The Lions Pack has done so well that the vegan-cookie-dough venture recently opened its first brick-and-mortar shop near a California beach.
Savvy marketing, a passion for physical fitness, networking and a positive outlook in the face of setbacks helped Jeff Denton, 29, and his wife and co-founder, NaKelle Denton, 24, build a thriving, profitable venture.
"It all started about five years ago," Jeff Denton said. "We wanted to come out with a product that was a healthier alternative to all of the treats out there."
Ingredients For Success
Jeff, a fitness enthusiast with dairy and egg allergies, and NaKelle were dating at the time and married shortly after starting the business. They experimented in the kitchen, coming up with a protein bar, nut spreads and, eventually, their biggest seller — fresh, gourmet, vegan, gluten-free, dairy-free, egg-free cookie dough.
"The cookie dough just ended up blowing up and taking off," he said. The product, which comes in more than a dozen flavors and, more recently, a few sugar-free varieties, remains stable for 30 days at room temperature and for 60 days if refrigerated.
Customers can enjoy the treat raw — it comes in scoops at the physical store — or bake it.
Before the shop went live on another web-building platform nearly four years ago, the Dentons took several steps to build customer interest. They had a "coming soon" page and an email signup on the site, but did almost all their marketing through Instagram. They also sent free samples to influencers to review and generate buzz.
On Instagram, they tried to reach their target market by inspiring people to be healthy, fit and develop a mindset for success.
“We wanted to pump out as much value as we could," he said. “Instagram was our best marketing tool on day one and it's our best marketing tool now."
Sending out free samples to generate word of mouth interest also worked well.
"A lot of our initial boost in eyes on the product was through sending it out to influencers" and providing free samples for people to review and promote, Denton said.
The Lions Pack initially had around 5,000 followers and received roughly 50 orders in the first week. "When that first order came in, I was thrilled," Denton said, noting that the business made seven or eight sales on the first day. "It was a huge blessing."
The company has since grown its following to roughly 70,000, with a little over 100 orders on a good day, he said.
Instagram and Influencers
The Lions Pack advertises heavily on Instagram and Facebook and continues to ship free products to influencers with high followings, offering them discounts and commissions.
“We want them to believe in it, too. We want people who truly love the product and believe in the product to promote it," Denton said.
Employees make the vegan cookie dough fresh, based on orders received at the company's production facility in Boise, Idaho, where the couple founded the business. While eight employees there prepare and ship the orders, the Dentons, who moved to the San Diego area two years ago, "do all the marketing, the back end, the innovation, product testing and development," he said.
Their physical store sits a block from Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas. The online store — the main source of revenue — switched to Weebly about two years ago when the company's first eCommerce platform wasn't meeting its needs, according to Denton.
While the venture is doing well, Denton, who also offers fitness coaching, found success after disappointment and setbacks, starting with his release from the Arizona Diamondbacks organizations a few months into his professional baseball career.
“My whole life I only had a Plan A, and that was not smart of me, and my Plan A was baseball," the former college athlete said.
After his brief pro career, Denton turned his attention to entrepreneurship — reading books on business, learning from mentors, and trying and failing at several ventures until, he said, he "got it right."
He advises entrepreneurs to stay positive as they face setbacks, and learn from them. “You have to look at every step as being a step forward even if it sets you back temporarily," he said.
Vegan cookie dough took off quickly, which brought some growing pains. Because the Dentons turned down multiple investor offers, they sometimes ran into "capital issues" in producing and shipping orders.
With the couple pouring their savings into the venture, Denton said he "burned the boat," leaving him with no option but to succeed.
The business made enough sales through Square that it received some capital from those sources, repaying over time with a percentage of sales, he said.
To keep customers engaged and coming back, the business offers exclusive discounts and success tips to those who subscribe to its newsletter. The Dentons also aim to provide excellent customer service. “My wife and I always set out to to make sure every single customer felt like gold," Denton said.
He credits his wife with excellent networking and collaboration, keeping the business "surrounded with positive people."
For now, the couple wants to continue to grow and nurture their online businesses, create fun, innovative new products, and "keep raising our standards," he said. They may also open more physical stores, although they don't want to get too big.