This is the first in a series of posts titled Customer Acquisition Stories, where we interview entrepreneurs to ask them about their experiences, challenges and insights along their journey.
Mellow has to be one of our coolest clients. They make a magical kitchen robot that syncs with your smartphone to cook for you at your convenience. They’ve been featured on all sorts of media already, and I just had to interview them.
Here’s the transcript of the email interview I had with co-founder Zé Pinto Ferreira, a self-described foodie on a mission:
PRODUCT SITE: Your site, landing page, etc are all really classy! Did you do it yourself? If not, how involved were you in the process?
“Thanks! One of our team members did it, though we were all involved in the process. I can’t claim credit for anything beyond some of the copy.”
FOUNDING TEAM: What did you and Catarina do before doing Mellow? Was this one of many equally good ideas, or just the most obvious thing to do? (Trying to figure out your take on how to prioritize what to build.)
“Mellow’s the product of a lot of work and a perfect storm of skills and circumstances. We didn’t shop around for ideas. We knew from day 1 that we wanted to use technology to change the way people cook for the better– and we knew we were the best team on the planet to do it.
“I’m a mechanical engineer, food nerd (especially sous-vide), product design lover and former fat kid. After interning at Braun developing personal care appliances, I realised the intersection of those characteristics was the place my work could have the most impact. I understood the potential sous-vide had to change home cooking forever, but also that it had to be changed dramatically to be perfect for everyday cooks. I also knew I couldn’t do it alone, and spent a lot of time looking for the right cofounder.
“When we met, Catarina was working as a freelance designer. At 25 she’d already done all sorts of design you can do, from graphic to flat-pack furniture and kitchen tools, and won multiple awards to boot. She’s a beast. I tempted her with the chance to use her talent on a groundbreaking company, and served her sous-vide food that demonstrated the potential of what I was proposing. Luckily, she accepted the challenge.”
COMPLEXITY: Mellow has both hardware and software elements… how do you manage all of that? Some folks struggle with just one half of it!
“There’s some irreducible complexity that comes with connected devices, but you can use clever tactics to get around a lot of it.
- We buy technology instead of building it whenever we can.
- We treat both parts of development with a lot of respect (and take as much advice from veterans as possible).
- We test everything thoroughly.
Other than that, it’s all just complexity, and complexity is manageable.”
TEAM DEVELOPMENT: What does it take to become a team capable of producing something like Mellow? (As a words-and-ideas-only guy… this really intrigues me!)
“Hah! A good balance of skills, cleverness and being foolish enough to have a go at building something radical.
Capital helps, too, but you need less than you think.”
CUSTOMER ACQUISITION: How do you approach thinking about customer acquisition? Are there any tools or frameworks that you’re partial to? Do you spend a lot of time thinking about it, or is it a non-issue after making such an innovative product?
“Thank you for the compliment you slipped in there. Being a tech-driven business, we fundamentally believe that building a better mouse trap is the path to acquiring more customers: If you significantly improve quality of life in a basic area of our lives, people will happily sign up.
But we still spend a lot of time thinking about customer acquisition. There’s no tool or particular framework that we use, though I usually use the Pirate metrics to think about these things.
Needless to say we think referrals are a great marketing tactic to use. We’ve found ReferralCandy to be very valuable in driving preorders.
That’s selling the amount of work that went into our marketing short, but a lot of it was just blunt work:
- Studying other companies’ websites
- Iterating scripts and copy
- Reaching out to 100+ reporters ourselves
- Picking great service providers to partner with (hint,hint)
It’s all simple, but it’s a lot of hours put together.”
ADVICE FOR OTHERS: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs who might be struggling to acquire more customers for their business?
“I’m way too early in to give advice, and the success we’ve had has been driven by the generosity of our friends and the dumb luck of making something people connect with.
Maybe that can be my advice: Make great friends, work on something people will connect with, and work your ass off putting it out there.”
And of course, I have to ask– How did you find out about ReferralCandy, and how/why did you end up using us?
“Through trycelery.com, our pre-order platform. They were the original referrer, and we’re very happy to be working with both companies. Highly recommend RC and Celery to anyone who’s looking to take pre-orders.”
Here’s what stood out for me:
- Assets first, Ideas Second. Zé had an engineering background interning at Braun. This reminded me of how Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak were working at HP before they founded Apple (and only quit when they got orders!), and how GoldieBlox founder Debbie Sterling was an engineer before she decided to make engineering toys for girls. Ideas are cheap, what do you have that gives you an edge over anybody else who might have the same idea? Further reading: Disregard Ideas, Acquire Assets.
- Want talent? You’ll have to fight for it. When Zé encountered Catarina, she was a freelance designer, and he had to a persuade her with a compelling challenge to get her to jump ship. High-quality individuals are rarely sitting around waiting for you to find them- they’re usually working on something already. And it’ll take something worthy to persuade them to shift.
- “Take as much advice from veterans as possible.” This is such a cheap and easy thing to do, it’s inexcusable that people don’t do it! Too many people go on spaces like Quora, etc and ask unimaginative, wide-open questions like “How do I become a successful entrepreneur?”. Do the reading. It’ll give you ideas you wouldn’t have come up with in isolation, and it’ll help you protect yourself against costly failures.
- Look out for disproportionate interest from friends. Zé describes “the generosity of our friends” as critical to Mellow’s success. (This is consistent with what Chris Peters experienced with Opena Case.) Friends will always politely be willing to listen to your business idea– but if they get excited and insist on buying your prototype without you even asking, then you know you’re on to something.
- Reaching out to 100+ reporters. This is classic Do Things That Don’t Scale. Zé has an engineering background, and Catarina has a design background, yet they’ve clearly taught themselves how to do great PR. Their Press Kit is a page well worth studying. They really make it as easy as possible for anybody to write about them.
- Dave McClure’s Pirate Metrics – This is still one of the most thorough-yet-elegant frameworks I’ve encountered for thinking about customer acquisition. Pretty stoked to learn that Zé uses it too. Always worth a re-read.
- TryCelery – The service that Mellow uses to process its preorders.