How We Built A $2M/Year Business Selling Barbecue Tools
Hello! Who are you and what business did you start?
My name is Michael “Medium Rare” O’Donnell and I’m the owner of Cave Tools and Grill Master University.
We’re known for being one of the highest quality brands of barbecue tools and accessories in the United States. Some of our most popular items include our Stainless Steel Meat Claws and our Beer Can Chicken set. In the last year, we expanded by launching Grill Master University which provides online Barbecue Masterclasses where our students can learn from World-Class Pitmasters at a fraction of the price of in person cooking classes.
One of the things that make my story unique is that I was able to build Cave Tools into an over $2 million per year brand while also traveling to and living in almost 40 different countries in just the last 3 years.
In 2017, we were ranked as the 3rd fastest growing company in Philadelphia and in 2018 we were ranked as the #453 fastest growing company on the Inc. 5000 list.
What's your backstory and how did you come up with the idea?
The true start of my journey goes back to college when I took an unpaid internship with a serial entrepreneur. I always wanted to be an entrepreneur, but I never knew anybody that was actually running a successful business. It made me realize that I could play things safe and get stuck in the rat race of a regular job or I could take responsibility for my own destiny and build a business that would help create the freedom I desired in life. Just 6 months after graduating from Penn State, I took the leap and started my own marketing agency.
That experience exposed me to the world entrepreneurship and gave me the confidence to start my own marketing agency just 6 months after graduating from Penn State.
When I started, there was no grand design to build out this giant brand.
I started out by building websites and running SEO and PPC campaigns for local clients. I had various ups and downs with my agency and never really made a ton of money. I was basically just surviving for the first couple of years, but the important part was that I was getting paid to learn and develop my marketing skills.
When I started Cave Tools, there was no grand design to build out this giant barbecue brand. I was telling all of these companies that by working with me I could grow their business, so Cave Tools was really just a side project to put my money where my mouth was and see if I could sell my own products and make money.
It’s kind of funny because I chose the name Cave Tools to leave the door open for any type of Man Cave kind of products. The reason I started with a grill brush was just that it was summertime and they were selling well. Cave Tools was a side project for the first year and a half as I learned the ropes while still running my marketing agency. When the next summer came around I decided to release a 3 piece barbecue tools set as our 2nd product line and that was the point where I decided that I would just continue doing barbecue related products. I finally made the switch to go full time on Cave Tools in late 2014 and was able to use all of the skills I had acquired to scale the company quickly.
Take us through the process of designing, prototyping, and manufacturing your first product.
When I first started out, my first product was as generic as they come. I literally found a supplier on Alibaba, wired a couple of thousand dollars to China, and crossed my fingers. Back then the market on Amazon was not as sophisticated so I was able to get away with this and still sell ok. There was definitely an element of good timing on my side because nowadays it would be very difficult to start this way.
When I first started out, my first product was as generic as they come. I literally found a supplier on Alibaba, wired a couple of thousand dollars to China, and crossed my fingers.
As the company grew, we obviously got much more sophisticated and started developing custom products. I now have a team in China and regularly visit my primary manufacturing partners. If I had any advice for someone just starting out today, it would be that you truly need to differentiate your products.
If you’re selling a product that looks the same as everybody else, you will eventually be forced to compete on price. There are very low barriers to entry for private label, so putting in the extra work up front of creating a unique product will pay off in the long run and allow you to build a sustainable business.
Once you have proven your concept and your business is starting to grow, then I highly recommend you visit your manufacturers. Building my team in China and developing in-person relationships with my manufacturing partners have become invaluable over the years.
Describe the process of launching the business.
My initial startup costs were only $3,500 to land my first round of inventory and start selling. For the first year and a half, we grew very slowly because I was just reinvesting the profits. The big shift for me came when I changed my relationship with money. I grew up in a middle-class family, so the idea of taking on debt was very foreign to me and not something I was inclined to do.
Once I realized all businesses were just systems, the idea of leveraging debt made more sense to me. If I could create a system where every dollar I put into the business generated more money than the amount I would need to pay in interest on a loan, then I should be borrowing as much money as I could until that equation broke down.
When I decided to make Cave Tools my fulltime business, I focused almost entirely on building out my systems so I could inject large amounts of cash to scale the company quickly. Over the past couple of years, I have used a combination of loans, lines of credit, and credit cards to inject hundreds of thousands of dollars into developing new products.
Since launch, what has worked to attract and retain customers?
One of the best methods we have used to attract and retain customers has been through search engine optimization.
As you can see in the graph below, we started investing in content marketing in 2017 and were able to steadily grow our website traffic to now over 60,000-70,000 visitors per month.
I originally shopped around for a content marketing agency to help us out with this piece of the business, but I didn’t think their deliverables were worth the amount they were all trying to charge. I decided that content marketing was a skill that every successful entrepreneur should have in their tool belt so instead of outsourcing it, I decided to dive in, learn as much as I could, and build out my own processes.
I started by joining some SEO groups and paying for some courses. I then built out some operating procedures for on site seo and the way I wanted our articles to look. Once I had my structure down I needed to figure out how to produce content at scale. That meant creating processes for keyword research and content briefs that we could give to writers so they would know how to produce the content we wanted.
I ran through the processes myself for a couple of weeks and tweaked things until I felt ready to hire an editor. My editor then became responsible for managing this entire section of the business and through weekly one on one meetings we were able to help him build his own support team and streamline our entire content creation process. We now produce between 2-4 articles per week per website at a fraction of the cost of what the content agencies would have charged for the same results.
We then took that traffic and created a variety of different lead generation funnels to get people to opt into our email list. Once on our email list, people receive a series of emails that help indoctrinate them to our brand so they know like and trust us.
If I sent an email every week telling our subscribers to buy a barbecue tool they would unsubscribe very quickly. Instead, we tell interesting stories and really connect with the customers on a values level to the point that they’re excited to receive emails from us. This allows us to keep top of mind awareness so that when they are ready to make a purchase they know they want to purchase from Cave Tools.
We’re currently sitting on a 31% interaction rate to an active email list of 62,000 people. Those kinds of numbers for email marketing are unheard of.
How are you doing today and what does the future look like?
I’m in the process of changing my business model and pursuing a horizontal integration strategy. Physical products is an extremely capital intensive business and you always need to reinvest in inventory to keep the business running.
By building out Grill Master University over the past year we are now focusing on high margin information products that have synergy with our physical barbecue tools.
Over the past year, I spent a lot of time developing a new sister company called Grill Master University. I went out and hired a celebrity barbecue chef and then brought in a professional film crew to shoot a 5-week masterclass on how to smoke meat. The idea is that there are all of these amazing meat smokers around the country that put on live barbecue classes. But those classes can be expensive ranging from $500 all the way up to over $2,000 not including your travel and accommodation costs.
By filming an entire live class, we could put it up online and make it available to the masses for less than the cost of one messed up a meal. When you’re known for being an amazing cook, everyone wants to attend your cookouts. Many of our customers are men over 50 who are empty nesters and are looking for a way to become more involved in their children's and grandchildren’s lives.
At Grill Master University, our students are able to use barbecue as a tool to form deeper more meaningful relationships in their lives and become more rooted in their communities. We believe that when you’re confident at cooking, you cook more often. When you cook more often, you spend more quality time with the people you love.
From a business model perspective, the idea now is that every Cave Tools customer is prequalified to be interested in our Grill Master University courses. We haven’t quite perfected the model yet, but the idea is that by having a high margin back end, I can have a sustainable competitive advantage against everybody else I am competing within the physical product space.
Likewise, I am able to use the size and reach of Cave Tools to drive more customers into Grill Master University.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
I could go on all day about the lessons I’ve learned and the number of times I have been knocked down. I think many people fail because they give up when things get tough. By deciding to be an entrepreneur you’re signing up for a roller coaster ride of successes and failures. One day you can be on top of the world and the very next day something completely out of your control can happen that takes you down a notch.
Get out there and take action. No amount of books, courses, or pre planning can beat the person who takes action. No matter how much you think you know, you will always make mistakes and be forced to learn on the fly-through experience.
It doesn’t matter if you are doing thousands of dollars per year or millions of dollars per year. There are always going to be obstacles at every stage of the game. You need to learn how to treat every situation good or bad as a learning opportunity. At the end of the day, the success of your business becomes an extension of yourself. The more you grow and work on your skills as an entrepreneur the larger your company will grow.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
- Cashflow Quadrant by Robert Kiyosaki: understanding the different types of income and where I am operating at
- eMyth Revisited: understanding systems
- Trust Me I’m lying Confessions of a media manipulator: understanding marketing
- Profit First: how to manage and allocate cashflows in your business
- Atlas Shrugged: philosophy and capitalism
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
Get out there and take action. No amount of books, courses, or preplanning can beat the person who takes action. No matter how much you think you know, you will always make mistakes and be forced to learn on the fly through experience. It’s very easy to make up a million excuses about why you’ll start your business in a few years after you have experience. This is really just a fear of failure. Go out and take action today.
Also, realize that just because you start a business doesn’t mean you are married to it for life. Even if all you did was start a dropship t-shirt company or a lemonade stand, you will learn valuable skills in the process that you can then leverage later when you have a business opportunity or an idea that comes your way.
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
At the moment we do not have any open positions, but I am always keeping my eyes open for people we could potentially work with or create a position for. If you’re interested in working together then please send an email to [email protected] and we can start the conversation.
Where can we go to learn more?
If you have any questions or comments, drop a comment below!
[a]Recieving my very first shipment
[b]Example of an email in our indoctrination sequence. It's transparent, vulnerable, interesting, and gives good life advice
Cave Tools has provided an update on their business!
Over 1 year ago, we followed up with Cave Tools to see how they've been doing since we published this article.
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