By Troy White
Note to readers: This interview transcript will provide you with incredible insight into how this brilliant group of ladies have sold over 3 Million copies of their books with almost no advertising budget.
At the very end is a summary of the important findings from this interview. Please read through the entire interview, read the summary and start today to apply these tactics on your business that you are running or that you plan on starting.
Please enjoy this interview and remember where you found it http://www.blog.smallbusinesscopywriter.com - I will continue to provide interviews, tips and techniques that will dramatically improve your chances of success in your ventures.
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We are here today speaking with Mary Halpen from the Best of Bridge Publishing http://www.bestofbridge.com/ ). An incredible success story of 8 ladies who started a cook book publishing company over 25 years ago and in that time have sold over 3 million copies across the world. Throughout their phenomenal growth, they have learned some invaluable lessons that they want to share those with us today.
Troy: Mary, thanks for having us here to tell your story. Please tell us some of the company history and how you grew it to such an incredible success story.
Mary: Basically, we were all stay at home mom’s in the 60’s and 70’s. One of the things we would do to escape the routines of mothering was to gather at someone’s house once a month and play bridge & leave the kids at home with the dads.
We spent a lot of time planning on what we were going to make to eat because it was a great social occasion for all of us and we had always had so much fun together. We did have this off the wall sense of humour and we always enjoyed each other company.
After we played bridge for so long, we started taking bridge weekends at someone’s cottage. One year we were out at my cottage and the husbands were looking after the bottles and diapers. We were eating the leftover hors d’oevres one morning because they were so good we didn’t want to waste them.
Someone said – "you know, we should write a cookbook." We all agreed that is was a great idea as we had all the recipes as we have been serving them to each other for such a long time. Somebody else said we should call it “The Best of Bridge” because the best part of bridge was eating. It made perfect sense to all of us that it was the perfect name to call the book.
We got home and like all great ideas, you kind of talk about it and then you get busy with your life again and that is the end of the idea.
It was International Women’s Year in 1975 and we said let’s forge ahead with this and prove that we can start a viable business. And we didn’t know what a mission statement was but we decided that our mission was to raise enough sales that we could hold our next Bridge weekend in Vancouver.
We deliberately got babysitters every week besides our bridge times and during the day on Wednesdays and talked about the recipes that we all liked. We brought books and other favourite cookbooks and some that weren’t our favourites and although we didn’t realize it at the time we were doing market analysis. We looked at these cookbooks and figured out what we would like that these books didn’t have. So, we realized not then but that we were creating a unique product.
You have to be able to point at your product and say this is why you should get our book because this is what is different about it.
So, this is what we came up with. We had never been able to find a cookbook that had a coil for a binding. So, that was one of the first unique aspects of our ideas and then we thought we wanted to have some humour in a cookbook. We hadn’t seen one with humour so we decided to put one-liner jokes at the bottom of the pages.
“Happiness is waking up at 3:00 am to feed the baby and finding 2 bottles – one for baby and one for yourself”
Now, this didn’t happen right away. This whole process was an evolution of ideas over a period of three or four months.
We also decided that we wanted a recipe card approach on the pages so that we would have the red outline around the recipe and the joke underneath so it wouldn’t be confused with the recipe. So, we came up the unique format for the page. We also came up with hand lettering the book.
Now, hand lettering is sometimes the demise of a project because it looks so homemade that it has no consistently. I have a background in Interior Design and when you learn design principles, you know there something’s you need to do such as don’t put cabbage sketches on each page. Try to do something that’s a clean, neat format. So that was how the page format evolved.
Marilyn’s brother was a draftsman and I quickly learned that I was not going to be able to hand write all those recipes myself. And Norman was available so we hired him to do the hand-lettering format. It would be unique and it would probably cost us less money because he was hand lettering. And, we just liked the presentation idea.
Then, we decided that we would have colour pictures, as a lot of books locally didn’t have colour. So we built that into the format.
Troy: How was the books release financed?
Mary: We thought okay, now we got the idea, where are we going to get the money?
So, we thought and probably coincidently at the same time – who can we sell these books to? Marilyn’s husband was in real estate and he was a manager for Royal Trust Real Estate, a Calgary Branch office and he said “if you put some advertising in that book or figure out a way to include Royal Trust in that book I bet you that they would buy it from you as a listing tool or as a gift when someone sold a house”. We agreed because then cookbook would sit there on the shelf and the householder will use it. And then when she needs to buy another house, she will remember her Royal Trust book and the name Royal Trust will always be in front of them.
So, once again we had another marketing idea we didn’t think up but our product was in front of people for a longer amount of time. So, we went to Royal Trust and they were having a national convention in Toronto. Marilyn went down to Toronto and made a presentation to them at the convention and then Marilyn, Karen and I went down to the local office and did a presentation and timing was also very important.
It was 1976 and the oil patch was booming, so there were lots of real estate transactions going on so we didn’t have any difficulty talking Royal Trust into buying some copies even before we printed them. We did mockups of the books and showed them what it would look like and printed three or four pages and told them how big it was going to be (it was going to be 100 pages) and took this to their sales force - and they loved it.
We also got orders after the national convention. Our total orders were 4000 even before we went to press. What we didn’t realize is that we were becoming publishers because publishers are actually the ones who come up with the money. We knew that we would be able to sell the books so we decided we will get a quote on printing 6000 books and we will be responsible as individuals to market the other 2000 books. We didn’t think that would be too hard to do.
We went to the banker, did the presentation, showed them a mockup and they were very impressed. We told them that we needed a loan and he said no problem, just take these forms home and get your husbands to co-sign them.
We just said "hold the phone. We don’t want our husbands’ signature on these forms." and he said, "well, all your collateral is dowry property, so what else do you have?" We had nothing. But we did have a promissory note that Royal Trust was going to buy these books. He told us to go get a letter of intent which we did and got the loan without any co-signers.
I think that was another thing we learned that we went out and found a market for the book before we wrote it. We knew what they wanted and then designed the cover with Royal Trust’s name incorporated and it was called “The Best of Bridge – Royal Treats for Entertaining”. Then we left a space at the bottom of the cover big enough to put Royal Trust’s logo in it.
Any other companies that wanted their logo could put it right on the cover and we could have it especially imprinted on as many copies that were needed for that firm. That was another good way for design and marketing combinations. We also told them that we would put a free page of advertising on the back and that is how we got their attention. So, that is how we became publishers.
Then our printers said we better do a mockup of this book so we can get a feel of how it is when you get in your hands. He delivered a mock-up very quickly and it was only ½ the size of what we anticipated and that is when we found out the difference between pages and leaf. And a leaf is a physical piece of paper and a page is one-side of a leaf. We thought a page was a physical piece of paper. So, we only had 50 leaves and we thought we were going to have 100 leaves.
We had to go back to the banker three days later and ask for another $10,000. That was our profit – that was going to take us to Vancouver. But, by that time we were so committed to the process that we said let’s just do it and go for it. He looked at us and said – "I know that you can cover the loan, but you know this is going to ruin your friendship!" In the two years that followed, whenever our we had difficulties trying to figure out who was going to do what, we would remember what our banker said. It would always make us remember to say “okay – let’s sit down and work this out”.
So, in fact, it didn’t ruin our friendship and that was another thing we learned was the strength in numbers. It was the eight people in fact that was the strength of our company because as the years went by we were able to help each other with difficulties also if we had family issues that we could take the time without worrying about the business because someone always could pick up the slack. And to this day, it still works that way.
We never ever decide when we can take a holiday by first going to our partners (mind you we are here everyday so we are always exchanging information) but we can do whatever we want because when we come back someone has picked up the slack. If we had been 3 partners it probably wouldn’t have worked because I think that having more people let us spread out the work load and because there were eight of us there was a lot of unique talents that no one of us knew the other could do. That’s how we worked out the responsibilities of running the company. And we pretty quickly found out our talents.
Helen became the treasurer (I’m not sure quite why) but she was always such a calm person and was organized and it just seemed to suit her to be the treasurer. I was suited to be the promotions person as I had some media background and I had a design background so I helped with the editorial layout.
Marilyn was very clever with the English language and with writing so she became the editor. Karen was always good with figures, she ended up being charge of the orders from the stores and keeping and providing a liaison with the stores. Linda ended up being the shipper, (at that time – now we have major distributors), but at that time we handled every single book and Linda would look after the inventory and shipping the order.
Valerie who was working full time would work at the company at night and weekends, and she looked after all the office procedures, her background was office administration so she would do a lot of legwork to help us.
Moira was the eighth member of the group and moved to Vancouver about three months after we did the book so Moira never really got into an office procedure as we never really had an office for a couple of years. That was how our responsibilities started to fall together.
So, the eight of us ran the company, three months after we formed a company, Moria moved to Vancouver so we were separate, we continued to play Bridge but found out that all we were talking about was business and finally stopped playing Bridge about a year after. We continued on and we were a group of seven until 1994 and then Marilyn passed away so sadly, we are now six. We have maintained that and will remain that way until we decide our company will no longer be.
We have had a full time office manger since about 1984/85. We have only had two but they are part of us. She is just great.
Troy: So, based on the initial success of Royal and getting up and running. How did you continue to promote the company? Was publicity a major part of your growth?
Mary: Basically, what we found out and what so many people do particular with cookbooks is that writing a book is only ½ the work and it is tedious and we thought we would have it out in three months and it took us a year and then we had to figure out how to get rid of it or sell it. We started to think about how could we get people to buy this book.
First of all, Royal Trust was a really good idea. It certainly would be advisable when you figure out a product you are going to build, to find out where your market is and then to go and find out what their needs are before you come up with the actual product design. Oddly enough or maybe not because we spent three months looking at books we liked, we did that without knowing that.
I would strongly recommend to anyone to do a lot of market research it is critical. You can save so much money because you will make so many big mistakes. You really have to go ask people and you don’t go ask your relatives, you ask people that will give you a real frank opinion and someone who will give you money. So, there we were and figuring out we had to do marketing. Firstly, we thought of advertising. Well, of course, we had zero money for advertising so that wasn’t going to happen.
The way we were going to get rid of the 2000 books was to have a coming-out party for the book. We designed the invitations and send them to everyone we knew and had a party in someone’s backyard. Basically, we sold the books before the party. We were making everyone buy them – even our mothers. Every one had to buy a book so there went the money for Vancouver because that is what it took to print the book.
We did manage to get rid of the 2,000 very quickly, what happened after that was that people were coming back to us and asking us for more copies of the book. People were saying oh those recipes really work. Of course, we knew that. And then we didn’t have any books and a few small independent stores came to us and wanted to carry some of the books. Well, we didn’t have any. Now, we had to decide if we wanted to print, how many we wanted as now we don’t have the guaranteed market anymore – who was going to buy them?
We went through the growing pains with our printer and what was the best breaking point and it turned out to be 15,000 (fifteen thousand) books. And that was absolutely scary because the best seller in Canada at the time was 5,000. So, how can we get rid of them. We would phone newspapers (we stuck with the Calgary market), and we asked if they wanted to hear a story about these crazy women, and here is what we did and they loved it so we got a lot of ink. And in those days there were many radio programs were you could be invited to go on and television – and they loved it if you would come on camera and cook as it was a good visual.
We didn’t have any trouble getting publicity and as soon as the publicity came the orders came. We had to get moving very quickly with the printing because we knew we had the demand. And so basically, we would go to the media and the story would come out, the orders to our office and we would ship them.
Then we realized if we were going to expand the market, we would have to leave town, so we went to cities in Alberta and we would carry a couple of boxes. In those days, we packaged it wrong.
We boxed them in boxes of 40 which was really stupid because no one wanted to buy 40 books and they weren’t portable. You have to think about your packaging – it is very important and critical. And you should talk to other manufacturers of the same product and look at how they distribute their product.
We would walk down the malls with these boxes and go into stores and tell them we were going to be on tv in about ½ an hour and if you take some books – we will mention your store’s name.
You know they would maybe take a few books and ask us about our return policy and we would say what’s a return policy. Well, they said after six weeks and they don’t sell they would rip off the cover and send it back to us – we were just horrified. We said no – you buy the book – you own it. Well, that wasn’t – and didn’t happen in those days.
We did such a great job with the media – we would have that set-up before going to the city and we would do the distribution and sure enough by the end of the day these stores were calling us and wanting to order more books. We created a demand on a very immediate basis.
As with any good cookbook – the best advertisement is a satisfied customer and that holds true with any product. So, people started telling others about the book and people started phoning and writing us so we put out an order form in the back of the book which was a good idea as we got many orders from that.
That was our formula for marketing as we didn’t have any money for marketing and the money that we were starting to make (we were just breaking even – we didn’t have an office or capital expenditures) but we had to pay for the next printing and we were really worried so every single cent we put back into the business immediately. And so we didn’t really make any money and it’s so true you can’t really expect to take any money out of a business for at least a few years.
You’re doing well if you break even the first year. I think that holds true for today. You need some capital backing you. And I guess with us because we didn’t rely on this as a source of salary – we were able to put the money back into the business and we were able to put the money back into the company and pay off our loan very quickly. And after that we’ve never had another loan again. Because we have always since self funded our growth.
So, that was the marketing – the marketing was just phoning up the media and telling them our story and after we did Alberta we got brave.
People were very very receptive and we started to feel comfortable in Western Canada and we were doing these guerrilla marketing techniques like being on a talk show or phone a book store and say we just heard of this Best of Bridge cookbook – you know that red one and wondering if you had it.
We would get our friends to phone in on our talk shows as we thought no body would be listening and our friends would say that they couldn’t even get through.
It was just so unique (the coil etc.), people loved the book and it had a life of it’s own. Pretty soon we would call other cities and talk to the media and they would say oh yeah – we have heard of that book. We would love to have you on the show – but it was easier then to get on these shows.
Now, you need to be very organized and you really have to hire a publicity agent. Everyone now has answering machines so they can keep you out. There is just so much screening – you have to get someone that knows the territory.
So, a lot of the continued growth is due to the kick-start of promotion.
The harder we worked, the more we got out there, the more people told other people and in Western Canada, people were sending the books out to people in Eastern Canada. The big mover and shaker in the book industry was Cole’s bookstore. They headquartered in Toronto and they wouldn’t even consider talking to us because we were a Western product. They thought we were too far provincial and they didn’t think we were marketable.
We went to a Canadian bookseller convention on our second book and we decided to spend the money and went down there to talk to as many as we could. And we actually did meet an editor from Cole’s bookstore.
And I remember to this day – she said "this book has a shelf life of at least 2 decades" and we were thinking she was kidding. She said "this is a very good book" and we said "well, you better talk to your marketing department because they don’t think so." And so this editor gave us a chance and we still laugh because sure enough the book is still selling 2 decades later.
That first book has almost sold a million. In total we have sold over 3 million of the eight titles.
Once we got into Cole’s we had national distribution and we got into their computer – which was huge to be in their computer database. Pretty soon we were sending large amounts of books to Cole’s central distribution in Toronto. Pretty much after that we were set and we could go to any city and say the books are available. Not only at local stores but at Cole’s and after that the market just took off.
Troy: Is the cookbook industry more competitive now?
Mary: Definitely. We were the first “genre” of the coil and that particular size. Actually, the coil books are quite expensive to produce.
A lot of people don’t think that as they think coils are cheaper than a perfect bound book. In fact it isn’t, it is the integrity of the book. It’s what people know the Best of Bridge for – they can take it out – flip it over – it’s very useable. So, that brought a lot of imitators and in fact what happened is our printer developed another distribution company and people that wanted to imitate the coil would go to our printer because the printer learned so much about doing our books – they started sharing their experience and we didn’t have any difficulty with that as long as they weren’t copying our book.
By starting this – we started a whole other industry. And that industry (Centrax) –print these books for independent publishers (I believe they have printed over 100 different books) so that distribution arm keeps that company busy printing cookbooks. They have a whole staff on experts with cookbooks.
When people call us up and ask if we can give them some information on how to do a book, we always refer them to the publishing director, who is very clever. So, that genre of cookbooks started with us – the one-liners, the coil, the color photos – the professional approach – which kind of took it from the community cookbook to something that is national.
Troy: And that format is still to that day?
Mary: Yes, it is but we did decide (here’s a page from what not to do with marketing) after 7 books that we wanted to do a more contemporary book. We wanted to go to a rectangular format instead of a square format, we wanted to have perfect binding and we really wanted upscale pictures, we wanted to change how the recipes were written and we did that a year ago.
And as always – we know what recipes are good and we never have difficulty with good recipes and we worked with a chef on this one – because we thought we would take our culinary skills to another level.
The ingredients must always be available in the local grocery store so you don’t have to go to the other side of town for some exotic ingredient from an ethnic grocery store. The book was good – it was a critical success but we didn’t sell as many copies with the initial printing and the reason was that people didn’t even recognize it was a Best of Bridge cookbook.
We had established a branded look and when we left it – we lost some of our customers and when they finally found it – they were buying the book again but there were other customers that were saying – I want the coils. And I don’t care how good those recipes are – I want the coils.
We learned another lesson in marketing that you think we should have known. We thought people were thinking we were getting old and tired but our customers were saying – are you kidding – we want more of what you do! If we want contemporary perfect bound cookbooks we will go get those books from the people who do those and so they want those recipes in a coil.
It’s interesting. We are working on another book and we will go back to our coil format.
Troy: So, you find your niche and stick with it?
Mary: You are never invincible and you would think after 28 years we would have learned. We haven’t made many mistakes but it’s funny it took us that long to fall off the path of success. It was a successful book and it continues to be but nothing like we are use to. We now expect to sell 100,000 books – and we always release the book in September and we expect to sell 100 thousand books before Christmas and we are always into another printing. The last book before this one – sold 160,000 books before Christmas (in 4 months!) We were disappointed this time. Anybody else would have been very happy with that many books – we did learn our lesson. All those people we trained to buy our books – they would just say when is your new book coming out and where is it.
Troy: Eight books – one every three years. You don’t plan on speeding that up?
Mary: We just can’t. It’s hard to test the recipes and be sure and confident – any sooner than three years and it’s just not happening.
Troy: Do you always test the recipes yourself?
Mary: Definitely! We would never hire someone to test our recipes. It is our promise. All the recipes work and we know because we have made them all.
Troy: You simplify them to a point that anyone can make them?
Mary: That’s exactly it. One radio announcer came up to us many of years ago and said “it’s simple recipes with gourmet results” and that has kind of become our motto.
We get our recipes from everywhere – many time friends give us some or we go to some dinner party and we say “wow” and we find out that there is some exotic ingredient so we try to develop it without – we develop our recipes ourselves but we use a lot of recipes that come to us from all different sources. Obviously, we don’t lift them out of other cookbooks and use them just like that. We change stuff and make it simpler – we change ingredients – we think we can grow on it – sometimes it works and sometimes actually lots of times – it doesn’t work. So, we try to be – develop straight foreword instructions and straight foreword ingredients and people trust our recipes.
We promise that.
We are very careful on how we do our instructions. In our first book, we made lots of gaps – we have learned over the years what the essence of good instructions is.
Troy: For somebody that is just starting out in a business – (book-related or not) what would be some of the things you would recommend?
Mary: Know your market. Secondly - you have to be prepared once you create the product to spending a lot of time promoting it and for sure you better be careful who you chose as a partner if you have a partner.
Or decide if you want a partner because just group dynamics can cause problems. I mean we all hear about companies that fail – they involve two or three people – two people often work better than three because three tend to chose sides and all of sudden there is an imbalance.
I think you have to make sure – as in much you can predict the future you want have like-minded people – so be careful who you chose to have a partnership with. It would be better if you make sure that their job is money and administration and your job is the product and they don’t get to tell you how to build your product because your expertise should stay with where it is. I mean, we are lucky with six people because Helen is better at understanding finance than I am and it’s joke around here – as they don’t let me anywhere near the books. But, absolutely on the same token, Helen can’t stand to be in front of the camera – she will do it but recognizing a good balance is great credibility.
I just can’t emphasise enough how much work it is.
Troy: How do you amongst the group or personally keep motivated after 28 years – eight successful books – how do you keep going?
Mary: We love cooking and are always running into new recipes. You keep thinking – this would be a great recipe for a new book. You bring it back to the group and put it in the new recipe file. Everyone is involved with testing and trying new recipes. Food is always with us so you are always motivated and I think another thing is that we enjoy each other’s company. Monday’s are always the funniest because you have gossip from the weekend and when business is slow we are always wondering what we are going to have for lunch.
So, we really enjoy our time together and it’s a great office atmosphere – I remember – many years ago when our company was beginning to grow we had the inevitable government audit. The auditor was in our office - I don’t how long it was – it felt like two or three weeks and she just use to say – I really like coming here. You girls just have so much fun – and we treat people really well. We are like motherhood and apple pie – as squeaky clean as you get – and we still had this hassle with the government. I mean after the audit and the hassle we didn’t think she was that wonderful.
We have made life long friends with the mailmen, the shipper, our printers – everyone that we work with in our business.
Our printers have been with us since day one. We have been approached by many printers and we have considered some. Sometimes we have had bids that were too good to turn down – so we would except a bid and then ask a bid from our printer and discuss it. We would realize that the lowest price isn’t always the best and our printers have been incredibly loyal to us and provided us with services that you would never expect. They had never done cookbooks before and we all started off together. So, we have a happy exchange of services and support. We do a lot for them and they do a lot for us so it’s in the best interest to stay with them.
Troy: So, outside partnerships are very important?
Mary: I guess that is what you call it – partnerships. Alliances. It’s very strategic – we know when we do a new book, we aren’t going to be falling down on delivery dates, no quality control problems – because we know we can rely on them. They are always asking when are you putting out a new book.
I mean, you get to the point and you say how long are you going to stay in the business – and the only answer we come up with is – until we stop enjoying it.
We don’t even have an exit plan.
Troy: I have to tell you this story – on our honeymoon in Africa – in Kenya – at a camp they were serving Best of Bridge dishes – granted the people that ran the camp were from Canada but here are these Africans cooking from the Best of Bridge.
Mary: You know that’s a good story to add to the world-wide distribution. Because we live in the oil-patch – there is a lot of travelling – the book goes to the US – a lot of ex-pats in Saudi Arabia – the book got there pretty quickly and also with the Armed Forces – it’s out there. It’s pretty amazing. It’s funny with these communities – they are a lot like us – the ex-pats and the Armed Forces ladies – it is a community and when you put a book like this in the middle – it just networks and bam, the whole community has it.
I was talking to a lady the other day and she said she sent a book to Toronto to her sister and then her sister told her friends and now they all have one. I said to her – you know – you are our marketing – our customers sell the books themselves – they created the market themselves – I mean, it wasn’t quite that simple. That’s how we don’t spend any money at all on advertising – I mean when I say no money at all – it might reflect 1% of our budget.
Troy: What is the normal advertising budget in your business?
Mary: I think about 5 to 10%. Actually 1% might even be high.
I think with any business – you must stay very close to the market and the product. It’s dead easy to sell the book because we made the recipes and we know they are good – I mean – you can hire a marketing hot-shot to sell your product – but they will never do it as good as you do it. You can hire a hot-shot but you have to make sure they have some stake in the business. We don’t ever intend to do that but I see more and more – the enthusiasm is only there if they only realize the product. I think that we care about our business so much we work hard at it. I would never hire someone unless I gave them some opportunity to participate.
Everybody wants to make money. It’s important.
Troy: Thank you so much Mary for talking with us today and providing us with invaluable tips for starting up your own business and using your creativity to promote and grow your company. We look forward to meeting with you again to talk further about some detailed tactics that worked and some that did not work throughout your continued success.
Summary of Very Important Tactics found here:
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