After getting the Instagram handle @Sauce, Nick Guillen and Nick Ajluni began to build a feed that attracted the likes of Sam Smith and Complex. Behind the scenes, the duo developed truffle-infused hot sauces and launched Truff to their community. In this episode of Shopify Masters, Nick Guillen shares how to craft products designed for social media, network with influencers, and redesign websites for a better shopping experience.
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The Instagram Account That Started It All
Felix: So tell us more about the background, the origin story of how you guys got started with Instagram?
Nick: About four or five years, my partner and I, whose name is also Nick, we were really into social media and CPG and looking at all of these various brands that we saw blowing up on Instagram and Facebook and things like that. And I kind of had a little side hobby of scooping up OG handles. So I happen to get the name Sauce organically. I didn’t buy it. And Nick, he was the first person I told. Throughout college, we’re working on various projects, and we were always kind of giving each other feedback and sharing ideas.
And as soon as I got the handle, I was like, “Nick, I just got this handle on Instagram. It’s Sauce. This is the Times Square of New York on IG. Let’s do something with it.” And he was like, “For sure let’s do something with it.” So we started posting content on the account, cool things, high-quality imagery, things we thought would resonate with the pop culture foodie. And what’s interesting about the word sauce is it has two different meanings. It’s an actual food, but within streetwear and pop culture, it also means like cool, dope. So we tried to create content that aligned with both of those words at the same time.
Felix: How did you come to getting that Instagram handle?
Nick: Yeah. So like I mentioned, it was kind of a hobby of mine trying to scoop up OG names, and I had a couple at that time. And I was just sitting down doing my thing, and I was actually eating lunch when I was living in Long Beach. I had a burger and a big glob of sauce dropped down into my lap. And while I was entering in the names, I was like, all right, sauce. And it was red and then all of a sudden it turned green to available and I hit save. I got it just like that.
Felix: So did either of you have some kind of like entrepreneurial background at the time?
Nick: Nick and I, we’re both I guess born entrepreneurs. We had a bunch of little businesses throughout our life, and they kind of got more serious as time progressed. And at this time, the other Nick, he actually had a beverage company that he was launching in college. It was called Nick’s Fix, and it was a powdered beverage that was designed to not only mask the taste of alcohol but used it as a chaser. So he was trying to create essentially his own category within the college scene. And he launched it, but he had learned a lot about product development and packaging and really what it takes to make a finished good to market. And I had a hat business that leveraged Shopify, and I was kind of really deep into the ecommerce game at the same time. We just kind of always put our heads together on these various projects. When we got this handle Sauce and we started growing the account organically, that’s what led us into taking this a step further. Let’s create a product. And the first market that we looked at was the hot sauce market, and that’s when we saw an opportunity.
Felix: What was your plan early on to be able to populate your feed with the right content on a consistent basis?
Nick: So we just looked at content from all over the web. We created some of our own. We just reposted content that we thought was really cool, and we just did a lot of digging. Kind of how like you see all these meme creators these days, all they’re doing is looking at content all day on the internet. It’s kind of what we were doing, but specifically for food and pop culture.
Felix: How important is it to post original content versus resharing content?
Nick: I think it’s really important to, first of all, just start. And sometimes when you’re just trying to start getting something going, you don’t have the luxury of going around and taking a bunch of pictures. But you could create a lot of inspiration for what your brand eventually would look like by posting content that you think is relevant to that message, so that’s essentially what we were doing to start.
Felix: At what point did you start noticing that there was an opportunity in the hot sauce market and wanting to transition into actually having a product behind this social media account?
Nick: We’re growth hacking the account pretty quickly. We got it to about 10,000 followers after two or three months, and some celebrities started following us like Sam Smith, the singer, who started following us, Complex Magazine. And that’s when we kind of looked at each other and was like, okay, are we going to be a food account on Instagram, or are we going to take this a step further? So that’s when we looked at the hot sauce market, and we didn’t see any luxury hot sauce brand on the market. We didn’t see any direct to consumer hot sauce companies, and there wasn’t any hot sauce brand that was digitally native. Most of the people out there, the traditional hot sauce brands that you think of, they built their business in retail. So social media to them was kind of a secondary thing. Whereas us, that was going to be our sole focus.
Felix: What does being digitally native allow you to do that allows you to compete against the companies that start from retail?
Nick: For us, being a digitally native brand has really helped us develop with our customers and our fans and our followers a lot closer than being a traditional retail brand. Because essentially what happens when you’re a retail first brand is you give your product to someone who buys from you wholesale or you give it to a distributor, and then they put it on the shelf, and then that retailer sells it to the customer. They sell it to their customers. But being a digitally native brand and also being a direct to consumer brand, you kind of own that relationship with your customer from the beginning. And you have a bigger impact on how that customer feels about their first buying experience, how you’re following up with them, how you’re adding value throughout the next and repeat purchases. So it’s a lot warmer of a transaction, and you get to really nurture your customers and eventually, they become friends.
Felix: Were you doing anything else to accelerate the growth of the Instagram account?
Nick: Yes. We were posting about three to four times a day on the highest traffic days that we saw. We really like popping for our account. Then we’d also tag a bunch of really big accounts like Complex, Hypebeast, Foodie, and big Blogs. And back in the good old days of Instagram, if one of those accounts were to comment or like the photo that you posted, if they have a large following, it’s called super like. So naturally, that photo would go onto the activity feed and everyone that’s following that account would see that Complex Magazine, for example, liked Sauce’s photo, and then we would just get a ton of traffic. So every once in a while we would have a photo that would get 2 to 3,000 likes and it’s like we only had 5,000 followers at the time. So it was just going viral within the explore feed. We also did a lot of different hashtag strategies. We had some accounts with large following post and tag us. Essentially like the early days of influencer marketing, but not necessarily influencers, more of accounts that had influence like big food accounts and things like that.
Felix: So are there techniques that you’re familiar with today for anyone else out there that’s trying to go from zero to 10,000?
Nick: Yeah. So my advice in the early days of growing an account is consistency in posting. I would probably post two to three times a day. I would keep all the content very non-transactional, meaning you’re never trying to sell anybody anything on your Instagram account. You’re doing this to help stimulate eyeballs. You’re trying to put out satisfying content that’s engaging, that people would want to share with their friends or tag their friends. And you also want to keep things interesting for people. You don’t want to post the same thing over and over and over again. You want to have a lot of variation in the types of content that you put out. I would say maybe three to four different types of variation that remain on brand and they remain on look and feel of what you’re going for, but a different variation. So I’ll give you an example. For Truff, we sell a hot sauce. We could post the bottle of our hot sauce over and over and over again, but that would just get boring. So essentially what we do is we could post a beautiful product shot. We could post a beautiful picture of food that would pair well with our sauce, or we could just do something crazy and post a fountain filled with hot sauce and there’s no Truff bottle in it at all. But it all comes back to just creating something that’s visually satisfying and appealing to whoever it is that’s following you.
Developing A Food Product With Social Media In Mind
Felix: I think you just mentioned that you built the product alongside with the customer from the beginning. How involved were they in developing the hot sauce?
Nick: Our customers actually never knew what Truff was, what it looked like, what kind of product it was until the day of launch. Essentially what we did is we reverse-engineered a product we thought would be perfect for social media. And we did that in a few different ways. One of them being we wanted to create an extremely eye-catching bottle with beautiful design. Something that when somebody saw it, they would be like, “Wow. What is that?” And then we also wanted to communicate what the brand was very easy and digestible. So if you look at our bottle, you’ll see that Truff is vertically written in a beautiful font directly on the bottle. And then we have a geometrically shaped sphere on the top which is inspired by the black truffle. And then we also not only did what we think is a good job on designing the packaging, but we also developed the formula that we thought would live up to the standard of this luxury product that we were trying to translate digitally.
Felix: What was your process in developing the packaging?
Nick: Along the way, Nick and I, when we were kind of developing the original ideas of what’s now Truff, we knew we wanted to create a luxury product, and we really wanted to get advice and feedback from people that are in the luxury world. So Nick’s dad at the time was CEO of a luxury shoe brand called Buscemi. The founder of Buscemi, his name is Jon Buscemi, who’s one of our partners in Truff, he was a huge foodie and a luxury guy. We’re always around their office kind of bouncing ideas off of each other, and we kind of got him involved as well as Nick’s dad. And we were telling him about what we were doing and he shot some ideas back to us. So we got a lot of I guess really good advice and feedback from somebody that’s in the space. And we were really patient. It took us about two years of R&D developing the brand, the packaging, the custom bottle and cap, and the formula. It took us about two years before we actually took the product to market. So we were very patient.
Felix: What would you consider the grind of entrepreneurship?
Nick: I think what separates someone who’s really serious about entrepreneurship and someone who isn’t is really just going all-in on it. During this time of R&D, I had already been working full-time. I was a technical recruiter, for software engineers and developers and things like that. And I was still finishing up school. And Nick was graduating at the same time, and he went to work in a restaurant. He knew that the dream for him was to start his own business. But I was kind of already in the corporate world like grinding over there, but really wanted to do the entrepreneur thing. And once this venture really started to paint a great picture, I quit and I moved back home with my parents at 26. And I was an Uber driver and that’s when I had started the hat company like I had mentioned at the same time while doing this Truff venture that was currently in the very early stages. And I think really making that leap and kind of just putting my ego aside and quitting my corporate job that was comfortable and moving in with my parents was the best thing that ever happened to me.
Felix: What did that allow you to do by quitting the job and moving in with your parents?
Nick: Typically, when I was working in the corporate world, I was working 7:00 AM to 6:00 PM from Monday through Friday. And I’m not good with math, so however many hours a week of work that is. And by moving home with my parents, I was an Uber driver and I Uber’d on Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights. So Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, my entire day was focused on building this business with my partner Nick who was all in as well.
Felix: How do you recommend that they spend their time now that you’ve gone through this process?
Nick: So one of the things that Nick and I always say is there are some businesses that should have never been started from the beginning. But with that being said, a lot of those businesses that are started from the beginning give us a lot of experience along the way. So for someone who’s trying to start a business for the very first time, whether it be someone that wants to sell products online or someone that’s opening up a lemonade stand on the corner, the first important thing is to just get started. Just try whatever it is you’re trying to do. Google, and nine out of 10 times you’re going to get an answer from the internet, someone on the web, or other way is to reach out to somebody that is in a position or doing something that you like or admire and try and learn from them, whether it’s you going to work for them for free for six months and three months and really just immersing yourself in whatever it is that you want to do.
Felix: How do you stay patient when you aren’t seeing results yet?
Nick: It’s just a matter of really believing in what you’re doing and having a lot of discipline and really callusing the mind, and there are multiple ways you could callous the mind. It’s forcing yourself to read books from the greats. It’s making sure you’re working out at least an hour a day. It’s waking up at 4:30 AM even if you don’t want to. It’s realizing that okay, I really have to work hard for these next two years. I’m going to stop partying on the weekends. I’m going to stop going out with my friends. I’m going to stop going on dates and really putting everything that you have into whatever it is that you want to achieve.
Felix: What are some mistakes that you might see entrepreneurs making with their packaging that you recommend people will focus on trying to improve?
Nick: We had I guess the luxury of I guess being able to come to market with a product that is a lot different from the ones already out there. And in saying that, I see a lot of products, whether it be hot sauce or cosmetics or beverages, and everything that you see on the shelf looks exactly the same. The only thing that’s different is the color of the packaging, the text, maybe some of the foils that they’re using, but everything is pretty much the same. Our idea was like, okay, let’s create something custom. When you put it up next to 10 or so bottles that all look the same on the shelf, ours is going to be the one that stands out the most, simply because we took the extra step and we invested the extra money at the beginning to make that happen.
Felix: Got it. When you were formulating the sauce, how was that done? How does someone even begin to create like a hot sauce?
Nick: My partner Nick, as I mentioned before, he had a powdered beverage company in college, and he had learned a lot about developing a product, working with different suppliers, sourcing different goods and ingredients. So we were kind of able to tap into a few people on his network that pointed us into the right direction. But what we did was come up with the idea of what we wanted, so a truffle hot sauce is what we’re going for, right? We googled all of the best suppliers across the country and internationally that we thought would be a good fit for our product. We would source a bunch of different chili samples. We would source a bunch of different truffle oils. We would source a bunch of different cumin and spices and different things we thought our product would be. And we got in his kitchen and Nick and I literally put a bunch of little bowls together and we probably had 300 to 400 different renditions of our formula before we found one that we thought tasted good. And then from there, we took it to a more esteemed culinary professional that gave us a little bit of feedback. And they were like, “Maybe add some more truffle, or maybe take the spice down a little bit.” And that’s really just how we got going.
Felix: How long did it take from the very first raw ingredients that you ordered to the final product that you are ready and happy with to go to market?
Nick: I would say about 18 to 24 months, somewhere in between there.
Felix: Were there certain milestones that you hit where you realized, there was significant progress here on a finalized formula?
Nick: I think it was like really trying to find a product that or finding ingredients that we could scale. Because it’s not like we could just go to the grocery store and buy a bunch of branded sauces off the counter and mix them up and say, okay, this taste good, but you can’t “commercialize” that. You can’t make large runs of that and put it in a bottle. So it was finding a supply chain from the beginning that could scale with us. And then once we did that, finding the right people to help us manufacture it.
Felix: What do you think you guys did right and what mistakes did you feel like you made while going through this process of creating the hot sauce?
Nick: One of the biggest mistakes in the beginning was I was sold on the idea of doing just a woozy bottle, that’s primarily what a lot of the hot sauce brands are using. And I thought we could create a product that was just as sexy by having a standard off the shelf bottle with a nicer label. But really looking back and seeing how impactful it is by taking that extra step early on was very helpful. And then also the very first batch of product, we actually threw away. The color was off. The viscosity was very liquidy, and that’s when we realized it’s like, okay, when you make something in the kitchen, when you scale it up, things change. And that’s kind of I think what really opened up our eyes and said, okay, this isn’t just two guys in the kitchen making a sauce, putting it in a bottle. This is actually food psych. Let’s get with the right people to help us fix this.
Felix: Did you have to do any or were you able to do any testing of either the sauce or the packaging during these two years before launching it publicly?
Nick: We had sent it out to family and friends to get their feedback, and most of the feedback was pretty positive. I don’t know if that was a good thing or bad thing because typically they’re your friend, they want to tell you that it’s good, but we tried to really send it to people that were like going to give us honest, constructive feedback. And most of it was positive.
Felix: At what point did you know that it was ready?
Nick: I think it was after we worked with a couple of chefs to review the product that we’ve made. And once they made those final tweaks, we had created a few test batches ourselves and then sent that out to everyone. We got really, really good feedback, and that’s when, okay, let’s bottle this now. How do we do that?
Felix: How did that happen? How did you connect with the chefs?
Nick: As I mentioned, Nick, he had a powdered beverage company, and he had built a good network of people in the food industry. And they were just a couple of people that were recommended to us.
Seed Launch And Importance of Developing Relationships
Felix: How did you launch your product to your audience on social media?
Nick: I mean, I guess maybe a year up until the launch, we were working on the brand. We were working on the look and feel, building our website on Shopify, working with our designers, really trying to create this very sexy, minimal look from a website perspective. And once we had gotten all of that out of the way and we finished our product formulation and we got it bottled, we had the idea of essentially launching with a big push on Instagram. When I mentioned earlier that Jon Buscemi was one of our partners, there’s also another partner named Aaron Levant who was the founder of ComplexCon Agenda Trade Show. He now started this really cool app called NTWRK. It’s basically like the millennial QVC with streetwear drops and exclusive collaborations with awesome brands. Well, they were very well connected in the industry just throughout the years. Very respected in their fields. We were able to get a very large seeding list from them out the gate. And we had about I would say 500 or so of some of the most influential people in whether it be food or fashion or streetwear, and we’d started seeding all of these people a week before we actually launched. So we did three different posts up until our launch. One was just like a teaser post with our logo and the date and that’s all we said. And then the next one was another teaser post that showed our cap and the bottom of our bottle, but our label was blocked off and had the date in the middle. And then our actual launch photo was just this very beautiful, high-quality product shot that showed the ingredients and the truffle and the chili pepper and the agave. And then at the same time, we had timed the launch of the actual product with the seeding of everyone. So on this day, everyone started posting, so we had started reposting, and we just kind of made this big ripple on social media.
Felix: What did this kind of teasing of your product do for the launch?
Nick: It starts to build hype, and you don’t want to build hype too far outside of your launch because people start to lose interest. It needs to be timed correctly, and you also need to do the necessary things to get that hype going. And for us, it was getting our product in the hands of influential people before we even launched.
Felix: How have you guys been able to approach all of these people that are big players and influencers in your space and then get them to work with you when you’re just starting out?
Nick: I think it’s hard to go from zero to 100. For example, if somebody right now who hasn’t ever been networking, hasn’t ever created a product or a brand tries to do this, it’s probably not going to work. But what we did do was 10-15 years, Nick and I, we’re just natural-born I guess entrepreneurs/networkers, getting to meet new people, trying to find like-minded individuals that believe in the things we believed in and wanted to talk about the things we wanted to talk about, and that was business and making money and hustling and innovation. So I think it takes a while before those right people come into your life and it’s really hard to force something like that. But I think if you start early on enough, those people are definitely going to start popping up if you put yourself in the right position.
Felix: What’s your favorite way to nurture or continue building on these relationships?
Nick: It’s being authentic. It’s being non-transactional. Always trying to add value. So like I mentioned, when we launched, we had about I would say 500 or so people that had somewhat of an influence. To date, we’ve probably shipped close to 5,000 to 7,500 packages to people that weren’t in this network, even the partners that were part of this. This was all just organic outreach through Instagram, hustling in the DMs. Hey, would your friend want to try this? It’s being creative. It’s hustling. It’s living in the DMs. I mean, messaging so many people until you get the little message that reads, “I’m sorry. You’ve reached your maximum messages for the day.” It’s really just grinding.
Felix: Can you explain a little bit more about what you did for a seed launch?
Nick: Yeah. I mean, our product, it’s a hot sauce. Essentially what we had thought in our head was, okay, we’re going to be sending this to people. We want them to try it right away. So first of all, we created a custom gift box that you can’t even buy online, but we put the products in this very nice gift box. It was like a vertical set-top box. Almost like a high-end cologne or something that you would find at Barneys or Neiman Marcus. And we packaged it up beautifully. And inside the package, we had a handwritten note from whoever it was that was sending it to that person, whether it was Jon, Aaron or Nick or myself. And we included a little tray to pour the sauce into, and we also included a little bag of plantain chips. And in the note we told them about the product and that we were just excited for them to try it. And we mentioned our IG handle was Sauce. Now, we didn’t ask them to post. That’s very important. You never want to ask somebody for anything. But we would say something like, “Check us out on IG @Sauce.” And they’d get the product. They open it up. They pour it in the little dipping tray. They get the chip out and taste it. And that first moment was so important to us because we really needed a product that actually tastes good. And what would happen was when somebody really liked it, the first thing they would do was take a picture and post to social media and tag Sauce. And that just scaled. To this day we’re still doing. We’ve had over 750 million followers worth of shout outs for free. We haven’t paid for any of these. And it’s just organic and just being authentic.
Felix: One other huge influencer I’ve seen about you guys is making it onto Oprah’s Favorite Things List. So how did that happen?
Nick: Year one, we came out of the gate hot. We started doing a lot of media buying on Facebook, Instagram, and Google. And one day we received an email from Oprah’s team telling us about Oprah’s Favorite Things and they were interested in our product. We knew obviously who Oprah was. She’s the queen, but we didn’t realize how big of a thing Oprah’s Favorite Things is during Q4. And we had sent them some product to review, and we just kept this dialogue of conversation going over the next couple of months. And then they told us that we were selected to be up on Oprah’s Favorite Things. And it was all very organic. Just doing the right thing on social media, the right people are going to see.
Felix: Can you quantify what is the impact of making onto a list like this?
Nick: Being a brand that’s in its first year in business it’s probably the biggest thing that could ever happen for a startup company, especially one that’s a consumer packaged goods and a product that’s very giftable. It was kind of the perfect storm for us. There’s a lot of brands that do get on the list that aren’t able to maximize this opportunity. They don’t have their store set up. They’re not on Shopify. They aren’t using the right tools. They don’t have the right email flow set up. But we were really able to maximize the opportunity in being on such a fortunate experience like Oprah’s Favorite Things.
The Tools and Apps for Scaling a Business
Felix: How do you spend your days these days?
Nick: The roles, they’re split up between Nick and I, we’re the co-CEOs, but there’s a little bit of overlap. I personally spend a little bit more time on the ecommerce side of things, as well as the social media side of things. And he’s involved in a lot of the day-to-day marketing conversations we’re having, vetting a lot of opportunities, providing a lot of great creative input, as well as doing some of the operational stuff.
Felix: What about some applications or services that you guys rely on to run the business?
Nick: We’re currently on Shopify Plus and that’s an enterprise-level platform. But when we started, I think we were just on the basic plan, and we had a popup to capture email addresses. And we had Klaviyo set up. So we just bare-bones, grassroots ecommerce, those are the three things that we really started with. And then now things have become a lot more complex and a lot more intricate. But we really just started very simple out the gate.
Felix: What about the tools you have added since the early days that you are big fans of or you recommend other people check out?
Nick: We love Klaviyo. We do a lot of email work. A lot of it is value-added. We send recipes out to our customers every Friday. We have different flows set up on Klaviyo, so we have a welcome flow after we capture their email address. We have abandon carts. When someone adds something to their cart and they don’t end up checking out, we’ll send an email out to them reminding them. Then we also have various post-purchase email flows that are value-added, but they’re nurturing our relationship with the customer, as well as various splits, so like rewarding customers for repeat purchases. Someone who hasn’t placed an order in a while, we reach out to them. And just a very warm, but effective and efficient email platform. We use Back in Stock, which is a tool that helps us capture email addresses for items that may become out of stock. So people can input their email address and be notified when that product is back. We use Gorgias, which is a really helpful help desk/customer service tool that integrates directly to Shopify. We’re using Yotpo for UGC and product reviews. And I would say those are the big ones that have been very helpful. Oh, and also a rewards program called Swell.
Felix: When it comes to the design of the site, have you guys gone through revisions and redesigns?
Nick: Yeah. We had probably done maybe three or four revisions from the time that we started. And a lot of it had to do with just being smarter as an ecommerce brand, doing things that we’re more efficient for our customer for their checkout process, the overall user experience, and just trying to create a seamless start to finish from the time they get to our site, from the time their order is placed. It’s trying to create a website that communicates effectively the key points of your product, not being overbearing with crazy blocks of text, huge paragraphs, and also not trying to be very salesy, like having the popup that has the little wheels spinning saying, “Choose your offer and your discount.” It’s just being very clean and transparent. We also added a select your options feature to all of our product pages. It gives our customers the option to just select one bottle, two bottles, three bottles, six bottles. We found that a lot of people like having options versus just typing in the quantity that they want. It’s very easy for them to just click on the number of bottles that they want. Also, we were designing for mobile-first in mind. Knowing that a lot of our traffic was coming from social media, most people were going to be on a mobile device. So really creating an effective and efficient mobile user experience was very important to us.
Felix: The main product, the Truff Hot Sauce, has over 4,500 four and a half star reviews. What has been the most impactful way that you’ve been able to get customers to leave reviews for your product?
Nick: I think it’s having an effective tool that does that for you, a lot of automation. We’re not manually sending out emails to all of our customers and having them leave a review. We put systems in place that are triggered by various events. For example, our software every time a new customer places an order, they’ll receive an email, 14 days after their purchase. It gives them time to use the product, try it a couple of times, and give us their honest feedback. So we actually have incentives built into our rewards program. Customers can get X amount of points by leaving us an honest review. It doesn’t matter whether it’s one star, two stars, three stars, four stars, or five stars.
Felix: What would you say would need to happen for you to consider this year a success?
Nick: I would say continuing to evolve as a brand and continuing to put out content and experiences that resonate well with our customers.