Welcome to the 23rd episode of the Food Blogger Pro podcast! These numbers are getting pretty big… in just 3 more episodes that means we’ll have been making podcast episodes for half a year! So crazy. On to the episode!
This week, Bjork had a conversation with Melissa Lanz, the CEO and founder of The Fresh 20, a meal planning service. They talk a little bit about what her business does, and a LOT about how her business does it.
Last week on the podcast, Bjork interviewed Zach Tackett from DeLallo Foods. They talked about what it’s like to do sponsored content with food bloggers from the brand’s perspective. To go back and listen to that episode, click here.
Building a Team for Your Online Business
Melissa Lanz wasn’t always an entrepreneur. In fact, she started out as a “miserable, but comfortable” corporate worker making well over $100k per year. So she started her own business – and it grew to the point that she simply couldn’t do it all on her own.
So, she hired some help. And in the years since, she’s become a master at hiring, firing, running her online business, and helping others do the same.
In this awesome interview, Melissa shares:
- What her husband said that helped her change her direction in life to pursue her own business
- How she afforded to quit her job and pursue her own business full time
- Where she found the time to start her new venture
- How she perfected her product using friends’ feedback
- When she realized she needed to hire someone, and where she found help
- How systematizing the team’s work allowed the Lanz family to take a 5 week vacation last year
- How giving team members authority made sure all bases were covered
- How to determine whether your hires should be employees or contract labor
Listen to the Food Blogger Pro Podcast below or check it out on iTunes:
- The Fresh 20
- Jing Screen Capture Tool
- Melissa Lanz & Co
- [email protected]
If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions for interviews, be sure to email them to [email protected].
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Bjork Ostrom: Welcome to episode number 23 of the Food Blogger Pro podcast. Hey there, my name is Bjork Ostrom. You’re listening to the Food Blogger Pro podcast. So excited that you are here today because we are talking with Melissa Lanz of The Fresh 20, a meal planning service that is also an incredible business. One of the ways that she’s grown it into an incredible business is by building a team. It’s something that I’m really excited to talk to Melissa about because it’s something that I know is so important for people to hear. It may not be true for you right where you are now. You might not have the budget to hire a team, or just in the early stages of starting your website or your blog, but eventually, as you continue to work on it and continue to build it, you’ll get to a point where you’ll realize, “I cannot do this all by myself.”
At that point, you have to start working with other people who specialize in certain areas to help you out, to help you grow your business. Melissa has done that with The Fresh 20. I’m so excited to talk to her not only about the growth of The Fresh 20, how she developed that through the years and what the process was like, all the way from idea to a really solid business, where she is today, but also talking about what it’s like to work with a team and how she went about hiring people on to her team. Let’s jump in. Melissa, welcome to the podcast.
Melissa Lanz: Hello.
Bjork Ostrom: So excited that you’re here. Both of us, we had to cut short our pre-interview chat, because we’re 20 minutes in, and we’re getting deep and it was such a good content, so I’m really excited to jump into it and talk to you about some things that I think will be really helpful for people. Before we do, I want to step back, I want to look back, and I want to go back to before the Fresh 20.
As I was looking into your story, I read that before you started The Fresh 20, you were a marketing executive. It sounded like a solid job. Things in the job department, career category seemed to be lined up pretty good. What was it about that job? What was it that made you want to leave what most people would consider the ideal job? What was that like?
Melissa Lanz: I’m going to be really honest. The biggest impetus to leave was my husband. One night, I came home from work. It was 8 o’clock. I was eating a frozen burrito over the sink on my blackberry, and he said, “This isn’t really what I signed up for. I don’t like you very much anymore.” I said, “Oh wow, let me put my burrito down.” You notice I didn’t say let me put my blackberry down, just the burrito.
Bjork Ostrom: At least, it was something, right?
Melissa Lanz: Yeah. It really just started a conversation about the life that we wanted to lead. I was working 60 to 70 hours a week. I had a three and a four-year-old that I wasn’t spending enough quality time with. I was always on. I never was off, and I was working. The work is good. I’m a workaholic. I loved the work, but the lifestyle wasn’t what I wanted. I think just having that first initial conversation planted a seed in my head that I could change it. It’s really hard. I was making a lot of money, and getting that steady paycheck, but just the possibility that I could be happy again. I think I was miserable but comfortable. Does that make sense?
Bjork Ostrom: For sure, comfortable in certain aspects, but miserable in other. I feel like those two things can coexist. It’s weird, but it makes a lot of sense. I’m curious with that decision. I’m sure there are people that are listening that or maybe in a similar position where maybe it’s not that they’re working 70 to 80 hours a week, but maybe they’re on a job where they are pretty miserable. They don’t feel like they’re their best selves because of that job. It takes away energy as opposed to gives them energy.
For you, when you realized that, how did you go about deciding then, “Hey, this is something I’m going to change, and I’m going to start my own thing.” Did you build that bridge a little bit before you started to walk across, or did you say, “I’m going to do this,” and put in your two-week notice, and that was that?
Melissa Lanz: I gave 30 days.
Bjork Ostrom: Still pretty short.
Melissa Lanz: Yeah, it was still pretty short. There comes times in everyone’s life like … I had just gotten to a point where every day was really arduous. It was just too much, and I was really unhappy. I realized that the main thing was I wasn’t being of service to my family, to my kids. When I looked at them, and I realized, “Well, if I don’t give this notice, if I don’t cause change in my own life right now, that it will be two years from now, and they’ll be five and seven, and all that time will go by.” For me, it was really about stepping off of that ledge. It was just the lesser of two evils for me actually.
Bjork Ostrom: For sure.
Melissa Lanz: It was scary. I had the support of my husband, and we made the decision that we were going to try and do something different, but the consequences of that would be that our lifestyle would probably have to change for the short term. There are so many sacrifices that people can make to try and get to a better life, things like the daily Peet’s coffee or the going out to eat, or the entertainment things. People have more disposable income than they know, and so when I really started to take a look at it, we were like, “Okay, we can make some changes to go for a bigger goal, live a happy life.”
Bjork Ostrom: What were some of the changes, just out of curiosity, that you had make?
Melissa Lanz: Mainly eating out. I think one of the reasons I started my company is because when we did sit down, and we went through our receipts and where we could save money if I quit my job, we realized that, okay, and this is embarrassing, we spent $14,000 on takeout in 2008. $14,000 in takeout is a lot of money that could pay for extra months while you’re just trying to start up your own business. It can pay for an assistant. $14,000 can pay for an assistant for a 500-dollar a week for six months. My math might be a little off there, but you see my point.
There are a lot of things. Then we just started spending more time together at home, which really helped us to connect and keep me focused on why I was quitting my job and why I was reaching for new goals. We stopped buying the easy things, like stopped buying gifts for each other for birthdays. My husband and I have been together a long time. I was like, “I don’t need to go out and have a 200-dollar meal for my birthday. I’m perfectly happy getting a 2-dollar cupcake and calling it a day.” Just little things like that and planning really well.
I know one trick we did was for a few months, we didn’t use any credit cards, so at the beginning of the month we took out a specific amount in cash, and put it in an envelope in the kitchen. That was all we are allowed to spend for that month. That was probably the hardest thing that we did, because when you have your debit card or your credit card in your wallet, you don’t realize how much you’re spending.
Bjork Ostrom: You don’t feel it as much for sure.
Melissa Lanz: Yeah, and when you see the available dwindling in the envelope, it helps you make really, really economic decisions.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s so interesting to hear your story with that, because I know it’s something that for the people that are listening to this podcast, they’re always going back and forth on, “When do I take that leap of trying to do my thing, whatever it is,” most of the people that listen to this podcast that has to do with food, “When do I take that leap and to working on that full time?” For some people, they might just jump and then hope they can build the plane as they’re going down.
What I heard you talk about is that your really intention about saying, “Okay, if we are going to make this leap, where is this money going to come from?” The easiest way to regain that income is to cut the unnecessary expenses. I think that’s so wise. It’s a temporary sacrifice for a long-term gain, so kudos to you for doing that. That’s really cool. Let’s go back to that day you turned in your 30-day notice to your marketing executive job. At what point did you say, “Now, I’m gonna kick into entrepreneur mode?” Had you always had that, or do you feel like it was a switch that you had turn on? Did you know what you’re going to work on right away? What did it look like as you started to get into it?
Melissa Lanz: I didn’t know right away. I’m kind of a closet serial entrepreneur, and so I had lots of starts and stops during my career, where I say, “Okay, I’m done with this project. What can I do to try?” I always knew that the cubicle lifestyle wasn’t for me, but you get stuck there, and so I knew that I wanted to do something that was going to give me more happiness. I was depleted in the health category just because you’re not getting any sleep, and not eating right, and working so much, so I wanted to be healthier. I wanted to be happier. I wanted it to be family related. I wanted it to have something to do with food, because that was such a big theme in my life overall since I was very, very young.
I did some due diligence. During those 30 days, I went to work and then I would come home. The other thing I was going to say, we talked about sacrificing money, but if you’re living really lean, and you don’t have the money to sacrifice, there is also time that you can sacrifice. Everyone says, “I don’t have enough time, or I’m so busy,” but I can look at somebody’s schedule and I can pick out and extra three hours a day no matter what. No matter if they are training for a triathlon. People waste a lot of time.
I really stopped wasting time during those 30 days, and put all of that disposable time. That meant not a lot on Facebook, or no TV time at night, and really getting down and into my home office at my kitchen table and saying, “This is dedicated time to work on something new for myself.” That’s another thing that I kind of sacrificed while I was … Those 30 days is that i got so specific about my time because I knew that if I waste it then making that leap to quit my job was going to be fruitless. Then in six months I’d be going to get another corporate job again. I think that’s another way that people can really start something, and get serious about it. It’s that idea of going from having an amateur thought to having a pro thought.
Bjork Ostrom: What do you mean by that?
Melissa Lanz: There’s this great book called Going Pro, and it talks about how a lot of us have these goals, right in our lives no matter what it is. No matter if it’s starting a new business, or losing weight, or writing a book. We go about them with amateur habits, which means that we don’t put dedicated time, we don’t have focus, we don’t prioritize things. We waste a lot of time in the process. We’re not organized enough. All of those amateur habits keep you at an amateur level, right? One of the things that I quickly realized, if I was going to take this leap that I couldn’t do it as an amateur. I can honestly tell you … There has been times when I slipped into an amateur phase because I’m just tired or something, but I can tell you from the time I took the decision to leave my job to now, I looked at it as going pro to have my own business, and to be an entrepreneur.
It wasn’t a hobby. I never consider it a hobby. I considered it something that was very important and to attain the goal that I wanted of freedom, and flexibility, and financial reward. That was one of the main things. As soon as I gave notice, I didn’t spend any time in amateur mode. I spend time really only in pro mode. That meant four hours after I put my kids to bed at night, I would work instead of watch four hours of TV.
Bjork Ostrom: Right. I’m really curious about this, and I think it’s a really helpful idea for people that are listening. Can you talk about some of the biggest mindset changes that you had in going from amateur to pro, or some of the stories that you had to tell yourself about who you are, and what your mission is in terms of growing the business? I’m so interested in that mindset concept. Can you dig a little bit deeper into that, and share some of those things?
Melissa Lanz: Yeah. I think mindset is so important from anyone that wants to have a business, or just even improve their career, where they’re at. For me it was really hard. The self-doubt comes in as soon as my last day of work. Then I go home and I’m sitting there, and it’s like having a blank screen. It’s like being a writer, and starting on page one, and that’s really where I was. I think that the mindset for me was that I wanted … It was more than just proving something for myself. I really wanted to change my life. I really wanted … I knew that to do that … I didn’t exactly know how to do that, but I knew that if I gave it the focus of a professional, the same way that I would give focus to a job, I knew that if I gave it that, and if I kept every day learning something new or everyday doing due diligence on something, that it would lead eventually … All of those little steps would lead to something bigger.
For me the mindset was about personal responsibility. I think that’s such an important mindset to have, because when you really, really understand that personal responsibility isn’t just about taking care of yourself, it’s about shaping your life. It’s about shaping the future that you want for yourself. The only way to do that is to start with the mindset. When I really understood that my life was in my hands, and I could shape it into something that I wanted, then there was no choice for me but to do it to the best of my ability. I think personal responsibility has been a value that I’ve carried with me in the five and a half years that I’ve been running the Fresh 20, and that I carry through with my team. I think it’s really, really important to have that mindset that it’s up to you.
I do make those decisions sometimes where I say to myself, “I could sit down right now, and complete this for my company,” and it would a step in the right direction, or it would build more revenue, or have more growth, or I could go goof off with my kids for three hours right now. Sometimes we make the decisions but I know what I’m giving up. It’s not just … I think what happened in the beginning when I lost that daily guidance of having a corporate team around you and everything was … I was at home, and I was alone, and I was sitting there and I was like, “Okay.” All these distractions started coming in. Then your friends that are working they think that you’re either, they’re like, “Of course she has time to do this. Of course, she has time to do this.”
I think it’s really, really important to stay focused so that … Because that’s not real flexibility. Real flexibility is not … What’s the word I’m looking for? It’s not ignoring the things that you have to do to get done. Real flexibility is being able to financially take the choice to not have to work that day. That’s not what flexibility and freedom means. I think a lot of people that I’ve come across in the last 5 years they’re, “Oh, you know …” They’re still in that amateur hobby mode, so going to lunch or going and goofing off, or spending hours and hours on the internet just aimlessly wandering.
Bjork Ostrom: Right.
Melissa Lanz: They’re, “Oh, well, that’s what freedom and flexibility like. I’m living the dream.” No. Living the dream is having money in the bank, and enough so you can do what you want and that you are able to make conscious decisions and that you have choices. It’s not goofing off or letting your work pile up and then saying, “Oh, I’m so busy.” I feel I’m not … Am I explaining that?
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I think … For sure.
Melissa Lanz: I think it’s that personal responsibility aspect of a mindset is so important.
Bjork Ostrom: I think it’s a huge shift to make and it’s one that Lindsey and I talk about often where … I think the assumption is because of the type of arrangement we have with the job, the contrast is probably easiest with Lindsey where she’s a teacher before and then now she’s working on here blog full time. People assume, “You have the afternoon off. You can just do whatever you want. Maybe we should get together or we can do lunch. You’re probably open everyday of the week.” Whereas as a teacher she just didn’t have that option so people wouldn’t ask or there wouldn’t even be that temptation for her to do that or for me to meet up with a friend or to browse through Facebook or whatever it would be.
What I hear you saying is the sacrifice of sticking to something to working really hard allows you to build something. Then eventually you can make that decision where you say, “I’m going to intentionally not work on something today and take time to do whatever it is,” as opposed to just going with the flow and whatever happens, leading to one place to another. I think it makes total sense. I want to go back specific to those initial stages where you’re looking at that blank screen. When you were first starting out did you know that it was, that what you’re going to do was the Fresh 20? Is that what you had in mind as you were starting?
Melissa Lanz: It didn’t. I wanted to merge together the 3 things I want. I knew that I wanted it to be online because that’s where my corporate experience was. I wanted it to be flexible like a virtual company. I wanted it to be family related in food. I was looking at a lot of different things and it’s funny how sometimes if you just look to the things that you know or look to the things that you experienced in your own life and there’s all these signs around me … People, because I was off work now and I had always been the cook in my family and in my community a friends, they started saying, “Melissa can you make me … Tell me what I should eat.” One of my dearest friends she said, “I’ll pay you if you would give me a low down of what I should eat for 30 days, like 4 weeks at my house.”
Bjork Ostrom: At what point was this in terms of your process of leaving your job? Had you been working on some of your ideas for a while now and then left your job or is this before?
Melissa Lanz: No. I left my job without knowing what my company was going to be.
Bjork Ostrom: Okay, so this was after these conversations.
Melissa Lanz: Yeah, this is after. I did 3 months after I left my job of research and due diligence and looking at the online market place and looking at what was going on with food and looking what was … Looking into what was happening and where I’d find a niche for myself. I started writing about food on an old blog called Low Prepped and it just all came together. There was new synergy between things that were happening in my own life and things that I saw my other friends that were still in corporate, what they were experiencing around food. I started testing, I started testing out what would make this easier or what would, what do I know about the process of being a working mom.
Bjork Ostrom: What did this first test look like? Just out of curiosity.
Melissa Lanz: I played a little game with myself. One of the things would … When I’d initially started it was about reducing the waste. I think I used to be a Farmer’s Market shopper. I’ve been one for 20 years. The waste factor. I never had a plan, I would just go to the Farmer’s Market and just buy a whole bunch of beautiful fruits and vegetables. They would be science projects by the end of the week because I wouldn’t prep them or there was no recipe for them. We just ended up getting take out anyway, which I think is a frustration for a lot of people. The first glimmer of my business was really around that of how can I buy less and still eat healthy and save money by buying less but better ingredients. The first initial test was really about doing a puzzle, like patchwork puzzle of buying a limited amount of ingredients and seeing how long they could get me in my kitchen.
Bjork Ostrom: That was just with you and your family, testing it out in the family to say, “Can we figure out a system for this?”
Melissa Lanz: Yeah. Then I started to send it to a couple of my friends and got feedbacks. In corporate world we call that usability testing, right? Like how can we get feedback to understand if this is really something that can work.
Bjork Ostrom: When you’re sending that to your friends how do you know the difference between your friends being nice and your friends actually giving you feedback on how usable it is?
Melissa Lanz: That’s a great question. I actually instruct anybody that’s ever giving me feedback to give me only negative feedback. I never want to hear any of the positive feedback because the positive feedback I … In these situations if it’s a testing or it’s something like that the negative feedback is what helps you. This is so important in business and I really, really want to make a point for this. The only way that you can grow your business, and the only way that you can increase revenues is if you know what’s wrong. It doesn’t matter if you know what’s right, you have to know what’s wrong. I literally told my friends tell me what’s wrong with it. They understood that because they have come from mobile or from environments and corporate where they were always in development iterations, right? I think it’s really important to ask for people to tell you what’s wrong so you can fix it.
Bjork Ostrom: Here’s a follow up question, if the people you’re asking are only telling you what’s wrong, so, let’s say somebody’s listening and they send it out and they say, “Send me your critique of this.” How do you know if the idea itself is the right idea to move forward on?
Melissa Lanz: That’s a good question. I never even thought of that. I guess maybe I, just intuitively for myself, knew what was right about it, and so I just took the feedback of did it work for them and incorporated it into what I knew to be true for myself. I think that’s important to … In the first year of business I was ping-ponged around so much because every single email that I got of somebody either praised or negativity from the subscribers I would make an immediate change. I think that that’s really important to not do that, to gather feedback systematically and to think about how it’s going to affect your project or your business and not make a change every time somebody tells you something. That was a learning curve for me in my first year because I just kept changing things. One person would email me and I’d be like, “Oh, I’ll change it.” I want them to be happy.
Bjork Ostrom: Right.
Melissa Lanz: I think now I handled the feedback much differently. I look at it of what’s the long term benefit of making these changes? What’s the cost versus the value add for the audience or the subscriber? I think that’s with anything that you’re starting. You have to look at it holistically and you have to look at it into the future of what that’s going to look like and not function your business on reactions.
Bjork Ostrom: Yup, and to make split second decisions based on one user feedback. I think that’s really wise to look for patterns, to look for similar pieces of feedback as opposed to just maybe one person that might be an outlier. It might be a random piece of feedback. At what point with the Fresh 20 did the Fresh 20 become the Fresh 20? When did you know this is going to be something that works?
Melissa Lanz: Like 3 months I played around with it and then I started building the menus and sending them out for testing. Then I was playing a little ‘name that tune’, that game show from the 70’s, I’m dating myself. I was, “Okay, what is it going to take every week? How can I repeat this? How can I find a process in this that is sustainable and repeatable. After the 3 months through the holidays I was testing, so my last day of my job was June 30th of 2009 and I launched the Fresh 20 April 23th of 2010. That’s about from I would say 9 months from the time I quit to the time I launched the business. It was a full business launch. It was between the time I did beta testing and I refined some things. From the time of my last day of work to the Fresh 20 was 9 months. I didn’t know what’s going to be the Fresh 20 until 6 months before I launched it so it took me 6 months to get it up and running and launched.
That was just with me, I had no help at that time. I was doing the website building and the menu and the recipe and testing and development. The pictures which at that point my husband wasn’t doing any of them. It was really bad, and still a really bad photographer. He’s amazing, I’m not great. It was about 6 months. In that time I just asked for help when I needed it and favors where it was going to be impactful to the business. I launched the Fresh 20 with something I called the 400, it was a list of 400 emails that from my personal emails that I had gotten from friends and family and every single networking event that I had been to in that 6 months. April 23rd I sent out my first email to the 400 and I had 28 people sign up in the first week and I was off and running.
I didn’t know what it was going to be. My only goal at that point was to be able to make enough money to continue to pay my baby sitter. Because I knew that if I let my baby sitter go that I would not be able to run my business as a pro, that I would be in amateur mode because I would have … A kid would be coming in and it wouldn’t be work, it wouldn’t be a job. It would be … I would have to fit it in wherever I could, which is fine and happens and a lot of people are in that situation. It just takes longer. That was my only real goal, was to make enough for a salary. The first year I think … The first year was slim. I was starting from zero. I mean when I say zero I mean there was no SEO involve, there was no … I mean it was literally building off of one referral to the next referral.
I remember my husband and I if we got 10 new subscribers a week we were like, “Wow, where did that …?” When you first see the first subscriber or the first client that isn’t related to you, that has no connection to you whatsoever. They just found you and you don’t recognize the name at all. That was such a moment for us and we were like, “Oh, my gosh.” It was just felt so good. Those small wins kept me moving forward. They just kept me putting one foot in front of the other. In the second year of business I did, let’s see … In the second year of business I did a little over a hundred thousand, like a hundred and eight thousand. That was nice. It didn’t replace my old salary so it was still, we were still living lean and still paying the baby sitter out of that money and it was still just me.
Where it really took off was when I realized I couldn’t do everything and I needed help. I looked at what was the biggest pain point for me, what was taking me the most time away from revenue generating activities. It was just customer service so my first hire ever was customer service. Somebody to handle the ins and outs of logging in. At the time when I hired the customer service we only had about 4,000 subscribers and that was back in the beginning of 2011. I hired her. I think it was, she was … I don’t know, I want to say $12 to $14 an hour or something like that. She was a stay-at-home mom, virtual. She just picked up that customer service slack and we got a system in place. Before that I didn’t have a system, it was just people emailing me. Once we got an actual ticketing system in and we started to put a process to it and document how we did it, the pain point completely went away from me.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s something that I’d love to hone in on a little bit because I think you’ve done a really good job with that, as we’ve seen from the outside, building a team and bringing Fresh 20 into business where it’s not just you doing everything. Lindsey and I talked about this with the things that we’re doing and just the reality that if your a one-man shop it’s really hard to do things well, but if you can bring people in you can really build something incredible. The great example of that is Fresh 20. Let’s go back to that first hire. What were the cues that you used to push you into realizing ‘we need somebody else’? What was it that you were finally like, “I can’t do this all on my own.”?
Melissa Lanz: I started just back into my old habits of working 60, 70 hours a week and realized that I was starting to have the same exact life that I left but now I was making less money.
Bjork Ostrom: For sure.
Melissa Lanz: That triggered something for me and I said, “Okay. Let me think about this. I’m functioning like an amateur right now because if I’m a pro I shouldn’t have to be working 60 and 70 hour a week and I shouldn’t be working on things that could cost me $10 to $15 an hour to have somebody else do.”
Bjork Ostrom: Where did you find that person then? When you realized, “I need to make this step into hiring somebody,” how do you reach out and connect with somebody that you … How do you go through the filter process to make sure they’d be a good person for that position?
Melissa Lanz: I went to the internet. All of the people that I had met in my networking groups and some of the Facebook groups that I had started to participate in I started asking. That particular resource came from an online company, I don’t know if they still exist. It was called Hire My Mom. It was basically a stay-at-home moms that had possibly once been in a corporate environment that had kids and wanted to have flexible working hours and not go into corporation anymore. That fit with my own values for running a business. She came from there. I know I’d love to say that there was a big process to know if she was the right person but at the time I was so happy to just have someone that sounded educated, knew the system, had done some customer service on her own, had worked for a couple of internet companies, and it was great. She was the best resource.
Once her and I started working together it allowed me to spend more time on growth and generating more revenue and doing, reaching out for more collaboration and partnerships. 2011 for me if anyone heard me speak at any of the food blogging conferences was all about collaboration for me because that’s what I felt it was going to take for me to get my business to the next level.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. One of the things that you’d also mentioned was that you started to create some systems and started to document things. How did you go about doing that and how did you go about communicating those? Was that something strategic like some type of software or was it like a Google doc that you shared? What did that look like?
Melissa Lanz: At first it wasn’t very strategic. I think, since I had come from a corporate background and everything was so project management focused and tack and tool and software focused that I was anti that so everything was real, emailing in the beginning. I think very quickly one of the first things that we learned about for software was a company called Zendesk. They have this great program that they were helping entrepreneurs and giving them a free year of customer service support. Like you could use their system with 5 users and it was free at the time because they were just launching, right? We signed up with them, we’re still with them today. Just going through the process of installing software and setting it up we started to see, “Wow, there really is a process here.”
Once we instill that process … My first hire was great, too because she was totally willing to document things. We keep all of our stuff. We used Dropbox. That’s how keep a hold of our files and make sure that there’s verge and control on our files and everyone has access to them. Once we started that process, I have to tell you, I became a little bit of a process fanatic.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah. I’ve heard other people talk about that, too. It’s a process for the process, do you have one of those?
Melissa Lanz: Yeah, kind of. A little bit. We do a little bit. I have to tell you, in 2013, I was working with a business coach and the number one thing that I was working with her was for to automate and to delegate and to automate my business so that I would be able to take a time off from it long enough to enjoy my life. Because now by that time … In 2011 we hit, I think, 700,000. Then in 2012 we crossed over the 7 figure mark and in doing that I still was … I had the freedom of flexibility but I looked at my husband I’m like … We said we wanted to travel and we said we wanted to do this and we’re really not doing that. I hired a business coach to teach me how to delegate and automate so that I would be able to step away from my business long enough to enjoy my life.
We spent the entire year in 2013, we actually made last … We took our revenue goals down and said, “Let’s take our revenues goals down but make our process and procedures the main goal of the company by the end of the year.” I wanted to spend, to take my family to Australia for 5 weeks in the spring of 2014. The only way I could do that was to hit my process and procedure goals. 2013 we spent doing that. We documented everything. We did little videos. We used something called Jing, which is great just for capturing screen or making a video of whatever you’re doing so you can show somebody how to do it instead of tell them and restore all of those mini videos in Dropbox. We worked out a process and procedures for our production of the actual menu plans and the meal plans.
It’s amazing how when you systematize things how much easier it becomes and how much time you free up to do other things. I think it’s really, really important to document that stuff …
Bjork Ostrom: When you look back to …
Melissa Lanz: … and to delegate.
Bjork Ostrom: Sorry, go ahead. You said and to delegate.
Melissa Lanz: No, and to delegate.
Bjork Ostrom: I’m really curious. When you look back to 2013 what were some of the biggest things that you learned in that process? I hear you say the importance of delegation but could you … Is there some maybe specifics in terms of tangible changes that you made and how you think or how you run your business?
Melissa Lanz: Yeah. One of the first things that we did in 2013 is everybody wrote down a huge list of every single thing that they did. We matched it against a list of everything that we believed needed to be done in the company. We found that there was overlap. We found that there was gaps. We went about really understanding that the team, as much as they work together, they have to have responsibility for themselves as individuals as well.
Bjork Ostrom: What do you mean by that? Can you explain it?
Melissa Lanz: It means that if the team has deadlines and goals as a unit but each individual person has a workflow and things that they have to get done to make that happen. Most teams work like everybody’s working towards something. What we did is we took it apart and we said, “Well, yeah. That’s true. Everybody’s working towards something but we put responsibilities, like areas of responsibility attached to a certain job descriptions. At the end of the day the production coordinator that works on the recipe development side, she’s ultimately responsible for the final files being loaded to the server.
Bjork Ostrom: Got it.
Melissa Lanz: Everything that happens for that falls under her jurisdiction and that means she has the authority to change timelines and delegate workout to the rest of the team based on … That’s her ultimate responsibility. It just is a little bit different than everybody doing their own job without having one person have the responsibility. Also as a business owner it became very clear to me that I could not maintain all of the areas of responsibility in every department of my company. I oversee it but now I’m not responsible for it. As far as production is concerned now in the business I used to be part of the production process, like a 100% I would be …
In the beginning it was all me, right? Then, I have to say, in total transparency, in the beginning of my business in the first year I would work literally … My only promise to my audience and my subscriber was that they would have their meal plans by Friday evening. Sometimes I was working on getting those meal plans done up until 11:50 at night and then pushing them out. Now, because we did that 2013 process and procedures and because now the entire unit works like in such a professional way I don’t even see the meal plans until they come to my family a week before everyone else. I guess it’s actually 2 weeks before. That’s what we actually eat.
Bjork Ostrom: Cool.
Melissa Lanz: I don’t have any part of that anymore.
Bjork Ostrom: Right.
Melissa Lanz: I’m not responsible for it in my company anymore.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. To go back to those list, I’m imagining maybe this is a whiteboard but we have those giant 3M sticky notes that you put on the wall. On the wall you recorded everything that needs to happen in the business. Then in another category you recorded the people that are working in the business and everything that they’re responsible for and seeing … Do these … Literally where you draw the line and say, “Do these things connect? Are these … Does somebody own each one of these?” Is that generally … ?
Melissa Lanz: Yeah. I think it’s really important, too that sometimes if you really write down everything that each team member is doing you find … You don’t … See, when sometimes people talk about process they say, “Okay, tell me what you need to get done. Tell me what the things are,” and you go off of a list of these are the things that should be getting done. When we matched up what’s necessary for the company to run with that people’s actual tasks on a daily level were and they wrote up all of their tasks we not only realized that some of the things didn’t connect and match, we realized that some people were doing things that they didn’t even need to be doing.
Bjork Ostrom: Sure. Yeah. Can you give an example of what one of those was?
Melissa Lanz: I got it at the top of my head. Yes. For a really long time we have a company phone. I don’t why I’m blinking on that. It takes messages from anybody that needs to call in and get something from us. For a really long time the growth manager was … The operations manager was checking those messages and then fielding them out to whoever they needed to go to. What we realized is that’s not even in the area of her responsibility. She’s not responsible for that at all. That falls on our community customer service manager to be the line of contact with any incoming requests. Then she’s the one that’s ultimately responsible for getting back. Where that was coming into play is since there was nobody responsible for incoming calls the operations manager would field them out to everybody and then there was nobody checking to see if there’s follow up.
Now that the community service manager that that’s her responsibility across the board is a subscriber and it’s like incoming communications, she’s responsible for that. Now even if she kicks it to somebody else like our nutritionist, for example, she has to follow up and make sure that that is actually happening because it’s her responsibility. If I get an email from someone that says, “I called you, guys a week ago and nobody has gotten back to me,” I know exactly where to go because that is her area of responsibility. Does that make sense?
Bjork Ostrom: For sure, yeah. I think there’s some really important takeaways here for people. Even if it’s somebody that’s doing the solopreneur thing right now, one of the biggest takeaways being how big of an impact building a team was for you and building your business. I’m sure that you can’t even imagine what it would be like to try and be doing on your own still especially after doing such a good job of building a team, so I think that’s important for people to hear. Another thing that I really think as important is this idea of writing down everything that needs to happen in the business and everything that people are doing. For some people you might be the only person for that and a great way to take that exercise would be to connect the things that you want to be doing and that your good at and then seeing if in some way, shape or form you can bring somebody on even if it’s in a very minimal capacity to help you out with those things that you’re not capable of or that you really hate doing.
There’s a while ago when Lindsey and I created a list of ‘we like to do this, we don’t like to do this’ as kind of an initial step of what are some of the things that we can bring people on for. I think those 2 things are awesome. Then the other thing that I think is good and a valuable takeaway is having people own a certain part of the process sp you know where to go if something breaks. Like if something doesn’t happen you’re not responsible for all of that stuff, you as the business owner, you as the main person. I want to ask a few more questions specific to the hiring process, because I think that is something a lot of people think about and if you’re just in the beginning stages of your blog you’ll get there eventually if you stick with it. When you hire on those first people how do you know if you’re hiring a contractor versus a more traditional employee? What are the differences between those? That’s kind of a basic question but I think it’s a good one to hit.
Melissa Lanz: Well, I won’t go into legalities of contractor versus employee because it’s not my area of expertise but for me anybody that’s going to work on … If they have their own company, for example, even today my customer service manager she is a contractor because she owns her own business. Because we have this system, the process and the procedures in place, it’s not a full time job for us to be doing that. She has several different clients so that automatically makes her a non-employee for me. Because she’s not solely dedicated to the Fresh 20. It works out really well because when you … That’s why those list really help. It helps you determine what is a full-time job versus farming something out to someone for 10 hours a week or something like that.
The things that matter for me and my businesses and operations, marketing is really important, somebody … I would bring a marketing person. There’s 2 ways, you can go with a vendor of some sort or you can go with an employee. When I identify that there’s enough work in a certain role and that I’m going to be guiding that work and it’s not like I’m asking for help but I’m not asking for the expertise, right? That’s how I differentiate between a contractor and an employee. An employee is someone that I bring on to assist in the strategies that I and management have worked out. A contractor for me is somebody that I need that has a specific area of expertise that is hopefully above my area of expertise.
Bjork Ostrom: Right.
Melissa Lanz: If that makes any sense. Then for employees when I bring them on I think I do a 90-day trial, so they come on and they work as a contractor for the first 90 days. That gives us both … It just, no matter what people say if you have a business you are in the business of hiring and firing. I know people have amazing teams, I have an amazing team, but it doesn’t mean that people don’t come and go. Everybody is living their life and you are a business owner and you can’t take it personally. You just have to know that when you do hire somebody there’s no better way than working with them to find out if they’re going to be a fit. I just don’t recommend hiring somebody just off the bat. I really like them to come in and do contract for 90 days and to see if they like it. I had a marketing manager come in and she’s great. She’s bubbly, she has a lot of experience. We thought it was going to be a great fit. She worked for the first 90 days and we were both like, “Oh, my God. No.”
It’s not, it’s not a great fit. It doesn’t mean that she’s not good at what she does. She just … It wasn’t a fit for my company. I think that trial period is really important. The hiring process is very important. I’ve become much more involved in the … My hiring process is a little bit more complex now. The first thing after reviewing resumes and getting a short list of people we want to contact is we send them out an invitation to interview with us. We have 4-phase interview process. If the first phase is within 24 hours we give them a list of questions and we ask for a 60-second video answer just with their iPhone. It’s less about whether or not their hair is right or any of that. It’s more about can they use technology well? Can they do something on a short amount of time? Are they within the 24-hour limit? Did they follow the instructions?
That’s really important. The interesting is out of 20 candidates usually it’s only 20% that even send back the video, and that’s the first phase. I believe that you should trust what people show you in the beginning so if somebody doesn’t do that video and they reach out and they say, “Oh, I’m so sorry,” they’re not a candidate for me anymore because it shows me immediately that they’re not willing to do what it takes. When you have a small business the number one quality that you look for is that. Somebody that’s willing to go the extra mile because if I’m not available or somebody else in unavailable you want somebody that can make decisions for themselves.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. I think that weeding out process is so valuable because it’s so hard to know when you’re looking at hiring people and what to expect. Also the project-based thing or the 3-month period. I read a book by the founders of the company that’s Basecamp now, it’s 27signals before? I think that’s what it was. They talked about every person they hire they always bring them on as a project first and then they transition them in to a full-time position if it works out. I think that’s great.
Melissa Lanz: Even small entrepreneurs can do that. Instead of hiring somebody, even committing to 3 months, I think the third phase of our hiring process is we give them a small project. It’s a paid project, but we give them a small project to complete in 48 to 72 hours, we pay them for it and we see how they do. They see if they really can do what they say they can do on their resume. That’s really, really … Anybody can do that. Have somebody do a small project for you first.
Bjork Ostrom: We’ve gotten one in three. Let’s fill in the picture. Do you know off hand is 3 and 4? What are those for?
Melissa Lanz: Sorry. The first one is the 60-second video questionnaire. Second is telephone interview with a couple of team members. Third one is a paid project. Then the fourth one is an in-person interview with me.
Bjork Ostrom: Got it. Okay, cool. A few more questions here as we’re coming to the end. Just curious what tools you use? You’ve mentioned Dropbox, obviously you know back and forth. Zendesk you had mentioned. Are there other tools that you’re using right now to communicate with your team?
Melissa Lanz: We use Basecamp, so we run all of our projects through Basecamp. I think that’s just because that’s what I used in corporate and I was used to it. There’s certainly other tools out there that are very similar. I just I happen to like the interface of Basecamp. That’s the other thing, too, having some type of central system for your team and even clients that you might be working with. Sometimes you open up a project in Basecamp and we give the client access to it so that they have a place that they can leave notes. It was a huge thing for our business when we took everything out of email. You got to get your step out, if you’re running a project in email it’s just a recipe for disaster. That’s really important for us.
Bjork Ostrom: Cool.
Melissa Lanz: I think those are our main ones that we use. On a systems level or a CRM system we use Infusionsoft.
Bjork Ostrom: Cool. That’s great.
Melissa Lanz: Those are our main system.
Bjork Ostrom: We’ve talked about some of these things that you’ve implemented, building a team. I’m curious now what do things look like for the Fresh 20 in terms of the team that you’re working with? How many people do you have? What is your role kind of look like right now?
Melissa Lanz: We have a team of 8 that we run really, really lean. I’m actually in the process of hiring 2 more operational/marketing hires. The production team is a team of 8 and they’re amazing. I’m one of those people I want to … I don’t want to spend a lot of time being a manager. I want to spend more time so it’s really important for me to build a team of responsible people that enjoy their autonomy of handling something on their own.
Bjork Ostrom: Cool.
Melissa Lanz: It’s important. I think it’s … You got to build a team that has the same work values that you have.
Bjork Ostrom: Right. Absolutely. We had talked about this before. I had clearance to ask you about this. You’ve been open about sharing different numbers along the way. You had said that you’re around a 108,000. What year was that when you made your first hire that was in 2000 … ?
Melissa Lanz: That was 2000 and the middle of 2011 when I made my first hire.
Bjork Ostrom: If you know the numbers or just general numbers, what it looked like as you started to build the team and as you started to grow the Fresh 20 what those different high level numbers were?
Melissa Lanz: Sure.
Bjork Ostrom: Because I think it’s so inspiring for people to hear.
Melissa Lanz: 2011 was about 108, and that was when I got my first team member. 2012 I brought on a couple more team members and we hit I want to say somewhere in the 8’s. Right. Wait, 2010 was 108, 2011 we hit somewhere in the 8’s, 2012, 2013, and 2014 we’re all above 7 figures. Each year, I think, I brought on about 2 new people a year to start working on things. As we started to add more product line in more categories of meal plans is when we started to build the production team out. I’m still looking to replace myself.
Bjork Ostrom: For sure.
Melissa Lanz: At some point, but I think … I was talking to my business coach and we have this a few mastermind and one the questions that she asked was what’s the proudest moment you’ve ever had in your business? The proudest moment I’ve ever had in my business was being able in 2014 to take my family to Australia for 5 weeks in February and March and not work. That was a really proud moment for me because everything that I set out to do, having the freedom of flexibility and the financial stability and the resources to be able to make choices and step away and enjoy my life, all come to fruition on that trip.
Bjork Ostrom: That awesome.
Melissa Lanz: That was a big deal.
Bjork Ostrom: So cool.
Melissa Lanz: Now we were going to Italy for the month of October.
Bjork Ostrom: Sweet.
Melissa Lanz: Now we spend about our plans, upcoming, we spend about 3 months out of the year traveling with our kids and we home school our kids. It’s been an amazing, amazing ride. Some people listening might say it’s not possible for them but I want to tell you it absolutely is possible for you. Because I’m no different than anybody else. I just put in the work. Always considered it a real job and a real company and a real corporation and systematized what I was doing. Anybody can do that.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome.
Melissa Lanz: One thing I definitely want to say and I know we were talking about this in our preamble but I would say one of the things that I attribute the success of the Fresh 20 to is I was always willing to invest in my self. Whether that meant hiring a team member when I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to pay them or going out on a limb or getting a mentorship or the coaching that I needed to get to the next level I was always willing to do that. I think I told you before, I mean I think I’ve spent well over a $150,000 in learning, coaching, training for me, for my team. That’s a really hard thing to do when you’re afraid that you won’t have enough money left over, but the biggest growth comes from investing in yourself and getting the mentorship and the expertise of other people. So important. So important.
Bjork Ostrom: This was not something that you’d ask but I want to make sure to give you the option to talk about this a little bit. Because I think there are probably people that are listening that are at a high level with their business. Maybe it’s food related, maybe it’s not. Where they’ve built something and they’re looking to take it to the next level. I know that one of the things that you’ve started to do is you’ve started to … I don’t know if you call it coaching or consulting but can you talk a little bit about that? Can you talk about the people that might be a good fit for that if they’re interested after hearing this and thinking, “I think I’m ready to take that step, invest back into myself.” Can you talk about what it is you’re doing there?
Melissa Lanz: Yeah, absolutely. Part of this journey has been taking everything that I learned from my corporate life before the Fresh 20 and then everything that I’ve learned as a solo entrepreneur, building a company and then a corporation and building a team. I got asked so much how I did that. I really started to sit back and say, “Wow, okay, wait. How did I do that? What were the steps? What are the basic core business that you know, steps that you need to take to go from making $50,000 to get to making a $150,000 to get to making $500,000.” I started consulting for people a couple of years ago. Then just earlier this year I hang my shingle and I’m officially started a business called Melissa Lanz and Co. I consult businesses that are over the 6 figure mark. The kind of stagnant, kind of staying right there, doing the same things. I heavily believe that whatever got you there is not going to get you to the next place.
I advise them on how to start looking at what’s working and what’s not and we use the 80-20 rule of … Usually there’s 20% of what you’re doing is making any impact at all and the other 80% is not. We look at those. I work with all sorts of businesses. I mean I’m working with a fashion retailer right now. She’s amazing, she’s out of New York. She’s absolutely incredible. She’s a creative and doesn’t have that business sense necessarily but she’s such an amazing worker, strong worker. I’m working with another woman who is wanting to teach people how she does things. I work best with people that have something that they want to leverage, right? I’m trying to work with my husband who’s an amazing photographer and shot our first cookbook because I would love to leverage his photography expertise because I know that he could be making a lot of money. He’s sitting next to me at the office right now.
I like to work with people that have something to leverage or to show them how they can be leveraging their talents and expertise and experience to actually create revenue streams for themselves. I mean there’s just so many things. When that light bulb goes off for somebody and they actually realize that they can create revenue streams based on what they already know and the talents that they already have, that’s just … I love that. I live for that. I work really hard to get them to the next level.
Bjork Ostrom: If somebody wanted to contact you to maybe have that initial conversation to see if they’d be a good fit, where could they get in touch with you?
Melissa Lanz: Let’s see. For the consulting it would be service@melissalanz, L-A, N as in Nancy, Z as in zebra, dot com, [email protected] and that gets to me. I’m happy to answer any question anybody might have. I’m one of those very, very accessible online people.
Bjork Ostrom: We appreciate that.
Melissa Lanz: I’m always happy to help.
Bjork Ostrom: That’s awesome. then Fresh 20 people can … I’m assuming Google the Fresh 20, go to the Fresh20.com and find all of the stuff that’s going on there with the meal plans and everything that you’re doing with the Fresh 20?
Melissa Lanz: Absolutely.
Bjork Ostrom: Cool. Great. Melissa, thank you so much for coming on. I know that people are going to get a lot out of it. Not only inspiring but also very educational so thanks for coming on today.
Melissa Lanz: This was fun. Thank you for having me.
Bjork Ostrom: Yeah, thanks a lot. That’s a wrap for episode number 23. One more big thank you to Melissa for coming on to the podcast. Be sure to check out the Fresh 20 Meal Plan service if you are interested in learning more about what she does. Two quick things before we wrap up today’s podcast. Number 1, if you were interested in learning about what other bloggers are applying in the year 2016 I’d encourage you to check out a free e-book that we have recently published. It’s called The Number One Thing. You can get that by going to foodbloggerpro.com/1.
We have a group of bloggers that were really kind in offering their insight and feedback and advice on things that they’re going to be focusing on in the coming year. We gathered all those up. We compiled them into an e-book and we’re offering that for download. Again, you can get that by going to foodbloggerpro.com/1. O-N-E, one. Number 2, if you have a minute we’d really appreciate if you hop on to iTunes and leave a rating for the podcast. We consider that fuel for our fire, keeps us going and it helps us to stay motivated to produce content, and it also helps us to show up a little bit higher when people search for certain keywords within iTunes. We’d really appreciate that. Well, whatever podcast service you use for that matter.
That’s a wrap for this episode. We will see you back here, same time, same place next week. Thanks, guys.