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How Blackstone became the darling of grill TikTok

Blackstone Products
Home Depot
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And the company behind the griddle revolution is called Blackstone Products and they make the Blackstone griddle.I first came across Blackstone on TikTok last year, just as the pandemic lockdowns were starting. Give people a sense of what Blackstone Products is and what the Blackstone griddle is.Sure. And so in the back of my mind I always had this idea, somebody needs to make a griddle that you can go buy at the store so you can cook breakfast on it, and that’s really what got me started with it.Did you make the first prototype at home or did you hire a designer? And at the time I had started my own business in marketing products to retailers, and we were always trying to come up with new ideas. And there’s a part of the story that is always missed — and we’re right there with you right now — where a band is, like, “We formed a band, and then we wrote a song, and then we went on tour, and then we were the biggest band in the world.” And that act two is always missing, so I want to explore that with you a little bit.Okay.So you make your first product, you’re selling it locally in 2005, 2006. There was no question in my mind, this is an item that needs to be at retail.The other thing that was unique for me is it was the first chance I had to really create a brand, because all the products I was doing at that time were private-label, or celebrity-endorsed, or somebody else’s brand and we were just selling ‘em to retailers, because I had a lot of strength in that area, and good relationships.But Blackstone was always there. I’d spent some time in the infomercial world and had a few of those stripes on my back from learning hard lessons.And so I brought in some people who knew a lot about TV advertising and marketing, and I said, “I’m gonna spend money on TV. There was a good seven to eight years in there where I was incubating the product, keeping it alive, but the revenue that it generated during that time frame was not enough as a standalone company, not even close.But when I finally got the product launched with enough retailers that it made sense, I divested myself of all my other business interests, and focused 100 percent on Blackstone, and that was 2015.One of the reasons I wanted to have you on the show was to talk about your social media strategy. And then we watch those sites and then contacted those people at a point in time, and they became part of the team.So you’re watching the influencer economy, seeing who’s popping up making content with your griddle, and then at some point, you say, “You should just come work here and do this for us.”Yeah, that’s part of it. That’s definitely happened in the past.What was the trigger for you to say, “Actually, you should just come do this in-house”?Kind of the combination of developing a relationship with these individuals and them taking the initiative on their own to do these things, and just over time, the relationships developed, and it turned into what it is today.Do you seed products to other influencers? We have a certain amount of money to invest in our marketing efforts, and we’re gonna go spend that money.Tell me specifically about TikTok. You said it’s gone crazy in the last year and a half. Because here’s an interesting thing: every year we do a market survey with end users of our product and people who have never heard of us before. They want to try that recipe, they’re intrigued by it.And then the other thing that happens all the time, somebody buys a Blackstone, like you; you have some friends and neighbors over, you cook food for them, and they’re like, “Oh my gosh, that was the coolest, what is that thing? Where’d you get that?” There again is our word of mouth that’s kicking in for us in a huge way.So it’s my total budget spend for marketing that I think really drives all of these things. But there’s a lot of creative people in this country, and they’ll buy a product and tweak it and make it better and come up with a cool idea. It’s awesome, and so yeah, we watch social media a lot for that.What’s an idea that you’ve taken from the user community that you’ve integrated with the product?Basting domes was one that comes right to mind. When you’re done cooking on a griddle, you don’t want to leave it exposed to the elements, and we sell soft covers, you know, that cover the griddles. Venture capitalists call quite frequently, lots of different groups have called quite frequently.I can think of one VC who tweets about his Blackstone like three times a week.Yeah, I might know him, he’s probably called me. That’s about the most boring thing I could think of.Do you have investors right now?Uh, no.So you’re entirely bootstrapped, you’re putting cash into it until you grew into a sustainable company, that’s all, that’s all money that was coming from your other ventures or from you?From me. You have a big social operation, why pay the fees to all the retailers out there, or why do the traditional kinds of deals?Right now our industry and our category is still mainly sold at brick-and-mortar retail, outdoor cooking. But right now a high majority of our product, and that’s true for me, that’s true for Weber, for all outdoor cooking products, is sold at brick-and-mortar retail.There are a few companies out there who only have a direct-to-consumer model, but they’re smaller businesses in this category. So, we’re going to continue to support our retailers and drive our customers to their locations to pick the product up and buy it. Some of the items are difficult to assemble, and a lot of retailers offer those services — delivery, setup, and take all the packaging away — so that’s a big advantage for them.But we are definitely seeing, and I think this part was helped by the pandemic, where the direct-to-consumer business is picking up in our industry.Do you have the same conflicted relationship with Amazon that we hear from so many small companies? That your product starts to sell well on Amazon and 20 minutes later there’s an Amazon Basics griddle that’s outranking you in search at every opportunity?It’s definitely challenging. But it’s, you know, every retailer has its challenge and you just have to deal with it and figure it out.Do you think Amazon is responsive enough to you around the, “Here’s stuff that’s a direct knock-off of our patented products”?They’re helpful. I’m assuming that your relationships with some of the traditional retailers are maybe a little bit more personal and direct than Amazon, where the common complaint is, “It’s a black box and I can’t get anybody on the phone.” What is that dynamic like?We actually have a pretty good relationship with Amazon management, and they turn frequently, you know, in categories.You mean the people turn over in the categories?Yeah, they’ll get promoted or move on to the next category, I think it’s maybe part of their development for their merchandising team and their employees in general. You know I was counseled by a lot of people not to do traditional TV marketing and advertising, but I believed in it, and I think it really helped our brand initially when we started it. Every category of product is a little bit different on how it reacts to social marketing versus traditional TV spend.I came across Blackstone as a product of social marketing on TikTok, not as a product of television marketing. And the phrase that really tipped me off was, “I finally got a Blackstone.” And I was, like, I heard about this thing 25 minutes ago and there’s a community that’s like, “I finally got one.”There’s a really active subreddit of people who get the product, and just post a picture of it, and everyone congratulates them, “You finally made the jump over to this category of product!” And that all feels very digital to me, very modern.And all the companies who are doing that are very focused on direct-to-consumer businesses. And the listeners of Decoder know that I’m a sucker for every Instagram ad, so it works on me at least.You’ve got a huge product, but you said it’s heavy, it’s big. So I’m wondering where you see that split?Well, diversifying our product line, and selling those different product lines to different retail customers, that’s definitely a part of our distribution strategy and go-to-market strategy for sure. And I would commend you and thank you for not saddling me with some subscription to my griddle.But almost every other kind of hardware startup we come across is, like, “We’re gonna sell you the griddle and then we’re gonna sell you steakpods.” And you’ve got to buy a subscription to steakpods, because they want to make sure I keep paying some money over time.You don’t have that model. And, by the way, other people buy them for their traditional gas grills because they’re awesome accessories.And then the other thing, for recurring revenue, that we’re getting into is consumables. They’re loyal to the brand.It’s funny, Blackstone is a very literal name – the top of the griddle turns black over time. Do you ever get confused with the giant investment banking company that has spent a lot of time marketing itself as Blackstone?Yeah, it’s kinda funny. I’ve sat on airplanes before wearing a shirt with my Blackstone logo on it and people ask, “Oh, you work for Blackstone?” and I know where it’s going. And as you grow a category and you develop a new niche in the category, like griddle cooking, all our other competitors are gonna look at that, and at a point in time we expect most of them to offer griddles to their customers.Are you taking share away from the Webers and the Char-Grillers of the world or are people getting two?It’s difficult to answer because there’s not a lot of good research data in our industry. I have professional relationships with a lot of my competitors, and they’re very, very good people, and right now, I know for the last two years, the gas industry has increased in sales. That’s a positive for us.But Blackstone has been growing, not necessarily because of the pandemic or anything else; we’ve been experiencing growth because the consumer is learning that cooking on a griddle is really, really fun. So, you’re already selling at the high end of your product line, mostly?That’s our main sweet spot, right in that $200-$500 range right now, as of today. And then second, just prettier, better, and because of supply chain issues and cost increases, our retail price points will be increasing over the next 12 months.You mentioned Traeger and some of the other companies that are, like, “You gotta smoke your food over wood pellets and that’s the way to go.” And that is an explosive category as well.You mentioned Weber’s getting squeezed on both sides, but do you feel the pressure from that category? But beyond that, beyond the budgetary part of it, when you get to how I want to cook and what I want to cook, then who’s my competitor?And Traeger, we really look at pellet grilling or charcoal grilling, smoking the food, like a Green Egg or even an offset smoker, some of those kinds of products, as a style of cooking food and a method of cooking food. They can monitor temperature or if you’re getting low on pellets, all those kinds of things so it makes sense in that product. If it makes sense for us to have some kind of app that would help you cook better on the griddle we would definitely come out with that. What is next for Blackstone?That’s a really fun question for me and I have to check myself so I don’t give away all the competitive secrets that we’re working on.Oh, come on, we’re friends.What’s in our development pipeline is freaking awesome. You know, we were the first guys to put a deep fat fryer on a product that went outside, and then we came out with an air fryer the next year, and now we’ve come out with electric griddles. Do you think you’re going to bring that relationship for all those new products closer to you and do more internet marketing, or are you going to remain pretty broadly distributed?I’ll remain broadly distributed, but the social media part of it and the direct-to-consumer, I’m going to let the natural course take place.

As said here by Nilay Patel