an apple cinnamon flavour. And it’s very, very difficult. Maybe one day in Denver to get there. It’s very difficult to get a sugar-free apple flavour, to have something that tastes like Apple but also does not have any sugar.
So we went from that to a toasted cinnamon flavour or a little bit more of like a cinnamon spice. And we use Vietnamese cinnamon, which is a little bit spicier than your traditional cinnamon.
You don't say Vietnamese and all. Okay.
Yeah. So it’s more.
Of one side for getting here. This is really cool. Yeah, it's.
A little bit more. So you have like regular cinnamon, which is just kind of your standard process cinnamon. And then one of the more fine tunes is the Saigon or Vietnamese cinnamon. And then you have Salon’s Cinnamon and they all have they all taste like cinnamon, but there’s like a little bit of a different taste. But the Vietnamese cinnamon is kind of like that spicy if you think about like when you chew a big red gum, it kind of has that like spicy kick to it, but it’s still, still sweet. But that actually is our bestselling re-order flavour. So if you have a variety pack, they get it takes all the flavours and they come back to the website and order. They can order just one flavour from the website. That’s the one that people read over middle school.
And Cinnamon has health benefits that most people don't know about as well.
Yeah, it’s actually a glucose disposal agent, meaning that it helps regulate blood sugar. So even if you were just to take it alone, it will help keep your blood sugar lower. And it’s great because oatmeal actually for most people is going to have a positive insulin response, meaning that you’re not going to spike your blood sugar through the roof like you would if you’re in a Pop-Tart. But when you pair the oats with the insulin, you’re even getting a little bit more of a kick from a blood sugar regulation standpoint. And so maybe it’s something to people realize that at a subconscious level.
Yeah, cool. Nutmeg also is effective there, but not as effective as cinnamon, I guess. But yeah, great stuff. Cool. And what's your personal favourite flavour? Which one do you own?
I’m a vanilla guy. Like, I love vanilla, protein powder, vanilla, everything. So I really like vanilla I love. I think all the flavours are good. But if I like, if I’ve got all them in my pantry and I get to choose what I’m going to eat, I’m going to go probably with the vanilla. I like them all, but I love the vanilla because it has a lot more of like a cakey taste. So it’s. Kind of gone. With the oatmeal. It kind of takes more of like a has that like vanilla cakey-type flavour that you would get, which is nice.
Okay, cool. I'm feeling that. All right. And what's your strongest market like on two different levels? Like where are you shipping most of your oatmeal to? And also, what's your demographic look like if you have the data?
Yes. I don’t necessarily like geography-wise because most of the advertising we’ve done is just targeted to the United States. I mean, obviously, we only sell in the United States. I have noticed it’s probably a little bit more in the Midwest. It seems like there are a lot of people in the Midwest and then a lot of people in Florida. Now, I don’t know. I don’t think our sample size is big enough to be able to say, hey, these people are buying here. More or. Wherever. But it’s interesting about the demographics. So when I started this kind of like I was talking about, I didn’t know exactly who the author Avatar was, but I would think I was thinking it was going to be people, you know, 25 to 40 years old that are super health conscious, kind of like health-conscious millennials that are really into fitness and nutrition. Yeah, and it’s funny, I did broader targeting on the ads just. To start. And then also from doing live in-person events where I would go to local festivals and stuff. And what’s funny is that makes sense if you understand the kind of market trends and who spends money on CPG products. But I would say like 80 to 85% are women between the ages of like 30 to 55 that have children. And I don’t know this because I don’t have kids, but it makes sense because I come from a big family that has kids that want to feed something healthy to them. They want them to have a product that is made with organic ingredients like ours, and they want it to taste good so that child is compliant and enjoys eating it and hearing the feedback from people. That’s actually like the biggest segment of customers is women in that age range. And we have there are lots of other people buy it, but it seems like for the large part we understand like the customer analytics data, it’s mostly women that age range that wants something healthy for themselves because they’re conscious about the amount of sugar they’re eating, but they’re also concerned.
What they can see that, you know, because people, you know, they get in their late thirties, early forties, and they start becoming aware of their glucose and stuff like it's fatty liver disease and all this kind of stuff. And then yeah, they don't want their children to follow the same path. So that makes total sense. You must probably think about that a fair bit, that you're influenced influencing young people's nutritional habits and everything else. So that must be a great feeling. All right, cool. So finally, are there any words of wisdom that you'd like to pass along to any entrepreneurs who are starting their own ecommerce business?
Yeah, I would say the first part of it is just having belief. So for a long time, I wish I would have started this when I was younger and I just always had this intuition to kind of start something. I didn’t know exactly what’s going to look like. But I would say people when you have there’s this thing I’ve been working on my life lately I’ve always been an analytical, data-driven person. But when you actually and this I get annoyed when people say this, but then I find myself saying the same thing. When you rely on intuition to help guide your decision-making, usually you’re going to be on the right path. And they’ve actually even documented that through people like Daniel Kahneman, who talks about these subconscious systems that are operating that actually make quicker to quicker and better decisions rather than trying to overanalyze things. So I would say if someone especially, okay, I’ve got this itch to get into ecommerce or maybe I have this idea I want to bring into the world, I say go with that because there are very few people, you know, we kind of with the Internet, you get siloed into thinking everybody is doing what I’m doing. There are very few people that are even conscious or realise that they are in themselves and want to bring something to the world. And if you follow that intuition, go with it and have the intention of actually serving people through what you’re doing. So not just saying, hey, I’m going to be in this to make a quick buck because it’s not going to be like that with e-commerce, as you know, margin, I know starting a business, it’s not going to be like that. It can’t be in the future. But you really have to have your heart set on the intention to serve other people. And then that’s what’s going to help you build a business and then ultimately hopefully help you create something that you get more fulfilment. And like you talked about earlier, there’s nothing that makes me want to push through the harder stuff than when I get an email back from someone, or I get a review from someone that says like, Wow, this really made my day to know that I was something like I had an idea about and I went through all this stress and stuff to try to bring into the world and to know that someone was like Wow, that made my day. That’s what I do it for. And money, money comes and money goes. But if you’re focused on serving people on, you have a heart for doing that. E-commerce is a really cool way to do it and whatever level you’re at, you can figure it out. It’s just a matter of going. Through the journey to get there. So.
Hunter, that was very inspiring. I mean that and I really appreciate that and I appreciate your time. Thanks again for taking the time and good.
All right. Thanks, Marc, I appreciate it.
Take care, Hunter.
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