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Rob Huysinga (aka Bubba Ice), the co-founder of experiential ice cream chain Pan-N-Ice, has a massive 1.3 million followers on TikTok.
He’s already built a business with the help of social media, so he understands what works. He provides insight into his own experiences in becoming an influencer and why he decided to leave the world of ice cream and funny videos to set up a new experiential brick and mortar business.
Dig down to his advice below:
TikTok is a platform for releasing your inner weirdness
I know nothing about TikTok. How did you get started?
At the beginning of 2019, I was making ice cream, and a customer was recording me. Suddenly got a load of DMs the next day on Instagram saying, “Oh, you’re going viral on this platform called TikTok.”
I’d never heard of TikTok before. So I went over to it, and this video was blowing up, so I just decided to get on the platform.
It seemed pretty fun and was all video. It allows you to be quite weird on it, where Instagram, where it’s just photos, is taken quite seriously.
With TikTok, you can release your inner weirdness and eccentricity. You can go wild on it without anyone judging you. It’s a great platform, and I love it.
For listeners that haven’t watched these videos, explain a bit of what you would do and what made your business eye-catching.
I founded this ice cream brand (Pan-n-Ice) when I was 20 years old. I saw the concept when I was in Thailand and brought it back to the UK.
I found that the majority of my customer base was on TikTok. As a startup, we didn’t have massive marketing budgets, so it was just a great way to create an authentic and organic relationship with your customer base. I made the ice creams, and it blew up with each video getting millions of views.
For the last year or so since I sold out of that company, I’ve been more reflective. As a result, my life path has changed slightly, which is why in the last 12 months, I’ve been relatively quiet on TikTok.
But now I’m around the corner of launching a new brand (Bubba Oasis) and will get back on TikTok. I’m excited to connect again.
Promote your brick and mortar businesses with social media
Tell me about the new brand. Is it ice cream related?
It’s not ice cream related. I found myself wanting a whole new challenge. So I sold out of Pan-n-Ice last year, and for the last six to 12 months, I’ve been preparing for this new concept, which is effectively a home away from home and a place to work and play for Generation Z.
During the day, it’s a coworking space, and then at night, it turns into an experiential destination. We’ve got creative cocktails and a vast roof terrace where we will do immersive live events.
We’re going to partner up with lots of TikTok talent, and it will be a stage and place to go for talent to perform and show what they’re incredible at.
It’s going to be the hub of a community. We’ve got our first site lined up in Islington in London, and then we got two more locations in the pipeline.
Exciting times, but slightly nerve-wracking. It’s the biggest project I’ve ever been involved in, and we’re learning new things.
I’ve not had that much time to be on TikTok for the last 12 months. But I’m excited to get back on it and make history again.
Tell me about the move into bricks and mortar then, because that’s extremely different from what you’re used to doing.
Previously you travelled around, and it was very much a mobile business. So what have you learned? Talk to me about your learning curve. How steep has it been?
That is a great question. As I said, I wanted a new challenge, and the project we’ve currently got is a 5,000 square foot site. There’s alcohol and cooking involved, so it’s just a step up from the ice cream game.
In terms of how I’ve gone about doing it—I think the first thing for me was to realise what I’m bad at. Because when more is at stake and the risks are more significant, there’s less margin for error.
I’ll give you an example.
So operationally, I’m not that good. I’m OK—I can work my way around an HR operations manual, but I’m no expert.
I looked at other brands out there, such as Joe & The Juice, where they’ve got an incredible culture. I wanted to reach out to them to see if there was anyone there that I could collaborate with.I
‘ve partnered up with the ex-head of HR at Joe & the Juice, and he’s now taken over HR operations.
He’s fantastic and making that his own. It means I can trust him to do that, and we can grow together.
Similarly, I’m not the best cook. I’m awful. On TikTok, I’ve been technically the chef because I’m creating food (ice cream), but I’m no expert.
So I reached out to a cook called Isaac, who’s got a significant following online, and very much in line with the new brand Bubba that I’m creating. Again, it goes back to creating that culture. So he’s crafted this incredible menu with another chef friend of mine.
I’ve also got a good friend of mine from university who’s in banking. So he’s going to oversee the finances, and then we’ve also got Johnny, who was also at Joe & The Juice, to help with events.
I’m just super proud of the team, and teamwork makes the project work, as it’s pretty daunting. I’ve built incredible people around me to take control of the areas of the business that I’m not good at.
Sometimes social media virality is a matter of timing and luck
How are you planning to market this business? Because obviously, your roots are in Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. Are you going to be able to replicate the successes you’ve seen previously with a new business?
It’s a great question. In all honesty, I don’t fully know. With the previous brand I was involved in, it was a bit of timing and luck. I got on to TikTok at the beginning—the algorithm was terrific, and it was very content friendly when I got on to it.
But we’ve ensured that our menu is TikTok friendly. So, for example, we’ve got a tandoori oven right in the middle of the food counter. We’re making fresh dough through a bakery, making fresh flatbreads every single day. All of that is very camera friendly.
I’m going to go from just the ice cream content and morph more into the cooking of the breads and chucking the dough up, chucking the dough around, slapping it around, and slapping it in the oven. Bish Bash Bosh. All things that have virality factors to them. Same with the cocktails.
My platform’s no longer just about me. I want to get other talented TikTokers. Whether it’s a singer or dancer, come and perform on my platform. So it becomes this community-centric thing as opposed to just Bubba Ice.
Understand what kind of media works for each social media platform
It’s fascinating that the idea of something being TikTok friendly needs a lot of colour and movement—a feast for the senses.
That’s one thing I learned with the previous ice cream brand.
Everyone talks about pictures being Instagram friendly. But is a video TikTok friendly? Will it engage the viewer for that first five seconds when millions of videos are posted on TikTok every day? Will it capture them? Is it thumb-stopping? Is it weird? Is it rocky? Is it eccentric?
But that’s what works, and that’s the reason why when I get back on to the platform. I will continue to try and create viral content that spreads nothing but positivity into the viewer’s daily life.
Which social media platform you use depends on your business model
Thumb-stopping. I’ve learned new lingo! I recently saw a stat saying there were 25 billion views of the hashtag small business on TikTok. Does that mean it’s somewhere all small businesses should be?
I think it entirely depends on what your business model is. If it’s B2B and your consumer is over 50, you’re wasting your time on TikTok. On the other hand, if you’re B2C and your consumers are early millennials or Generation Z that are getting on TikTok right now, it’s staggering the virality that could happen.
I’ll give an example. This one guy follows me, and he works in Cold Stone Creamery as an ice cream maker. In 18 months, he’s got 10 million followers on TikTok and booming.
I spoke to him the other day—he’s getting ad campaigns. It’s so simple that you just have to be your authentic self on it, whatever that may be.
I’m a bit eccentric and weird, so that’s what I get across on my TikTok. Other people might be obsessed with coffee! Regardless of who you are, TikTok is no longer just a place for teenage kids to do dance routines. It’s a place to showcase your talent.
Social media can increase your brand loyalty
But for a dinosaur like me, can you explain how you turn a view into a customer because many people will just enjoy the video and then move on? So you can’t do a hard sell—or can you?
I love offline businesses. I’ll forever be in hospitality. I tried to do an online business in lockdown selling soaps and hated and was so bad at it. I love people and interaction. I love creating spaces that just allow and facilitate human interaction.
It’s a bit hard to answer that question in a concrete manner, where I can say I have 500,000 followers, and then 10% of that converts to a sell or a meet and greet.
But I find that the more followers I had as it was going up and up, the bigger and bigger the queues would be. The queues would only be that way because of TikTok.
For example, one guest called Ellie. She came from Cornwall basically, to have our ice cream. I just found that mind-boggling and crazy, but that’s an example of how powerful the platform can be.
That is amazing, and that shows the kind of brand loyalty you can build when people travel miles and miles. Can you describe your previous ice cream business for the listeners, bearing in mind this is audio? If they haven’t watched the videos, they’ll have no idea what it is your fans were watching.
So there’s a big frozen steel surface, and you from a great height pour this cream—explain what happens.
It’s a minus 30-degree pan. So you get this liquid cream, pour it on to the pan, chop it all up, and then make fresh ice cream within a minute.
I founded that company when I was 20. I sold out of it last year, and now I’m creating this new experiential concept called Bubba. That’s the backstory.
With social media, engage with your audience for success
How did you make sure you were constantly innovating in terms of the content you were producing? Because I know that you had a thing where you were doing a different flavour every day with your last business.
How did you keep that fresh? And for you as well, if you’re doing it every day.
If anyone’s listening to this and has a Generation Z customer base, then definitely get on to TikTok. A great way is to create a product for the family and the fans.
I’m writing a comment, “What cocktail would you like me to make? Who knows, maybe tomorrow I’ll make it for you.”
Suddenly you’ve got thousands of people saying, “Oh, make me a Mojito, make me this make me that.”
That just boosts engagement, but it also allows you to build a personal relationship with someone who’s ultimately on the end of a phone. It’s a great way to make that emotional connection.
Because you’re not a faceless brand—you’re accessible.
In some of your videos on YouTube, I noticed you were almost reading comments live. You feel like you’re in the room with you.
How did you learn to do that? Are you a natural at being an approachable guy, or did you do some training?
Is there a course you can do in this?
I’d say I’m terrible at lots of things, but one thing I love is people interacting. The more organic and authentic you are in front of the screen, the more you can build that relationship with the end viewer.
So I aim to make content for literally anyone watching it—I want them to feel like it’s them and me.
Does that make sense? It’s a bit weird, but I find that it works pretty well.
Have a look a what other influencers are doing on social media
And your manner in front of the camera it’s so natural. Did you find that you just got better with practice? Do you have to hone it? Is it a craft that you got to practice?
Well, I’d say a lot of people say it comes across as cringe. I overstepped the mark as I was first getting on to TikTok.
I got a bit excited making ice cream, and the video went viral. I was getting so much abuse and hatred. They were saying this guy is so cringy.
And to be honest, I look back on the video, and it was cringe.
That’s an example of me being a little bit too much on camera—a little bit too awkward. So it’s about toning it down a little bit and not rubbing people up the wrong way.
In all honesty, I think the guy who nails this best is Salt Bae, who is a massive inspiration to me.
I’ve met him twice, and the way he’s managed to market his brand through Instagram with nearly 40 million followers. As a result, whenever he turns up at any one of his restaurants worldwide, there is an enormous queue.
Again, he’s adding excitement and joy into every single one of his guest’s lives by literally sprinkling some soul on a steak. He’s almost the pin-up boy for this.
Marketing and branding knowledge can be useful
Do you do your homework? Are you continuously tracking the latest clever influencer marketer campaign or the latest person who’s building a brand?
How much time do you have to invest in watching the broader social media world?
Yeah, it’s been interesting because, for the last 12 months, I’ve been building behind the scenes.
I deleted Instagram for six months and replaced it with Pinterest because I said to myself, “Right now, I need to create this new business model, and I want to launch for the summer.”
I’d go on Instagram and find I was getting distracted.
I became obsessed with interior design. Soho House and these sorts of places where in the day there is coworking and a night it turns into something else with a fun and cosy vibe.
In terms of social media, I’ve not been on it for the last 12 months.
I have noticed guys who are killing it, and I do analyse the likes of Salt Bae and what makes them tick. I’ve looked up Salt Bae’s first-ever Instagram photo to see how organic it was and things like that,
I find it so interesting, but in all honesty, I had a love for marketing and branding when I was younger. I was lucky enough to go to a fascinating business school where I learned so much.
I was going to ask you whether you went to business school. What were the key things that you think that shaped your entrepreneurial expertise while you were there?
I think many entrepreneurs, especially my age, have dumbed down university and encourage dropping out.
I don’t encourage that, nor do I discourage it—I think everyone has their path in life. It’s not for anyone else to say, “Oh yeah, you should be a dropout. University is a waste of time.”
For me, university wasn’t a waste of time. I was fortunate enough to be in a position where I could go to one of the best business schools in the country and listen to the CMO of Caterpillar and all of these great brands.
So it was a tremendous experience for me, and it helped me mould the first brand that I founded. And again, it’s helped me develop the second brand I’m starting now.
So, for example, we’d have seminars and lectures on cultural branding. It takes you back to learning about brands like Patagonia and Innocent Smoothies and how your communication expresses what you stand for.
I’ve subconsciously become obsessed with all these things, and that’s why my business partner is now the ex-head of HR at Joe & The Juice and is culturally driven in the way he inspires.
For example, our internal branding is around how are we’re treating our team members who become part of the brand Bubba. So it all funnels back to those early days of branding and marketing, and it’s exhilarating.
I love that you are this outrageous contrarian because, on the surface, you seem super casual.
You like making videos that look easy as anything, and then underneath, you have this whole marketing degree and deep thoughts about business culture.
So it’s interesting to see these two things play in one individual.
Yeah. And now I’ve had a bit of time off, I feel with the new brand, and as I’m also getting old, my content will become more business-focused because ultimately, that’s what comes first to me.
I’m obsessed with business. I’m obsessive about marketing, branding and people first, with the influencer thing always a by-product.
I’d never say I’m an influencer—even when I got to a million followers, only then did I reach out to an agent who helps me develop my brand.
But as and when I come out of my shell a bit more with Bubba, I’ll be speaking more about business and inspiring young entrepreneurs to go out there and do it.
I believe more strongly about that than ice cream.
Understand the challenges of being an influencer
No, fair enough.
Is being an influencer as hot and exciting a career choice as it might seem because it was named one of the top careers, I think last year or the year before.
How much money can you make as an influencer, and how much does it affect you in terms of the time you’re putting on social media, as well as the delicate balance of brands and fans?
Talk to me about the life of an influencer.
I think being an influencer is genuinely hard. I think a lot of people are pretty condescending about it.
But I think influencers are incredibly creative, and they deserve as much respect as possible because, ultimately, if we’re going to take it to black and white, they’re a billboard, right?
A billboard in the 1980s was an advertising space.
And if you’re going to look at it in black and white, that’s effectively what an influencer is.
So brands are paying huge, huge sums to be associated with great talent and great influencers.
It’s so competitive. Many people want to do it, and kids growing up now say, “I want to be an influencer.” That wasn’t a thing when I was growing up, which makes me sound ancient.
But I say fair play to them. I’m not passionate about doing that. It’s great for me and the brand and marketing, but I come at it more from an entrepreneurial perspective.
No, I understand that. But when you say huge sums, Rob, can you be straight with us?
What was the most significant amount you were paid as an influencer, and what was the smallest amount you would accept?
So with Subway, we did a campaign in the summer, and they paid £5,200.
For one post.
No, three posts, but I turned a Subway into ice cream. Luckily I didn’t have to taste it.
I just made it. But that’s on TikTok, right?
So, for example, on TikTok, I’ve got 1.3 million followers. So if I had that following on Instagram from what I’ve heard from friends and stuff, the money probably be double that. So there’s ample cash to be made on it.
That’s why I respect influencers, especially the more prestigious ones because it’s not easy. It’s a full-time job, and it’s also quite hard emotionally.
You’re judged externally, and that must be hard mentally to stay tough because obviously, people are only valuing you on your external shell.
It must be pretty weird for your moral compass and your values.
Suddenly you’re being judged on things essential for your career, such as whether you look good in a photo or not, rather than who you are as a person.
Whether you’re nice should be a lot more important than looking good in a photo, do you know what I mean?
So, yeah, it’s an interesting one.
Stay consistent with social media
I’ve got one more social media question, and then I’ve got a whole raft of other stuff to ask you—which is about promoting posts.
How do you pick the right hashtags? Did you pay to promote any of your posts on any of the media? Talk about the promotion aspect.
On TikTok, I’ve never paid for anything. It’s all just been super organic.
I think it’s a weird one. TikTok changes its algorithm every few weeks and releases new hashtags every single day. What you want to try and do is link up to those hashtags they use each day, and then that will push you to the page and your video up.
You want to make your hashtags as exact as possible.
So, for example, if you’re making a coffee and you want that to fly, then use hashtags directly related to coffee, right down to the type of bean you’re using, because that way, you can dominate that particular niche.
You want to stay consistent with it. So a video a day keeps the doctor away.
So these are things I’ve not been doing for the last 12 months, but when I get back on TikTok, which will be in the next few weeks, I’m going to start doing again.
An online ecommerce business might not be your thing
And Rob, I hope you don’t mind me asking this question, but please, I want to hear about the soap business. What happened?
Oh my god. It was so bad.
I went into lockdown and had just sold the ice cream brand. I was at home where I thought of new concepts and ideas and wanted to hit the ground running.
So everyone was in lockdown. It was when everyone was scared of coronavirus. So I said, “Well. Soap sales are going to go through the roof. So why don’t I just get on to that?”
In all honesty, I got off to quite a good start with it, but I just found it so boring.
I’ve learned that the business model isn’t for me, and again, hats off to the likes of GymShark, who nailed that online business model.
But for me, I love hospitality and creating places where people can connect and have a good time.
So that’s why I’m so excited for Bubba to launch.
Culture could be crucial to your business
Well, thank you for being honest about the soap failure. Because it’s good to hear successful people talking about the times when they haven’t got it a hundred per cent right.
With Bubba, you mentioned you’d got one venue secured, and there’s two more on the way.
How big is it going to be? Are we talking global? Is there going to be a franchise? What is the ultimate ambition?
We’re not franchising because I’m obsessed with keeping that culture, internal bond and camaraderie strong. The issue with franchising is that you lose control of that—I’m very anal about the brand, so that’s not something we’re focusing on.
But to put it into perspective, my business partner Mo was at Joe & The Juice when they had three stores, and now in the UK, they have over 53. So he was opening four stores a month at one point, which means he’s very much used to scaling out food and beverage concepts.
From my time at the previous brand in the summer, we’d have up to 10 locations at once with over a hundred employees. So although we’re not experts, we have the drive, ambition and dedication to scale this out, and hopefully, we’ll become the next big thing.
So that’s the grand vision.
Do you feel like you’re a serial founder? Like Bubba is not going to be your last venture, but one of several more?
Yeah, my vision for Bubba is to become a branded house. We’ll nail this first Bubba concept, and then once that’s up and running, we can go into Bubba retreats and Bubba beach clubs.
That, for me, is the vision for it. We create this overarching hospitality group that adds fun, excitement, enjoyment into our guests’ daily lives.
Understand the trends in your industry
Has this all been funded from selling your last business, or have you taken on investment as well?
Yeah, we’ve taken on investment. A few of my good university friends that work in the city have heavily funded us. We’ve also got a bit from my family.
The site itself was previously a restaurant—we’ve got a great deal and rent-free period because of coronavirus.
It’s at an area that I know is relatively residential. I know people will still be working at home for the next few years, so we’re tapping into that market.
You sound like someone that does their homework. How do you get all the data that you need?
There were so many subtle nuances with this concept, and I spent six months building it up throughout summer to winter 2020. I was thrashing it out until finally, I had the final blueprint of the business model. That’s when I reached out to the likes of Mo, Alfie, Johnny and Isaac, and got them all on board.
But it all started because I love what I’m doing and am passionate about it.
For example, I’m fortunate enough to be a member of Soho House. Soho House is a brand that I love going to on a Sunday morning to do some work. I love going there on a Friday on a date or with friends on a Wednesday night.
You have a great time, and it’s so versatile.
I said, “Well, look, I’ve got this TikTok following. I want to use that. I love brands like Soho House and know that brands like Joe & The Juice are scalable and hugely successful. I also know that I’m personally good at building a commercial brand.”
So those are a few factors that led to me creating this new concept.
I started looking at sites in central London and realised how expensive the rent is. So I said there’s no point creating a concept where you’re open from nine in the morning to nine at night. Why not just stay open till two in the morning? Then you’re able to double your revenue opportunities.
That’s why we’ve also gone for this chameleon-like business model. There are lots of subtle nuances to it, but hopefully, it resonates with people.
It is a little bit scary right now. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit nervous, but as we get closer and closer to launch, the nerves are more turning into excitement.
Run your business with purpose and profit in mind
Sometimes nerves are good to hone your mind and focus your attention.
When you talk about getting these amazingly experienced people, how did you convince them to come on board with a completely new concept?
Did you get them to jump from a previous job, or were you lucky enough to scoop them up after post-coronavirus redundancy? How did you get them on your team?
Yeah, so I had a friend at Joe & The Juice, and I told him about my concept. I said, “Look, I’m looking for someone who’s operationally savvy.” And he replied, “I know the right guy.”
Mo had left Joe & The Juice a few weeks before, and straight away, we met up.
I told him about the concept and loved it, so we just bonded around how we were to do it together, what kind of business and brand we would create, and what we would want it to stand for.
How would we want to make our team members feel?
Creating something that’s value-driven and has a purpose. Of course, we are profit-driven, but the purpose is also essential.
We looked at other brands like Shake Shack, founded by Daniel Meyer, a restaurant server in New York. He’s someone who inspires us—so values-driven which we are as well.
Awesome. You talked earlier about how friends and family have backed your idea, and I love that I saw your mum in some of your videos back in your ice cream days. What impact has a supportive family had on you as an entrepreneur?
I think from a very young age, I was super lucky to be raised by them. They taught me the values of hard work, integrity, and treating people the same way you’d like others to treat you.
And are they entrepreneurial? Do they run businesses?
Where did you get this sort of trait?
Honestly, I don’t know.
My grandfather was super entrepreneurial, but I’ve always loved that side of things, even when I was a kid. I’d go to Turkey, bring back fake Adidas hoodies, and sell them at school.
I’ve loved just doing stuff like that, and I think it comes from independence. Ultimately this is a considerable challenge, and I love it.
Take advantage of quiet time
Do you feel like having time off imposed by coronavirus and the fact you sold the business was instrumental in terms of giving you time to think and plan?
Because it’s pretty unusual for a founder to have a few months where they’re downing tools.
It’s such a great question. I’m not going to lie—I found it challenging.
I’m such an energetic person, thriving off interaction and being around people, whether it’s in my office or whether it’s with guests.
Not having that, with being tied down and restricted due to coronavirus and not getting out, I found it challenging, and honestly, I hated it. But in hindsight, it’s been good because I had the most creative period of my life in that quiet period.
For months I was writing down different wild and wacky business and business plans. It’s allowed me to be with the team that I’m with now. It allowed me to create relationships organically over time and be patient.
It allowed me to find the right site.
For example, I visited over 50 locations before I signed the lease on this one in Islington. It allowed us time to thrash out the concept, menu and create something special.
I’ve forgotten who said it, but it’s a great quote—direction is more important than speed—it’s against my nature that quote, but it summarises the last 12 months for me.
I’m glad you had that space. One last question—the name Bubba, where on earth did that come from?
I just loved the name Bubba—it rolls off the tongue. It’s friendly and warm, and I’ve got a good instinct about it.
Also, Bubba links into my current TikTok audience, and I didn’t want to turn my back on that.
I tried to integrate that TikTok audience into this new concept, which is why, for example, I’m so excited to get TikTok talent into Bubba and not make it about me anymore. It’s about us.
You’ve been an absolute star. Thank you for sharing everything from TikTok secrets to the challenge of building a brand new business.
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