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Under The Hood: Zach from Viva Raw

Interview with Zach Ao, founder of Viva Raw

Hey Zach, it’s great to be chatting with you today. Let’s start from the beginning of Viva. How did you get from 0 to 1?

To be completely honest, neither me nor Jennifer come from the ecommerce world. So, when we first started, it was very much about being lean and just testing out if the business idea would actually work. We were just passionate about pet nutrition since we had a pup ourselves that we were making homemade food for. We just felt that we couldn’t really trust the quality of the products that were out there and thought that we could make higher quality, ethically sourced meals that people were looking for!

We stumbled upon some fresh-feeding Facebook groups in North Carolina. They were super niche but very tight knit. In the beginning, it was just us two working out of a commercial kitchen  and sourcing from local farms in our area (chicken, for example) to get different products to pilot a production ourselves. We really just wanted to start and get feedback from these Facebook groups. We put up a Google survey in the group just to try to gather some feedback - what would people be interested in? Would you want it delivered? Price? And so forth.

We were honestly just trying to get some feedback on the product that we were trying to pilot for this small group & I think that was a very important part of our process.Jennifer and I were truly  just trying to solve a pain point first and then think about building a business second.

We were planning on delivering the food ourselves at a really reasonable price. A lot of people want really good quality homemade food, but didn't have the time to make it themselves. We saw that as an opportunity to build a product and deliver it at a reasonable price for them

viva raw
Zach and Jennifer from Viva

It was around Thanksgiving when we drove around and literally dropped off some of our first production batch directly at doors. From there, the feedback was really good. People were really happy with the quality and obviously loved the convenience aspect too. 

We realized early on that we needed to scale from an operational standpoint if we wanted this to be a real business. We needed larger equipment and production capabilities – it was pretty tough on our bodies in the early days doing everything ourselves. 

We joke about how if we were any older than we currently are this would not be possible. From there, it wasn’t too hard to grow. It was all organic. Due to the nature of pet food and the ingrained shareability, customers love to share what they experienced with us and with others.

There are also some really strong communities in the space. For example, breeders, trainers and rescues all have incredibly strong communities and relationships. Dog walkers too - they all talk with one another and trust one another and we tried to tap into that. 

When we first succeeded with the pilot and put up a website, we were really just invested in reaching out to these communities in an authentic way to start building relationships of our own. That’s how we spread the world from the start, grassroots-style.

How did you analyze and come to grasp the competitive landscape of the D2C dog food world?

So Jennifer and I made a really intentional decision early on that we wanted to be a bootstrapped business. This placed us in a different league than these sorts of other players you see in the market today. We wanted to grow our business in a very intentional, healthy way. That also means that we wouldn’t have the huge marketing budgets at the start to throw at paid acquisition. 

When you're super cash-strapped, you have to be really surgical about how you're investing that back into marketing. We realized very quickly that we were not able to pay hundreds of dollars to acquire a customer, the way that these other companies are doing on Facebook and a lot of paid advertising channels.

viva raw
Viva Raw Food

It just came to organic community growth and developing a strong sense of buy-in to what we are trying to do. It’s really powerful when you can get your customers to buy into your product and mission from the start. 

We’ve really been focused on growing our affiliate programs and we can chat more about that later on – it’s what has not only helped us still achieve our growth but also be profitable while doing so.

Since you don’t focus on paid acquisition, how do you stabilize your new customer revenue each month? What do you do to bring consistency into your organic acquisition efforts? 

I think we've been a bit lucky in this sense because we haven't been super strategic about our affiliate onboarding. But it’s worked so far. We also haven’t done too great of a job of expanding into additional partners, creators and other types of affiliates yet. We actually just made our first affiliate manager hire this last week and we’re so excited about building more structure into everything! .

At the end of the day, we realized that the amount that we put in terms of our effort into the product made up for the lack of effort we put into marketing. We end up finding a ton of success and growth from just producing something that people actually want. For example, pet nutritionists just reach out to us, totally organically, because they want to work with us and believe in the product we are building. 

Having a product that people really wanted but couldn’t find helps. That’s how we drove a lot of our community growth and success with customer affiliate marketing early on. We try to stay away from pay-per-post models because it doesn’t make financial sense for us. But a lot of our affiliates are people who you might expect to operate on that type of model, and when you get them to buy into your product and see the value, it can really flip the tables.

How else do you encourage customers to share their experiences? How do you consider making word of mouth as a scalable, controllable channel?

Of course we have a widget on our website powered through Superfiliate for people joining our referral program. There's also one post-purchase encouraging them to sign up and join our program as well. We also have an email flow after a customer’s second order.

After the second order, it's a stronger push to encourage them to join our program and start sharing with their friends. Plus, we are pretty generous with rewards and discounts to incentivize customers to join. We try to make it almost a no-brainer to share Viva with friends and family to save on your next orders – we’re constantly striving to turn 1 customer into 1.1 or 1.2 customers and create a really powerful organic growth loop.

viva raw
Viva Raw Food

What’s on the roadmap for Viva? How are you thinking about SKU expansion?

One of the core values at Viva is to stay focused and just do one thing super well. That's been to our benefit thus far. So that means we are likely going to stick with our core product for a while. We joke about how we are just starting to sell the product – it’s not entirely true, but it’s good to think about.

It certainly feels like that because previously a lot of the early growth  was driven by the product itself and not our unique affiliate marketing strategies. We haven’t done all that much regarding email or SMS to date, so we want to ensure that we get brushed up on those channels before considering expanding. Our product is a no-brainer when it comes to retention - so we want to make sure that we build out the core product and customer experience extremely well first before we look at other categories.

zach ao, founder of viva raw
Zach Ao from Viva

Say you were given $1,000,000 in cash to make one big marketing bet – what would it be?

I think we would try to build out some sort of specific content machine because the value of content in our space specifically is very, very powerful. Content varying from educational to entertaining is very powerful and I’d love to bet on that.

I don’t think we’ve tapped into organic content as much as we potentially could. It’s also what makes some of our creators and affiliates so powerful – they’re in the pet space producing content and that automatically makes you 100x more interesting than other verticals!

Tell us a bit about your tech stack and some of the tools you use to power your business. What are your favorite tools and what’s a tool you can’t live without?

Our tech stack is pretty simple. We leverage Shopify, Recharge, Klaviyo and Superfiliate and that’s really it. We don’t do too much on the marketing side so it’s a pretty clean tech stack.

Superfiliate is the one growth channel for us and actually our only calculated new customer acquisition costs – so they are definitely the most important piece in our stack. We are definitely one of their most active users pushing for new features!

They’re helping us create a new type of MOAT and intellectual property - our relationship with our customers and affiliates. That's where we're spending the energy on tapping into people, like breeders and trainers and not just creators. We're talking to people who are not on social media and just a veterinary clinic or something similar. We spend our energy energy on building relationships that are more defensible than hit-or-miss Facebook ads, for example.