How Reddit Banded Together to Help a Woman Save Her Small Business

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Reddit, the internet’s primary resource for quality cat gifs and the platform for which most major publications get their source material, is also one of the most supportive communities on the internet.

Entrepreneur Sue Sullivan experienced this firsthand when the Reddit community banded together to save her struggling small business (in the real world!) through sheer power in numbers. In a post on Imgur today, and subsequently the front page of Reddit, Sullivan detailed just how much Reddit’s love for sauces changed her life forever.

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“Like most entrepreneurs, I kind of stumbled into this business. I didn’t have a business plan or legal team or any of the luxuries that I think a lot of people think of when you hear the word ‘corporation.’ But I did have a busy catering business that was driven by this one charismatic sauce, something I would later call ‘Hot Squeeze’.  I started picking up clients specifically because of the sauce and people began referring to me as ‘the chipotle lady’ and ‘the crack sauce lady’ — odd titles, I’ll admit, but  still something of badges of honor to me. And, after years of pestering and requests, in 2007, I decided to give up on my profitable catering business and start doing Hot Squeeze full time.

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In 10 months, I came up with something of a ‘beta’ design and label and began working with a co-packer — basically, guys who take care of all of the production and packaging stuff for you. I also trademarked the name, bought out UPC codes, went through the business registration loops, and yadda, yadda, ya.

I think it was around the time that this picture was taken that the gravity of just what I was doing descended upon me. As that first bottle came down the ramp, I thought, ‘yes, this is my product, my baby.’ But then the next 5,999 bottles began queuing up and a more panicked, contemplative voice began nagging: ‘what the hell am I going to do with all this product?’

If you look closely enough, you can probably see the fear in my face.

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I admit I was pretty naive, but also pretty lucky. A friend of mine with a chip business invited me to share his booth at the Fancy Food Show. So I accepted, not really having any idea what I was doing. I think I was up ironing my logo onto t-shirts the night before flying out to the show.

Now, if you’re not familiar with the Fancy Food Show, it’s a big deal. It’s the biggest trade show in the food industry — as in globally. Companies put down small fortunes and hire women in little outfits to woo customers, buyers, retailers, and pretty much anyone else they can get their hands on. I, on the other hand, had something like $23,000 from my savings account and…uh, t-shirts.

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Still, something must have clicked because Hot Squeeze took off. Before I knew it, I was picking up national accounts and retailers left and right and starting a world — okay, national tour — picking up more and more buyers than I could handle. I was on the road constantly, standing in stores doing demos, selling out products like mad at festivals and holiday markets, and in my spare time, living in a world of cardboard, packing and shipping pallet orders to keep up with demand.

I even had to learn how to use a fork lift.  Which, trust me, was terrifying for me and pretty much everyone around me.

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So, you’re probably thinking after all that success I must be some sort of millionaire, right? Well, I wish I could tell you that, but the food industry is no fairy-tale world. There’s these things called distributors — also known as the ‘middle men’ between the supplier (me) and the retailer (your grocery store). And they’re kind of notorious for taking huge chunks out of your margins.

Basically, I would sell $12,000 worth of product and get back something like $500 — and yes, that’s from an actual distributor invoice. Soon, I was bleeding so much financially that I had to scale back almost to where I started.

Also, that’s my dog, Benson. I just wanted to put him in here.

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Close to insolvency and going through a divorce (two things I don’t recommend doing at the same time), I was thinking it was about time to close shop on this 8-year journey. That was until two life-changing events happened: I got a call from Kroger saying they’d be willing to review my product to buy directly and a friend of mine told me about a little website called Reddit that apparently loved sauces.

Quickly, I raised $8,000 via Kickstarter from my current customer base and launched a giveaway on /r/recipes, whose mods were kind enough to let me sample out Hot Squeeze.

The post exploded, becoming one of the most popular ever on the sub, and soon calls and e-mails were flooding into Kroger from all over the country asking for my product.

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I guess the messages got through because I ended up getting a handshake deal with Kroger for regional distribution (at the very least), which blew away my brokers, who told me that such a thing was very, very rare.

And if that wasn’t enough, something I really didn’t expect happened. I got a call from the biggest retail chain in the Northeast, Stop and Shop. Evidently, a bunch of ‘people from the Internet’ had started calling in and requesting the product there. With the exception of New Jersey, Hot Squeeze is now in almost every Stop and Shop — as in right now!

Oh, and this is the original ‘thank you’ image I made after the giveaway…in case you were wondering about the date on the note.

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So, I basically I owe you guys my livelihood. Without Reddit, this business of mine probably wouldn’t be around right now as I was so close to throwing in the towel. Things aren’t perfect, but they’re definitely 100 times better than they were even a month ago. And I even have a first employee now — which is pretty cool. So, thank you. Thank you, thank you!  

I’m also on tour right now, so drop by the Christmas Village if you’re in Nashville or the Bizarre Bazaar in Richmond and say ‘hi!’. And if you have any questions about anything cooking related, feel free to PM or e-mail me at sue@thehotsqueeze.com. Or any of the above.

It’s the very least I can do.

Love,
Sue”

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