Small Business

The Martha Stewart Boost


A maker of allergy-free foods finds out what happens to a small company after a positive appearance on a celebrity's TV show

It was the kind of publicity every entrepreneur dreams of: a positive, high-profile national TV appearance accompanied by a credibility boost from a celebrity (businessweek.com, Winter, 2006). That was the experience small-business owner Mark Sandler and his family had recently when their South Salem (N.Y.) allergy-free snack company, Divvies, was featured on The Martha Stewart Show. But getting great publicity is just the beginning of an entrepreneur's branding process, Sandler says. He spoke recently to Smart Answers columnist Karen E. Klein about the TV appearance and the response. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow.

How did you get your company onto a segment of The Martha Stewart Show?

It was through one of our customers. We bake and sell peanut-, tree nut-, egg-, and milk-free cookies, cupcakes, and other treats, and all of our customers feel very strongly about what we do. One of them, who has a child with food allergies, works for Martha, and she advocated for us with a producer of the show who also has a child with food allergies. That's how the opportunity came about.

How long was the lead time from hearing about the possibility to actually taping a segment on the show?

It was within two months from when we jumped into the process. We knew it would be an opportunity to get national recognition and enhance our brand, because Martha has a huge audience and only associates herself with quality.

Your wife, Lori, and nine-year-old son, Benjamin, made allergy-free cupcakes on the segment, and your products were featured prominently for nearly 15 minutes. What kind of response did you get?

Initially, unique visitors to our Web site were up four- or fivefold. A week later, we're still getting about double our normal traffic volume on the site. I don't know how long we'll sustain it, but so far it's still up. This is the most traffic we've gotten since we founded the company in September, 2005.

Did the increased interest also translate into increased sales volume?

Yes, we have gotten significantly increased order volume as well, but I'm not sure what percentage of site visitors actually placed orders. In an online, direct-to-consumer business like ours, we've found that's not a critical factor. People often visit our site and then buy from us a month later.

Is the response what you expected?

I really did not know what to expect. I only knew it would be positive and it would open up our brand to new eyeballs and people in a less grassroots way than we are used to. I was definitely thrilled about the editorial format and about the recommendation piece that the segment would have.

Did you do any specific preparation to help your company deal with the interest the show generated?

Absolutely. It was my job to gear up for the response, but really, that starts with a very sound management structure and a good relationship with your employees. That way, it won't be a problem if people need to work extra hours or you need to bring friends in to work and cope with increased volume. We have 12 employees, and they are already prepared to rally in moments like this.

Because we anticipated some increased interest, it didn't cause chaos. We prepared ahead with a staffing plan, we did cross-training, we got current on other orders, we cleared any backlogs we had, and we made sure to have ingredients and packaging on hand. Because we sell a fresh-baked product, we couldn't work ahead on orders, but we got things made up to the extent that that's possible.

The other thing I did was, I backed up our whole Web site in case there would be a crash at the last minute and it had to be reconstructed quickly. You need to make sure the infrastructure of your Web site is properly done so you can handle increased volume. What good is getting all that interest if people look up your site and they can't access it? It would be like turning the spigot off just when all the orders were flowing in.

Did you do anything to let people know about this appearance?

Yes. As a small-business owner you have to take responsibility for getting the word out. You want to let the world know this is happening. We sent e-mails to the people on our customer list and let them know about the show and made sure they could watch it online with a link from our site. When something like this happens, you can't just sit back and watch. You have to strategize and plan for it and take control so you can maximize the impact. We told a lot of people we know in the industry about it, so they would watch it and create some buzz for our firm.

Lori, who founded the company, and Benjamin, whose life-threatening food allergies were the inspiration for her recipes, looked very relaxed during the show. What kind of rehearsal did they go through?

They didn't rehearse at all. We've gotten a lot of press, so we're pretty media-trained. And when you have something you believe in passionately, it's a natural process to get up there and talk about it.

Martha seemed to be especially charmed by your son, who's a natural salesman and was great on camera.

He is very thoughtful and believes in this company, and he's developed a philosophy around it. That's what came through, and the reason the segment went so well is that they put each other at ease.

For us, the real gain from this will be long-term brand-building. Consumers want to buy from companies that are validated and credible. We may get some great big order days from this, but this is only one significant step of many we have to take to build our business.

Karen E. Klein is a business journalist who covers small-business issues for several national publications. She writes her Smart Answers column twice a week.

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