Avital: Tours ran in-person culinary experiences in SF, NY, and LA until March 2020. Now Avital: Virtual offers virtual mixology and chefinar experiences to companies and private groups around the world.
This is a follow up article to How I Reinvented Our Company Company in 5 Days and How I (Re)Started a Million Dollar Company in a Pandemic.
The last article left off in May where we had iterated our way to product market fit and knew we were able to reach breakeven to save the business. In this article, I’ll cover how we first professionalized our product and then scaled our company after our initial successes. We hosted our first virtual experience in March 2020 and by the end of the year, we had entertained over 20,000 guests virtually.
June, July, August: Professionalizing our Product
By the end of May we had found product-market fit but there was still a lot of work ahead of us. Our initial offering was rough around the edges as a result of us moving quickly and experimenting. In order to stay differentiated from emerging competitors and to justify our price point, we needed to professionalize quickly. One of the areas we focused on was visual appeal and design to help our product stand out from our competitors.
Improving the Ingredient Delivery Experience
Our Chefinar Ingredient Delivery went through 3 iterations:
- Unbranded Boxes
- Custom Printed Branded Boxes
When we began selling our Chefinar in March, we had not yet built out a reliable delivery shipping system. For our initial events, we relied heavily on Instacart — it was a hack that let us deliver to our initial customers but definitely not a long term solution.
After a bit of searching, we found another company who was struggling to adapt to the pandemic and that was open to pivoting their declining business; they agreed to pack and send our ingredient boxes. It would be a learning experience for both of us!
Some of the challenges we ran into in the early days of shipping: bouillon shortage, moldy cheese, melting ingredients, leaking vinegar, bruised fennel, droopy carrots, and to make matters worse, damaged boxes, lost boxes and undelivered boxes stranded by a broken shipping supply chain. I would see an address label for Arizona, with daily highs of 115 degrees Fahrenheit and cringe. We added in refrigeration but even that wasn’t a guarantee that our boxes would arrive intact.
Our initial focus was getting the ingredients to clients so they could have an amazing virtual experience with our chefs. As the pandemic wore on, expectations shifted, and the presentation of the box was equally as important as the ingredient delivery itself.
During this period, we had a client who booked our chefinar product to entertain the C-suite of a Fortune 500 company. She was very disappointed with our box presentation — and she wasn’t wrong!
Instead of coming to her with just an apology, I proposed a solution: I would personally join their zoom call to smooth things over with the client. I spoke about how this company had hired us, and how they were supporting a small business who pivoted during COVID — as a large multi-national company they are a friend of small business. I even went further to ask “Is anyone in the group familiar with Celebrity Chef David Chang of the Momofuku restaurants?” — and I then reminded them that he has a show titled “Ugly Delicious” on Netflix, so while our ingredients showed up “ugly,” I sincerely hoped that over the next 90 minutes they would learn from our Chef how to transform the ingredients into something “delicious.” The booker and the client were impressed by my candor and ability to come up with a creative solution to an unfortunate situation.
As customers’ expectations increased, we switched to custom boxes with premium inserts and packaging; our goal was to make sure every aspect of our experience met our high standard of quality. Every client touchpoint is an opportunity to live our values and delight our customers.
One of my favorite design elements of our branded boxes is what you see when you first open the box. It is a glossy sheet with a quote from World Central Kitchen founder Chef Jose Andres: “I realized very early the power of food to evoke memory, to bring people together, and to transport you to other places.” This quote was deeply tied to the themes of our virtual experiences and I love the opportunity to embed it within the very first touch point that guests have with us.
Beyond the quote, our strong visual box identity foreshadowed the quality of the live experience for our guests and became an important tool for our sales team. Nicer boxes, better inserts, and higher quality packaging all played a role.
Using Product Design as a Sales Tool
Potential clients often asked our sales team to see a “demo” or otherwise experience our product before buying it. Due to privacy, we were unable to invite these prospective clients into other guest’s private events. So, we hired a photographer and videographer to better capture the feeling guests have on our experiences. Our Mixology video is here and our Chefinar video is here. These videos and images increased booker confidence and led to a better deal close rate. We suspect that they also helped the bookers get the rest of their team excited about booking the event.
Refining the experience of the virtual event
The greatest strength of our experiences are our chefs, bartenders, and hosts — and they were fantastic from the start. However, many of the smaller details of the virtual experience started out rough but we quickly applied our design eye to every aspect of the event.
I am not a fan of virtual backgrounds, so also focused on enhancing the spaces of our bartenders, chefs and hosts. We created consistent brand elements to incorporate into the physical spaces. We bought our team ring lights, flowers, vases, and rattan room dividers to craft their physical environment, and we bought ethernet cables to increase internet reliability. For brand visibility, we bought Avital: branded aprons and incorporated our clients’ logos into each event’s welcome experience. All these small details helped distinguish our production quality and earned us referrals and loyal customers.
Our focus on high quality, even in the details, led to us securing major bookings for our premium Conference Product. We even opened for John Legend at one conference and, at another, Steven Colbert and Peter Jackson opened for us!
September, October: Scaling Capacity
By early autumn, our experience featured award-winning bartenders and chefs and, along with the visual design, was generating huge word of mouth. Demand grew rapidly — it was time to scale!
In this section, I’ll discuss how we scaled our capacity while maintaining strong product quality.
Assessing Scaling Needs
In order to assess our scaling needs, every week we looked at our leading indicators, like deals closed and revenue by purchase date. However, we were not paying enough attention to our volume of leads, and the close rate for those leads — both of which were improving rapidly. This was a good problem to have but a source of stress — for a stretch as we were about 2 weeks behind on hiring as our volume of sales kept accelerating.
One of the leading indicators we used was our salesperson response time. Our previously 4-hour response time fell to a very unacceptable 24-hour response time. So, we hired an additional salesperson. However, within 2 weeks of bringing on our new salesperson, instead of lowering our response time, we doubled our sales and put a tremendous pressure on operations to keep up with the new volume. We were going to be producing a ton of experiences!
Scaling Operations: Hiring
We reprioritized our leading indicators and quickly hired to scale our product, customer service and fulfillment teams. In some of the weeks leading up to the holidays, we were hiring as many as 6 people (bartenders, chefs, and hosts) per week! By the end of the year, the overall Avital Virtual team was made up of 50 hosts, chefs, bartenders and back office staff.
Our hires came through referrals or our existing network, which allowed us to maintain quality on the experiences. We also built an onboarding program for training new hosts, chefs and bartenders.
Scaling Operations: Building Processes and Automation
It quickly became clear that our old operational processes were going to break at the new scale. So we became scrappy about leveraging our existing tools, like Zapier and Airtable, to automate ever larger chunks of client communication, event planning, and fulfillment.
As we approached the peak of November and December holiday party bookings, our customer service inbox was flooded and disorganized. We quickly implemented Zendesk and had to learn the software as we were using it. There wasn’t time for training and onboarding — we just had to dive in, figure it out, and adapt on the fly. Our hiring of adaptable and flexible staff with a “make it happen” attitude allowed us to move quickly and update our tools and processes on a daily basis.
Saying “No” to maintain product quality and focus
As volume ramped up, we also got very good at saying “no” to clients who wanted something custom. For each ask, we estimated the amount of value each opportunity would bring and the complexity it would add to our operations. If it didn’t fit our core values or wasn’t within our core competency or what we thought we could do and do well, we said “no” in order to maintain a high quality product.
This helped us focus on making the core offerings amazing and kept us from getting overwhelmed by product complexity. This did not always endear us to our clients, some of whom were only used to hearing “yes” — but it kept our team sane and helped us retain employees during a stressful period of growth where fires were popping up daily.
For everything that did fall within our core competency, we had a mentality of: Say yes and figure it out later! This can-do attitude was critical for problem solving and delivering excellent experiences.
How did we know we were maintaining quality? We relied on our Net Promoter Score (NPS), which we look at weekly. Our 2020 NPS Score was 75 out of 100, which we are extremely proud of! By comparison, Netflix’s NPS is 68, Starbucks’ NPS is 77, Amazon’s is 62 and Airbnb’s is 74.
November and December: Combining Professionalism with Scale
In this section, I will discuss how we combined our key learnings from June, July and August (on professionalizing Product) with our learnings from September and October (on scaling capacity).
Building New Product for Company Holiday Parties
Based on our clients’ conversations with our sales team, we saw an opportunity to build a Holiday Party Product for groups of 150–500 people.
We drew on our key learnings from running in-person experiences before the pandemic through Avital: Tours in-person progressive meals. Our virtual Holiday Party mimicked an in-person Party with areas for “the Bar”, “the Buffet” and “the Lounge”. We began with everyone all together for a companywide Toast and then created three different virtual rooms for guests to rotate between: the cocktail room, the appetizer room and the flavor tripping room. This new product combined our expertise in product with process via a complex virtual event production with multiple emcee hosts, chefs, and bartenders and multiple shipping components.
Our flavor tripping room was so successful that in Q1 2021, we launched our Flavor Tripping experience as a standalone 30-minute experience that is perfect for a break during a long day of meetings or a unique social networking event.
This quick product development generated an incredible 25% of our total 2020 revenue from events we ran in the first two weeks of December.
Preparing our Operations for the Holidays
To prepare for the holiday volume, we created detailed contingencies around fulfillment and shipping and built in longer delivery buffers into our ordering timeline. However, even our careful planning didn’t account for the looming mess of Shippagedon.
Early in the holiday season, we received word from one of our suppliers that Fedex had stopped picking up from Macy’s and Nike and other large retailers. To get the packages out, our suppliers were putting boxes in cars and hand driving boxes to Fedex drop off locations. These massive shipping delays became national news.
With shipping issues out of our control, we focused on providing excellent Customer service and going above and beyond to fix issues and problem solve for our clients.
Proactive Customer Service
In November and December, we saw a dramatic rise in lost and delayed packages across multiple shipping carriers. With coronavirus cases rising across the country again and a record amount of e-commerce orders, shipping became our biggest obstacle to providing an amazing customer experience.
For one company’s holiday party, 40 packages just fell into tracking limbo immediately after they were picked up. We tasked full time staff to track the packages, so we could be proactive in the unfolding crisis. We reached out to the client to let them know when their packages shipped; if the boxes didn’t move by two days later, we had a backup plan in place. In the case of the 40 missing boxes, within two days, we re-packed their whole 40 box shipment (at great cost to us) and hired three drivers to hand deliver each package to their guest’ homes.
When another client’s shipment was also massively delayed, we hired an Instacart driver for the day to drive for 8 hours around the whole western part of Alabama to hand deliver ingredients.
With so many packages getting lost or delayed, we quickly reallocated our resources and had days where 2–3 employees were dedicated to creating and ordering Instacart replacements across the whole US. In a two week period, we ordered over 150 Instacart ingredient replacement deliveries. With such a high volume, our Instacart accounts kept getting shut down — it was only through to the resilience and strength of our customer service team that our customers received replacements and were able to fully engage in the virtual experience.
Maintaining Strong Company Culture During Periods of Growth
I am incredibly grateful to my team for all that we were able to build in 2020. During a period as intense as this pandemic, maintaining a strong company culture and positive attitude was our key to success. In this section, I will discuss some tools we used.
A Culture of Gratitude
As our team grew, our daily morning huddle became an important touch point of connection with our remote team. One question each person would have to answer every morning “What are you grateful for?” This positive outlook reminded us all that we were in this together and kept the team spirit alive and called out that we were all working toward the same goal.
Don’t make the same mistake twice
With our high growth rate, it was inevitable that we would make mistakes — and believe me, mistakes were being made. Many of the mistakes were simply because we had never seen an issue or pattern before and hadn’t yet built a system to address an edge case.
Our philosophy was that mistakes were an acceptable, inevitable byproduct of our rapid scaling but that it was critical that we not make the same mistake twice. Using our core value “Build Awesome Experiences,” our customer service team would go above and beyond to fix the mistakes even if it meant overnighting packages or ordering an instacart delivery at a high cost to our company. We’d always do an analysis afterward to figure out why the mistake was made and how we could prevent it in the future.
With such rapid hiring and quick scaling, we didn’t have the time to properly build training programs for new hires entering the company. We were looking for people to take initiative and jump in right away to help out. Hiring flexible and adaptable employees became a key asset in our growth.
Despite our minimal training, we used the lessons learned from Derek Siver’s Article Delegate or Die about how he empowered his employees at all levels of the organization to make decisions. We focused on helping all employees make strong decisions and use our core values as guiding principles.
In the beginning of January 2020 we had ambitious plans for scaling our in-person business. By March our revenue went to zero and we were soon in the uncharted territory of virtual events. After a whirlwind year of iterating and scaling, we ended up with an incredible new business with phenomenal offerings and unprecedented volume.
I am so grateful to my team for their unending support and positive attitude. We made it through 2020 and the Holiday Season with happy customers but an exhausted staff and we were ready for a much needed break!
I am so excited to have been able to share many of our key learnings from 2020. In 2021, we have implemented new principles for growth: Sustainability, Adaptability, Scalability. I am looking forward to continuing to push boundaries with new products and improvements across our company and look forward to sharing those with you in a future post.