This article is sponsored by Invest Ottawa and Digital Main Street.
If you’re not happy with the status quo, then do something to change it.
That’s been the inspiration of many entrepreneurs. Melanie Ang is no exception. As someone who enjoys Asian cuisine and exploring the great outdoors, she saw the need for an alternative to the typical pre-packaged meals available to hikers and campers.
The first issue was the waste from single-use packaging, which too often ends up as litter. Ang’s studies in marine biology had left her acutely aware of the impact humanity has on the natural environment.
The second issue was the meal itself – most brands suffer from lack of variety, lack of flavour and unhealthy ingredients.
So, Ang created her own Asian-inspired and nutritious meals in compostable packaging. The packaging is water-resistant – it can hold hot water long enough to rehydrate the contents and be used as a serving bowl before it begins to break down.
“I really just developed the idea for myself and my friends, but then it spiralled into a business,” Ang said.
Pandemic drives shift from in-person events
She put her plans for a PhD in marine biology on hold and Backcountry Wok was born. In addition to offering healthy and sustainable meal options, a portion of the profits is used to fund outdoor education and sustainability programs for youth.
By the time the pandemic struck, Backcountry Wok had been in operation for about two years. Local and national trade shows and events had become the primary channels through which to build the customer base. Ang’s meals could be found in backpacks, everyday lunch bags and emergency preparedness kits.
Backcountry Wok doesn’t operate a retail storefront. Instead, it has a commercial “dark kitchen” and packaging and shipping facility, as well as distribution through a growing number of retail partners across Canada. While e-commerce (with a Shopify storefront) has always been part of the business, it wasn’t the main sales channel.
That changed with the pandemic.
“We now had to pivot online,” Ang said.
She had already worked with Invest Ottawa to take advantage of its various resources and programs to support start-up businesses. Working with her Invest Ottawa business advisors, Ang learned of the Digital Main Street (DMS) program and how it was in fact available to businesses that didn’t fit the standard definition of “Main Street business.”
As she navigated the pandemic, Ang realized she needed assistance in two key areas.
Taking email marketing to the max
First, to make effective use of the huge database of contacts she had built up for email marketing purposes, to supplement her efforts on social media.
“The DMS team helped me to take full advantage of that,” Ang said. “We quickly evolved from occasional emails that were the kinds of updates you would send out to family, to having a true sales tool with a consistent schedule and all the key metrics and data.”
“We are seeing more conversions and sales.”
Ang worked with the DMS team in February, and she is already seeing the results.
“We are seeing more conversions and sales, thanks to the consistency we have now with sending out emails and how we’ve changed the content,” she said. “There are more opens and more clicks to the website.”
Second, the DMS team has helped Ang prepare for entry into the U.S. market. This included copywriting for product packaging and creating a U.S. website to complement the Canadian one.
Primed and ready for U.S. expansion
Pending the usual regulatory approvals, Ang will hit the U.S. market within the next month with direct-to-consumer shipping. She will also pursue distribution deals with American retailers. The assistance through DMS, coupled with her own investments in new video content and graphic design, has Backcountry Wok well-prepared for its expansion.
“We gave Melanie a clear direction of what to do with her digital marketing moving forward,” said business advisor Laura Bacic. “We performed an assessment of what areas needed improvement and provided detailed steps and guides for Ang to fix those issues to increase her clientele.”
“I recommend the DMS program,” Ang added. “It’s highly valuable for a small business owner when you are doing a million different things and don’t have a lot of time to devote for a deep dive into any one aspect of your business.”