Hitting social media and grocery stores
Lawlor pulls reams of notes from his briefcase and starts dissecting the site. (The Smiths look increasingly dismayed: Only six months ago, they launched texasbestbarbequesauce.com at a cost of $5,000, hoping that the site would generate excitement about the relaunched brand.)
For starters, Lawlor points out, the site opens with a page of Flash animation: close-up photographs of juicy ribs, charred steaks, blackened chicken breasts and bottles of barbecue sauce. Big mistake, says Lawlor.
"Search engines can't read Flash content," he says. "It's as if your site is written with invisible ink."
If you do a Google (GOOG, Fortune 500) search for "Texas Best Barbecue Sauce," Lawlor points out, the first two results that pop up are for a mail-order company that carries the brand. Of greater concern, the third is for a message board on a foodie site where a fan once griped about the sauce's disappearance from store shelves. Not one of the results on the first three pages directs the searcher to Texas Best, but there are plenty of links to competitors' Web sites.
"Search-engine optimization is complicated, time-consuming and costly," Lawlor says. Fixing the site to maximize its visibility might cost $10,000 to $15,000, but neglecting the job could prove much more expensive in the long run.
"We know our Web site needs work," Reed replies ruefully. He says he has big plans for its renovation, among them a section for customers to share recipes and photos of their barbecues. "If I load one new recipe a week, will that be enough to attract attention from the search engines?" Reed asks the strategist.
"It's a start," Lawlor replies. "But recipes won't distinguish you from your competitors. What makes you special is your story: a father-and-son odyssey to revive a much-loved brand of barbecue sauce. Figure out how many ways you can tell that story memorably on the Internet, using video, photography and text."
Lawlor advises the Smiths to highlight their story using social Websites such as Facebook and bookmarking sites such as Digg. This will allow them to reach out to influential food bloggers and encourage fans to post comments on barbecue and other food-related message boards. At barbecue competitions, he suggests that they shoot video of tastings and upload short clips to sites such as YouTube. He also recommends online press releases to alert bloggers and foodie sites to news about Texas Best.
"That's an inexpensive way to create buzz," he says.
Lawlor also notes that "BBQ" generates three times as much Internet search traffic as "barbecue," probably because it is easier for people to type. The Smiths should make texasbestbbqsauce.com the company's official domain to boost the site's visibility.
"You don't have to change the name on the bottle," he reassures Reed. "You just want to make sure the search engines will find you." (Because people often misspell search terms, at Lawlor's suggestion, Reed immediately buys bbqsuace.com in order to redirect sauce seekers to the official site.)
Another idea: Texas Best could create an additional site with a catchy name where fans can discuss the sauce. One suggestion: ILoveTexasBestBBQ.com.
"Invite customers to share barbecue stories online," Lawlor suggests. "These 'offshore' sites can give your product credibility and act as magnets for search engines."
Rosamaria Bravo, 39, is a C.P.A. with Morrison Brown Argiz & Farra, a Miami accounting and management consulting firm. Pulling out a calculator, she offers a sobering assessment of the challenges ahead. The Smiths tell her the price per case of sauce for supermarkets will be about $23. (Each case holds 12 bottles of sauce.) Production costs run $19.02 a case. That yields a meager gross profit of $3.98, but the duo hope to lower costs by buying ingredients and packaging in bulk as sales grow.
Bravo frowns. "That's very tight," she says.
Overhead, Reed notes, is low because he runs the firm from his home and isn't yet taking a salary. "That's a hobby, not a business," Bravo says. "You might do it for a year, but that's a lot of work for no pay. If you're serious about growing this business, you must plan ahead for costs, including salaries for yourself and others."
Setting yearly business goals will discipline the two men, Bravo says. She taps a few more numbers into her calculator. Even if the Smiths sold $500,000 of Texas Best, or about 22,000 cases, they would generate a gross profit of about $113,000. After taxes and administrative costs are calculated, Texas Best still wouldn't generate enough money to allow Reed to quit his day job. Eventually, that would hamper growth. "Aim for $1 million in sales," Bravo says. "That would be an important milestone - for you and the bankers and possible investors who will decide whether to help finance your growth."
Several weeks after the Makeover the Smiths had already scaled back, aiming for a regional - not a national - launch. They contacted specialty food brokers in the Southeast and Northeast, including some who represented the brand years ago. A Philly supermarket chain was thinking of restocking the sauce, which was once a hit in its stores. Reed is touting the relaunch on barbecue message boards and revising the business plan to set firmer short-term sales and production goals.