POSTED BY: KEELEY
Hope it’s been a great first week and a half for you all!
Erika and I launched right into the New Year, beginning new projects and taking some exciting steps for Wild Squirrel. Though running the company has been so much fun, since the holidays it’s been pretty non-stop and we realized today that we haven’t yet taken the time to breathe, celebrate, and look back on 2011 - by far the craziest year of our lives.
I wanted to take the opportunity to reflect on the year and all it has brought us. Conveniently, this simultaneously fulfills my only New Year’s Resolution: to make blogging a more consistent part of my life.
Erika and I began 2011 in our second year as roommates in our little college apartment. We were both sophomores at the University of Oregon: I was just launching into upper level courses as a Journalism major while working on campus and competing on the school Triathlon team. Erika was working on her Environmental Studies/Spanish majors and rowing Crew. I remember feeling pretty pushed to the brink as far at time commitments (a lot of early morning practices and big class projects) but I’ve always loved having a full plate. Little did Erika or I know what full plates we were about to have!
February 4th, Erika and I ran out of peanut butter and began this crazy journey — although we thought we were just making a snack at the time! We put our first batches of flavored, delicious peanut butter into jars and brought them to our friends — who loved them, encouraged us to make a website, and sure enough, in a bored moment on Sunday February 6th, I created a website and a PayPal account. Erika and I posted the link on our Facebook and we were absolutely delighted to see orders start to trickle in. At first, it was slow — my parents, her grandma, our friend’s aunt’s neighbor, etc.
Little by little, though, business started to go a little quicker. We were on the front page of The Emerald, our campus paper, and we (quite rashly) promised personal delivery within Eugene. (Thus beginning a long campaign of carrying heavy glass jars to and from campus… our sore shoulders and overworked bike baskets will never be the same!)
Still, the company remained a very small endeavor. We bought our ingredients from grocery store bulk bins and our jars in 12 packs off the shelf. Our one trusty Cuisinart food processor was busy, but sufficient for the couple orders we received a week. Erika and I were having a blast with our little peanut butter venture, without a lot of stress. The response to our business was so positive and fun — a bright spot in our rainy Eugene winter.
Looking back it seems as if the business expanded very organically — while Erika and I were continuing to go to class, sports practices, and maintain our social lives, we also beginning to rearrange our schedule to make, box and delivering peanut butter to eager customers. Around this time, as orders picked up, we began to feel around the big, mysterious dark space that was “running a business”.
We registered the company legally, bought a couple certifications, and even opened a bank account. We each invested a hefty $200 to fill the savings account… the biggest purchase either of us starving college students had made in a long time, besides groceries and rent.
Finding our own apartment kitchen lacking, we began to rent a commercial kitchen by the hour.
Most memorable from this time period was a huge influx of orders after popular food blogger Kath Younger gave us a shout out on her blog. Erika and I were on Spring Break at the time she was with her Crew team and I was on vacation with my family, and we chatted excitedly on the phone as we watched our orders pile up — more than doubling our previous number of online orders in a matter of 48 hours! We were excited to see the orders, but not without a bit of trepidation — how were we going to make this many jars? Ultimately, we purchased several more food processors and worked through the night! (Needless to say, we missed a few 8am classes during this time period).
In May we also participated in the infamous Street Faire at the U of O (basically a huge craft fair with delicious food carts, lining the street through campus) which was so much fun. We sold almost 1000 jars over the course of 4 days, and gave out countless samples. It was very gratifying to share all our hard work with our friends (who pitched in a ton helping us) and to mix our work lives with our campus lives, since for the past four months we had been filling online orders and working very “behind the scenes”.
This incredible sales success throughout the spring, both online and offline, led Erika and I to seriously consider the potential of our “rainy day idea” as a “real company”. So we set forth on the next portion of our “journey” — to move from our mason jars and rent-by-the-hour commercial kitchen to the professional and polished looking products that we could see on grocery store shelves.
Over the summer, while living in Eugene:
We sold lots of peanut butter at farmer’s markets in Eugene, Springfield, and Portland:
We went to the Oregon Country Faire:
And we did a lot of research for the next steps of Wild Squirrel. We spent a lot of time on Google, searching things like:
- “Sealing jars”
- “Nutrition facts”
- “Label design”
- “Wholesale peanuts”
And so on and so forth. When we couldn’t learn any more from Google or a book at the library, we sought help from professors and clubs at school, our very supportive families, and our awesome customers, who have been incredible resources for us.
After a brief stint during which we considered opening our own peanut butter factory (even submitting inquiries to industrial peanut grinder manufacturers in China!) we began to search for a co-packer to help manufacture our peanut butter. We also searched for producers of jars, suppliers for peanuts.
At the advice of our parents (who were starting to realize we were pretty serious about this whole peanut butter thing) we consulted with a lawyer and an accountant - Wild Squirrel was getting legitimate!
While all these steps were being taken on the path to entering stores, Erika and I made a big decision: not to return to U of O fall term.
We had begun to realize that the company now required our full attention (my classmates had gotten used to me edging out of lecture halls to take phone calls, or typing incessantly responding to e-mails). Besides, Erika and I were so excited about how much the company had taught us in just a few months — school will always be there, but the business needed our time now. We are so glad we did, because the next couple months were some of the busiest of our lives, even without the added stress and time of classwork. Among some of these events included a week long trip to California, where we enjoyed a nice moment of pause by the beach!
This month marked a lot of milestones in Wild Squirrel history, as well as for Erika and myself personally!
Within the first two weeks of October we:
Participated in another campus Street Faire, our last time selling “homemade” peanut butter made in food processors:
Ran our first Portland Marathon together:
Went down to our production facility in California to make 10,000 beautiful jars of peanut butter!
We are on shelves!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
This was the moment we had been waiting for, putting work into, and working 12 hour factory days to reach, and it was kind of surreal.
However, like any other small victory in the scheme of a business, we had learned that you hardly get to stop and breathe before moving onto the next task. The next task in this case, was sampling in stores! We sampled every weekend in November and December, and learned even MORE from our awesome customers.
Our customers talked us up around Portland and Eugene, and we were lucky to get even more great press, including KATU News as well as The Oregonian. More online orders come out of all this great buzz, especially through a 48 hour sale on Kath’s Open Sky Shop, and we stayed up late for a straight week packing boxes to mail across the US (now up to 43 states… come on Iowa, Louisiana, New Hampshire, Road Island, South/North Dakota, and West Virginia!)
We even found some time to enjoy Christmas and New Years with our family (needless to say, they were not surprised to see jar-shaped packages under the tree).
The end of the year was incredibly hectic — the holidays in the grocery business are a crazy time. We ended the year in 25 stores, with an average of 800+ jars sold per week, and 0 sanity.
And now, all of a sudden it’s…
Phew! If you made it this far in the epic blog post I just wrote, you’re awesome. (Or just a really fast reader.)
Enter the new year: We are now 19 and 20, another year older and (it feels like) many years wiser! We still have a ton to learn, but this year brings many unknown challenges and exciting events! We are excited to document the ups and downs of running a business on this blog, as well as some personal tidbits from our days that hopefully our many readers (hi Mom!) will enjoy. If I stay consistent with updates then I won’t have to type (and you won’t have to read) any more “blog novels” like this one.
So, happy 2012 everyone… it’s going to be a WILD year!