July 24, 2013, 9:53 AM

On a farm in North Dakota, an online bakery blooms

With a mix of free and low-cost software, Buffalo Gals Bakery goes nationwide online.

Lead Photo

Katy Kassian

When Katy Kassian and her husband moved from California to the family farm in central North Dakota six years ago, she decided to supplement their income on their “small” 600-acre cattle and barley spread by selling biscotti home-made with her grandmother’s recipe. It was an arduous sales task to start. “We’re 40 miles from people,” she says, noting that Bismark, the closest town of any size, was 42 miles away.

This is a story about a tiny yet tenuous startup merchant who quickly learned what she could do both in physical and online stores—and without laying out a lot of cash to do it.

By hitting the country roads and personally introducing her Buffalo Gals Bakery & Country Store goods to shopkeepers around Regan and Bismark, Kassian (pronounced CASH-in) soon started wholesaling her biscotti and other baked goods and home-made crafts like purses and decorated burlap bags to several retail shops.

But with only so many customers in cattle country, she eventually looked into e-commerce—a  business she had no experience in and plenty of doubts about her aptitude for. “There was a mental block as fear; I didn’t want to learn new things,” she recalls.

Nudged with advice from a friend, early last year she checked out web site provider Weebly Inc., where would-be web retailers can log on with a web browser, follow instructions on how to upload product images and drag and drop content like “Add to Cart” buttons, and set up links to credit card processors and PayPal for processing payments. For a simple site like Kassian’s without too many products, a site can go live within an hour, she says. “It’s pretty self-explanatory,” Kassian says.

Weebly, which says clients have used its technology to build more than 15 million web sites, offers three versions of its web site technology: a basic free version, which comes with features like search engine optimization and web analytics; a “Starter” version offering technical support and customized branding, at $4 per month; and a “Pro” version at $8 per month with such features as slide shows, site search, and high-definition video and audio players. Kassian, who launched her site with a few dozen biscottis and cookies, opted for and still uses the free version. But to replace Weebly’s standard dot-Weebly.com domain name that follows a client retailer’s brand name, she opted to pay $9.99 per year to Domains in Seconds to get her own .com domain,  BuffaloGalsBakery.com.

About six months ago, Kassian was searching the web for ideas on how to build her market reach for her collection of baked goods and hand-made crafts when she found PlanetSoho.com, which also offered user-friendly tools accessed through a web browser to quickly build a web site, she says. PlanetSoho caters to “small-office, home-office” businesses,  and Kassian now has a second e-commerce site, at directory.planetsoho.com/buffalogals, that’s connected to PlanetSoho’s online directory of e-commerce sites, where other businesses as well as consumers can find her products. “I built my Soho web site in well under an hour,” she says. One nearly immediate advantage of operating on the PlanetSoho network, she adds, was getting another wholesale client, a store in West Virginia, that came across Buffalo Gals Bakery & Country Store while browsing the PlanetSoho directory of e-commerce sites.

Like the Weebly site, Kassian’s PlanetSoho site includes links to social networks Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest and Google+. So far, Kassian says she has focused mostly on interacting with consumers on Facebook, where she posts photos, has online conversations with customers, receives requests to make customized products—in one case making hundreds of decorated burlap bags for a single customer—and has gained 40 regular customers.

Although PlanetSoho also offers a built-in e-mail marketing program, plus software for managing financial accounting and customer records, Kassian says she has yet to use any of it. Nor has she done any paid search or other forms of online marketing—at least not yet, she says.

For now, she’s still learning the ins and outs of e-commerce, including how to ship the occasional order that comes from overseas.

A woman who saw Kassian’s home-made carrying bags  online—Kassian says she’s not sure where online—placed an order from Australia, followed by a few more orders from the customer’s Down Under friends. Although Kassian usually ships orders via FedEx or UPS, or via a regional carrier for upper Midwest orders, she found it easiest to use her local office of the United States Postal Service to ship what were small packages to Australia.

PlanetSoho’s fees start at $4.95 per month for sellers that feature up to 16 product listings and send out up to 1,000 e-mails per month; for $9.95 per month sellers can feature an unlimited number of product listings and send up to 3,000 e-mails per month. The company, which claims to have more than 1 million web clients, was founded in 2010 by CEO Ron Daniel, who previously founded two international media companies, IndividualTV and the Karaoke Channel. PlanetSoho, with offices in Tel Aviv, Israel, and San Francisco, has received $11 in funding from venture capital firms Morgenthaler Ventures and Mangrove Capital Partners.

While her business is still tiny—Kassian says she single-handedly ships about 40 orders per month, for total annual sales of about $25,000—she has eyes on bigger things. She says she has plenty of room to expand her cooking facilities on the farm as well as handle more online consumer as well as wholesale sales through her two web sites. With growth in mind, she’s made overtures to potential wholesale bakery customers like the coffee houses of the Starbucks and Barnes & Noble retail chains. “If I landed some super huge fish,” she says, “I could put in a commercial kitchen.”

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