In Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, the opening number has a gang of traveling salesmen pattering cleverly about how a salesman’s got to know the territory and his products. Professor Harold Hill was declared a fake — he didn’t know the territory.
When it comes to selling salmon, wild Alaskan salmon, Trish Kopp and Sara Pozonski had an edge on the world. Both women grew up in the fishing business. They worked on the boats their fathers captained. They are the real thing when it comes to knowing their fish and the people who buy it.
Of course, there was a gap in their knowledge of just how big their territory might be when they decided about 18 months ago to go online, at Wildalaskansalmoncompany.com, with fresh/flash-frozen wild salmon filets and steaks. They also sell fresh air-shipped salmon to restaurants and grocery stores in Pennsylvania. While folks from the Alaskan frontier tend to know about adventure, Pozonski and Kopp got another great ride and a few surprises when they become fishmonger Internet divas. As often happens in business, their business began with a personal need.
POZONSKI: I moved down here to Pennsylvania eight years ago, and we spent the summers in Alaska, but there is just no fresh salmon here. Even the salmon they say is fresh isn’t. I could tell, I was raised in the fishing business. By the time it gets here it is already six or seven days out of the water, and salmon is only good for 10 days after its caught. The fish was bad, and I was just frustrated.
So I have a lot of friends in the fishing business up there, one of them is Lt. Gov. Warren Leman. I just asked him, “Can I buy some fish from you and bring it back home?” He said absolutely, and, “I’m looking to expand my market in the lower 48.” Then the light went off in my head. My best friend Trish is still up there fishing and I just said we could do this. And so, we started hooking up with people who could supply only premium fish, which is fish with no defects of any kind. Not everyone can fish for premium salmon because it costs a little more and requires a certain license. But, we knew who to go to because we had been raised in the industry.
PeC: Not many two-person partnerships have 4,230 driving miles separating the principals, but it works for Kopp and Pozonski. So how do they divide up the duties?
POZONSKI: I do all the sales, the website and the ecommerce stuff, and she [Kopp] does all of the buying and shipping of the orders.
PeC: What was the biggest obstacle in your path?
POZONSKI: Well, never having had a website before in my life, I had to figure how in the heck I was going to get a website going and then get all of the ecommerce stuff going, it was just so overwhelming. But I had a business background, I have a master’s in business, so I can figure stuff out and I just started teaching myself, and I got it going, and it works. Maybe we’ll go to something faster as we grow, but that was the hardest part. The fish part was easy; the web thing was overwhelming.
PeC: Once you got the site up and working, you obviously had a big hurdle to breach in trying to get people to come to the site. What was your strategy there?
POZONSKI: Oh yeah, we paid big bills to Google and Yahoo! every month just trying to get visitors to the site. We were spending a fortune, and we were doing some business, but the best thing I found is called Constant Contact. If you’re not familiar with it, it is a system that allows us to send emails to customers who have given their permission for us to send them mail. I do it once a month, sometimes twice a month during the holidays. Now we have a lot of contacts we know have bought our stuff or are interested in it. I get a huge response now when I send out an email. We’re still doing some advertising online with Google and Yahoo!, but I have cut that way back.
PeC: It also appears from your news-clipping page on the website that you have done a pretty good job of getting your company’s name and image into the press. That is something a lot of entrepreneurs never master.
POZONSKI: Well I’m not bashful, and I think that my story, being born and raised in Alaska, created a lot of interest immediately. But the press I got came, basically, from a lot of cold calls. I got on the phone and told them who I am and what I am doing. I would make hundreds of calls, and I would find someone who would say that they could do a story on me. Then it started snowballing after that. I also go to a farmers’ market every day in Pittsburgh, and I talk to people.
PeC: Does Trish Kopp, up there in Alaska, have any special problems fulfilling the orders?
POZONSKI: All of our online salmon sales are flash frozen. Alaskans have this process where they can take a temperature down to zero in about 60 seconds, and each filet is vacuum-packed and sealed. The fish comes in from the boat, it is instantly filleted and then vacuum-packed and flash-frozen to keep the freshness in until the customer opens it. When it’s thawed and unsealed, it is like it just came off the boat. That makes it a little easier when we don’t have to worry about getting the fish to the customer overnight or in a day or so, although we do ship quickly. The problem Trish faces from time to time is finding enough of the premium salmon, which, as I said, is all we sell.
PeC: After working through what sounds like a massive do-it-yourself project during the last couple of years, is there anything you have learned that might be helpful to newcomers in the ecommerce business?
POZONSKI: I think my advice would be to grow at your own pace. Don’t think about trying to grow too quickly. If you’re trying something, and it does not work, don’t get depressed; hang in there and keep working. And, it is work. I thought this would be a hobby, but it is work. I have fishermen calling me in the middle of the night telling me they have 500 pounds of fish and telling me what sizes they are. Then I have to get on the phone to my customers, the restaurants and stores ,and tell them what’s coming so they can make their orders. Now, the online sales are a little easier since we don’t sell the fresh salmon online. You know when you own your own business, you’re thinking about it all the time. Trish is probably mad that I ever asked her to be my partner.
PeC: So how’s business?
POZONSKI: Well, online, in our first full year, we did about $15,000. We’ll do over $150,000 this year on the website alone. One of the things that helps us is that there is a huge demand right now for wild salmon. People are realizing salmon is good for them, and that wild, versus farm, has better nutritional value. People just want to get healthy. And, nobody else has what we do. So, we’re really in a niche market. We have a really good product, and we’re proud of it.