It was a psychology class and possibly the best class I’ve ever taken — it was fascinating, provocative, and best of all I didn’t have to do any of the work. (Which was really good because I hadn’t realized the class was so difficult).
During the reviews and exams while students were freaking out, I spent my time doodling popcorn logos and sketching out imaginary storefronts. It wasn’t until my notebook filled with drawings and random snackfood thoughts that I realized a psychology degree was not in the cards for me.
Then, after I sold a few gallons of popcorn to Dr. Riccio instead of reading the text for class, I decided that popcorn would definitely be way more fun than defending a thesis.
The Kent Regional Business Alliance gave me a small mountain of information and resources about small business start-ups. The KRBA provides free consulting services to anyone thinking about starting a business. Free! They’re funded, in part, by the small business administration. More fun freebies are at the state of Ohio business development website, including a customized business startup booklet called Starting Your Business in Ohio.
Honestly, I thought it looked like a lot of work at first, so I took the same approach that I did with my psych class and kind of doodled around and cherry-picked the fun parts of business ownership. I picked out a store name, Popped! and trademarked it. You can search for Popped!, or your own dream name at the Ohio Secretary of State's website. I formed a limited liability company, Gwen Rosenberg Enterprises, LLC. I like the “enterprises” part because it sounds so mysterious, like I could really be doing a lot of very, very, interesting and enterprising types of things.
Once all the easy parts were done, I was left with either completing the paperwork to make myself a minority owned business, or writing a business plan. Business plans are the equivalent of a dissertation — lots of boring work to get to the part you really wanted to do in the first place. From what I’ve heard, it seems like a lot of really good ideas wither and die because people hate writing business plans. That’s such a shame. I wasn’t going to allow that to happen to me, so I got some of “For Idiots, Dummies and Morons” books from the library and pounded out a short (really short) and sweet business plan.
Before I let you read it, I should warn you that I fulfilled my undergraduate math requirement with “Physics for Liberal Arts Majors,” and I barely squeaked by with a passing grade. Needless to say my business plan is light on financials. For all you voyeurs out there go ahead and check it out — it's the PDF attached to this post.
If you have never written a business plan before, you’re going to think this looks pretty well thought out. If, however, you have any experience with business plans at all, I’m about to look really bad here. But, it was good enough that when I presented it to Ron Burbick, he gave me an A for effort, and the opportunity to open Popped! in Acorn Alley II.
Business plans can get as complicated or simple as the person who writes them. It’s a shame that the thought of coming up short on financial details could prevent someone from at least exploring a really good business dream. Despite my somewhat flippant attitude toward operating expenses and liquid assets, my business plan served the important and necessary purpose of taking all the doodles and daydreams and turning them into something I could hand in.
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.
Never one to be considered tech savy or even remotely interested in computermaphones, iPads or much of e-anythings, I had comfortably accepted the role of luddite among friends.
That is, until I entered into the fast paced, high-stakes world of popcorn. If you’re contemplating a new business of any kind, you better make nice with social media now. There is no business so small that it won’t benefit tremendously from social media. In fact it’s practically a requirement. Don’t resist. I resisted for a long time, thinking that the aroma of fresh popcorn and my sparkling personality would draw people into my shop, Popped! Social media has become so hugely popular that in order to even draw in the walk up business I have to dive headfirst into all manner of online social outlets.
Here’s a list of just some the sites and services I’m planning on using to promote Popped!
These are just some of the sites and services I have either already started to use or plan to use once I’m open. There are many more, and keeping up with them is no small task. The time consumed by social media surprised me, as does the strange low-level anxiety that comes from throwing yourself and your business out there for the world to see, rate, review and tweet about.
The rewards for the effort are tremendous, however. Never before has marketing your own small business been so affordable (all these sites are FREE!) and accessible to the small business person. While I’ll never be accused of being an early adopter or trendsetter, I have already benefitted from investing my time in social media.
Talking is something I enjoy- me talking, other people talking, talking about talking and especially talking about my popcorn business, Popped! I’m not exactly sure what comes first in small business, passion for an idea, or a great, almost unstoppable, desire to talk about it. Needless to say that when Matt Trayers, the president of the Kent State University Collegiate Entrepreneurs Organization, asked me to talk at their meeting last Monday I was more than happy to oblige. Kent has a great business school and the classes there already cover demand side management and positive accounting theory, so I knew I shouldn't bother to reintroduce the same material. (Just humor that last statement.) What these future entrepreneurs really wanted to hear about was the nuts and bolts of starting a small business. Advanced business theories and speakers currently operating huge, successful businesses are interesting, but they don’t answer the question of how you actually take an idea and turn it into something. I can relate to the feeling of looking at a really great business from the outside and just being completely bewildered. From my experience, I had just two solid pieces of advice that I wanted to offer students in the CEO club who may have been feeling the same way. The first was to write. Write ideas, letters, notes, blog posts, sketches, business plans, journals, doodles, anything you like, just write about it. The second was to talk. Talk a lot. Talking to people generates excitement for the ideas your trying to pin down and it gives you the lift to keep exploring. A single conversation can set off a lightbulb that turns a good idea into a great idea. Talking to lots of people gives you a lots of fresh perspectives and information that you would otherwise never have been able to access. No one starting a business has to reinvent the wheel. There are lots of successful people who are more than happy to talk and share the information needed to get an idea going. Call them up. There isn’t a textbook in the world that can cover all the ways to start a small business, but a whole lot of chatter can get you a pretty good overview. At the CEO club meeting, I talked about my background and what I was doing right now for the shop, and I told them where I wanted to be in the future. I shared a few ongoing concerns about equipment, packaging, and budgeting. By being completely candid about my concerns, blunders and expenses, we were able to have a really interesting discussion. Hopefully, I provided some answers about starting a small business in Kent. For my effort, I received a ton of really interesting opinions and solutions. Not all the opinions were keepers, but it was great to hear from a room full of people I hoped would become customers. The meeting sort of turned into an impromptu focus group on prices, products, and late night hours. According to these students, it turns out that Thursday and Saturday are the nights to be open for the late night crowd downtown. (It’s good to know that the next generation of entrepreneurs like to party.) Closing early on Friday is good news for me too, because it frees up my Friday nights to do important things like check out DJ Danny Basic at 157 Lounge, or visit the new bar set up at 101 Bottles. (24 tapped craft beers!) I did put some of their ideas to use by changing my packaging plan in response some specific feedback. There was a small, but vocal contingent that wanted bigger bags for the sea salt kettle popcorn, preferably at 3 A.M. from the walk up window. The bags are bigger, but I’m still working out the details on that 3 A.M. time slot. I wanted to know if they would pay extra for a Kent State licensed popcorn tin. No, unless of course, they could pay with Flash cards funded by the parental financial division. Good to know, especially once the Kent State Hotel is open for visiting parents and alum. I had a great time yammering away last Monday night, and I already have another speaking engagement lined up. Only this one is with some heavy hitters who don’t pull any punches when it comes to snacktime- the third graders at Holden Elementary School.