What’s the inspiration behind Poppilu?
While pregnant with my second child, I was craving citrus—but couldn’t find a healthy, great-tasting lemonade on the market to satisfy me. I’d waddle with my pregnant belly to my local Whole Foods for their fresh squeezed lemonade… with 76 grams of sugar. That’s not a typo!
That’s what prompted me to look at the lemonade category more closely, and to develop our first product line: single serve refrigerated bottled lemonades that were bold on citrus, not on sugar®. Later, I pivoted to focus on kids’ beverages.
When it came to naming, it seemed only fittingthat I name the brand after my second child Poppy, since she gave me the citrus craving that inspired the brand.
(Note: Naming a brand after one child when you have two children, however, is not something I’d recommend! #momfail)
You created and launched the Fairlife dairy brand under a joint venture with Coca-Cola. How did that experience shape your strategy and priorities with Poppilu?
Fairlife was an incredible experience! Working with such a small team—without the layers of bureaucracy typical of the big food companies I had worked with previously, and with the ability to truly create a brand from scratch—led me to trying my own hand in the start-up world as an entrepreneur.
Trying to draw comparisons between Fairlife and typical food/bev startups is tough, as Fairlife was unique in many ways—its IP, owning its own manufacturing, being incredibly well-funded from the start, having the power of Coca-Cola behind it, etc. But it certainly was an inspiring experience, and gave me the chance to be an instrumental part of a massively successful, category-changing startup.
How do you handle risk?
Entrepreneurship isn’t for the faint of heart! In my old world of big food/beverage companies, all decisions were data-driven to reduce their risk. We simply don’t have that same level of access to data as a start-up. We have to trust our gut.
That’s what led me to pivot Poppilu to kids pouches. I knew it was risky at our stage to launch a second product line, compete in a different category, source different raw materials, use a different manufacturing facility, warehouse and 3PL network. But I knew it was a good idea, and I had to take the risk to try it. Soon after the kids pouches hit the market, I pivoted the business to focus exclusively on the new line—a big bet, but one that is paying off.
You’ve grown Poppilu considerably over the last several years. What are the biggest challenges you’ve faced along the way?
E-commerce for kids’ beverages isa huge challenge, and one that I’m still trying to solve. Kids’ beverages are relatively low-priced (category prices typically range from $2.50 to $3.99 for a whole box of juice boxes/pouches), but shipping costs are driven by weight, and beverages are no doubt very heavy. So making a business profitable in this space is really tough!
For Poppilu, we focus on brick & mortar because that’s what makes most sense for our business: it’s more profitable than e-commerce; we’re able to reach mainstream consumers (even during the pandemic in 2020; 89% of grocery dollars were still spent in brick & mortar); and we need volume from big retailers to deplete our production runs.
But it’s tough, because there are some really cool food/bev start-ups killing it in e-commerce, and that’s really sexy to investors. I’d like to be able to figure out how to win in e-commerce, too.
Have you learned anything new or surprising about yourself through this process?
Having built a career in big food/bev, I thought I knew a lot. I did know a lot. It got me to first base pretty quickly with Poppilu. But there has been so much more to learn along the way—aspects of running a start-up that I had no experience in, like raising capital, booking freight, creating trade plans, using social media to drive a business… you name it!
I’m also amazed at how much I’ve been able to accomplish while also raising a family. Since the inception of the company in 2017—when my daughter was newborn and my son was under 2—I’ve had no childcare help (although I owe a lot to my husband, who works full-time and frequently bends his schedule to help out when needed). It hasn’t been easy, and no doubt I do work even at times when I’d prefer to be solely focused on my kids.
Some entrepreneurs are really good about disconnecting, but for me, Poppilu is part of my everyday life and I weave it in as a means of survival. It’s multitasking at the highest level! But I’ve also had meaningful time with my children throughout the lifespan of the company, and I feel a great sense of accomplishment that I have been successful on both fronts.
What’s your experience been like as a female founder? Any advice for women, and moms especially, looking to start their own company?
Lean on your network of fellow female founders; support them, and they will support you too.
Remember that even though female founders receive a tiny fraction (2.3% in 2020) of venture funding, we are a far better bet. So persevere to raise that capital!
Go through the effort of getting your business certified women-owned! It’s a slog but it’s worth it.
You participated in the first cohort of the Kraft Heinz Springboard incubator—what was that experience like? What did you gain or learn?
Kraft Heinz put on a great program! They were tremendously helpful, and remained a great resource even after the program ended. Their incubator team was composed of some of the company’s best players, and their counsel and the resources they provided for us were invaluable. Most of them have since left the company, and it’s been great following their careers since—many are now in successful food startups.
Getting to know the other brand teams in the cohorts was just as valuable: Cleveland Kitchen, Ayoba, Quevos, Blake’s Seed Based, to name a few. I’ve remained in contact with several of the teams—they are crushing it, and I’ve learned from them just as much as I learned from the Kraft Heinz program itself. Today, they’re often the first people I contact when I need help with something.
Why did you decide to raise from the crowd via Republic?
Poppilu has always been designed for the mainstream consumer, not just the foodie elite. Likewise, to be able to reach mainstream consumers (and not just accredited investors) through Republic seemed only fitting.
We have a brand that appeals to a lot of people, especially parents; and crowdfunding through Republic, showcasing our products and presenting our business opportunity, is a good way to expose the brand to the same people who will likely look for Poppilu at the grocery store.
It’s also a great way for some of our current fans to get in on the action. They may not be able to write big checks that are required for our cap table, but they can still have an opportunity to be part of the investor base. I too have invested in some brands through crowdfunding—I’ve enjoyed supporting other entrepreneurs on their journeys with check sizes that fit my budget.
What is your superpower?
I’m a total jack of all trades! I could be creating a great Instagram photo one moment and then managing complex logistics the next. I thrive on the challenge of having a dozen balls in the air at once. It energizes me!
What’s your kryptonite?
TikTok. The platform intimidates me. How these young creators create content with millions of views is beyond me... but I’ve also resigned myself to the fact that I’m too old to figure it out. This is one area of my business that I’ll happily outsource and leave to the pros!
Do you have any unusual routines or habits?
I get up several hours before sunrise every day (without an alarm clock). The house is quiet and the kids are asleep, so that’s when I get some of my best work done. My desk overlooks Lake Michigan so I get an amazing view every morning when the sun peaks over the horizon.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
When I’m not at my desk, you can find me biking my kids to/from school, swimming in Lake Michigan (it’s spectacular to swim beneath the towering Chicago skyline!), playing tennis in the public parks, creating craft projects with my kids, and lots of seasonal boating. (Yes, winter in Chicago is very tough for me!)
Are there any apps or gadgets that you can’t live without?
Shazam! I love the instant gratification of figuring out “what’s that song?”. My husband, however, would say it’s the Volvo app, as I’m always forgetting to lock the door and need a notification to do it remotely, usually a few hours later.
If you could give yourself one piece of advice 5 years ago, what would it be?
Trust your gut. Your instinct is usually right.
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve received?
If you made the best choice given the information you had at the time, then don’t regret the decision you made.