Hi Joel! Tell us about what you're working on.
Paleo Meal Plans aims to help people get healthy, lose weight, and have more energy by making the paleo diet easy via easy-to-follow meal plans, recipes, and shopping lists, delivered every week.
Our customers want to get healthy, need a good place to start, and want to save money by cooking their own food, but they don't want to have to come up with new ideas every week. They also want simple meals with ingredients they can find in their local grocery store that don't take hours to make.
We started Paleo Meal Plans just over a year ago and have about 1,000 customers so far.
What motivated you to get started with Paleo Meal Plans? What were your initial goals? And how'd you come up with the idea?
The project started a while back when I was getting a lot of questions about the paleo diet in general. I built a site and named it Ultimate Paleo Guide. I really built the first few articles around answering the questions I was getting about paleo on my other site, IMPOSSIBLE.
The site began to get a lot of traffic, but the only real monetization we were doing was through affiliate links. They paid the bills, but I wasn't that happy with for a couple reasons:
- There are a ton of other health sites with affiliate links, and I didn't want to always be selling someone else's product.
- I wanted to be 100% in control of our product and service and "own" our own customers.
The mean plan service came up when (again), we got asked if we provided one and we kept saying no. After I got asked about it a few dozen times, I finally woke myself up and started to look into what it would take to make that service.
At the time, I had my own fitness and mindset site, IMPOSSIBLE, and also ran my consulting company. I used those funds to sort of bootstrap everything myself until the site started to recoup its own costs.
How'd you go about building the initial product?
We built an alpha version that simply delivered meals via email. That was great, but it started to get really messy quick.
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Since the emails + payments weren't integrated, people would sometimes accidentally unsubscribe from an email and then wonder why they didn't get meal plans later. Other times, they would pay with one email and want the plans delivered to a different one. It was complicated.
After 6-8 months of "doing it ugly", I started working on a way to deliver digitally + make things a bit more integrated + automated. When we dug into this, we ended up hacking a couple of WordPress plugins and building a semi-custom solution built on WordPress. That's what we're using currently and have (so far) ironed out most of the bugs. It's worked great up to now.
What have you done to attract users and grow Paleo Meal Plans?
We used three main tools: SEO, email, and remarketing.
Our product was much more of an iteration than a full-fledged launch. In that instance, we didn't have a planned launch before really going live, but we did get to utilize the audience + readers at UltimatePaleoGuide.com to help with the launch.
That said, we spent a lot of time the first few months getting the product right — changing the types of recipes and how we presented the product. Once we started feeling really good about the product (and I really do think it's the best one out on the market), we started to push it regularly to our decent-sized paleo list.
Early on, we experimented with paid ads, but we quickly found that we have an infinitely higher return on email than we do on straight ads. With that said, we do run remarketing and are rolling out a new big push on that here soon as well.
We try to get people to try a sample meal plan for free. Then we continue to sell them on the benefits of the meal plans (and the case studies of people who've been successful on them) and show them that it is possible to lose weight and feel good without starving yourself or eating like a bird.
We've done a good job on SEO, but if you're chasing the SEO god, be careful. Ranking high means you're going to get a really wide funnel, and we've had to do a lot of work to segment people into different groups, because we're getting a wide variety of people who are interested in different aspects of paleo. On top of this, the market is pretty seasonal, so you need to plan around the times of years where people are particularly interested in fitness and diet products and strategies.
How does your business model work? What's the story behind your revenue?
The business model is pretty simple. Customers pay us a monthly fee, and we provide them with a weekly meal plan, grocery list, and recipes.
One thing I've found is that behavior change is really tough. A lot of people "diet shop" or try out a bunch of different things. The hardest thing in the world is to try to help someone who doesn't really want to change, so we work a lot to weed out customers who don't want to be there.
At first, we just offered monthly pricing. Over time, we added quarterly and bi-annual. I thought they would act as price anchors and sell more monthly plans, but we actually started selling a good amount of the quarterly plans. These are great, because they churn less and they pay more months upfront (and get a discount for doing so).
We spent a lot of money with systems and building the actual product this year, but now that the product is (mostly) built, the expenses associated with it are relatively minimal outside our nutritionist and server-related expenses.
We also have several other products including other digital products, and apps including:
- Paleo.io — paleo food reference app for iOS and Android
- Paleo Recipe Pro — iOS app containing paleo recipes
These tend to be complementary sources of revenue, but they're just a percentage of revenue in the grand scheme of things.
What are your goals for the future of Paleo Meal Plans? Are there any big challenges you see on the horizon?
I spent a lot of this year figuring out the tech and systems behind the service. I also brought on a nutritionist to help with the customer questions, so I'm happy with the tech side of things.
My background is marketing, so I want to really focus on spreading the word, getting more customers on board, and really scaling the service — all while ironing out any remaining bugs in the system.
Business-wise, I want to get the customer base to a steady 2,500 customers, keep that number stable, and then continue scaling upwards from there.
What are the biggest lessons you've learned so far? If you had to start over, what would you do differently?
Recurring subscription products are amazing. If you can create a product that the customer actually needs on a recurring basis, it's incredibly helpful. Even better — if your customers love the product, you create a win/win scenario, and it's easier to build an even better product overall (because the customers are constantly reinvesting in it).
One of the things that I screwed up was not getting the right people on board. I skimped by trying to hire people who were working on 2-3 other businesses part-time in addition to mine. As time has gone on, I've learned how valuable focus is for my team members and to have enough roles + responsibilities for them that they're focused on my business first and foremost.
The other thing I had to do was become a better leader. At first, I wanted to just pass the work onto the team ("get this done, I don't really care how"), and shifted to a more documented approach with standard operating procedures and processes to make sure things are done the same way every time. That way, if we take care of the basics right, we have flexibility on the extras.
The other thing I've found that changing diet behaviors is a hard sell. A lot of people want "easy fixes" so there's a chunk of customers who churn out quickly. However, the majority of our customers stay long-term. The emails that we get when people call us to "cancel" and tell us they're doing so (because they lost so much weight that they need new clothes) is really, really satisfying.
What's been most helpful to you on your journey? What do you think your biggest advantages have been?
It was helpful that I had spent a long time building up UltimatePaleoGuide.com already. I spent a long time building that without a lot of fanfare. So, once I decided to do meal planning, it was a lot more about shifting the business model rather than building a new audience completely from scratch.
That said, finding quality team members has been the biggest advantage. At first I tried to save money by hiring people part-time that had a bunch of other focuses besides my business. The more and more I work online, the more I'm leaning towards less flexible employment terms as far as hours go and more.
What's your advice for aspiring indie hackers?
A lot of people want to spend a lot of time building something crazy technical or complicated.
I was forced into doing this the ugly way, because I'm not technical. But I think it's the way to do it, because it forces you to get the product/market fit right.
I spent a lot of time figuring out the real issues with the service and the management of it (canceling, refunds, customer concerns, etc) and really get my hands dirty. I also spent time getting my assumptions about the service debunked by the customers buying it and changing major parts of the product to fit that feedback.
Then, once the business had validated itself, we used technology to scale it.
Where can we go to learn more?
For the paleo business, you can check out:
For behind-the-scenes stuff and my IMPOSSIBLE brand, you can check out: