Interview with Sam Knoll—chemical engineer, MBA, entrepreneur, health products retailer, and membership website publisher
Sam Knoll knows his way around the business world. He has had a number of successful careers including in manufacturing, mail order, and retail. His latest enterprise is an online newsletter devoted to health and dietary supplements.
In this exclusive Mequoda interview, he tell us how his subscription website helps members find the right supplements at the best price.
MEQUODA By way of background, what is your educational and professional background? What did you do before www.myvitaminguide.com?
SK I have a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering (BE) from Yale University, and a masters degree in business administration (MBA) from Stanford University. Prior to entering the “health food industry”, I spent 15 years as a senior manager and officer of a New England company that manufactured electronic instruments for measuring and analyzing nuclear radiation.
For the past 24 years I have been involved in the “health food” or dietary supplement industry. In the early 1980’s I started a company called Home Health Products, Inc., a manufacturer and mail order marketer of natural health care products. This was my real introduction to the “natural products” industry, and also to direct marketing. When I sold Home Health Products in the mid-1990’s we were mailing one million catalogs a month to consumers throughout the USA, and processing (including fulfillment) approximately 25,000 orders a month.
In the early 1990’s I decided to try the retail side of the natural products industry also, and with a partner, purchased a local health food store (part of a national chain) that specialized in vitamins, herbs and other dietary supplements. This worked out pretty well, so over subsequent years we added additional stores and we now own nine such stores throughout southeastern Virginia.
MEQUODA What best describes your position with www.myvitaminguide.com?
SK I am the founder, sole owner, president and webmaster. The website was my idea and my creation. My wife, Carol, is very knowledgeable in this field (she was the one who led me into the natural products marketplace), but she does not play any role in the current business other than to be a (very good) sounding board.
MEQUODA What motivated you to launch your site?
SK I like the world of business and wasn’t very good at retirement. In addition, I’ve always liked computers and was fascinated by the Internet as a business medium. Having cut my teeth in direct marketing with a mail order catalog business, I was fascinated with the speed and almost instantaneous feedback offered by the Internet.
I knew from my years of contact with customers, both at Home Health Products (where I talked with hundreds of customers by telephone) and in our retail stores, that the typical customer for dietary supplements is an information seeker with lots of questions, usually perplexed by the many conflicting opinions and articles that exist on the benefits or lack of benefits (including potential side effects) attributed to these products.
I saw an opportunity to fill this information gap using the Internet, and at the same time satisfy my own entrepreneurial drive to create another business.
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MEQUODA What’s it all about? Who are your subscribers?
SK What’s it all about? Because we don’t sell supplements, don’t accept any advertising, and don’t accept commissions from supplement suppliers who may benefit from our advice, we can lay claim to being unbiased. Therefore, we provide accurate, evidence-based, and unbiased information on vitamins, herbal remedies and other dietary supplements. Our motto is, “We help you find the right supplements at the best price.”
In addition to extensive supplement facts and information, we also provide information on hundreds of health conditions and how these may be affected by various supplements, plus up-to-date news on the latest research being done with various types of foods and dietary supplements.
And, since many people who take supplements also take prescription drugs, we provide extensive information on potential interactions between supplements and prescription medicines. We also have an extensive database of recipes to help our subscribers prepare interesting and healthy meals.
Who are my subscribers? I don’t have a true profile, but I surmise that they are mostly 35 to 65 years old, fairly well educated, more likely to be female than male, interested in prescription drugs, and open to various alternative health practices. Most of my subscribers are probably already consuming dietary supplements, but some may not be and are considering whether to try one or more supplements.
MEQUODA How long has your site been active and what is your subscription fee structure? What is included with a subscription?
SK MyVitaminGuide has been active since September, 2004. Our current fee structure is $4.95 for a one-week trial membership, $19.95 for a three-month membership, and $39.95 for a one-year membership. All of the memberships offer automatic renewal (the one-week trial converts to a three-month membership unless canceled).
What’s included with membership is complete access to our extensive database of information on vitamins, herbal medicines, other dietary supplements, homeopathic remedies, food, recipes, potential drug interactions, health concerns, personal health tools and calculators, discussion forum, free downloadable reports, our exclusive Brands Database, and archives of both our weekly and monthly newsletters.
MEQUODA Now to the technical details. To build your site, what tools did you use, and how long did it take?
SK I used MemberGate for the basic software, and I licensed most of the content information from a company called Healthnotes. MemberGate lets you create a basic membership site in a matter of days or, at most, a few weeks. However, to integrate the Healthnotes database into MemberGate took a little more time and some occasional help from Bill Myers at MemberGate.
I also contracted with an independent programmer to build the framework for our “Brands Database”, an exclusive feature of www.MyVitaminGuide.com that allows members to compare different consumer brands without going to the store, and to see at a glance what their comparative “cost per day” is for different products and different brands. Building this Brands Database was a challenge, and then populating it with real-life marketplace data was another challenge.
I wasn’t in a great hurry and wanted to “get it right” from the start, so I think the total time from start to “going public” was about six months. The site was operational within two or three months, but we didn’t really roll it out until several months later.
MEQUODA How easy, time-consuming, etc. is the process of adding new content? How many people are involved in preparing and posting editorial content? How often do you add new content?
SK Adding content is very easy thanks to MemberGate. Right now I am the only person involved in posting new content, although I have contracted for outside help both in writing copy for the “sales” pages, and also for writing some of our downloadable reports. We add new content weekly and monthly.
MEQUODA Has your site changed significantly since you launched it?
MEQUODA What’s the single greatest tool that helps you get your new content out every week?
SK For content, I depend heavily on licensed information from Healthnotes. For actually getting the content into the site and posted, MemberGate is my single greatest tool.
MEQUODA Marketing and promotion seem to be a great challenge for most subscription website publishers. How have you approached this task, and what kind of results have you experienced?
SK At the time of our launch and for a number of weeks thereafter, we got some good exposure and traffic from press releases. Since then I’ve been working on search engine placement through the normal SEO techniques (much of which MemberGate takes care of) and doing some pay-per-click advertising.
I also paid for placement in a few directories (e.g., Yahoo), and I’m now starting a linking campaign to build up our inbound links from high-quality sites visited by people who are interested in supplements and alternative health practices.
I also expect that we will be doing some banner advertising on targeted sites.
I’m finding that we get pretty decent traffic numbers, but our conversion rates (both to membership and to our opt-in mailing list) leave a lot to be desired. We plan to test several different types of targeted landing pages to improve conversion, and I’ve also contracted for some outside analysis and advice on other ways to improve our conversion.
MEQUODA I notice that you don’t sell supplements, you simply provide information on supplements, but not the pills themselves. How did you chose that strategy?
SK I chose the strategy for two reasons. Most important, as discussed earlier, was the desire to position MyVitaminGuide as a provider of unbiased information. Not selling the pills allows us to be more unbiased than would be the case if we did sell pills.
In addition, my ownership of the retail health food stores mentioned previously involves some non-competition restrictions. I could divest myself of these stores and get rid of the non-competition restrictions, but I happen to like owning them.
MEQUODA For Mequoda members who are devising premium content strategies for their online properties, any advice you would offer?
SK Consider licensing content from other providers.
MEQUODA What’s your best advice to Mequoda members who are seeking to develop additional revenue streams outside of advertising for their online business?
SK Do you mean beyond membership fees, or is this advice for free sites? If the site is currently free, consider charging for membership.
Also consider charging for downloadable reports. Marketing Sherpa has an interesting strategy in this regard; they publish informative articles, and make these free for a limited time period. After that time expires, the same information is still available but for a modest download fee.
MEQUODA What has been your greatest challenge to date, doing business online?
SK Converting visitors to members.
MEQUODA What tips would you pass on to aspiring publishers who want to start a subscription-based website?
SK Consider using MemberGate as your platform. There may be cheaper solutions, but it’s hard to believe there are any that would make your life easier. With MemberGate there is some up-front cost, but you can be up and running in a very short time, and after that you will be in charge yourself… no need for a “webmaster”.
MEQUODA What subscription-based websites do you subscribe to and/or recommend?
SK MemberGate: www.MemberGate.com; Bill Myers Online: www.BMyers.com; Mequoda: www.mequoda.com; Search Engine University: www.SearchEngineU.com; Search Engine News by Planet Ocean Communications: www.searchengine-news.com; Jonathan Mizel’s Marketing Letter: www.marketingletter.com; Ken McCarthy’s System Club: www.the-system-club.com.