How to beat a recession

How one entrepreneur built a thriving business on cured meat and smart online marketing.

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Janie Honeycutt's jerky sales have soared in a slow market.

(FORTUNE Small Business) -- Jerky might not top everyone's list of hot products for a cold economy. But recently I met an entrepreneur who is prospering in the jerky business against all odds. Her story is instructive for any business owner trying to swim against the economic current - which is most of us nowadays.

Her name is Janie Honeycutt. Along with her husband Ron Hargett, Honeycutt runs House of Jerky. They sell the usual beef varieties, plus exotic jerkies such as ostrich and alligator. Honeycutt and Hargett also sell pre-packaged "Soldier Jerky" that you can send to your favorite troops in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Honeycutt and her husband have seen their share of economic cycles since 1997, when they launched House of Jerky in Temecula, Calif. Last year their wholesale operation, which distributes to a dozen branded stores around the country, grew 15% over 2006.

How did they achieve such torrid growth at a time when sales of so many other "optional" products are hitting a wall of gloomy consumer sentiment?

Enter the Internet.

House of Jerky's online retail sales more than doubled from 2006 to 2007. All told, the couple sold $600,000 of jerky last year, and is on a 2008 run rate to beat that number. If you consider that a typical one-pound order runs $34, that's a lot of jerky going out the shipping and receiving dock.

Honeycutt shared some of the strategies that have helped her rev up her web sales so fast. Most of her business comes from referrals, bringing in new customers who spawn yet more new customers by gobbling up and then gabbing about her unique jerky offerings. Honeycutt says that she regularly hears from customers who "share [the jerky] with everyone they can."

But the big surge in online interest, Honeycutt says, has come from her search engine optimization efforts. Just try typing in "ostrich jerky" into Google. House of Jerky landed in first and second place on the results page. Instead of buying online advertising, she transformed her site into a search engine magnet.

House of Jerky's homepage is packed with keywords associated with jerky. It's light on images, which search engines tend to ignore.

Honeycutt also used social networking to raise her site's profile. After she scattered mentions and links to her site on various social networking sites (including StartupNation.com, where I first learned about House of Jerky), she confirmed that the search engines started ranking her higher. Those online bulletin boards aren't sounding like such a waste of time anymore, are they?

House of Jerky's 15% wholesale growth is a major achievement, especially when you consider that their product is distributed mostly in recession-sensitive resort towns. But the company's online growth has been nothing short of spectacular. Honeycutt's search engine savvy sets her firmly apart from the thousands of small retailers that have been sucking wind of late.

Next week I'll highlight another entrepreneur whose smart strategies generated more than $1 million in revenue in 2007.

Rich Sloan is co-founder of StartupNation, a leading online business advice and networking website for entrepreneurs. He also hosts the nationally syndicated talk show, StartupNation Radio, airing on over 70 stations across the country. He is co-author of the acclaimed how-to book, StartupNation: America's Leading Entrepreneurial Experts Reveal the Secrets to Building a Blockbuster Business (Doubleday, 2006). To top of page

Has search-engine optimization helped your business? Tell us about it.

Small business makeover: Taking beef jerky sales to the stratosphere

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Drive traffic to your website: From search optimization to blogging success, here's how to drive traffic to your site.

My community website has no members!: An entrepreneur with an interactive site needs visitors. Here's how to get them.

Read more columns from Rich Sloan:
He built this business on rock 'n roll
Boost sales by filling 'screaming needs'
Bad economy? Time to get aggressive
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