Freedom to Snack, Pure and Simple

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April 11, 2016

New Hampshire’s new company Popzup is experiencing what some call “a good problem to have.” The brand new business is going gangbusters in its earliest stages, having launched just in November 2015, and already the owners are scrambling to keep up with demand, while simultaneously moving into new quarters in Dover’s Washington Street Mills.  

Julie and Marty Lapham are the husband and wife team behind Popzup, which is pioneering a new way to prepare microwaved popcorn.  It turns out that those usual little bags of popcorn you’ve been eating for your “healthy” snack aren’t so healthy after all, Julie explains.  The paper itself is suspect and the lining has recently been banned by the FDA, and Julie also points to the plasticized or metalic mechanism that makes the popping work, the fake butter and other flavorings made of chemicals, and the chemically altered solidified oil that come with your typical microwave popcorn.

The alternative offered by Popzup is a reusable microwave air-popped popper, engineered such that it pops chemical-free popcorn--no oils, no flavorings, no questionable paper products.  The popper, made from paperboard that is free of recycled content, bleach and coatings, can be used 12 times, so it comes with 12 bags of GMO-free kernels from a fourth-generation family farm.

After launching a successful $17,000 Kickstarter campaign back in November, the Laphams had the capital they needed to automate parts of their business and to finalize packaging, buy the paperboard, and purchase the popcorn kernels in quantities large enough to offer the product at a reasonable price.  

By mid-February of this year, Julie explains, they put things on hold as they prepared for the move and machinery installation at the mills, vacating rented space at the Rye General Store, which they had quickly outgrown, for space at 1 Washington Street in Dover.

After the Kickstarter campaign, Julie and Marty filled all the popcorn bags in what she described as a “labor intensive” process,“ weighing the kernels and heat-sealing the pouches. Orders came in through their website and through word-of-mouth spread at various farmer’s markets where they had demonstrated the product.  “Well, we outgrew the Rye store in weeks,” Julie says. In Dover, they’ll eventually work with the non-profit Community Partners, employing people with disabilities who will be helping with packaging.

Julie and her husband had decades in business and in product development, but they still sought advice every step of the way when they decided to take this product to production. That led them to Kit McCormick, then a long-time business advisor with the NH SBDC in Durham.

“We met regularly with her and we talked about everything. We questioned every single angle along the way and we wanted to get Kit’s views,” Julie said.  “It was so very, very important that we did that. To be able to sit down and talk to her was wonderful.”

Kit’s expertise in the financial end of business planning was key, as Julie admits she and her husband had fewer skills in that area, despite years of being on the marketing and creative end of business.  “It was just great to have her say to us about our ideas ‘Oh, that sounds great, but where does it fit in the spreadsheets?’” Julie said.

Kit walked Julie through the necessary financial documents every business must use as management tools [Learn about these typical documents here.] and they are what Julie uses today on a weekly basis.  “Yep, once a week I pull up those sheets and plug in the numbers,” she said. “They have helped me so much.”

Above all, Kit helped them focus on what the ultimate price of the Popzup product needed to be in order to be viable.  Materials were going to be expensive, they knew, so Kit helped them work through all the ways to cut those initial costs down without sacrificing quality.  

“If the cost exceeded the value to the customer, we would be limiting ourselves from the start,” Julie said.

After much figuring, they determined that if the reusable Popzup popper was packaged with 12 bags of popcorn, it could be priced at an affordable $1.33 per bag.  Other quality microwave popcorn bags sell for well over $2 each, Julie explains.

The Laphams haven’t settled for just inventing a new way to pop popcorn. They’ve also been working to develop a line of sea salts to flavor it.  The sea salt you usually see in the stores is chemically dehydrated, Julie explains.  Theirs will be solar-evaporated, helping it to retain its nutrients. The sea salts add a myriad of flavor options, including siriacha, maple sugar, green tea, and curry, for starters. Julie keeps a recipe blog at the company’s website and tests them all herself.

“Kit was always checking things out for us, even areas outside of her expertise and even before we got to the Kickstarter campaign,” Julie said.  “She offered us suggestions on messaging and who to talk to.  She always had ideas and was so excited about what we were doing.”

Though the Kickstarter was very successful and enabled them to take that last leap into capital investment, Julie admits it was a real challenge to get the word out.  “I was fortunate to have been working with a social media intern from Fitchburg State College, who was with me all last summer,” Julie said.

The work to launch the Kickstarter campaign was “exhausting”, Julie says, involving dozens of friends and family, fulfilling the rewards that were offered to those who contributed.  “But it was just such a great way to start building our image. It makes you think about who you are and what is your brand. You hone your message, then you test it and see how people react,” she said.  “Kickstarter was a great testing ground.  If your campaign doesn’t succeed there, there’s probably a good reason for it. Your product, the program, or your message needs to be perfected.”

“I just feel so lucky that I was able to find the SBDC and that they had somebody to work with me, like having a personal advisor,” Julie said.  “I’m very thankful for what they’ve done and for this opportunity.”