In 2009, Brent Ridge and his partner Josh Kilmer-Purcell launched their first product — a goat milk soap that was made on their farm in upstate New York. To get the word out and grow their business, they pitched luxury department store Henri Bendel in downtown New York and convinced them to carry the new soap during the holiday season. For nine weeks, Brent would get up seven days a week at 3:30 a.m. and take the 2 ½ hour train to Manhattan to sell his soap at Henri Bendel until 8 p.m. at night. He would then take the train back to their farm, package more, and do the same thing the next day.
This hustle, hard work, and dedication to success of their brand is what has helped Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell build Beekman 1802 into a enormous national lifestyle brand that is a television show, best-selling cookbook and memoir, eCommerce website, Mercantile store, and tourism destination inspired by the Beekman 1802 Farm in Sharon Springs, New York.
The idea for Beekman 1802 started when both Ridge and Kilmer-Purcell were laid off in 2008 within a month of each other. They knew they needed to make the vacation farm they purchased a viable business, or risk losing it. Ridge, a former advertising executive, and Kilmer-Purcell, a physician and former Vice President of Healthy Living for Martha Stewart Omnimedia, leveraged their city-bred skills with the farming skills they learned from their neighbors in Sharon Springs.
In this exclusive Bootstrapper interview, the entrepreneurial duo share how they leveraged the power of their community to build “the fastest growing lifestyle brand in America” by NASDAQ and were just named as one of the 5,000 fastest growing companies in America by Inc. Magazine.
How did you go about deciding on the key pieces to starting and building a brand like Beekman 1802?
Our farm was built by a gentleman named William Beekman in the year 1802. He was the original merchant in our area of upstate NY, which used to be known as “Beekman Corners.” His original Mercantile was here, and we like to say that our company was not really started in 2009. Rather, we just turned the lights back on in a store that had been dormant for a century and a half.
What was the decision like to go from a corporate desk job and leaving New York City for good to starting your own business in a rural town?
Going for NYC to a village with a population of 547 is quite a lifestyle adjustment, but we never looked back. We like to say that desperation is the best motivation, and all entrepreneurs need this “hunger.” If you are not hungry for it and passionate about it, you absolutely 100% will not have what it takes to grow your business.
How did you “bootstrap” or fund your business when getting started and what was your first year like?
We utilized what we had left in our savings. One of us ultimately took a job back in the city for the first five years while the company was starting out. We lived apart for those five years — a tremendous relationship strain — but, again, these are the things that entrepreneurs have to do.
The first year was challenging. We slept very little. We kept our house temperature at 48 degrees so that our heating bill wouldn’t be so expensive. Again, we were hungry for it, literally and figuratively.
What was the most difficult part of starting up Beekman 1802?
When you start out in a business and financial resources are tight, you, of course, are doing most if not all of the work yourself — even the things you are not particularly good at. As a little money comes in you reach the point where you have to decide to hire help or keep doing the work yourself and pay yourself. ALWAYS choose to hire someone else! If you do a good inventory of your strongest skills and weaknesses as they apply to the business, you will be much better off hiring someone to cater to those weaknesses. Otherwise you are spending your own valuable time doing things that are not your strong suit, and therefore not providing the value to the business that you could be. It’s a tough decision, but if you are in it for the long-haul, hiring good employees to help run and build your business is the right choice to make.
How long did you have the brick and mortar location before you decided to invest in building a complimentary eCommerce business?
We actually did it the other way around. We started out thinking that we were going to only do eCommerce and maybe a little wholesale but there was an abandoned hotel in our little village that we started renting space in for storage. It had a small street-front entrance, and we decided to turn that into a little store — 200 square feet! — just in case someone happened to wander in. To open that original store we had a $1000 budget. We went to Home Depot and bought paint and clip-on work lamps. We bought some metal saw horses and rough hewn boards and made the tables. Our “splurge” was two planters that sat on each side of the entry door.
The website you did build is really beautiful and features tons of cool features like the baby goat cam and different blogs. How did you first market Beekman 1802, and what kinds of marketing helped propel you to grow to a thriving online business?
We started out as a WordPress blog, which we still use, and early on taught ourselves how to code a website on the GoDaddy eCommerce platform. (We now use Shopify). We also happened to start our company right as Facebook and Twitter were starting to take off, so we got to be at the beginning of what would ultimately go on to change the way every company — big and small — does business these days.
Speaking of Facebook and Twitter, you have a REALLY impressive social media community with tons of followers. How do you market your online business, and did you focus specifically on social media?
Yes, Mashable named us one America’s Most Social Small Businesses. People don’t come to social media to be sold something. They come to be entertained. In this day and age, social media is what TV used to be. You have to think about this when you are posting on social media. Every post can’t be about a product or a special sale. You have to create compelling content. The ratio we aim for is “five times telling, one time selling.” For every one post we do about a product, we try to do at least five posts that are just meant to be enjoyed.
Basically, whether we are writing a blog or taking pictures for social media sites such as Twitter (@Beekman1802Boys) we think of every bit of content we create as a way to share our lives and inspiration with our customers — all of whom we call “neighbors.”
What do you you think is the “secret to the success” of Beekman 1802?
Work hard. Never quit. Help your neighbor
What was your biggest lesson in building a business that you’d like to share with other entrepreneurs?
Be kind to yourself. It will be harder than you anticipated and there will likely be failures along the way. Prepare yourself mentally for these and know that they are par for the course and part of the journey.
With a brick and mortar, successful online eCommerce business, cookbooks, farm tours and more, it’s seems you have it all. What are the next steps for you and your business?
We are always thinking about how we can get people involved in the ethos of Beekman 1802 not only as consumers of a product, but in terms of helping them create memories. For the past two years we’ve been working on creating “experiences.” Sometimes these are tours of the farm, sometimes these are special classes with our artisans that we have at our flagship Mercantile. Last year we designed a trip to Cuba and this year we’ve designed a trip to India. We call these Trips of a Lifetime. They are always to destinations that we have never been ourselves, so we are exploring these locations for the first time with the travelers on the first trip. We craft these experiences with what we call the six talisman of Beekman: Meander. Master. Taste. Treat. Give. Grow. Visit our site for more information about how you can join the Trip of a Lifetime: India.