Episode #24

Michelle Lai-Saun Chu from KONOS

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In this episode of Beyond the Inbox, host Sammi Reinstein interviews Michelle Lai-Saun Chu, the founder, and owner of KONOS, a company that produces healthy and delicious dog treats. Michelle shares her journey to becoming a small business owner, the challenges she has faced along the way, and how she has built a community around her brand. She also talks about her passion for dog training and the direction she sees her business taking in the future.

Michelle began by discussing her journey to entrepreneurship, which started with her desire to create healthy, tasty dog treats for her own dog, Kono. She quickly realized that there was a gap in the market for high-quality, nutritious dog treats and decided to launch her own business. Michelle faced numerous challenges along the way, including developing recipes, sourcing ingredients, and navigating the legal requirements for pet food production.

Despite these obstacles, Michelle was determined to create a business that not only provided great products but also empowered dog parents and built an inclusive community. Michelle discusses the importance of building a community that not only loves the products but also believes in the mission of the brand. She highlights the value of having a community that shares experiences and provides support to each other.

One of the ways Michelle has built her community is through her Discord channel, which she started to provide a space for her customers to connect with each other. Michelle discusses the importance of having an online space where people can connect, share resources, and support each other, especially for those who may not have access to dog training resources in their area.

Sammi and Michelle also discuss the role of community in marketing strategy and customer retention. Michelle emphasizes the importance of having a community that is a thousand percent behind the mission and values of the brand, which leads to high customer return rates.

In terms of marketing strategy, Michelle discusses the effectiveness of email marketing and the importance of consistency. She also emphasizes the value of building relationships with other small businesses and supporting women of color in the industry.

Finally, Michelle shares her vision for the future of KONOS, which includes becoming a training lifestyle brand that empowers people to train their dogs and live a better life with them. She discusses the challenges of balancing product development, sales, marketing, and content creation as a small business owner but emphasizes the importance of consistency and showing up every day.

Overall, this episode provides valuable insights into entrepreneurship, community building, and marketing strategy and is a must-listen for anyone interested in starting their own business or building a strong brand.

Show Notes

  • (00:00) Introduction
  • (01:47) Michelle's background and journey to entrepreneurship
  • (03:56) Challenges faced in starting a pet food business
  • (06:07) How Michelle built a community around her brand and the importance of community
  • (08:37) Discord community and its role in supporting dog parents
  • (10:26) Marketing strategy and the effectiveness of email marketing
  • (12:45) Michelle's approach to social media content and the importance of consistency
  • (15:35) Customer acquisition and the importance of list building
  • (17:48) Michelle's commitment to uplifting women of color
  • (22:16) The role of community in marketing strategy and customer retention
  • (24:20) Michelle's vision for the future of KONOS
  • (26:30) Conclusion


Read the transcript:

Sam (00:01): Michelle, welcome to Beyond the Inbox. Thank you so much for taking the time to join us.

Michelle (00:06): Thanks for having me, Sam. I'm really excited to be here.

Sam (00:09): Can you tell us a little bit about your background and how you started Konos Kitchen?

Michelle (00:14): Sure. So I started K's Kitchen. I was inspired by my dog kno, who I adopted in 2018. So it's been a, it's been a while now. Uh, I was switching him to a raw diet around 2019 and it was just very overwhelming, just the amount of research that you have to do into it, making sure that he has a balanced meal. And so at around the same time I had been thinking about a business idea, and so I have, I was kind of decided between either doggy daycare or dog treats. Um, and given that the pandemic hit in 2020, I think it's a good idea. I didn't go with that doggy daycare because that brick and mortar would've been shut down almost immediately. Um, so I went with freeze dried raw dog treats. So Kona's Kitchen is a brand of freeze dried raw treats. They're really great for training or meal toppers, and I just wanted a less intimidating, more accessible way for people to feed their dogs healthier diets or healthier treats without having to fully transition to a raw diet. If that's what, you know, maybe that was their goal down the line. But to kind of just start off with these treats,

Sam (01:26): I have so many questions about the brands, but one thing I wanna do is I want to touch on some of the findings I had when I was researching for this episode. And I won't ask you to talk about a class trip that you had to the Guide Dogs for the Blind facility and how that shaped your passion for dogs when you were younger.

Michelle (01:46): Wow, you really dug deep for that one. I'm impressed. <laugh>. Um, so growing up I have always been a dog lover. I was obsessed with dogs as a kid, and so it's really cool how that's kind of come full circle now. And so when I was in elementary school, I grew up in San Francisco and so Guide Dogs for the Blind is based up in the bay. And we did a field trip to guide Dogs for the Blind. They train a lot of different types of dogs. They're mainly golden retrievers and labs. So we got to walk through the facility, take a tour, we got to see all the different puppies there and play with them. And that really, I remember coming home and my mom will tell the story too, my teachers would tell her that I was obsessed with the dogs and I just didn't wanna leave. And that passion for dogs has kind of, it's grown with me as well as now a passion to empower dog owners. And so that's a big part of my brand as well.

Sam (02:44): I find it so fascinating when there are these inflection points along the journey of a founder. And I have another one here that I wanted to ask you about. After college moved to Beijing without knowing any Mandarin, and you lived there for five years working in various startups. How did that experience doing social media management for those startups help later with Marketing K's Kitchen?

Michelle (03:07): Um, that's a good question. I, that was my first kind of foray, foray into marketing. Um, I did, I did a lot of social media marketing when I was there. It gave me a taste of how much of an impact content and social media can have on a startup or on a small business. And so that's something that has definitely, um, carried over to my business now where content is a big part of my strategy. Uh, mainly on Instagram. I'm also trying to focus more on TikTok though, who knows what's gonna happen with that now. Um, but really just putting out valuable content. That's something that I try to ask myself when I put anything out is, is this valuable to my audience? Am I bringing value And I teaching them, is this something that is easily digestible in this day and age is also really important.

Sam (04:01): I have a lot of questions about how you're marketing the brand, but one thing I wanna touch on here is something that came up when you and I were having our pre-interview when we were talking before this interview. And I enjoyed hearing so much about your story with kno and I wasn't aware of what reactive behavior was. And I wanted to ask you, can you explain to our listeners what it is and how it's influenced your decision to start a community for what you are calling imperfect pet parents?

Michelle (04:30): Yeah, absolutely. I really love that you asked that question. So reactivity in my definition is overstimulation, and that's something that we see so often. It's anything from the small dog who's insecure and who yaps and barks at bikes and skateboards going by. Um, and then it's in Kona's case, um, also fear related where he is triggered by larger dogs. So when he sees 'em at a certain distance that's too close, he will sometimes bark or growl to get them out of his space. And so this is something that I think that we actually see a lot and just maybe don't recognize as reactivity. And so for me, when, when that first started happening and he started exhibiting those behaviors, I felt really isolated. I felt really alone. There was this feeling of, I can't walk down the street because he's gonna bark and grow. And that's really embarrassing.

(05:29): And other people are gonna think like, what's wrong with you? Why can't you train your dog to behave? And so that's something that I've become really passionate about, is helping others to not feel that way. Um, and I also had found a community online that had helped me not to feel alone. And so for me, when I was starting Kona's Kitchen from day one, a big part of my mission was to make sure that I was building a community for all these imperfect pet parents where I was showcasing on my social media, on my business, social media, the challenges that I face with kno and the things that we go through that show that we're not perfect either. You know, like there's a lot we see on social media where you look at it and it just makes you feel bad because you feel like that's the level you should be at or that's what you should be striving for or where you should be at. And the reality of it is that, you know, sometimes it'll take a long time to get there. Sometimes realistically with genetics, you may not get to where you wanna be with your dog. And so those are some of the things that I've learned in the past few years that I really wanna just pass along and, and help other people.

Sam (06:47): What are some of the ways that you are helping people through your content? You mentioned social media, I know you started a blog recently as well. Can you speak a little bit more about that?

Michelle (06:56): Yeah, so I've always been a writer, so I've always loved writing. And so it, it felt very natural to write from my own blog and write from my own experiences. Um, and part of that was also, um, also through my brand. I think one thing to mention too is I share a lot, not just about the challenges of having a reactive dog and training with him and working him through his triggers, but also the challenges of being a small business owner, of which there are many, many challenges. Um, it's not an easy road for sure, but one of the things that I personally see that makes it very difficult is, is just seeing the good side of things and just seeing the wins. And so I think it's really important to also share the lows of running a business. I think that there's a lot that people can learn from that. There's a lot of, I think, solace and relief that people can find in, in hearing that someone else is going through the same things, even if they're presenting as much more successful than, than um, you are then you know, maybe you think

Sam (08:07): What role does community play in your marketing strategy in terms of customer retention?

Michelle (08:14): It's huge. And honestly for me it's something that has always come natural. It's something that was a no-brainer. It wasn't necessarily a strategic decision where I thought I need to build my community so that I can sell my treats and build this brand. For me, from day one, like I said, launching with wanting to build this imperfect pet parent community that has always just organically been a part of my, you know, quote unquote strategy. Um, and that has been really huge I think from a numbers standpoint. Um, even if that wasn't necessarily my intention, my customer rate has been pretty high. I'd say I'd average, um, anywhere between 40 to 50%, um, customer return rate. And so I think a big part of that is having a community that not only loves the products but also is a thousand percent behind the mission and behind what I'm trying to do and the community I'm trying to build.

Sam (09:19): Can you talk about the discord you started recently and how that's working for you?

Michelle (09:23): Yeah, so Discord is the thing I started pretty recently. Um, I think I started it this year, end of last year. And it's, it was a way for my community to connect with each other because on Instagram a lot of my content is on Instagram and since I launched that's where a lot of my efforts have been focused on. But the challenge there is people can go to your page, they can go to your post and they can comment or reply to each other, but there isn't really that ongoing conversation. And so I wanted an online space for people where they could connect with other imperfect dog parents, where they could share resources, where they could, uh, support each other when they're going through different challenges. So for example, we've got some people whose dogs are struggling with separation anxiety and I don't specifically have a lot of firsthand experience with that with Kono, but there are other people in my community that have experience with that. And so that ability for them to connect with each other and to be able to, um, share tips on what they did to get through those challenging times is just really beautiful to see.

Sam (10:37): Can you discuss how your marketing strategy has evolved over time? What worked very well in the beginning and what is working well for you right now?

Michelle (10:48): That's a good question. Um, I'd say, I'd say historically email marketing has worked well for me. Uh, for me it's more about consistency. I think that's one thing that has been a challenge, um, as a small business owner where I'm a team of one where I do, you know, product, sales, marketing, content creation, luckily I've got a couple, um, teams of reps now who are helping me with some content creation, um, and some feedback and things like that. Um, but running the discord and then email marketing, email marketing has kind of fallen behind. And like even writing blog posts has been tough because it takes so much time. But that's definitely something that for this year I'm really trying to prioritize because email marketing has worked for me in the past. It's a really great way for me to connect individually with my customers, um, especially through personalization, um, and segmenting customers into different areas or different, um, you know, return customers, v i p customers, things like that.

(11:57): So that's something that has worked for me in the past and that I really wanna focus on. Um, social media is interesting. It comes in waves and I think that for me it's really just about testing content because things are changing so much in the social media landscape and algorithms constantly changing. It's really hard to try and keep on top of it or try and game it. So the way that I approach social media content is more I wanna build this platform where people can come and they can learn all this different information if they'd like. So things that could potentially just be evergreen content on my Instagram profile, um, versus, you know, trying to create content that goes viral because you really never know when that's gonna happen.

Sam (12:49): That is very true. I've been posting on LinkedIn for 102 days now and I went viral once, so I guess that's a 1% return rate. I'm not entirely sure of the math, but it is very difficult going viral on social in general. And I do think showing up every day and putting something out at the very least is something that's important to do.

Michelle (13:11): Yeah, for sure. And I, I think for me, I, in the past I've really gotten caught up in just being a perfectionist about things and not wanting to put out content unless it's perfect or close to perfect. But one thing I've really learned, especially in the past year is to just do it. Like, just put out content, throw it out there, move on, keep doing it, keep showing up. And I believe that with consistency that's really, you know, what'll push you forward.

Sam (13:40): Where are most of your customers coming from right now? Is it a mixture of word of mouth, social media? What does that look like?

Michelle (13:46): It is, I'd say, yeah, I'd say it's a mixture of word of mouth and social media. Um, so I, and I also do in-person events, so I get a lot of customers through in-person events. Um, I have customers tell me all the time that their dogs go crazy for the trees and they will definitely be purchasing again. And so just being out there um, helps a lot with brand awareness and you know, being able to sample my treats to these dogs so that they can come back. And um, also I think one thing I'm trying to do when I'm out there is promote the Discord community because it's not just a brand about dog treats, it's not just the products. It really is this space and this community that I'm building and I have a really big vision for, for the future.

Sam (14:36): I spoke to founder recently in the apparel industry and he actually started a paid community in addition to his free community and there were all kinds of perks with the paid community. Is that something that you would be interested in trying in the future? Perhaps?

Michelle (14:51): You know what's funny is I actually launched um, on Vly, which is now um, bought by Kajabi. Uh, and so I had switched over from Vly to Discord, but when I first launched on Vly, there was a paid tier and a free tier. And for me, I think that there was value provided with the paid tier. There was access to trainer chats, um, based or just through the relationships that I've organically grown with different dog trainers in the space. Um, and I think there was value there, but I think the more that I think about building this community, the more that I realize that accessibility is really important to me. And so just starting with a free community and making sure that so many other people have access to this information, that's really important. Um, when it comes to dog training, I think that that's still an area that is not accessible for a lot of people, um, especially in lower income areas. And so for me, having this community where you are talking to other dog parents who are passionate about training their dogs and passionate about living well with their dogs, you're still getting access to this information that can be really, really helpful for you and not having to pay a trainer to do so. So for now I'd say I'm gonna have the free community and you know, we'll see where it goes from there.

Sam (16:18): When someone lands on the website for the first time and they're browsing around, are you looking to nudge the visitor to make a one-time purchase or pay for a subscription or enter your email flow? What does that look like?

Michelle (16:37): I'd say my primary goal would be email flow and then after that is probably subscription. But I think really capturing the emails is super important. So for me, like having a popup on my homepage and capturing emails through there, which I do through offering a 10% discount for your first purchase, um, that's something that I started doing pretty early on, so I've been able to capture some emails there. Um, I also in person try to capture emails at events, whether that's offering discounts at events. Um, I have, I have a ton of dog toys and so I can use those as well and offer a free don toy if they sign up for email and things like that. Um, so that's something that to me I think is the most important. And then going from there, obviously those recurring subscriptions,

Sam (17:33): I think list building in in-person is such an underrated list building and a friend of mine used to run events and he had perfected getting people's email addresses. He even found instructing them to write in uppercase was easier when he was manually adding their email addresses to his CRM after the event. And I think it's such a powerful strategy that a lot of e-commerce brands could definitely leverage a lot more.

Michelle (18:00): Yeah, for sure. And you'd be surprised how easily people will give away their email addresses. You know, you don't necessarily have to offer anything you could let them know, especially as a smaller business, Hey, I'm trying to build up my emails, I really wanna be able to connect with you, um, through this media and through this channel. Would you be okay giving your email address? And I, I've tried that and a lot of people are very open to it. Um, especially because with my newsletters I try to share more personal stories of, um, my training with kno and you know, any tips that I come across, uh, podcast episodes that are are, that really resonated with me and so I tried it in my emails as well, bring value to my content.

Sam (18:46): What are some of the workflows you have in your email system? I assume you have a welcome flow. What are some of the others that you'll have?

Michelle (18:53): Um, I have a welcome flow. I have an abandoned cart flow, which is super, super important. Um, I have, I've set up a lot of templates, so for me I am obsessed with, uh, with systems and templates and just making everything automation and making everything run as efficiently as possible. So in the very, very beginning, I think before I even launched, I designed some templates. Um, I used Canva for a lot of the designs, so I design templates that I could reuse. So I have like a sales template for example. Um, I have my newsletter template so I can just drop in content and shoot it out and be good to go. Um, so those are, those are the main flows I think I can definitely work on building up some other ones. Um, but I've also segmented my list a little bit where I do a lot of local events so I wanna make sure that I'm not, you know, sending those to people who I've got customers in on the east coast or you know, in the south and I wanna make sure that I'm not sending them, Hey, I'm gonna be at this event in la.

(20:01): Hope you can make it <laugh>.

Sam (20:04): Yeah, segmentation is definitely something that a lot more brands should be doing, but sometimes intimidated by and I think even just segmenting by geolocation, like you mentioned here is a really important best practice to follow.

Michelle (20:18): Yeah, for sure.

Sam (20:20): So we talked a little bit about the ups and downs of entrepreneurship and I wanna focus on one of the eps I was reading about your story and within two months of launching the brand, you had your first celebrity customer. Tell me about that.

Michelle (20:34): I did, so my first celebrity customer, if I'm remembering correctly, was actually Sir Patrick Stewart's wife, son Zel. Um, I think the four month mark was when um, Anthony from Queer Eye purchased from me, but I think the two month mark, she, Sonny was officially the first and I think she had just heard of, of, of me, cuz I had in the beginning sent a lot of treats to influencers and a lot of these also were, I think it's important to mention, I had built up very organic relationships with them and for some of these people they had become friends and we would talk about personal things. Um, and that's not always going to be the case I think for every influencer you reach out to, but I do think that that sets a stronger foundation to build upon where you're not just reaching out to somebody random and saying, Hey, can I send you my treats and then can you post about it? Um, so I had sent them to somebody in New York and because Sunny I think is from New York or was based there at the time, she had seen the treats and then just went on my site and purchased them. Um, and the reason I knew it was her was because I actually followed her not as Sir Patrick Stewart's wife, but as she's a singer songwriter. And so I had already been following her, so I recognized her name immediately and that was super exciting.

Sam (21:57): That must have felt so, I can't even think of the word validating so early on in your journey to have someone of that status purchased from you.

Michelle (22:08): It really was. And it was wild because it was like, it, it was because I sent it to that particular person who then posted and she saw it wasn't, it wasn't an in intended outcome, you know, it wasn't like I need to make sure that this celebrity gets my treats. It just happened. And I think, I think the lesson for me there is you can't always force the, you can't always plan for those things to happen. I think, again, like we were saying earlier, it's really just showing up consistently. It's, you know, putting yourself out there. Um, and that's something that I think I'm pretty good at that I think has been to my advantage for sure. Just not being afraid to shoot your shot.

Sam (22:53): You mentioned influencers and I have a quote here that I want to read out. You said in one interview, I want to continue supporting and uplifting women of color. I want to be intentional about who I partner with and use my platform to highlight small businesses I believe in as a woman of color and the daughter of immigrants. This has been important to me from day one of my company and it will continue to be a cornerstone of our values. Tell me more about that.

Michelle (23:20): It's, it's so important to me to be an example and to use my platform small as it may be. Like I'm not, I'm not big potatoes, but you know, I don't even know if that's a thing. Small potatoes is a thing, but now I guess big potatoes is also <laugh>. It's now, it's now. Um, it's always just been really important to me to, uh, like you said, intentional about who I partner with as much as I can. And a lot of that is people who are my friends, who I believe in their businesses. Um, even on my social media, I have very close to a couple other small businesses in LA that also do treats and I post about what they're doing, I post about their launches on my business, social media and I've always been very passionate about the fact that there's room for everyone.

(24:16): And I think that collaboration over competition helps everyone win. I think that's the best way for everyone to succeed. And so, um, I, when I first launched my first year I did holiday treat boxes and so every other item in that treat box was a woman of color, small business. And so things like that or giveaways partnering with, um, for people for giveaways. Uh, in my rep welcome packages, I try to make sure that there are other women of color owned businesses that maybe people haven't heard of and I think that's a good way to uplift and support them as well.

Sam (24:59): I spoke to a founder recently and she was telling me she does something very similar and I love this idea of building almost a community in itself of, of the founders and other businesses and it really is a game of abundance where everyone is getting value and it brings everybody up.

Michelle (25:20): Yeah, it does. And there's so many of us that are doing this for the first time that have no idea what we're doing. And so it's really hard, especially as a solopreneur to be able to, to have to go through this alone. But to be able to lean on other small business owners in your community, I think that's so invaluable. And to be able to ask them about their experiences or to talk about things that are challenging because same with, you know, the reactive dog parents, having someone else who has gone through the same thing as you can help you feel a lot less alone. And I think there's also a lot of inspiration to be taken from the people in, in those communities because I know that I'm inspired every single day by these women of color and that's something that I want to celebrate in all that I do with my brand.

Sam (26:09): We've talked a little bit about the past, we've talked about the present. Where is the brand going? Where do you see Kona's Kitchen in the next couple of years?

Michelle (26:17): That is a very good question because I am at kind of a pivotal point right now, so I can't reveal too much. But in general I think it's kind of interesting because when I first launched Kona's Kitchen, it was more of a focus on nutrition and having a healthier diet and feeding healthier treats. Whereas as my passion for training with kno and just training and training knowledge general grew over the years, it's naturally sort of pivoted more in that direction, which worked out because the treats are they, I wanted them to be perfectly sized for training treats. So it's kind of in that whole training ecosystem where I see the brand going is towards a training lifestyle brand. And so that's how I want to grow the business. I want to not only empower people currently who are training with their dogs, but to inspire those who don't typically train with their dogs to do so. Because I think that that leads to a more fulfilled dog, a better life with your dog and it leads to just more happiness overall, in my opinion.

Sam (27:30): I couldn't agree more and I think that's a great place to start wrapping up. Michelle, where can our listeners go to learn more about Kona's Kitchen?

Michelle (27:38): So I'm online@kitchen.com, I'm also on Instagram at it's Kno Kitchen, I ts Kno Kitchen. Um, I am on Discord. My Discord link is in my Instagram bio. So I'd say Instagram's probably the best place. You can shoot me an email@michelleknokitchen.com and on Instagram if you send a message it goes straight to me so you're speaking directly to me. So any questions or any things like that, I love to talk about dogs and dog training. I'm not currently a trainer, although I am currently starting to shadow some trainers just to get some more information and, and um, build up my own knowledge. So I am always happy to talk all things dogs.

Sam (28:20): Perfect. Well we will put all those links in the show notes. And Michelle, I wanna thank you again for taking the time to join us. I really learned a lot and I wanna wish you all the best in the future with Kona's Kitchen and of course Kona.

Michelle (28:32): Thank you so much, Sam, this is really great. Thanks a lot.