The Johnny "I Sell Experience" Cakes Way

On Wednesday, January 12, I attended a lecture with my new bay area posse.  We drove out to CSU East Bay's campus in Hayward for the talk by Johnny Cupcakes, arriving a little late after getting a lost and asking for directions.  Did not see any signs on campus for the event, so it took a bit of investigating before we found the lecture hall.  Consequently, the place was already packed and we made ourselves (un)comfortable on the floor and against the wall.

I personally found the talk informative and insightful, going over a lot of pointers on starting your business in the non-traditional way of Johnny Cupcakes.  Without going into the nitty gritty of the entire lecture, a few key issues emerged from my notes that I will try to summarize.

The point which Johnny Cupcakes stressed time and time again is the understanding that what you are selling is an experience as much, or perhaps more so, than a product.  This means that you need to put your efforts in making the experience work to your benefit; something that businesses using traditional models forget all too often.

The way that experiences are created by Johnny cupcakes is a multi-faceted approach that starts with the details.  The products generally come in limited quantities, adding to the feeling if it being special, and each item is packaged in a unique way.  Products are further enhanced by the inclusion of random variants and a random object shipped out with orders, such as a battery, doll's head, etc.  When customers discover these strange surprises it creates a memory which will likely be triggered by subsequent encounters with that object and links it back to the product.

Customer experiences are even more important in Johnny Cupcakes brick-and-mortar stores, with no expense spared on the design, construction and fabrication.  Apparently, the Los Angeles store started with a budget of about $65K and ended up costing upwards of $600K!  Now that's dedication to customer experience.  Although it isn't likely that many startups would be in a position to do something similar, one can at least admire his vision.

On that note, Johnny suggests that when starting out, your physical business space should be multi-purpose, your product should generate revenue with pre-orders if you don't have much money, and never to rush things because the first impression is the most important.  Hence the L.A. store's months of delays and budget over-shoot.  It sure does look great though!

When it comes to marketing, his business has always relied heavily on word of mouth and does not invest much in traditional advertising strategies.  We are too bombarded with ads everywhere as it is, which seems to be Johnny's primary reason for suggesting that these out-moded methods simply do not work.  That's why new-media also plays a crucial role with Twitter, Facebook pages, and blogs being the most important.  Johnny and his family are said to fall asleep each night with laptops as they personally answer comments and questions on their social media networks.

Additionally, his tips on marketing also include having very few sales, or none at all, and doing contests instead, to send out email blasts on Thursdays and Fridays, and not to carry on conversations on Twitter, rather keeping those in direct messages, emails, and out of public view.  All of which goes back to his code of keeping things special and personal.  It may be unorthodox in the contemporary business climate of faceless money-making machines that we take as the norm but his strategy does create brand longevity and customer loyalty that, in the words of Johnny, "other companies couldn't even pay for."

It makes a lot of sense to me and echoes some of my own conclusions and strategies over the years.  Experiences are key, and variety is the spice of many aspects of life.  Johnny Cupcakes was fun to listen to, threw out a lot of nerdy humor that I appreciated, and kept me interested for the long three hours sitting on the floor in back-hurting positions.

It was worth it for me personally, and hopefully this post will provide some inspiration for the few who might read it.  Some concrete resources to check out, as endorsed by Johnny himself at the end of the lecture, include Kickstarter for fund-raising, Spoonflower for fabric printing, Storenvy for e-commerce solutions, Alibaba for manufacturing everything under the sun, and Jakprints for printing of just about any materials out there.

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