How do you build a category that doesn’t exist and convince one of the country’s leading high-end department stores to stock your product? Adam Sopher, one third of Joe & Seph’s gourmet popcorn range, tells us and passes on his kernels of advice for new start-ups.
ASOOO: The story behind how your business was born is well documented, but had you, as a family, always been interested in food and food production? How did you make the leap from something that was a hobby and interest to a serious profession?
Adam Sopher (AS): It was pretty organic. None of us had a food background — my Dad had his own electrical company — but he would make us popcorn as children and whenever he travelled to the States on business, he’d bring back popcorn in all sorts of flavours. It never made any sense to us that there was nothing like that here in the UK. So, he started making his own, questioning how and why it was made, challenging that method by creating his own and then creating really unique flavours. Time-wise, it just worked out. We were one of two/three other brands trying to grow the popcorn category at the same time which actually made it easier. We all badgered retailers together to get them to try new flavours and badgered newspapers to give us some coverage.
ASOOO: How long did it take to bring your idea to market?
AS: We made everything to begin with in the kitchen at my parents’ house. Then, in October 2010, we took it to a trade show. We sold out towards the end of the second day, which was when a buyer from Selfridges noticed the queue trailing from our stand. They came and tried the product. And, in April 2011, we had a listing in Selfridges.
“For us, it has always been about making the best tasting popcorn.”
ASOOO: How did you identify the Joe & Seph’s message? And how did you choose to get that message out there?
AS: Our messaging – and packaging – has been the same since day one. For us, it has always been about making the best tasting popcorn. We manufacture in our own kitchens so we have complete control over the quality of our product. The second we launched in Selfridges we appointed a PR agency and we did lots of social media, which was a really powerful way to get our message out there. We built our business very organically and so people that were following us socially could see our story developing for themselves.
ASOOO: Your website and brand are really stand-out and identifiable. How important do you think it is to have a strong visual identity?
AS: Very important. With our popcorn, we don’t have foil packets we display our popcorn in transparent bags. We’re a premium product and therefore we should be different and we should show the product off. I think logo and messaging needs to be consistent because without that you don’t come across as having a strong, single voice.
ASOOO: For start-ups, what would your advice be for creating a strong brand identity?
AS: Always start with the product. The brands that I think have longevity are those with a fantastic product, one that’s unique and great tasting. A unique product does 90% of the talking for you.
ASOOO: What have you found to be the most effective form of marketing for your brand? And has this changed since you first started?
AS: We don’t really spend on traditional marketing at all and haven’t since we started. We tend to concentrate on trade and consumer shows and a little bit of Facebook advertising. We also have a proactive newsletter that goes out to our database. Focusing on things that give us a tangible return are far more valuable.
ASOOO: Now that you’re an established business, do the kinds of challenges you faced when you started out still exist? Or does the ‘to do’ list just get longer?!
AS: I still think of us as a start-up – we have more people on the team and that presents more challenges as well as opportunities – but our mentality is very much that of a start-up. In terms of challenges we’re no different to any other business.
“If you want your brand to stay around…transparency is very important.”
ASOOO: You take a responsible stance on the production of your popcorn in that you don’t fry in hot-oil, and you only use fresh ingredients. How important do you think transparency is in a business?
AS: Consumers are getting smarter and so it’s important to have a genuine story, a great product and a point of difference. If you want your brand to stay around and have longevity then that transparency is very important.
ASOOO: What have you most enjoyed about the experience of running your own business?
AS: Building a great team has been really satisfying. People get what we’re about, and are attracted to the brand. If we get people who are motivated and passionate about what we do, the core skills can be taught.
ASOOO: What gets you out of bed every day?
AS: I get a kick out of so many things, like checking my inbox every morning. We now stock in a series of different countries and so, with the time difference, I’m often asleep when they come through. Waking up and coming in to see their emails from the Middle East or wherever is really satisfying. I love looking at emails from people who’ve bought our product and I still get a kick out of working with amazing customers, making sure they have the best product and from growing and developing the brand.
ASOOO: How have you maintained focus as your business has grown?
AS: The nature of our product really dictates how we operate. We’re committed to being a premium product and that helps to dictate which retailers we go after and the kinds of flavours that we develop. Six years on and we’ve lots of new flavours but we still have the same product that we launched at the beginning and that’s exciting. We’re still focused on selling the right products.
ASOOO: If you could give the entrepreneur you were when you started out some advice now, what would it be?
AS: Go and talk to more people, get more advice, don’t re-invent the wheel when someone’s already doing it better somewhere else [from an operational perspective]. I would also tell myself to keep focused.
ASOOO: What was your biggest obstacle starting the business and how did you overcome it?
AS: Consumer tastes. No one had tried anything other than salt or sweet. Convincing people to try other flavours was really challenging. The category just wasn’t there, the flavours didn’t exist. We had to drag people to come to our stand at trade and consumer shows to try it.
ASOOO: Was the fear of failure an issue for you when starting out? Did it impact the decisions you made? If so, would you have acted differently if you had known then what you know now?
AS: Not really. I always said to myself let’s see what we can do in two years and if we can achieve certain milestones within that time. And we did. I don’t think we’d do anything differently. Even when we made mistakes I think we learnt from them. My advice would be to try it and give it a go.
ASOOO: As an agency, we’re constantly talking about the need for bravery in business. How important has bravery been for you?
AS: I think you’ve got to be brave. We weren’t daunted by the fact that the snacking category is full of huge brands – I think it’s really important that you’re strong and don’t get intimidated and have belief in your product.
ASOOO: What has running your own business taught you about yourself and what’s been the most valuable thing that you’ve learned?
AS: Three heads are better than one. Working alongside my parents is really useful mentally to bounce stuff off and get more done. In terms of the most valuable new skills, I knew nothing about negotiating with supermarkets before we went into business. I’ve also learned how to try and get the most out of people.
ASOOO: When we work with our clients, our three aims are to get them to communicate in a way that's nice, brave and honest: they’re the tenets of our agency. How do you think being nice, honest and brave has helped you get to where you are?
AS: I think people really respond to being nice and honest. We have a genuine story and we’re a nice, family business. We’ve grown from the kitchen table to the business we’ve got today. And sharing that story as we’ve grown has been really well received.