I didn’t invent popcorn. I’ve heard people lament the lack of some super invention that prevents them from going into business for themselves.
I’m shamelessly acknowledging that not only did I not invent anything, but I’ve spent the last couple years of my life sneaking around other people’s businesses scribbling notes, taking pictures and reverse engineering caramel corn recipes. I refer to these covert missions as “popcorn recon.”
Sounds better than “small business espionage,” and although on first pass you may be thinking that I’m just poaching ideas from other super successful businesses, you’re way off and I’m insulted. (You’re kind of right though). What I’ve actually been doing is ensuring my business is genuinely unique.
There is no better way to flush out an idea than to find someone doing something similar and go check it out in person. Take it for a little test drive on their dime.
Successful business owners can tell you, in detail, about every one of their competitors. They can break down the differences between their business and other more or less successful operations. They have a good idea of what business is teetering on the brink, and more importantly, what idea they are secretly plotting to pilfer. So go find the business that you think is doing something pretty interesting or similar to what you might like to do, and chat them up a bit.
At first, popcorn recon lacked focus. I always carried this little pocket notebook around and I would write really lame comments like “White cheddar or orange?” or “No clowns!!!” I would idle around in some bakery that had a great reputation, and buy the most popular item on the menu to see if it lived up to the hype.
As my little shop came closer to reality though, I found that my recon missions got a lot more specific. I once got busted by a saleslady at Malleys Chocolates in Lakewood after I crawled around on the floor trying to get a picture of the underside of a nut warmer. The soda jerk at Sweet Moses in Cleveland completely shut down when I pressed a little too hard about heat-sealed poly bag packaging. I cracked open the clerk at Nuts on Clark in Chicago to get their cheese ingredients, and I discovered that Garretts Popcorn just opened a new location in Dubai. In New York, I collected paper bags with logos, soda bottles and artisanal chocolate wrappers.
Many of the zillion little details that comprise my shop have been test driven in as many other little and big ventures around the country. I scoped out websites, price lists, packaging materials and regional differences in cheese powder application.
My shop’s aesthetic, my recipes, even this blog are new to the marketplace. By talking to as many people as I can about popcorn, and conducting unscientific blind taste tests, I can tell you that most people prefer the flavor of flaked nutritional yeast over commercial “cheesy” powders. Also, people really hate biting into popcorn balls — they find it awkward and embarrassing. (That’s why I’m making popcorn bars.) Women prefer sweet and salty popcorn varieties and guys tend to go for cheese, but they’re not too particular about white or orange cheddar. (My cheddar is white.)
By continually venturing out on my popcorn recon missions my business will always remain genuinely unique. I may not have invented popcorn, but I’m presenting it in a way that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Needless to say, if you are contemplating your own business venture, by all means feel free to chat me up and poach any idea you find to be particularly interesting or clever — I’d be insulted if you didn’t.
About 15 years ago, my grandfather passed away and left me some stock in Disney, a cuckoo clock, a stethoscope and an insatiable appetite for sweets — particularly peanut brittle.
He was a child of the Great Depression, and when he died my grandmother distributed the Disney stock to his grandchildren and the safety deposit box full of cash to his children. His insistence on keeping cash hearkened back to a time of high unemployment, food rations and two world wars.
After he retired from his medical practice, he and I would spend summer afternoons together mostly driving around Amish country stopping at Heinis Cheese Chalet and the world’s largest cuckoo clock at Alpine Alpa. He encouraged me to become a doctor because he liked working for himself and must have thought I would too. I loved my grandpa, but there was really no chance of me ever becoming a doctor — I had clearly not inherited his academic prowess. I kept the stock, partly for sentimental reasons and partly because it took me about ten years to figure out how to open an online brokerage account.
His gift was the impetus to launch my own business. It was just enough money to make me think I could start a business, but a far, far cry from paying for all the equipment, rent, utilities, permits, packaging and whatnot. There are five other people in my house and they like to eat, have heat in the winter, wear shoes and such, so I knew I had to get creative in coming up with the capital forPopped!
I discovered a website called Kickstarter through my husband, although it’s been written about frequently in the New York Times, Wired Magazine and elsewhere.
Kickstarter is part social proofing and part fundraising platform to help people generate the money to launch an idea. The site isn’t for the secretive, as it requires a detailed description, pictures, video, and web links for site visitors to peruse. Kickstarter isn’t specifically aimed at business startups looking for cash, although there are plenty of them. It’s really meant to foster creativity and sharing of ideas. Projects can range from artwork, music production, films, food, books or anything people feel passionate about. After submitting a brief project summary, the site walks you though setting up your project page where you manage your request for funding and provide updates and feedback. You can see the project I created here.
Anyone can choose to support your idea in exchange for “backer rewards.” I offered an assortment of popcorn, gift certificates, stickers and (my personal favorite) an invite to a popcorn party at the Water Street Tavern. The rewards should have some value to backers, but at the same time leave enough money left over to get your idea off the ground. I decided I wanted to raise $2,500. That sounded like a lot money. Ask for too much and you look a little greedy, ask for too little and you can’t really do much with it. The trick with Kickstarter is that it’s all or nothing. You get backed for the whole amount, or you walk away with nothing — no loss, no gain. So you have to really consider the amount and choose something appropriate. I should also mention that Kickstarter takes 5 percent, and Amazon takes another 5 percent from the total amount you raise for providing the software platform and managing your account.
My sister made a video for my project page on her computermaphone one rainy afternoon, and we posted it for the world to see. While I know that video is tremendously valuable in terms of sending a message, I still found that making it was the hardest part of the entire process. Kickstarter even gives you this big pep talk about making a video — seems I’m not the only person who considers starring in an online video ulcer-inducing. Some videos are pretty long drawn-out and glossy affairs. Mine was more of a do-it-yourself job taped in my kitchen. I have since learned to refer to anything that strikes me as homemade-looking as “authentic.” That sounds intentional and not at all related to budgetary constraints.
When my Kickstarter project page launched, it was up to me to promote it. Whatever your business goals, at some point you’re going to have to ask someone for money or publicity. I “liked” it on Facebook, I wrote a press release and sent it off to Kent Patch, I talked endlessly about popcorn and updated my Kickstarter page.
My parents backed me, some cousins and friends did too, and I exceeded my financial goal in the thirty days I had allotted. Between my grandfather’s gift, Kickstarter funds, a significant amount of family savings, and some personal credit card debt, I was able to buy most of what I needed to get started. I expect to open Popped! and fulfill all my backer rewards in the coming weeks.
Every business owner I’ve spoken with has a different story of how they paid for their businesses. Some, like Mike Mistur and Ryan Brannon, the owners of Bent Tree Coffee, opted to secure a small business loan through KRBA and the SBA. Others leveraged personal assets like their houses, and still others are running with the big dogs looking to score venture capital money through Jumpstart in Cleveland.
My story by comparison is really very traditional: I spent my savings, I inherited some money, my family and friends helped me, and someone very special believed I could do it.
It occurred to me, as I was scrubbing ants off my kitchen walls after a failed attempt at kegging craft soda sent a geyser of sticky, non-carbonated, honey sweetened ginger ale up to the ceiling, that there are easier ways to create a business.
Franchises and “turn-key” operations admittedly were sounding pretty appealing right at that moment. I could buy an entire business without suffering over every little paper cup and twisty tie. The branding, equipment, training, packaging — even the floor plans — could all be handed to me for a price.
When my kitchen fills with smoke and the dog refuses to eat my latest popcorn recipe I think to myself that there are snack food corporations that will sell me 35 different pre-mixed popcorn flavor powders. I could even buy my popcorn pre-popped!
The six foot tall stainless steel cooker/mixer that I bought used would have come with the red carpet treatment and full tutorial from the salesman had I bought it new. Same for the rotary air poppers and copper kettles. Instead, I’m planning on a quiet evening alone with all my stainless steel appliances where we get to know each other over 50 pound bags of popcorn and 25 pound bags of brown sugar.
Now that the ginger ale is washed off the walls, I can focus on the keg cooler, which needs to be refitted with a tower that will accommodate two taps for craft brewed sodas. First, I have to call the manufacturer for instructions on where to drill so I don’t hit something important. I already need to call the repair man to fix the parts that jostled loose during the drive back to Kent from Chicago, where I bought it off a guy on eBay. Of course, I could have avoided all this hassle if I bought the fountain machine and syrup from one of the major soft drink manufacturers. They have a repair man that will come to your shop, swap out parts, repair everything and get you up and running selling their soft drinks the same day. I’m still searching online for the manual for my brand of keg cooler.
I could sell mega colas and tutti frutti popcorn and turn a reliable and predictable profit based on the sales of similarly outfitted shops. If I sell their products exclusively, Coke and Pepsi will give me the $800 beverage cooler I can’t afford. They’ll even buy me a cheesy looking sign and branded paper cups, their brand, of course. My profit margins would expand with the bulk buying power of major distributors, and I wouldn’t be at the mercy of price fluctuations in butter and brown sugar. All my ingredients would be delivered each week by a giant truck and wheeled into the shop and loaded onto the appropriate NFS dunnage shelves.
Presumably, my risk of failure and public humiliation would be mitigated in exchange for a mediocre business and predictable time-tested margins.
But no, instead my risk of failure and humiliation are very real — completely unsheltered, thanks to my insistence upon doing it all myself. My business is being built one labored decision at a time, including logos, labels, eco-cups, popcorn tins, signs, recipes, marketing plans, equipment, etc.
Despite the obvious advantages, I couldn’t order up my business off the menu of franchises and prearranged options. It’s just not me. I would be miserable boxed in with contractual stipulations and limitations. I’m less afraid of failure than I am of signing away creative control over the business that I’ve worked so hard to get in the first place. Failure just isn’t so scary that I’ll let it push me around like that.
So as a result I’m sweating over every single detail. Nothing is too small to escape scrutiny, debate, discussion and reconsideration. Nothing, in fact, can escape scrutiny because that could, and will, spell trouble for me down the road.
I already forgot to file a zero return for one of my vendor’s licenses (I have two) and received a tax assessment for $1,500. An afternoon of phone calls fixed it, but I’ve become even more obsessive over details, particularly details relating to the Ohio Department of Taxation. (The paperwork required to actually hire someone is another blog post entirely!)
It sounds like a total hassle, I know, but I’m not complaining. I’m thrilled to pour myself into these details, to create something out of nothing and watch what I’ve sketched on scraps of paper turn into brick and mortar, and paper cones and floor outlets, and ginger ale and spicy caramel peanut popcorn all my own.
Here’s the first business lesson I ever learned: Andre Thonrton and I have nothing in common.
Seems pretty obvious since I’m not a legendary Indians baseball player, but it was a realization I made while attending Kent State University’s Fifth Annual Entrepreneurship Extravaganza last fall. Thornton was the keynote speaker and I thought that it might be a great way for me to learn about starting a business. Maybe he would discuss the merits of an LLC versus a C Corporation, I thought. Maybe he would shed some light on securing a trade mark or tax ID number.
This is how he got started in business. First, he’s Andre Thornton, and everyone wants to be his business partner. Secondly, he’s got cash, way more cash than I have. Thirdly, bankers love meeting legendary celebrity baseball players and loaning them even more cash.
Thornton became an entrepreneur after he bought, like eight Applebees. He was encouraging, but he was seriously out of my league. Admittedly, I was disappointed that Andre hadn’t dispensed with a tidy plan for small business success. Then after lunch, I almost bailed entirely when Kent State grossly underestimated how many cookies would-be entrepreneurs could eat, and I didn’t get even one. I stuck it out and met some interesting people in the same boat as me. Like me, they had ideas but weren’t exactly sure what to do next. One had plans for a coffee shop, another worked for a non-profit, and another had four different business cards with four different titles. None of them had any obvious plan for starting a business, but there we were sharing a table listening to Andre’s remarkable successes.
After lunch, I found the opportunity to discuss my plans for Popped! with Andre. He encouraged me to scale-up to a popcorn manufacturing operation equipped with the global logistics to support large scale distribution. Oh, boy.
The entire day was filled with speakers with as many different paths to success. The second speaker of the day advocated the necessity of collaborative partnerships and exploring venture capital opportunities. The next speaker swore off partners of any kind, and recommended only borrowing from family. Still another speaker favored scaling up from a tiny kitchen in my garage and never borrowing anything from anyone, ever.
The advantage of so many differing opinions was that it really drove home the ultimate lesson in small business — eat dessert first. Also, you have to do what’s right for you. Once you decide to embark on starting a business you must be prepared to make your own decisions based on your circumstances, and more than likely, no one will agree with you.
Over the next few weeks all my decisions will be tested as I get set to open Popped! in Acorn Alley II. Some are probably going to end up on the disabled list and others, with any luck, will succeed. From my feeble attempt at writing a business plan to my eventual launch of a global positioning satellite to track popcorn shipments overseas — I’ll share it with you here.