Southern Culture Artisan Foods is an all-natural breakfast company, founded when owner Erica Barrett realized that there were no high quality pancake and waffle mixes on the grocery store shelf. Inspired by her goal to reinvent breakfast, Erica left the grocery store an entrepreneur and began figuring out where to focus her energy first.
One of Erica’s first strategies for growth? Exhibiting at trade shows. In this exclusive interview, we spoke with Erica about how attending trade shows helped fuel the growth of her product, why bootstrapping was the best fit for Southern Culture Foods and how appearing on Shark Tank boosted her brand.
When Erica was just starting out, the first trade show she attended was a home and gift show called America’s Mart in her hometown of Atlanta.
“I didn’t know anything about trade shows, I just knew that if I really wanted to get out there I needed to put my money where my mouth is,” Erica explained. “I spent about $4,000 at that show and we made close to $80,000 before leaving the show in three days.”
That experience not only launched the Southern Culture Artisan Foods brand, but quickly catapulted the business to the next level. Their successful showing at America’s Mart kickstarted their customer base and lead Erica to continue exhibiting at trade shows to capitalize on their success. Today, Erica attends and exhibits at about eight trade shows per year. Through trade shows, she was able to secure purchase orders with QVC, Target and other major retailers that they now do business regularly with.
“I would say that in this day and age, companies shouldn’t be going door to door to market their business. They should really be participating in these trade shows to be taken seriously because that’s where the buyers go,” Erica continues.
Although there can be a high up-front cost associated with attending trade shows, including the exhibitor fee, booth rentals and giveaway items, Erica finds the expense to be extremely worthwhile – even when she was bootstrapping her company.
“The first two years we were really, really bootstrapped. It was just self-funding,” says Erica. “If you’re spending that much money to go to a trade show, you shouldn’t let anybody pass your booth. That [person walking by] could be your next big buyer.”
To meet their 2015 sales projections of $1.5 million, the two biggest challenges for Erica are the need for mass production mixers and warehouse space. Because Erica did not have a large infusion of capital, if the company needed to purchase a forklift or other new equipment, they would need to wait to receive their profits from a large purchase order before they were able to buy the equipment. In fact, the majority of the money spent has been on equipment. Most recently, they have invested money in building out their production kitchen and making improvements to their space.
“If we had more warehouse space, we could spread out orders. Most of the time we run out of space,” Erica explains.
Due to those challenges, it’s no surprise that 90% of the money that Erica has invested into the business has been to fund the large volume of purchase orders secured at trade shows.
In 2014, Erica appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank to promote Southern Culture Artisan Foods. While the experience was invaluable in terms of positive press, the sharks weren’t able to come up with appealing deal terms.
“We got two offers on the show and we took a deal with Barbara Corcoran on the show, but we didn’t close a deal after,” Erica shares. “Barbara wanted 35% equity for $100,000 and we really needed more money to grow our business.”
Because Erica was in a position where she was not dependent on taking a deal with poor terms, she made the decision to turn down the sharks in favor of looking elsewhere for growth capital.
“I’m totally fine if we don’t get a lump sum of funding because we’re now at a place where we’ve been in business for three years and our business is growing. “If we have to bootstrap to keep things going, sometimes it works out because we’re still gaining customers and building a rock solid business,” says Erica.
However, the experience on Shark Tank was still extremely beneficial. The positive press after the show aired (and every time the episode is re-run) helped increase sales and brand awareness for Southern Culture.
“The show was great for marketing and PR. I have people that stop me every single day and say ‘I saw you on that show,’” says Erica. “We did a great number of online sales after the show. I really think it helped from an advertising and marketing standpoint, which is what the purpose of the show is for.”
The appearance also helped them market the product without needing to spend a large amount of money.
“The bigger you get, you do need to put money into marketing where your customer lives and shops. I would say one of the biggest challenges is finding the most creative ways to market without spending money,” says Erica.