How To Scale While Pulling Back on Ad Spend

Ali Kaminetsky is the Founder of Modern Picnic, a DTC brand offering high-end, insulated, vegan leather lunch bags for women. In 2018, she launched the brand to provide women with a chic alternative to the traditional lunch box. Modern Picnic has been featured on Shark Tank, the Today show, and Oprah and in publications, including Forbes and Vogue.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn: 

  • The origin and evolution of Modern Picnic
  • Ali Kaminetsky recounts her appearance on Shark Tank 
  • How to gain brand recognition without investing in paid ads 
  • What strategies should brands focus on to penetrate the market? 
  • Modern Picnic’s growth projections for 2024
  • Two rudimentary tips for new founders

In this episode…

Shopify stores grew by 201% from March 2020 to January 2022, so consumers have more options than ever about where and how to spend their money. With so much saturation in the market, how can emerging brands position their products in front of consumers?

Armed with a revolutionary idea, Ali Kaminetsky took her brand concept to Shark Tank for funding opportunities. Yet the sharks insisted that Ali’s high ad spend was compromising her brand’s early-stage profitability. In response, she stopped investing in paid ads entirely. Ali maintains that you can still gain brand recognition and drive sales through organic efforts like creating social media content to fill the marketing funnel. You can also employ post-purchase surveys to encourage feedback and word-of-mouth marketing, fueling the next stage of brand growth.

In today’s Ecom Experiences episode, Samir Balwani chats with Ali Kaminetsky, the Founder of Modern Picnic, about how she applied her lessons from Shark Tank to scale her brand. Ali provides strategies for penetrating the market, tips for new founders, and the backstory behind Modern Picnic.

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Resources mentioned in this episode:

Episode Transcript

Intro 0:00

Hey welcome to another episode of Ecom Experiences a podcast where ecommerce marketing leaders who want to grow and scale their brands faster. Join us as we interview some of the smartest brand founders and marketing leaders in the industry. Explore the lessons they learned discover the keys to their success, discuss what excites them most about the future.

Samir Balwani 0:28

Hi It's Samir Balwani. Here hosted Ecom Experiences where we talk to brand founders and marketing leaders about their experiences growing brands. This episode is brought to you by QRY. QRY is a paid media agency that helps brands balanced brand awareness and performance marketing to drive predictable and profitable growth. To learn more about how we can help you visit, we are Qry.com. I'm really excited about our guests today. I have Ali Kaminetsky, the founder of Modern Picnic here. She's awesome, super smart, knows her numbers. And it's just built an amazing brand. Thank you so much for being here today. Ali,

Ali Kaminetsky 1:02

thank you so much. I'm so excited.

Samir Balwani 1:04

So tell us about Modern Picnic. What is it? How'd you come up with the idea? And how's it going?

Ali Kaminetsky 1:10

Yeah, so I am the founder of Modern Picnic. We make insulated vegan leather lunchboxes for women and now have a line of food storage solutions and a bunch of different products made for women. I started the company completely out of a personal need. When I graduated from college, I moved to New York City and was working in the fashion industry, and was bringing my lunch to work every day just because especially as a recent graduate, doing so was faster, cheaper, healthier, plus, like all the girls in my office are doing it. So I just start doing it too. But I realized I didn't have a chic functional or sustainable way to actually do so. And when I went online to buy myself a lunchbox, I saw options for little kids and men, but none for women who wanted to look good or do good. So that's where that idea came about. That's

Samir Balwani 1:58

awesome. And so how long has How long has the brand been in market for?

Ali Kaminetsky 2:04

So we've launched in 2018. But when I see like launched quote unquote for people listening like we really just like made our Instagram public and like how to work in like Shopify website we had launched with no like, no marketing dollars or anything we were shipping out of my parent's garage. So I think it was like Really 2020 2021 We were I would say like be like legitimized in a way. We did, we did launch in 2018. I

Samir Balwani 2:31

love I love reminding people like how our brands start because everyone always thinks it's an overnight success. And you're like, oh, this brand has been around for like a week and look at how everyone knows about them. But it's like, we've been like chugging along for a while. That's awesome. That's exciting. It is still a young brand, though. And you had a really cool opportunity recently. Can we? Let's chat about that for a little bit. Yes,

Ali Kaminetsky 2:57

so we just aired on Shark Tank, which is just like so crazy. Because we so since I launched on Modern Picnic, really one of like the most like frequently said things to me is like you should go on Shark Tank because very like Shark Tank product, if you will, in that like we disrupted a category. We created this when I started monitoring picnic, there was no lunch boxes on the market, like trust me, people like to like some tick tock commenters like to like, bite me in on that. It's like, trust me if there was something out there. Like, I wouldn't have started this. Like I had a good job. Like I was like, fine. I wasn't like looking to start a company. I really this just like came I needed it for me and my myself and for my friends. And so anyways, there was nothing out there. And so when we launched, it was this, like, category disrupter. And so we'd get and even now people are like, Oh my God, you should go on Shark Tank, you should go on Shark Tank. So I I always kind of have that in the back of my mind. I actually applied in 2022. And like, decently far didn't get it got rejected. They don't give you any reasoning as to why I really think it's like, you know, it's a combination, but they get like, I think this season like they got over like 100,000 applications and I think crazy i don't know like every season maybe has like 15 people that all that air I don't know. But it's a crazy, it's crazy numbers. But anyways, we didn't get it. There were like, better luck next time. But a try again. We open up our applications in the new year. So January of 2023. As soon as applications reopened, I just applied again. And I got through and yeah, I ended up getting it this time around.

Samir Balwani 4:37

Oh my god. So tell us about the episode. What were the How did it go? What did you learn? I think that that's always the biggest one.

Ali Kaminetsky 4:46

Yeah, well, I was like so excited to talk to you about this because a big topic of conversation on my episode was about like marketing, like marketing spend and I know that's just like a hot topic just like in general All right now and to consumer businesses. And so anyways, for Modern Picnic, we did not walk out of the tank with a deal, which was definitely disappointing. And like I went in, I think specifically I was like, I, of course you go in like thinking with high hopes and but anyways, it was despite not getting a deal, it was an amazing opportunity like a once in a lifetime opportunity. I think like that part hasn't hit me at that, like, I have to be just so grateful that like, this is just such a cool take business out of it. So cool. Like, I can tell like your kids, like we were on Shark Tank or whatever. But anyways, we didn't walk out with a deal. It was a really interesting experience. And it was very, like, if you watch our episode, it was very, very finance heavy episode very focused on like, the numbers of the business and like the Yeah, that's awesome.

Samir Balwani 5:55

But so what was, I guess, if you were to say, what was your one biggest takeaway from that conversation? Oh, what have you taken away? What have you changed? Has it helped? I guess, is the big question mark. Right.

Ali Kaminetsky 6:10

Definitely. Um, I think the big topic of conversation in the tank was on like profitability and adspend. And I was just telling the sharks like, we have this healthy diversified marketing mix that we're going to continue to, like, lean into and lean into channels that are working. And we feel really excited about our wholesale expansion strategy. But like, the fact of the matter is we are spending on ads right now. And we're not profitable, yet. I really tried to convey to them like the path towards profitability, and that were like, just so close, if that part didn't get aired, but they were really hung up, rightfully so as investors like adspend, that they ultimately they went out for, like three main reasons. One was like, ad spend the cat two was cap table. So like previous investors, and three was profitability. So they didn't like that we were spending on ads, we can talk about it, because I know it's sparked a conversation with some marketers of emigrates, that if you, if you pull back on ads, 100% that you won't see it, you might not see a change in top line. And so that's like an interesting, I think that's like a larger conversation of, you know, celebrity back brands, or it's not celebrity rock band, small rental or whatever. They didn't like that we were spending on ads, they didn't, they weren't so keen on the fact that we have previously raised capital. And they weren't keen on the fact that we weren't profitable yet. So all like really valid takeaways, and really important learnings. As soon as I left the tank, we pulled back on adspend, like significantly, and we ended 2023, our ad spend was down almost 40% to the previous year. We are we filmed in September. So we still had all the q4 to show. So we ended up decreasing ad spend 2020 through 2022. By almost 40% An ad efficiency increased by 13%. Or as just got, we're just more efficient with our dollars, which is great. And we're just going to continue to do so this year, like keep pulling back keep trucking along to hit profitability.

Samir Balwani 8:27

Yeah, yeah, that makes sense. I'm curious as you start to pull back on adspend How are you getting the brand out there though? How are you kind of, to your point? Celebrity driven brands have the unfair advantage of having a celebrity and building their flywheel through that and so other brands have to use advertising or or some other brand marketing avenues? How are you thinking about that?

Ali Kaminetsky 8:53

Yeah, so I think like it, especially in today's and like digital age, like amplification goes so far beyond physical presence, and like every opportunity should be leveraged to create like digital and social buzz even like if it's like a really small like event that like, you have like, how can you turn that into like multiply the impact exponentially? Great, like so buzz? So like for like Shark Tank, for instance, like we've been given this like gift like this, like this free gift? So for us specifically, like how can we turn this into like, organic social on tick tock, how do we create like buzzy content with like, the footage of us in the tank? And so for us, like, really trying to because like, You're right what you said like if you just pull back, it has to come from somewhere. Yeah. You have to fill the funnel somewhere, somehow, some way. So we're going to keep pulling back which I think is the right thing to do and smart especially in like the fundraise environment that we're in right now. Where like there are no checks being written And we are going to really lean into organic and tic toc. And I think like, I like, I have a responsibility as a founder to like step it up when it comes to that, too. I think like we've seen in the past like couple years, especially this past year, like people want to see like who they're buying from, they want to hear the story, they want to feel connected, and you're seeing a lot of founders become like that front facing figure of the brand. And I think that's not like my natural instinct. But I'm like, really, since Shark Tank, like it's time to at least give it a try. So right after this, like I have like, I would never normally do this. But I have like, blocked out like a half day to just like churn out tic TOCs. Yesterday, I did an hour long tic toc live like I would never normally do that. Because I'd be like, Oh, I have so much to do. Like, I like I need to, like, send out these emails, whatever. But it's so important now. So we're really trying to turn to that. It's

Samir Balwani 10:55

so interesting. You say that. So my perspective on this, because I think it's it is a big question mark around how much ad spend is too much ad spend. And what you'll hear for me is having too high of a role as generally is a indicator that you are under investing in your your media. And so trying to find that, like balance is key, because you do need to drive top line revenue growth and kind of fuel to fire for tomorrow's purchasers. What I would say though, and what I tell a lot of people is if you decide you want a higher row as diet is fine, as long as you have found a more efficient channel for introducing the brand new people. So people look at celebrities, and go, Hey, this is a celebrity driven brand. Yeah, great, we gave them equity. And we gave them a deal. quantify that equity. And that could have been ad spend, and figure out what the value actually would have been. And so I think a lot of people look at their marketing and forget to value in the cost of things and say, Oh, ad spend, we're not profitable. And like, Yeah, that might be the case. But then you have to be okay, giving up equity of your business doing a royalty deal doing some kind of agreement. Where, and that might be better for you in the short term because you become profitable in the short term, but you're paying it out over a long term. And so it's balancing that that is important. And so I agree with you, and that it is more important now than ever before, for founders to become celebrities in their own right. And you whether you like it or not are spending that money because you're investing your time into it. And so your time has value against,

Ali Kaminetsky 12:44

like, flutter, it's just like, it's new at like you have to evolve and be like agile with marketing, like oh my god, like when I started Modern Picnic, like, we didn't spend $1 on ads for the first like two years. And then like we we just got a little sliver of like the golden age of like, put $1 into Facebook, get $10 back a little bit right before iOS 14 But it's just like different now. And like you have to figure out and like that, like, engine for profitable growth and like fine tune it. And like come up with that balance, like fully who I want to introduce you to bull Yeah, cuz she, she runs our apps. And we've been having a lot of tough conversations because like, it's even when you like, we want the high return, but like you're gonna, it's gonna come with, like, top line growth, like you can't have both. You can't have both and like, and I think she's had, she's been really like, honest with us, like, listen, like we can do this, but like, you need to fill the funnel elsewhere. And like that's like on you guys like Rubia influencers events, but then it's like, those things cost money to money to like figuring it out. And then it's like, there's Amazon, Amazon comes with a whole line list of fees as well. So it's really like, and I think going back to like kind of Shark Tank. It's like having like such a deep understanding of like, your numbers, your p&l, your costs, and your cash or cash is king, especially in this like climate and like how do you just like come up with a model that works and like works for you because everybody's gonna

Samir Balwani 12:51

be different? Yeah, it's interesting because I think the consumer behavior has been changing, and 2020 and the golden days of Facebook, as you like to call them and as we like to call it too, which happened to also coincide with when brands when consumers had tons of stimulus money and were home could not travel could not go to restaurants and we're just buying goods all day long. And so, you know, category demand was high at Same time, Shopify actually released these numbers March 2022, January 2022. Shopify stores grew 201%. So to under 1%, new brands launched 2028 2022. Those brands, a lot of them still exist today. So consumers have more choice than ever before on where they want to spend their money and how they want to spend their money. Your Shopify democratized it private label has made it easier. And just the access to Chinese manufacturers and overseas manufacturing has made it really easy to bring in your products and build a store. So now, as a brand owner, you can't just run ads and say, hey, my product looks nice. Go buy it. My product looks nice. You need it. And here's why. Connected to me, I think the two there's two things that I think brands need to really spend a lot of time thinking about right now. So post purchase surveys on your site are really, really valuable. How did you find out about us, and I'll give a shout out to fairing and no commerce, this guy's you really good work and post purchase surveys. But tracking your word of mouth is a great indicator of your brand's ability to actually penetrate its market. Because if you are selling a product, and people buy it, and no one cares about it, that's not a great brand. And that's not a great product. So word of mouth is going to fuel the next stage of brand growth. So really trying to figure out how you activate that I think exactly what you said, taking experiential programs and turning them into, you know, bigger events is a really valuable way of getting people excited and pulling into things and leaning into your VIPs. So I I think you have thought about this really well, I think you've already actioned on some of the most amazing parts of it. And so I kind of want to ask you, what does the rest of 2024 look like? You know, what, where are you most excited about from the growth now that you had this giant moment? Yeah,

Ali Kaminetsky 17:06

so I'm, I'm really excited. I mean, I'm really excited about everything. And like all that's to come. We just launched into a new category, not just it's actually been a couple of months at this point, but we just launched food containers. And actually, interestingly, this makes sense. But it was our highest volume driver, during the Shark Tank weekend, our food container, which kind of makes sense. It's $20 Or a OVS $150. So it's our lowest priced item on our site. It's gender neutral, everybody could use a food container. And I think there is a cohort of Shark Tank viewers that are really are so passionate and watch the show and one who owns that grocery product. And so that was our food container for us. And so how do we keep like creating content around the containers and activating around the container. So I'm really excited about this product category expansion. And then I'm really excited about our distribution channel expansion. So we started going and you actually hear me talk about this in the tank a little bit. But we started going like wholesale in this past year in 2023. And we launched with sack Saks off fifth The Container Store, run some marketplaces like loop and tie and snack magic. And we're now on Amazon. And so while we were before turning 23, purely 100% DTC brand, we now have this three dimensional distribution strategy, which is really exciting. And we're actually, by the time this episode airs, because like we're supposed to be launching on Monday. So it'll definitely be out by then hopefully, knock on wood. But we're launching Bloomingdale's next week, too, which is so exciting. They've been like a dream retailer. And that's been something that's been in the works for literally three years. So I'm really excited about that. And how do we create content around these lunches? And how do we keep kind of growing modern picnic profitably, I'm also really excited about finally hitting profitability and becoming this like self sustaining healthy business, not that we weren't before, but I think it was just different. We were raising like capital and it was just like growth at all costs. And it's just changed, you know? So I'm excited to kind of like rebuild and go back to basics and, and take all of the sharks advice to heart and keep doing what we're doing, but doing so more efficiently.

Samir Balwani 19:22

I love that because I think that going back to basics is pretty much where a lot of people are starting to rethink and revisit because you're right, like when you could raise dollars pretty easily. It was easy to have other people it was like Yeah,

Ali Kaminetsky 19:39

and like there was you raise and you're like, Oh yeah, I'm gonna be raising another round in six months and I'm gonna raise enough and there was never like a end to it. And I was just like, I think this is gonna fall I don't think I know this is gonna like force brands like really like have to like, go back to basics and like, Do you have a good product? You have a good brand Do you have a community people don't buy products anymore? As you said, like, there's like, so many more companies now they don't buy products, they don't buy brands they buy part of a community. And like, how do you kind of create that? And if like, you're, you can't do those three things and like, it's gonna be really tough. And like we're seeing that firsthand. I think everybody's really feeling that even if you have all those things. Yeah,

Samir Balwani 20:21

I also think the retailer, integrations that you're doing are so smart, because I think one of the things that people forgot is that retail is where you have product discovery, walking through a store and seeing new products there. And it's more a showroom than it is like, a sales channel sometimes, right? Like, it's okay for you to look at a retailer and say, okay, you know, our margins really thin here it but it introduces the brand toys close to people and it's part of, you know, that it I like to say to tell our partners, you know, chalk some of it up to just marketing cost. That's kind of the reality of the situation.

Ali Kaminetsky 20:58

I just had this conversation with an investor who's it like a finance guy, really, like not? He's Oh, he's wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, but like, very just like numbers, only black and white. And I was trying to, like, you know, explain how these like going into the Container Store, like all of these moments, like going back to how do you like leverage, like, amplification goes so far beyond you know, and how do you create a social moment I was like, Really? Yes. Marketing in The Container Store on Bloomingdale's like in Saks like It's like forget about the note, don't forget about the numbers was really important. But it's like, it is brands forget about

Samir Balwani 21:44

the secondary elements of it creates brand trust, it creates brand, like relevance. Yeah, need

Ali Kaminetsky 21:51

to leverage other partnerships, like it's like Shark Tank to like we were no, but like, you bet your ass a second year and I reached out to every wholesaler who's like been like, on the fence. Just last year, I was responding. And like, hey, we just aired on Shark Tank, like, it is in your best interest to get us up right away. Like, let's do this, like let's or like sending the clips to the QVC 's of the world and be like, I can throw me in coach like, I can talk. You just throw me in like or like sending it to PR and being like, I just went into the tank as in and got to know from all of them. Like, here's my takeaways are like talking to you and being like, let's talk about it on a podcast, like taking a moment and like stretching it as far as you can. With like, $0

Samir Balwani 22:37

Yeah, I think that's really smart. I love that. And so, you know, I know we're coming up on time, and I want to be respectful. But I here's my last question for you. And I think this is the this is what I was most excited to ask you. New founder. They're just getting started. You have learned so much. What are the two or three main things you tell them?

Ali Kaminetsky 23:02

I think one thing I love is sometimes no just means maybe later. I love that I mean I if I'm an example of that, oh my god like I applied shark and got rejected went on to Shark Tank got all knows, I guess I just keep going. So sometimes no just means maybe later. And then this is actually a cool story to end on. The power of a thank you note. I think people love this like after every single investor call I get off of whether it's no or yes, I send a thank you note what any more networking call center thinking at a thought on a podcast sent send a thank you note. This is a funny story. And like this is I can't even believe this. But um, when I aired on Shark Tank, I sent Mark Cuban a thank you note. Just because I was like, why not? 

Samir Balwani 23:54

I mean, why not? I mean, there's a lot, right. Yeah.

Ali Kaminetsky 23:57

And I was just like thanking him for his time and just giving some I was really scared to I didn't message him after we film because I didn't want to like they kind of say like go away and you'll hear from us or you to hear from us. I didn't know if we were airing but once he aired I sent him a thank you note. And when I was trying to find his email online, I came across an article that's like a CNBC article that says like, Mark Cuban gets over 1000 emails a day, like here's how to get his attention. And I was like, Oh, God, like, whatever. I'm just gonna send it anyways, I sent Mark Cuban a thank you note. He responded within two minutes, saying, like, How did everything go for you? And I was like, Oh, I mean, Mark Cuban like chatty now. And like said, like, it's been great and gave him some information. He's like, awesome, like, reach out to me anytime you want. Oh my god. That's awesome. And I was really sitting down. I was like, oh, like, this is stupid. Like maybe I wasn't taking my own advice for a second. I was like, this is gonna go like, there's no way but it's like, just send if you're starting out, even or not turnout sometimes don't just mean Jamie later, like, keep going. And the power of a thank you note because like, you can't do this alone, like you're gonna have and people are willing to help. But like, follow up with them and stay in touch. Look at us. We think we met in like 2019. We've never worked together professionally. But we just like stayed in touch and like we've like, always kept each other up to date and like check in every now and again. And now you're like, it's like, so cool. Yeah,

Samir Balwani 25:27

I mean, I, I am very thoughtful around that. So I'm in the same page, I always send a thank you note, even if it's a one liner, like, it doesn't need to be very thought out. It can be if you have stationery and you know the person's address and a physical one. If you don't send a send an email, I think it's super valuable. And then I keep in touch with people constantly. That is my role as a founder. That is how I learn. That's how I expand my knowledge. That's how I meet people. Like, you know, I know out you're going to introduce me to people, I'm going to introduce you to people, we constantly have these conversations. And then when I launch a podcast, I go, Hey, are you gonna come on the podcast? It's like, it's great. So yeah, I think the power of a thank you note and the power of network.

Ali Kaminetsky 26:18

Your network is your net worth, like, it's crazy, like right after this. So got a copy of somebody that also a founder. And then luckily, it's just like, it makes sense. I think it's a really hard because when you're a founder, you're so bogged down. And like I'm so bad at this sometimes like I literally will become like a hermit recluse apartment like bogged down. And like this is so important. I need to do all this is like no, like, get out, talk to people go to an event, even if you just go for a little bit, or like, get that coffee, like make tiny schedule, maybe Fridays are your like, your social day of the week, where your content and you do things like this, and you connect with other founders, because it's like, literally so important. And like one intro or one piece of advice or could change your whole business everything.

Samir Balwani 27:04

I also I if I could tack on to your one piece of advice, Ali around the networking pieces, do it with no ego, no one is above or below you. Because you might not want to talk to that other founder because you're gonna go, oh, I want am I going to learn from them? Or like, they're just starting out? How could they, and you never know who they're connected to. And you never know who they'll turn into. And if you go in there with an ego you are, you are gonna fail. Because you are always going to think you're better than everyone else. And people can smell that and so, so

Ali Kaminetsky 27:36

like crazy that like I needed to check myself for a second yesterday. I didn't know what got into me, but somebody zoned asking for like, help. And my first instinct was like, I'm such a busy week next week, like I don't think I can and then I was like, What's wrong with you? Like, are you kidding me? Like send your town we blank and like, get like, it was very short lived because I will talk to anybody. I'm always willing to help. Sometimes you have to check yourself. And like keep yourself in line. I was like what is wrong? Like, literally the only way anybody's ever gotten anywhere. It's like through like, power of community and helping each other and networking and like everybody's always started from nothing into anyway, that was like, very quickly, like corrected and like we're talking next week, but like my first instinct was like, oh, like so like, I'm busy. I'm this like, it's like what's

Samir Balwani 28:31

I'm telling you about my wife? I give credit to my wife on this one. She's the one that reminds me of this you guys. You are that person one day, like Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. And she's like, you wouldn't have gotten to where you are today if some people said no to you. All right. Yeah, that's fair. Yeah. So I love it. So Ali, thank you so much for being here. I I love talking to you. I have a this is a I'm assuming you want people to go check out Modern Picnic and buy some stuff?

Ali Kaminetsky 29:00

Yes, of course there were it can be found on modernpicnic.com Modern Picnic on TikTok, Instagram, Pinterest anywhere and maybe we can give a discount for it in the show notes for your viewers. But yeah, thank you so much for having me. This was so fun. It was just so much fun. 

Samir Balwani 29:15

Thank you for being here.

Outro 29:21

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