Friday, December 14, 2012

Kate McAleer's (CAS '09) Chocolate Bar Creations

ykg-Ag4wHLtFR__-qrlIEB_myxJOLY-ayxyEg3ldNSU.jpg 'Tis the season for parties with friends and family and gifts of delectable sweets. We first tried Bixby Bars at the Chile Pepper Fiesta in Brooklyn and found out that NYU alumna Kate McAleer was behind these delicious bars. We recently had a chance to interview Kate and learn about her company, Bixby & Co.

NYU Arts and Science Alumni Relations: As kids, many of us often dreamt of starting our own chocolate company. What inspired you to do it? Was this something you had always wanted to do? Tell us about Bixby & Co. and how it began.

Kate McAleer: Actually the idea came to me when I was on the inaugural women’s golf team for NYU. When competing I looked for a healthy snack to keep the energy up for the back nine holes. The highly sugared and compounded snack bars that were the only available options on the course were not appetizing or satisfying. I thought wouldn’t it be nice to have a scrumptious, sophisticated, healthy and satisfying alternative for the health conscious and active adult. The light bulb went on that perhaps I could create that snack. During graduate school I decided to change course and go to culinary school to learn more about the commercial side of not only crafting food but also how to take a product to market and manage a business. This initiative was followed by attending a fabulous coaching program offered by the State University of New York (SUNY) program called Fasttrack for Start-up Businesses. Fasttrack also provided the practical tools to develop a business plan. After a year of business planning, I partnered with my mother, an executive who recently had retired, and we launched Bixby & Co., LLC in December 2011. The name of the company came from the surname of my great-great grandparents, Lillian and W. K. Bixby who lived the American dream during the turn of the 20th Century. I have been always been inspired by their fortitude and perseverance, and their commitment to giving back to society by improving the communities in which they lived.

How do you come up with your flavor combinations and are you currently working on any new bars? The flavors evolve from all of my years of travel to other lands and living in and experiencing their cultures. Extensive research--tools I learned while at NYU--is also much of the process. My Chinese host mother from my year abroad in high school introduced me to goji berries (used in To the Nines). She would encourage me to eat them as they encourage eye health in Chinese medicine.

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Do you have a favorite bar or one that you have been thinking of making? Each bar is its own unique flavor combination and I really love them all. KnockOut is one of my favorites--the delayed fireworks is special...as its saying goes: This bar packs a punch. More than likely, the next Bixby Bar creation will be an interesting spicy dark chocolate combination........

What are some of the challenges you face being in the chocolate marketplace? The average chocolate consumer typically has been slower to appreciate a gourmet artisan product such as the Bixby Bar. Education is a large part of introducing Bixby Bar to the chocolate consumer. Consumers have been raised on mass-produced inexpensive chocolate. Bixby creates an artisan, carefully hand-crafted and hand wrapped chocolate bar that offers a different experience that should be savored.
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The packaging and design of the labels are clever and eye-catching. Can you talk about the design process? As a student of Art History, the packaging process was a lot of fun and I was very involved, researching all of the images used on each package. The name Bixby was a grounding point for the design of our company and brand. Named after my great-great grandmother Lillian Bixby, on whose birthday I was born, Bixby & Co. was rooted in turn of the twentieth century--the time period in which Lillian Bixby lived. Harkening back to this moment in time, when food was unadulterated and purer, corresponded with my philosophy for real food inclusions and no preservatives or additives. The golf themed packaging was an homage to my inspiration to create these chocolate snack bars while playing golf for NYU.

What skills and/or experiences did you learn at NYU that have helped you start and grow the company? My academic experience taught me how to think, reason, communicate and research. I also honed my writing and oral skills. Living in New York City was a stimulating environment that offered so much in terms of excitement, learning and culture. Studying abroad at NYU in Paris was a fantastic experience. Playing on the first women's varsity golf team was a blast and I learned much about balancing school work, classes and tournaments that I can relate to with wearing so many hats with my business.

Are there any plans to eventually make other products? Yes!

What advice would you give to alumni who are thinking of starting their own company? Take the time as I did with my mother and partner to conduct your research, plan, attend programs and tradeshows and seek out people with experience to learn about the business you would like to start. Developing a solid business plan that is realistic is a must. Do not be afraid to cold call or mystery shop extensively. Always ask the important questions that cover the pros and the cons; the ups and the downs; the good and the bad.

If you'd like to purchase Bixby Bars, here's where you can find them: www.bixbyco.com, Whole Foods Market, Bedford Cheese Shop, Manhattan and Brooklyn, Greene Grape Provisions, Gastronomie 491, Sahadi's Importing Co., Gourmet Guild Brooklyn.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Blogging and More with Jill Hamilton from Macy's

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Jill Hamilton (GSAS '05) manages social media for Macy's and started the Macy's blog, MBlog. We had the chance to sit and chat with Jill about her experience in the journalism program, her job, and what it was like to manage social media during Hurricane Sandy. Jill also gives tips on starting your own company blog!

NYU Arts & Science Alumni Relations: Are there any specific lessons you learned at NYU that have really stuck with you throughout your career? Jill Hamilton:

I remember, we had an assignment—it’s actually a funny story. There was a bar on the NYU campus that was closing called “The Bottom Line.” It was a very, very famous bar where Bruce Springsteen and other famous people performed. The assignment was to go and interview people—owners, waitresses, anybody you could, to get information on why it was closing. It was one of our first assignments, and I was so shy. I was so nervous that I didn’t talk to anybody. I remember I took my boyfriend at the time and he was like, “you’re supposed to interview people, you’re supposed to interview people!” but I was just too shy. And I actually learned pretty quickly that I was too shy to be a journalist, and maybe that wasn’t the right thing for me. So it’s funny how it all worked out.  

Could you talk a little about what you do for Macy’s now?

I manage basically all of the editorial content, which is marketing and messaging, across all the digital channels. So that’s MBlog, which is my baby. Also Tumblr, Instagram, it’s a really busy time of year right now for Instagram and Tumblr, and those things really resonate with our target audience. And also Facebook and Twitter. It’s interesting because we’re always doing workshops and learning about what’s the most effective strategy and tone of voice and stuff like that.  

So did you start the MBlog? 

I did. I was brought on board to launch MBlog last October [2011], so it’s just over a year old, and it’s a lot of content. It’s interesting because I went to NYU for magazine journalism, but now everything is kind of all about blogging, blogging, blogging. And we have so many categories and writers to manage—it’s just such a huge amount of content, but it’s a lot of fun .  

That’s really cool. Could you talk about how you first got subscribers and how you got your content out when MBlog started—how was it promoted?

Well one of the biggest things was that we had a blogger in place already whose work was up on Macys.com, and it was very popular. She is very good at what she does, so she got brought into MBlog. And one of the great things we did was giveaways and discounts, since we’re retail. Contests and giveaways are always really effective tools for us to increase readership. And of course Facebook and Twitter.

How do you measure readers? Is it based on subscribers or comments or likes?

That’s a really good question. We have back-end analysis that comes to us every week. We’ll get a huge rundown on unique page views and sessions, how many people have viewed each blog or gone from one blog to another blog. Of course the landing page is always the most popular.  

Does Macy’s have a special social media strategy during the holidays?

Just to stay alive! It’s so much content, and going to work literally inside Macy’s during the holidays is pretty crazy, just to get into the office. I think the big challenge in terms of strategy during the holidays is getting all of the sale messaging across, but remaining true to what the company is about—which is, it sounds hokey, but it’s really about the spirit of Christmas and all the holidays. The people who run the company really care about the customers. It’s very homey and family-oriented.  

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Did you do anything special for Hurricane Sandy?

Yes, we teamed up with the American Red Cross to do a donation. It’s a really interesting question, because I think we were all expecting Sandy to come, but I don’t think we all thought, as a city, that it was going to make the impact that it did. We had to really quickly get messaging approved by our media relations team before we could put it up on Facebook, Twitter, the blog, and everywhere, and make sure that the copy was consistent across channels. We were very anxious to get the blog up, or the Tweet up as soon as possible, but you also have to work with everyone and be patient. Then you get your message out once it’s approved by everybody.  



What was the message? 

Just about giving donations to the Red Cross, mostly.  

Is it difficult to manage all of the different writers you have for MBlog?

 I don’t do it alone. I have some great help that I’m very thankful for. But I still do all of the outreach to our writers and I concept all of their assignments. Sometimes I’ll have to say, “oh, you’re a little late on turning in your piece.” But for the most part, they’re all great to work with. It’s definitely challenging, but it’s fun. Sometimes they pitch story ideas too, so we try to work that into our schedule. But other things are also done on a need basis. So if there is a particular line of pots and pans that we’re trying to sell, we’ll promote that. I try not to be too “direct-selly” though. I like to keep it editorial.

 Do you know how the blog has benefited Macy’s? Is it mostly PR or have you seen any increase in sales?

Yes, it has certainly helped sales. But I think the number one thing that it does for Macy’s is, it increases a sense of community. We really have a lot of people who follow the blog and come back every Wednesday, which is our "Home" day. If they’re foodies then they’ll come back every Wednesday because we post something about the home. Fashion on Mondays is definitely a very popular category too. And so it builds a sense of community. It goes back to what I was saying before about how it's a company that cares that there is a sense of family. It’s cute.  

What works best to engage your customers on social media, if that is one of your goals?

Yes, it’s definitely a big thing. We are always trying to facilitate interaction. Asking questions is big. We’ll put things on Instagram with our fashion buyers where we’ll have maybe two pairs of jeans for the winter, and we’ll ask our followers which one should our buyer order. And we’ll literally let the people on instagram decide. We’ll tally up the votes. And it’s cool because people feel like they’re involved, and they are to a pretty big extent. Any kind of contest also really, really promotes engagement.  

Pickles.pngDo you have a personal blog?

Lets see, I have a Tumblr blog for my puppy named Pickles. It’s basically just a lot of little pictures of Pickles. Personally, though, I do not blog.

Do you find it difficult to separate your personal social media from work?

Yes, that’s actually a really good question. I’ve spoken about this with other people in marketing at Macy’s. Sometimes you get so involved in a project you’re working on—for instance this Fall we have a Nicole Richie collection exclusively at Macy’s that we launched. We had some great videos on Youtube that were housed on MBlog, and I had been working so closely on these videos and on this project that when they came out, I was Tweeting them and putting them on Facebook, on my personal pages. At the end of the campaign I remember looking at my Facebook page and saying that it looks like a Macy’s ad. I had to remind myself to tone it down a bit. I know I’m excited about the messaging we have, but my friends from high school are not so excited about it.  

Do you have any pointers for other alumni who might be interested in starting a blog for their company or employer?

My first advice would be to do it. It’s definitely a great idea. A lot of blogs are skyrocketing right now, its sort of like the new model, at least in fashion they are. Some of them just have amazing followings. So if it’s something you’re really thinking about, I would say do it. I would say it’s also important to define your voice before you start blogging away. From blog number one to blog number five-hundred, that tone of voice has to be consistent, and you need to know what kind of messaging you’re trying to relay across the board. You don’t want to be a party girl one day and then be a serious executive the next. You need to have the same tone of voice consistently.  

Do you have anything else you’d like to ad about what you do for Macy’s or about your time at NYU?

I really loved NYU. One thing about NYU that I remember was, I was finishing my Master’s part-time while I was also a fashion editor, and I remember thinking, “oh I’ll never be able to finish this,” but the school was very accommodating to the fact that I had a full-time job. I wasn’t able to leave the office until six or seven, and then had to go make it to an evening class, and I just remember NYU being so wonderful about that. If anyone is interested in getting another degree at NYU while still working, I would definitely encourage it.