Lisa Lillien on Building a Multi-Million Dollar Weight Management Empire

Lisa Lillien (a.k.a. Hungry Girl) is a New York Times best-selling author and the creator of the Hungry Girl brand. She is the founder of www.hungry-girl.com, the free daily email service that entertains and informs 1.2 million subscribers every weekday with a mix of recipes, food finds and weight management tips & tricks.

Lisa has turned her appetite for better-for-you food into a multimedia and multimillion-dollar brand, from the free daily email service to a series of successful books, a television show, and regular appearances on The Dr. Oz Show, The View, and TODAY, among others.

Soon to roll out is HUNGRY LAND, which will be the new headquarters for the HUNGRY GIRL enterprise, featuring high tech testing kitchens, a gym, basketball court and social media area where HUNGRY GIRL will correspond with its 1.2 million subscribers, almost 750,000 Facebook fans and thousands of Twitter followers.

Since launching in 2004, Hungry Girl has grown from an email blast with only a handful of subscribers into a multimillion-dollar brand and a leader in the weight-management space. Hungry Girl currently has endorsement deals with General Mills, Tyson, Weight Watchers, and StarKist to name a few. These brands often feature Hungry Girl's highly coveted seal of approval on their packaging and account for millions of dollars in revenue and HUNGRY GIRL has even been featured on over 7 million cereal boxes to date.

On October 16th, Lisa launched her seventh book, HUNGRY GIRL TO THE MAX! The Ultimate Guilt-Free Cookbook, which is almost guaranteed to become a bestseller, as four of her previous books debuted at number one on the New York Times Best Sellers list and she has earned an 8 figure book deal due to the success.

We spoke to Lisa about how she grew her email service from a handful to over a million subscribers; how she attracted 750,000 Facebook fans; and what she'd be doing now if she hadn't chosen entrepreneurship.

TNW:  How did you come up with the idea for Hungry Girl and then arrive at the decision to turn your idea into a reality?

LL: I have always been food obsessed, but I thought there was a lack of practical information and advice about making smarter eating choices that was fun and relatable. That's what inspired me to launch Hungry Girl. I definitely saw a hole in the market and wanted to fill it.

TNW: When you started sending out a daily email blast to a small number of subscribers eight years ago, what were your plans for your business? If you had been asked back then,'what is your wildest dream for your new enterprise?' what would you have said?

LL: My plans were to help as many people as possible and to create a brand that would become relevant in the world of food.

My wildest dream would have been to create a brand that millions of people would love, to write books, to see Hungry Girl logos on food products, to be on tv - all of the things that have now actually happened.

TNW: How did you grow your initial daily email service to more than 1.2 million subscribers, and attract 750,000 followers on Facebook? What are your top tips for entrepreneurs looking to do the same?

LL: The email audience grew via word of mouth, the same with Facebook. If your content is good, people will find you. That's the great thing about the internet; it's easy to get content out there, and its easy to share it.

Facebook and my other social media also grew organically. If I have any advice there its to be real, to have fun with it - and not be too too self promotional.

I think my Hungry Girl Facebook page is so popular because I put up all the posts and responses myself. It's real; a lot of times it's just about my life - and I'm not JUST talking about food or HG events, content, etc. I just have fun with it and people seem to like it. I feel like I have hundreds of thousands of close friends!

TNW: In a saturated market like weight management, how did you make sure your brand was noticed by consumers and high profile partners?

LL: When I first started, the market wasn't saturated at all. No one was doing what I do. I think the success of Hungry Girl caused many people to try to recreate that magic and launch similar diet and food-related content. I definitely benefitted from not only having great FRESH, unique content and a fun, appealing brand, but also by being first. Also, the humor of the brand and how relatable it is sets it apart from brands that some would say are similar.

TNW:  What is your business model?

LL: My revenue comes mostly from two places: advertising, partnerships and licensing deals with food brands; and also book publishing.

When I launched Hungry Girl I knew that brand integrity and being true to the audience would be key. That's why I only partner with companies and products that I use and enjoy.

I am constantly turning down potential advertising deals and other opportunities because I feel they aren't right for the brand, or that the foods/products are not up to the standard of products that Hungry Girl expects from partners/advertisers. Also, none of the editorial in my daily emails is paid for. There's a total separation of content and advertising. This is key to maintain brand integrity.

TNW: When you built your team, what are the key qualities you looked for to ensure the success of your business?

LL: I look for people who are very hard working and who really "get" the brand. I also look for "jack of all trades" types, people who specialize in one role but feel comfortable wearing many different hats at work. When you have a small team, these are very important things.  

TNW: Who were your first customers and how hard was it to attract them? 

LL: Well, I have customers, or HG fans/subscribers, and I also have partners - advertising, etc. The Hungry Girl fans were easy to attract because the content in my daily emails was appealing; easy to read, fun and very informative. That audience grew quickly via word of mouth.

I never spent a penny to market Hungry Girl. My first partners - advertisers - came to me because they saw the power of the brand.

I would write about products and they would see bumps in sales and huge increases in visits to their web sites, etc. So they quickly contacted me to find out how we could work together. 

TNW: Who are your customers and partners now?

LL: The subscribers and HG fans are the same people they were back in 2004 when I launched. They're people who are interested in real world eating and survival strategies, etc. My partners are primarily larger food brands like General Mills, Tyson, Starkist, Bel Brands, etc. but there are also some smaller mom and pop companies that I work with. 

TNW: What is your marketing strategy and what has been the most effective source of new customers so far?

LL: 

My marketing strategy has always been to have to brand sell itself. Not to spend money advertising. If the content is good, people are going to talk about it. That's the bottom line.

And so far that's worked for me. I also believe in spreading the HG love and so I often allow people to share/use Hungry Girl content on their sites. It helps expose the brand to new audiences.

TNW: If you hadn’t chosen entrepreneurship, what alternative career path might you have pursued? 

LL: I'd definitely still be working in entertainment. I loved my career before Hungry Girl, it was fun Working in television, I'd still be doing that.

TNW: Is there a moment in the history of your company which you remember as the highlight so far? 

LL: Hmmm- that's a tough one. There have been several. But I remember my very first book signing in New York City. There were around 350 people there and It was so overwhelming.

It was the first time I had ever come face to face with the people who had been enjoying my content for years It was a very emotional experience for me...almost surreal. 

TNW: Do you have any tips or any advice for women who are thinking about becoming entrepreneurs?

LL: Yes. Don't do it unless you LOVE working - and you have the ability to FOCUS.

Too often I see people who can't focus on what is important and they have too many things they want to do and don't keep their eye on the ball. That's super-important. Keep your eye on the ball! 

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