“Local” E-Commerce: Building a Following for Homemade Products


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Jenn Fei

This week I’m excited to share a unique side hustle that’s turning hobbies into profits, through what I’m calling “local” e-commerce.

This is a story of building a following for homemade or handmade products — without shipping anything, without advertising, and without relying on 3rd party marketplaces like Amazon or Etsy for exposure.

We’re going to explore this through the lens of So Here’s the Dough, a local cottage kitchen cookie operation run by a friend of mine here in Livermore, Jenn Fei.

Jenn is an attorney and real estate broker by trade, but those professions have now become the side hustles to her thriving cookie business.

Tune in to hear:

  • when it’s time to turn your hobby into a business
  • how to grow a loyal and hungry (pun intended) following for your products
  • how to consistently generate new product ideas
  • other growth ideas for artisan products

Transitioning From Baking as a Hobby, to Baking as a Business

“I am an attorney and a real estate broker by trade, and a first-generation immigrant,” Jenn told me.

Jenn has always loved baking — it’s been a hobby of hers for years. After a few years working as an attorney, Jenn had twins.

She decided to stay home for a few years to bring up her twins, and that’s when she started baking more.

When her kids started going to preschool, moms and teachers would ask her to bake things for class parties.

For one party, in particular, a mom reached out and asked Jenn to bake some cookies for her kid’s party.

“I think I charged maybe like $1.50 or $2 for each cookie, and they were sizable cookies,” Jenn said.

After that party, Jenn said she started to think about ways she could make this hobby profitable. She enjoyed baking, liked bringing joy to others, and wanted it to become something she could make extra money from.

Jenn started out setting her price at about $24 a dozen, which is low for custom cookies. A lot of work goes into each cookie. They’re hand-painted and decorated and each one is unique.

What Are You Charging Today?

“My pricing starts at $50 a dozen, and goes up from there,” Jenn told me.

(For the sake of reference, Oreos are about $0.75 a dozen on Amazon. Jenn’s custom cookies are a completely different ballgame.)

For $50 you can pick whatever design you like and three different colors Jenn explained. This doesn’t include any handwriting, florals, custom changes etc.

The price goes up the more bespoke and custom you want your cookies to be.

Was There a Lot of Competition at the Time?

When she first started, Jenn said there were two other “cookiers”, as cookie makers are known, in town.

There are more now, and a lot of cookiers have a presence on Instagram outside of her local area.

How Did You Get More Sales?

Jenn’s first sale for that pre-school party was around October, so she started thinking about the next holiday and what people might need.

She did her first Christmas cookie sale a couple of months later. That made enough money to pay for her supplies and a little extra for her time.

The big break came with her first Valentine’s sale early the following year. Jenn described that as “a larger sale, and that was what got the ball totally rolling.”

Jenn started working on her processes, what she needed to improve upon, and how she could bake cookies more efficiently.

How To Come Up With Product Ideas

Jenn has two different categories:

  1. Custom cookies – People can order these whenever they want throughout the year.
  2. Holiday cookies – Jenn makes her own designs for holiday-themed cookies.

She pulls inspiration from any items, drawings, or things she sees around her.

Jenn said she’s found inspiration from pillow designs, bags and cups that she has made cookies to go into, from shops selling cookie cutters, and more.

How to Market a Local Product Business

Jenn started an Instagram account called SoHeresTheDough early on to showcase her designs.

cookie examples

By injecting her own “weird personality,” she grew a small but loyal following.

When we recorded, her account had around 1,500 followers. Of those, Jenn estimated at least half of those are local.

That’s 750+ that are either customers or have the potential to be customers in the future. (Due to cottage kitchen laws, she can’t ship her products.)

The content that has seen the most engagement on her profile is her “flooding” videos. These are essentially videos of Jenn pouring icing to fill out the cookie outline.

She also includes some wonderful images of her best cookies and some of the behind-the-scenes stuff that goes into making the cookies.

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Using Instagram Stories

Jenn said that most of her followers and customers have come from posting Stories on Instagram, primarily announcing pre-sales and flash sales.

Flash Sales

A flash sale is when Jenn makes a batch of cookies. She then announces she has this batch for sale by posting a Story showing what they look like.

She tends to make products around whatever season or holiday it is, and these sell well. Customers then place an order and come and pick up the cookies from her home.

Pre-Sales

A pre-sale is when Jenn announces she is taking orders for a holiday like Halloween or back to school. She will take orders for her limit based on how many cookies she can make, then close it down.

Jenn said she usually hits her limit within half an hour of posting a Story on Instagram and has even sold out within 30 seconds before!

The Proof Is in The Taste

She doesn’t just want her cookies to look good, they’ve got to taste good too! “I think my product really speaks for itself,” Jenn explained. She said once someone tastes one of her cookies, it’s not something they forget.

This promotes recommendations and positive word-of-mouth referrals. One of the most powerful forms of marketing, and something she attributes to the growth of her business.

(Plus, they look great, which lends to people sharing pictures before they get eaten!)

Helpful Tools and Tech

Jenn was using Instagram to take orders when she started out, but it became unmanageable as order volume grew.

She now handles all intake orders through email, and for pre-sales and handling payments she uses Square and Venmo.

Jenn also uses Formsite to build custom forms her customers fill out. This gives her the ability to show the availability for each of her cookies on the home page, and manage her inventory as orders are placed.

Capacity and Sales Volume for Handmade Goods

Jenn said she’s able to make up to 500 cookies a week.

She’s found a niche in “mini’s,” small 1 or 2 bite cookies that sell for $2-$3 each. If Jenn made only mini cookies all week, she’d have the capacity to sell $1,000-$1,500 worth per week.

Jenn said she has a cap on her cottage food license of $50k a year. So, she’s only able to make $50k, which works out around what her physical capacity is anyway. Even though it’s fun and rewarding work, it’s still manual labor.

(A cottage food license basically means you can only sell a certain amount of product from your home kitchen. If you want to exceed the license, you need to operate out of commercial premises.)

Jenn said she’s not interested in scaling up into a commercial setting right now. The main reason being that her cookies need 12-24 hours to cure, and she likes being able to keep an eye on them at home.

What’s a Day in the Life of a Cookier Look Like?

Pre-COVID, Jenn would bake cookies while her kids were at school and after they went to bed.

During the pandemic, she’s had to limit sales and find the time when she can to get in the kitchen — or if she “needs a break”.

Jenn also said it can be difficult during the holidays as she tries to balance family time with baking cookies. But baking comes from a “place of joy” for her, so it’s something she’s thankful to be able to make a living from doing.

The Path to 1000 True Fans

A lot of Jenn’s customers are repeat customers. Some of her customers have been with her from baby showers through to their child’s second birthday party.

She said there are a handful of families that order from her for literally every event they have. Those are the “true fans” type of customers every business would love to have!

Cultivating Creativity and Coming up with New Designs

Looking through some of her cookies on Instagram, there’s no doubt that Jenn is a talented artist.

“I never knew I had it in me,” Jenn told me. She discovered she could be creative and make great cookie designs through trial and error.

Jenn doesn’t copy designs or work off of templates. Her customers give her a theme, and she just runs with it to see what she can come up with.

What’s Next?

Before COVID hit, Jenn had started experimenting with other spin-offs. Side hustles on side hustles!

In-Person Classes

For example, she held a few in-person cookie classes to teach others how to make awesome cookies.

She split her classes into beginner and intermediate and said it was a lot of fun for both her and her attendees. These were 2-hour long classes, and she would sell tickets to attend.

Obviously, the lockdown restrictions put this on pause. But it’s something Jenn wants to return to when possible as she really enjoyed it.

Products for Other Cookiers?

Jenn also has what she calls a “passion project”, which is finding ways to reduce wastage. She has transitioned over to compostable packaging bags and is currently looking for a manufacturer that makes compostable tipless icing bags.

Another idea Jenn has is selling cookie stencils. She makes her own stencils for her custom cookie designs and could potentially sell those down the road for $5-$6 each.

Jenn’s #1 Tip for Side Hustle Nation

“Bring passion to your project.”

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2 thoughts on ““Local” E-Commerce: Building a Following for Homemade Products”

  1. Thanks Jenn and Nick, this was a great episode.

    When I heard Jenn say that she bought a 3D printer to make custom cookie cutters to expand the capability of her business I had an idea on how she could function stack this part of her business.

    Jenn could sell the patterns/programs (not sure what they’re called) that she developed for her custom cookie cutters and sell them online to other people who want to make their own cookie cutters or who have a 3D printer. I seem to remember an episode with a gentleman who did this with movie characters masks.

    And then on top of that Jenn could have an Amazon (or other) affiliate link to purchase her preferred 3D printer and printer consumables to help the people who buy her patterns print a great cookie cutter.

    I don’t know all the ins and outs for the execution of these ideas but it could be a way to make some passive income with minimal additional input. And if Jenn ever wanted to make some cookie cutter patterns to just sell, the infrastructure would already be in place.

    Thanks again for the great show,
    Brian

    Reply

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