Universal Yums uses WooCommerce to elevate the snacking experience. Their subscription snack box of unique culinary treats from different countries has been delivered to over a million customers. One month you could be experiencing the delights of Greek baklava, the next a glorious mouthful of dried squid from China.
Food can conjure unique associations. I remember being in India: I was so determined to retrieve Indian sweets that I nearly met my demise running through a storming river of exuberant tuk-tuk drivers. And food from my native England always reminds me of home, so whenever I leave there, I make sure my suitcase is stuffed with hobnobs and marmite. I was therefore excited to chat with Universal Yums co-founder Eli Zauner to learn how he pursued his vision of “world snacks for all.”
How did the idea for Universal Yums first come about?
My girlfriend Monique and I started it together. Monique made a list of ten businesses that she could “start in a day.” One of those businesses was a food sampler box. She was inspired by how she and her college roommate used to do blind taste tests for fun. They’d go to the grocery store and buy six different types of peanut butter and then blindfold themselves, try all of them, and pick the one they liked the best.
I thought that sounded really fun, so we started exploring that concept together. We liked the idea of a subscription box as we could start a business with little to no inventory, knowing how many customers we had before buying stock. As people without a lot of money to put into our business, that was really appealing.
We quickly came to this idea of snacks from a different country — it was just organic for us. Monique had traveled a lot around the world, and she always brought back candies to share with people. They were a lot more interested in eating her candies than hearing her stories!
First, it was a little idea, then a discussion topic, then a project, then eventually it turned into a business. Five years later, we shipped out our millionth box and had 27 full-time employees!
How do you source your snacks?
When people first learn about the business, they say, “Wow, that must be the best job ever. You get to travel around to all these different countries!” I wish that was what I was doing! It’s a lot drier than that. In the beginning, we worked with importers who brought the products into the country, now we have set ourselves up as importers, working directly with the companies making the products.
So you choose the products that you import every month?
Yes, through trade shows and online research we try to make ourselves aware of as many companies as we can who produce snacks and candies in their country. We don’t pick things that are common in the U.S. Eventually, we get samples sent to us of the products we’re interested in. We try hundreds of samples every month. From there, we pick our top candidates and meet to talk about what’s going to go in each of the boxes.
We try hundreds of samples every month.
What initial hiccups did you have to overcome?
The whole journey was one hiccup after another! The technology was a big problem early on because I don’t have a technical background. I remember painstakingly going back and forth between the different website and shopping cart options before settling on WordPress and WooCommerce. The functionality was all there: they had everything I wanted and really allowed us to run the business the way we thought would be best for our customers.
Another thing was getting the word out. How do you get people interested and aware of you? That took a lot of guesswork. The early bit of success we had was a post on Reddit on the “Shut Up and Take My Money” subreddit. We posted a tagline of what we were doing — “snacks from a different country delivered monthly” — with a link to the product page, and that was how we got the first couple of hundred subscriptions.
YouTube was really big for us as well. We sent boxes to a bunch of different YouTube influencers who tried them on camera. The very first one was organic, and then everything after that — when we realized how powerful it could be — was us reaching out to people. It was brutal, sitting down for 12, 14 hours, just looking at YouTube channels and emailing people.
What words of wisdom would you give to someone starting an online business?
Early on, things were tough because we didn’t know who to design the product or website for. It took us a long time to zero in on that. I think one of the key tools we used was a survey for our customers. We got a huge response rate — 12,000 responses! That was one of the most influential data points we have ever obtained, and it really helped us focus on our customers. So I’d say don’t be afraid to ask your customers: “Who are you? What do you want?”
Initially, I pushed to have the product priced low because I just really wanted people to buy it. Monique said, “That doesn’t make any sense. We need to price the product so that we can make money from day one.” If you price your product to make money once you get to a certain size, you forget about all the things you’re doing for free, such as packing your own boxes, that you’re not going to be doing for free forever. So I think that’s an important tip. Make money from day one.
I’d say don’t be afraid to ask your customers: ‘Who are you? What do you want?’
Do you hear much feedback from your customers?
Yes, we hear through our customer support team. Sometimes we get really heartfelt tickets. Some people use the box to help homeschool their kids or use it for a once-a-month family activity, or it reminds their grandma of something she would eat as a child. We try to share those stories with our team so they know that their hard work is being appreciated.
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