[Driven] Fran Middleton: Navigating Uncharted Ecommerce Territory at America’s Test Kitchen
This post appears as part of our Driven profile series, spotlighting some of the hottest movers and shakers from all corners of the Boston tech and startup space.
Fran Middleton has got the kind of background that should earn him the title of eCommerce Expert. An early player in the digital space, Middleton was a founding member of Rue La La and helped shape the renowned flash sale site's success story.
For a guy who catapulted his career at a company that's largely known for its innovative digital strategy, shifting to an organization that - at the time he started - wasn't digitally advanced may seem like an unusual move.
But, after half a decade at Rue, that's exactly what Middleton opted to do. In his current role as Chief Digital Officer at America's Test Kitchen, he's paving the company's digital strategy, tapping its vast library of content and resources to (perhaps unsurprisingly) uncover innovative eCommerce potential and chart new opportunities.
A few weeks ago, I met with Middleton in America's Test Kitchen's Brookline office (yes, he was kind enough to show me the enormous test kitchen!). He told me all about the hear the early days at Rue and his big plans for America's Test Kitchen. Read more in the interview below.
Kaite Rosa: You’ve been in the digital space since the mid-90s. Tell me about how your career kicked off. Did you always know you’d end up in this area?
Fran Middleton: I’ve always been into technology, gadgets, media and the digital space in general. I thought I’d go to college for marketing and advertising. I aspired to work at an ad agency. Then the internet came of age. I was fascinated by the web and all the things it could do, so that’s what I spent the back half of my college career focusing on.
I taught myself how to code just enough to squeak by the interview process for my first job out of school. I wasn't very good at it and quickly realized it wasn't for me. I was more interested in how the whole thing - a business, website, and digital - all worked together, not just the writing of code. I’m more about the whole picture.
KR: Can you tell me about the changes you’ve navigated across your career?
FM: I stayed in dev for a year and a half, then transitioned to a producer role at Thunder House. Thunder House was one of the first Digital agencies in Boston. That’s where I learned how marketing, product, and technology all work together.
Then I moved on to a larger agency, Agency.com. It had 2K employees at it’s peak. We built sites for a lot of consumer companies: Jordans Furniture, Olive Garden, British Airways, and other insurance and financial service companies.
I wanted to go to the client side, so I went to SmartBargains.com to focus on eCommerce as a vertical by itself. I was there in 2004, and spent 10 years in pure play eCommerce.
KR: You were an early employee at Rue La La, when the daily flash sale/deal concept was still pretty new. What was the experience like?
FM: SmartBargains was the seed for Rue La La. SmartBargains was about 100 people and was doing $100M in business at the time. It wasn’t very profitable, the business was in trouble, and they were going to close the doors. Then, Ben Fischman rounded up some investors, bought the company and peeled a few people away from SmartBargains to build Rue La La in late 2007.
KR: What can you tell me about its transition from startup to high-growth company?
FM: It was one of the hardest, most challenging times in my career - and also the most fun.
We were breaking new ground in the flash sale space. We had marketing challenges, tech challenges. We had tremendous challenges because of the traffic pattern on a flash sale site versus your typical eCommerce site. Buying patterns were much different with the flash sale model. We’d launch boutiques - at 11 a.m. the email would go out, and everyone would show up to the site all at once. We weren’t technically prepared for the traffic in the early days.
We had some major growing pains for the first year or so, before we figured out how to handle those peaks. There would be people in the office at all hours, sleeping on couches. If you can’t keep the site up, you can’t generate revenue. Things stabilized a year or so into the business, but the concept took off from day one. It was a great model because there was a lot of theatre around it. It was an addicting model - people always came back to see what we were selling and get in on a great deal.
KR: How did you go from Rue La La to your current role as Chief Digital Officer at America’s Test Kitchen?
FM: Rue La La started with about 25 people, and when I left there were over 700. I went part time in summer 2013. I wanted to do something else, but I wasn’t sure what. So I took that summer off, recharged and spent time with my family.
On the side, I was consulting with a seed funded startup by Bob Gett, the former CEO of Viant and founder of Optaros. I consulted there for six months and my plan was to eventually work there full-time. Then America’s Test Kitchen came calling out of the blue. I ignored their calls and emails for about a month or so. I wasn’t really familiar with the brand. I didn’t get it. They were in TV, magazines, books - why would they call someone who spent their entire career in digital?
When I told my wife America’s Test Kitchen had called, she said, “That’s a big deal! Talk to them and see what they want!” So I met with the COO at the time, then met with the Christopher Kimball, who founded the company 20-plus years ago. I was immediately blown away by the raw materials this company has to build a great digital business.
America’s Test Kitchen is a strong, authoritative brand that customers are super passionate about. There’s a vast amount of content America’s Test Kitchen has through its magazines, cookbooks, TV, everything that happens in the test kitchen - but they weren’t bringing that to life every day digitally.
KR: How has America’s Test Kitchen’s digital strategy and team evolved since you started?
FM: There wasn’t a digital focus when I started in 2014. It was mostly print. The digital properties were simply recipe databases behind a paywall. That had performed well for company, but it wasn’t the digital strategy that will create hockey stick growth. The sites all needed to be rebuilt, they weren’t mobile friendly. There was no content strategy, new customers couldn’t find us on Google. We were talking to an audience who already knew us, because no one could find us organically.
So we relaunched cooksillustrated.com, our flagship site. We put content in front of the paywall. We’re not giving recipes away, but we’re telling the story around what we do in the Test Kitchen every day. We’ve started to show more of that. It’s benefited our SEO and is getting people who aren’t familiar with our brand engaged.
America’s Test Kitchen is the only digital property on the planet that charges for recipes. We have to work harder at telling the story of why we’re better than our competitors.
KR: What is that story? Why are you better than your competitors?
FM: We have a 2500 square foot test kitchen with 50 full-time test cooks who are doing nothing but testing and perfecting recipes. They’re also testing kitchen equipment.
Our value prop is that we’re making mistakes so that the home cook doesn’t have too. My favorite example is the story we tell about how we developed the recipe for Baked Alaska. It’s long form content with beautiful shots of our test kitchen. Baked Alaska is really hard to cook, so we show Iots of shots of bad food and help show the reader how not to make it.
No one tests recipes at the level that we test recipes. We’re unique in that sense. Others have writers, not someone testing a recipe 60 times.
KR: What are America’s Test Kitchen digital goals this year? How will you achieve them?
FM: We’re re-launching America’s Test Kitchen in the early summer. The strategy will be more geared to getting some of our cookbook content online. We’re launching different content verticals, and will take some components of our cookbooks and put them in front of the paywall. We’re also launching a new property that will be geared toward capturing a younger audience. We’re aiming to expand our reach in the science space of home cooking.
ECommerce has been an early success story for us at America’s Test Kitchen. One of the first questions I asked co-founder Chris Kimball was, “You have over 1K kitchen equipment reviews. Why aren’t you selling the items?” He didn’t really understand it - he wasn’t an eCommerce guy and did not know how he might sell product without sacrificing the editorial integrity of the brand.
It was such a no brainer to me so we launched an affiliate program through Amazon and started generating new revenue immediately. We turned that into an instant hit in the first year that I was here. Since then, we’ve expanded beyond Amazon.com into flash sales. We’re borrowing a page from Rue La La. We have two flash sales per month on our favorite pieces of top-rated kitchen equipment. A recent example was was our highly recommended pressure cooker. It normally retails for $109 and we sold it for 20 percent off at $88, and bundled with our pressure cooker cookbook.
We’re providing so much content alongside the product that people don’t have to think twice about buying it and we make sure that we are unbiased in our review and maintain our editorial integrity along the way.
We have seen tremendous conversion when our content is paired with commerce. I can’t share numbers, but they are some of the best conversion numbers I have seen in my career. ECommerce has been really great for us - we’re looking to expand that this year and introduce new product lines.
KR: Do you have a strong interest in cooking? Are you an amateur chef at home?
FM: I got into cooking here. Before America’s Test Kitchen, I was the weekend breakfast guy and the grill guy. That was the extent of my repertoire. But because you get immersed in the content, you want to experience it. You want to touch it. I’ve done a lot more cooking since working here.
KR: What are some of your top professional accomplishments?
FM: Rue La La is the crown jewel. Taking that company from literally nothing to hundreds of millions of dollars of revenue in four years - that will be hard to top. Hopefully I can here at America’s Test Kitchen.
KR: How do you stay motivated in times of high stress?
FM: Even when things get hard, or projects are running late, or you can’t deliver the whole scope you want to deliver, you take the long deal. You say, “OK we didn’t win this battle - but it’s more about the war than the battle.”
We have so much momentum. We have support from the board and leadership. That’s what keeps me motivated. I don’t want to let those guys down.
KR: What’s your advice to someone early on in their digital career?
FM: Get as much exposure as you can to all aspects of digital and figure out where you want to play. Get the broad view, then figure out where you want to specialize based on your interest and skill set.
KR: You’re hiring rapidly. Why would someone want to come work at America’s Test Kitchen?
FM: We haven’t historically been on the radar of the cool hip companies in Boston.
But what’s really great about working here on our digital team is that it’s like working at a startup. We’re doing very innovative things in the digital space with content. We’re a flat organization.
The digital team is very entrepreneurial and operates very much like a startup. It’s a great brand with great opportunities ahead.
To learn more about the open roles and opportunities at America's Test Kitchen, check out its BIZZpage.
Images via Fran Middleton/America's Test Kitchen