The following conversation is with George Prior, an entrepreneur who, along with his brother / partner, invented, built and is now marketing the BBQ Dragon - The Charcoal Fire Supercharger product. They came to Catalpha recently to take their packaging to the next level. I thought their story is interesting and could be helpful to many that are now going through the same situation or are launching their own products.
Catalpha: To start, maybe you can give me some background on how you got into the business and what kind of things you and your brother have gone through to get to the point your at with your business.
George: Let me ask before I start. Is the content your are sharing with your blog readers about starting businesses or about how packaging benefits businesses?
Catalpha: Its a little of both. I get people that come to us that are in your situation that have one product and they are trying to get in front of buyers and they know they need a package and then I get people that are further down the line and they’ve sold their product already and they’ve been told now they need to create better packaging. Or they’ve already gone through one round of packaging and they are starting to refresh or they are expanding and now things are getting confusing and they need to create a better family appearance that we always try to create with our brands. Its a variety of things.
I’m not trying to and I don’t want you to divulge any secrets.I’m just looking for some generalities
George: Yea any bodies that we’ve killed along the way to our massive BBQ Dragon success? There have been some people but... they got in the way....
Catalpha: That’s right - you plowed them down and we wont tell where they are at. I’m not looking for secrets. You don’t have to go out of your way to find something special. I’m just looking for your story.
George: No problem I’m ready to get going. I LOVE to tell my story!
Catalpha: OK cool. tell me when you got started and what prompted this whole BBQ Dragon idea
George: it’s kind of two things. The BBQ Dragon specifically came when Bruce (my partner and my brother) and I, we were tried to start a charcoal grill one evening. It took us about and hour to get that charcoal started. We’re always the kind of guys that are thinking of stuff and ideas and products and ways to do stuff, and that really struck us. Wow, it really is super hard to start a charcoal fires! We realized that it’s just because usually you have to get a bunch of oxygen in there and you have to get plenty of fuel (the charcoal), and you got the spark and that’s the reason people blow on charcoal and use fans on it. the first thing we did was look and we saw there was no other product like that. And that got us excited because we are like the guys our whole lives have been thinking about business and about doing projects and stuff and this is not our business. We are in real estate actually. But we loved the idea and in fact it seemed like a really good one and that could help a lot of people and didn’t exist yet. So we are like OK lets try it. That was the easiest part of the whole journey is deciding we were going to do that. After that, because we went through 2 year of development before finding a version of the product that really worked. And then the hard part, which was how to manufacture the thing AND how to sell it.
Catalpha: I was going to ask what your background was but you just mentioned you were in real estate You don’t necessarily come from a product development background?
George: That is true except Bruce and I are both just handy and we’re inventors and we built a bunch of crazy stuff when we were kids Bruce is a mechanical engineer and I would have become an engineer but I became fascinated by english literature and stuff like that. But still I’m the kind of guy that has a welder in my garage, I’m handy like that. I build things.
We were on this television show this year ‘All American Makers’. And this part didn’t actually make it onto the show, they edited it out. I was asked a whole bunch of stuff. But we explained to them that our view on the world is a view that things can be improved and things can be adjusted and you do have the power to change your world. Not just in mechanical senses but in the senses of your interactions with people. And your enjoyment a little. The maker attitude is of saying I can solve problems and I can make things is something that is beneficial for your entire life view.
Catalpha: Most people think of What can I get. What can I get to do this as opposed to what can I make. When you ran into the difficulties of creating the product...Now you had to get it manufactured Did you initially say we got to do this in China or did you try to do it here in the states?
George: We initially thought we going to do this All American made. and that’s gonna support our country’s economy. and it’s also going to be a great selling feature for us. In spite of the fact that we read pretty compelling data that said consumers are completely in favor of ‘made in America’ until they can save 5% by buying overseas and then they do. So, Maybe not the biggest thing. And also when we started pricing it out in US factories, the start up costs are huge and we would have to sell thing for more than $100. Based on what we could find. So, that’s why we ended up going to China.
Catalpha: How hard was it to find somebody in China.? Was it very difficult? or did you know somebody?
George: No, we worked on sourcing for a while. And this is going to be the biggest issue that somebody starting a business and know they have to manufacture their product in China. This is going to be the biggest issue that they start with. Do I use a sourcing agent who is going to take a commission from me after he finds these places, they’re great, how can I trust him? There are tons of not trustworthy sourcing agents out there. There really are. Guys that are not that worried about your business. They’re going to cut corners one way or another. There are really bad stories about it. How do you do that? It’s hard.
You know what, another thing you’ve got to do if you are going to a factory in China... Who is going to produce my engineering plans. Someone is going to making molds and tooling based on what plans? You’ve got to find a designer. That search is also fraught with peril . There are all kinds of advertisements for product designers. Because obviously there is a great market for people who have an idea that they like to put on KickStarter and they want somebody to do it. So the first couple of pages on the internet are a great mix of good designers and guys who are not going to be good for your business and are going to be expensive and not produce anything of quality. It is really pretty hard to find.
I think we found a pretty good designer. And this guy was making another product that was also manufactured in china. And he was like look, if you are in a hurry, which we felt like we were, you can use these guys. And that’s how we got started. We got a reference from our designer.
Catalpha: Great you had somebody that already had some experience with somebody to use.
Catalpha: So, your designer, he was American?
George: Yes, we used a design firm here in Southern California.
Catalpha: When you finally had the product in hand or you had prototypes. At that point. I know we were not the first people that helped you with packaging. Did you decide at that point that you needed packaging or did the manufacture say hey we could do a package for you?
George: No, no they weren’t, we designed that packaging ourselves. That first round of packaging. I don’t know if you remember but it was made of simple sort of Apple design with white packaging and some icons. And we designed that in house. A lot of things we did in our business, we did in house, which in a way may seem to conflict with one of our business models. Which is hire experts that know what they are doing. Don’t try to do everything but still when you are starting up a business there are lot of stuff you end up thinking I better just save money and do it. So, we produced those first things in house and I don’t think they are bad for guys that aren’t designers and aren’t artists, But, it didn’t sell. We quickly realized with 10,000 units produced with packaging we designed, it wasn’t selling well enough off the shelf. Because people didn’t know what this device was. It wasn’t like an Apple computer where you are completely educated about the product before you go into the equally sparse and barren white apple store. You don’t need to be sold, you just go up to the shelf and grab yours and you walk out. Even thought it was a cool idea it didn’t sell it. So, you know what maybe we should hire somebody that knows that they are doing. And we searched and we talked to people and you were the guys that we thought - Hey I think they know what they are doing. So we decided to give you a try.
Catalpha: It was in the store and not selling well enough. When you approached these stores. Did they?... I’m just curious, how did you initially approach the store? Did you make the phone calls yourself and talk to buyers?
George: That’s a good question. Because in this pathway of a person going from an idea for a product to a product actually being sold in stores. After they finally figured out their actual manufacturing design and they got a place they can trust to manufacture. Now where are they going to sell it? We started with two things. We had quite a sophisticated marketing plan and it included going to trade shows. Every year for the last 3 or 4 years we go to two trade shows. One which is industry specific and that is the Hearth, Patio and BBQ association and the other one is the National Hardware Show and its really just a monster hardware show that includes our category of stuff which is hearth and patio stuff.
That allowed us to get in front of not only buyers and retails stores but also in front of people whose job it is to hook you up with these kinds of buyers and to do others things. For example, the current manufacturer that we have, we met at a trade show. Because we not using the one we talked about earlier.
Catalpha: Did you display at the show are did you walk the show?
We get a booth. And we worked it out over some years and we have 3, 4 or 5 different grills and a fire pit, just going. And we have a bunch of BBQ Dragons and they are all working. And when people pass by our booth (we obviously have an outdoor booth) We got out our BBQ Dragons and they see this thing work on the charcoal grill and it sells them immediately. That’s how we get people excited. They see it working and over the last few years we’ve been doing it our brand recognition has just... At the beginning no one knew who we were. Now, at the last one, people, strangers come up to give us hugs because they’ve seen us on TV. The Hearth Patio show we are actually not doing this year because.... it’s really about retailers. If you own a Pool store or a BBQ store in Illinois then you are go to go to this Hearth Patio convention to see what new products you can get for your store. So, they want a special from us. IF they order 3 cases from us will they get free shipping and that kind of thing? It’s a lot of work.
We did all that stuff and I think all that stuff drove our brand. And then we ended up getting some reps and our new factory also has some connections to buyers and they sold us into some places. It’s a product of just putting our brand out there through tradeshows and through marketing for the last 3 or 4 years.
Catalpha: So these TV shows that you were lucky to get on was it just one or were you on more then one show?
BBQ: Mainly one show. Here’s how we got onto the show and I kind of neglected to mention this. I guess you may remember that we were a KickStarter project, so we decided that KickStarter would be a great way for us not only to get instantly rich but also to get our product well known and just get some marketing done. So we put together a KickStarter campaign and we didn’t do nearly as well as we thought. I can tell you that we expected we’d make well over 12 million dollars in KickStarter. ha, ha. As I said this isn’t our business. But, we did make $100,000 in our KickStarter campaign. It also was really a lot of time and a lot of labor. But that KickStarter campaign was great because people who were doing reality shows about inventions browsed KickStarter for the inventions. So they found us and we ended up getting on this reality TV show.
Catalpha: Great. Is that like a Shark Tank do that?
BBQ: It was Shark Tank for the Science channel. It’s there new program called All American Makers and it’s where you have products and they go through a series of elimination rounds basically until it’s just you and an investor and some advisors. So it’s like Shark Tank for products.
Catalpha: Yeah, pretty cool.
BBQ: So we were on that one. We also bought PR off and on for a couple of years which got us in all kinds of publications from Rachel Ray to all kinds of news shows and magazines. That was also a component. So what I said earlier there a couple channels we went in marketing. I’d say the main channels were the trade shows, the PR that we did, and then our own in-house marketing. Which was for example we started by building 12 BBQ themed websites and filled them with content and hooked Twitter accounts, so we had social media going for each one of those websites and we used those to get some brand recognition for our actual name before we released our actual product. And that was because we were a little afraid that our product so simple to copy that if we released it and someone was better prepared for business then we were would be able to get it to market sooner than we would. So we wanted to give ourselves a head start, and part of that head start was we wanted 50,000 people to be able to release the product to. So that’s why we started the social networking, the websites, and we actually went to our first trade show - that’s the first time we actually introduced the BBQ Dragon. We had already been doing all that marketing for a year.
Catalpha: Wow. Are those sites still up?
BBQ: Yes, they all are. They’re sites like BBQFresh.com, that’s a vegetarian grilling site. Let me try to remember what else we’ve got here. BBQNewsroom.com, that’s like all the latest news in BBQ. Just a bunch of stuff like that Don.
Catalpha: That’s a lot of work to keep those sites up then?
BBQ: I’m not putting any content, any fresh content on them right now, so all I do is every month or so I pull them all up and I make sure the Wordpress is updated and the Theme is updated and move on.
Catalpha: So there’s still work in it. Okay. Alright, so you build them and then you put some content on them though to start them.
BBQ: That’s right, so what we did in that is we were/are big proponents of working virtually and so we actually hired through virtual employment services like eLance or Odesk, people from around the world to help us populate the sites with content.
Catalpha: How about that. Okay. Very interesting.
BBQ: There’s no free lunch. I’m beginning to realize my friend’s Dad was right. There’s no free lunch, we’ve had so many problems with the content no being really available for use, right. Like people sending nasty sounding emails from their Lawyers saying “take down this content, it’s not yours.” So, yes the content provider in Pakistan was a bargain until I had to handle the removing the content to stop the legal issues later myself.
Catalpha: They were scraping somebody else’s site humm?
BBQ: Yeah! Thats all they do. There not going out and BBQing stuff in Pakistan obviously. But, I knew that.
Catalpha: Oh. Well, live and learn huh.
BBQ: I’m sorry man. I’m giving you way information then you wanted Don, but let me tell you this too.
Don: This is great. I was talking to another one of my clients earlier this morning. They went through a little differently. They had some experience in the marketing world, so they started getting their products put onto TV shows, and some movies, and things of that sort.
Catalpha: But, they did go the PR route as well. I don’t know if the PR took care of it, or what they did, but that was interesting. So It’s very interesting to hear that you did some PR, but you also did these websites and that helped get your name out there.
BBQ: And then this next part to I think was/is very helpful for us. We created 130 videos on YouTube about BBQ and stuff. We did a pig roast. One of our sites is called exoticbbq.com. We negotiated with a guy who sells exotic meats like iguana and yak, about 40 different kinds bizarre meats. We ate rattle snake, we ate a beaver tail. We produced all these videos and we put them all up on YouTube and they’re all branded BBQ Dragon. We did that before we even had the product out. And we still get nearly 2000 views a day from our YouTube channel.
BBQ: Now, those don’t all turn into people going to our website, I’m not saying that. But, all of our website traffic is built from layers of all this stuff. Those 2000 daily views over a couple of years they really enhance our brand visibility.
Don: That’s great. I’m looking at exoticbbq.com right now. Very interesting. Yeah, so that’s great. Were you still selling real estate during all this?
BBQ: Yeah. Bruce and I first started working together, and then at a certain point, we’re like, maybe it would be more efficient if Bruce worked more on the real estate and I worked more on the BBQ Dragon, so that’s how we do it now and we really like it.
Don: Okay. Great. Alright, so you were able to make contacts at the stores, and with the buyers, and obviously learning as you go. When you’re talking to these buyers what do they look for when you talk to them? Is there a certain things that you found that you need to have that maybe everybody should have if they’re going to go in there and talk to somebody? What’s important to them (the buyer)?
BBQ: First of all, buyers from the big retail chains, they’re a little bit like rock stars and they’re difficult to get hold of and they’re not just open to you calling them up and pitching them on products (every whip stitch).They actually prefer, generally, to be talking to reps who are handling companies. That’s like the preferred mechanism, I think, for the buyers at Target or Home Depot. Reps are rep-ing lines of qualified products preferable from companies that have a number of products. A line, right. At the other end of preferability would be one guy who just started a company and knows nothing about how to do pricing or cargo loads or anything trying to deal with you selling one product. They’re like, “no thank you,” I don’t care what your product is. So that’s there thing, and also they usually have seasons where they look at certain categories of product, so you’ll need to have a relationship with the buyer where if you have the relationship, or if it’s a rep for you that has it (the relationship) your showing them these things a certain times. They’ll tell you. When we sold into Lowes last year, it’s so frustrating. Last year at this time (December) we presented to Lowes through a rep, and Lowes said yes, we’d like you on lowes.com. And I don’t think we’re still getting orders from them but we still have to go through all the paperwork and stuff. So that’s kind of how it is it’s always really slow. The same thing for Bed, Bath, and Beyond for us. BBB, we saw their buyer at a trade show, and the buyer said “yeah, I like this thing and I think it’s right for BBB,” and I communicated with them through email, and it was like really just corn syrup slow and, after some months we have a rep here and I asked the rep about BBB, he goes “oh yeah, I’ve dealt with him, is it so and so?” I’m like yeah it’s him. He goes “oh yeah, I deal with him.” So I emailed the buyer at BBB, I said, “I’m thinking of turning this over to a rep.” He said “oh, that be great, he’s a great guy to work with.” He was all excited and, we’re still not seeing an order from BBB yet even though we had to increase our insurance substantially in order to do the onboarding paperwork. It’s just all really slow.
Catalpha: It’s always one thing or another huh?
BBQ: Here’s what we got now, and this is why our situation is good, because of all this stuff we now do have the actual ways to show the product to most of the buyers at most of the big retail stores, that’s where we’ve ended up with after the limited amounts of sales we’ve done, and some of the orders we do have, so now we can show this stuff. Basically now it’s a completely opposite situation, knock on wood, they really want to see our new product. They like the BBQ Dragon, they know it’s a real product, and if we can show them a line of stuff that is also fresh and different and has that look, now we have a real chance. Now we have the look of the thing. We have a number of products. We’re well positioned for a good opportunity right now for selling these things.
Catalpha: So it’s that first one though, that’s the toughest?
Catalpha: Okay. All right. So if somebody can come out with maybe a series to start with they might have a little bit easier time?
BBQ: Yeah. I would say so. Yeah.
BBQ: And also I think I’m probably still being naive just to say, “oh, the first one’s the toughest.” I haven’t sold the second through tenth one yet, right. And before I sold the first one I thought it was going to be easy too. I have no doubt there are unforeseen challenges in it, but we are pretty psyched about the new product line.
Catalpha: Okay. So what year is it for you guys? How long have you been doing this?
BBQ: I know that is was more than four years ago that we were still developing the product. We did our first trade show more than three years ago, and that was at Hearth, Patio & BBQ, and we did three years of those things, and we were developing for two years before that. So, I’d say five years, and I’ve been working on it basically full time for three years.
Catalpha: Obviously things are going well enough. Right?
BBQ: Yeah, well we still won’t earn money from it, honestly. Were just at the point this year where it basically supports itself, and so we’re hoping that the additional product line is going to change it from supporting itself into making money. And if it does that it’s great. I know there’s guys out there with great product ideas and it’s just almost impossible if you don’t have some kind of capital to try to start your product right, to like have it designed, or to have it manufactured, things like that. There can be some real challenges between you and starting up your product. That’s the hardest thing.
BBQ: I guess this is the point I’m trying to make. Is, because we’re able to divide our duties, right. And have one guy be like “all right, I’m going to get this property under control, you work on that BBQ Dragon.” Then we’re able to say, “alright, let’s try to make this thing work.” So, we feel like we really have an investment in this. It’s an investment of our time, besides just the money. We’ve got some years in this. So we want to turn it into an actual brand of BBQ stuff that sells a reasonable amount every year. now we’ve produced something that’s going to be a good payback for us. But, if we didn’t have the opportunity and time to be able to do that, it would be nothing.
Catalpha: Okay. That’s a pretty cool story. I appreciate you for sharing that with me.
Catalpha: I know a lot of people will be happy to read this. I do get, not necessarily the same stories, but similar stories to where they’re at with there product or products. Everybody goes about it a little bit different. Great to hear about your success about what you’ve done so far. And, obviously there’s a lot of passion there too, you’ve got to believe in your product. Or, it sounds like you get discouraged fairly easily.
BBQ: Yeah. We recently, we were just talking about that, that we do think it was a pretty cool thought to start with. Right. So we were lucky there, because we did get a lot of attention, it was the kind of product where people said, “oh that is new, that is cool.” That feed back gives you the encouragement to go on. I know that all the inventors love there products, but after a while if the reception is lukewarm, then you move onto other things and that’s the best thing. We’ve also joked that maybe we’d wished the reception hadn’t been so warm we could have saved a lot of time and money over the last couple of years.
Catalpha: Well. In my case I’m glad there was good reception to it. I like it, and I like these new products that your coming out with too. Those are pretty cool. That’s what gets people excited, not seeing the same old every time they go into a store. They think that’s pretty cool, why didn’t I think of that.
Catalpha: All right. Thanks again George. I really do appreciate you taking the time to tell your story.
BBQ: My pleasure.
More product launch stories you may find interesting:
If you are interested in getting your own BBQ Dragon, visit the BBQ Dragon website!