Hello! Who are you, and what business did you start?
Hey, I’m Dustin Finkel, the creator, and CEO of Ka-Pop! and Awakened Foods (a new Holding Company that owns Ka-Pop!, Bubba’s Fine Foods, and Awakened Food Crafters). We are an innovative and fearlessly delicious snack company. I started these businesses to create snacks that were genuinely authentic and craveably delicious. It’s disheartening how many consumers have lost their trust in ‘healthy foods’ because they are either misleading in their claims and/or require you to give up taste.
Ka-Pop! is an Ancient Grain snack company using only 100% Ancient Grains, Cold-Pressed Oil, and Natural Seasonings. 80% of the grains grown worldwide are Corn, Rice, & Wheat – they damage our soils and our gut biomes. Ancient Grains or what we like to call SUPER grains! – have been the same for thousands of years without genetic modifications to make them bigger and sweeter. If history hasn’t changed these grains for thousands of years, why should we? Sorghum is also incredibly sustainable. It needs little to no irrigation to grow (91% of the land it grows on uses zero irrigation), and it revitalizes our soils. Our snacks are top 12 allergen-free, vegan, dairy-free, but NOT TASTE FREE!
Bubba’s Fine Foods is our second brand focused on what we call Food Churches. Most natural food consumers have a nutrition path they like to follow or enjoy following multiple directions. Whether consumers are Paleo, Grain-Free, Keto, or want simple ingredients, we are here for you. Be You.
Finally, we created Awakened Food Crafters to manufacture our brands and be a facilitator for other brands, whether they are at ground zero or a Fortune 500 CPG.
In our last three years, our Company has grown over 300% per year and will hit nearly $10 million in annual sales by the end of 2021.
What’s your backstory, and how did you come up with the idea?
Before Ka-Pop! I had worked for blue-chip multinationals such as Goldman Sachs, Kellogg Food Company, and General Mills Inc. I also had experience in smaller companies ranging from start-ups to fast-growing enterprises. I had a goal of running a company, but I never thought it would be my own.
I have learned more in the years being an entrepreneur than all the previous years combined.
My turning point happened when I was working for General Mills. I had helped create gluten-free Chex and received a letter in the mail soon after the product launched in stores. A mother reached out because she wanted us to know just how amazing it was to have gluten-free cereal for her daughter. She went on to tell us how one day she found her daughter crying under her covers, eating a bowl of Chex. When she asked what was wrong, the girl responded, “I can finally eat real people’s food.”
I never imagined that an idea I came up with could be so impactful on other people's lives. Since that time, I have helped launch multiple brands and products that positively impact consumers’ lives. With these experiences, I felt confident I had what was needed to start my own company.
As a certified personal trainer, nutritionist, and avid weightlifter, health & wellness have always been a focal point in my life. Creating Ka-Pop! all started with wanting a better snack – something I could grab or feed to my family without all that guilt that comes from empty snacking.
I turned my home into a test kitchen and started crafting our perfect snack-- using ingredients straight from our pantry. When our insanely picky 6-year-old would not stop asking for more, we knew we had something!
Take us through the process of coming up with the recipe for the snacks in your kitchen.
I first came up with the idea when I was looking in the kitchen for something to eat. I had a realization that there were so many snacks, like popcorn, that contained a minimal amount, if any, nutritional value. I thought, “there had to be a better way to enjoy these light and tasty snacks while still feeling good about what you’re putting into your body.” Having a passion for Ancient Grains, I placed some in a pan with a bit of oil and found that the sorghum popped similarly to popcorn (just much tinier). When my kids loved it, and the neighbors loved it, I knew we had something here.
From there, I spent over a year perfecting the formulas, flavors and finding a manufacturer (one of the most challenging aspects). The best part of making an existing product (i.e., popcorn) better is that there is a natural proxy for your work. I bought every popcorn brand out there to understand how they thought about flavors, the intensity of flavors, format, etc. I asked myself, how do people eat popcorn, when do they eat it, what other ways do they eat it. I exhausted every possibility before I felt ready to bring this product to market. Ironically, at the 11th hour, I changed the product from popped sorghum to popped sorghum chips. The key message in that change is that we have to be aware of our weak points. I realized after I sold my product concept to retailers (and had approvals), and I had investors, that my format was wrong, the eating experience was not right, and I had to make a change. Had I not made that change, I wouldn’t be in business today. Know when to listen to your gut and ignore all other feedback.
I approached the research and testing similarly to how a big CPG might, but with very limited resources. Instead of a formal focus group, I would ask local moms to join for a backyard testing session (complete with some goodies and gift cards as thanks). I traveled to various shows and sampled my prototypes and got as much feedback as possible.
Describe the process of launching the business and getting the word out.
As most entrepreneurs know, the most challenging aspect of launching a business is simply diving in.
I traveled endlessly around the country I average over 120,000 domestic air miles/year - promoting my business to investors, retailers, suppliers, etc. I sold, and then I sold some more. You must be everywhere your buyers, consumers, and investors expect to see you. I traveled to the UNFI/KeHE tabletop shows, Expos, Nosh events, and the like and burned the candle at both ends talking and engaging with anyone who would listen. The best piece of advice is to make networking an actual functional role you hold yourself accountable to.
I demoed and then I demo some more. It was 7-days a week and non-stop getting Ka-Pop! off the ground. Candidly, that hasn’t changed much.
Since launch, what has worked to increase sales?
Since we first launched Ka-Pop!, we have never stopped working to increase our sales.
Demos In Grocery Stores
In the beginning, I would constantly be at our local grocery stores demoing our products and handing out samples. If I could get someone to try our snacks, I knew they would be hooked.
I get asked all the time how to get into the grocery. The best way, in my opinion, is to find your local store with one or two locations and introduce yourself and your product to the manager. There are a few reasons this works:
- You’ll learn what works and doesn’t on the shelf - we discovered many lessons in those original stores (packaging elements, pricing architecture, demo procedures, etc.)
- You start getting proof of concept to use for other stores
- You start getting consumer advocacy
Social media has also been a significant component of our marketing efforts. We use YouTube, Instagram, Facebook, etc., to get the word out.
Then, in January 2020, we went on a little show called Shark Tank, which ultimately turned our world upside down. In the nine days after the first airing of our episode, we sold more snacks than we did in the entire year prior! Shark Tank is the ultimate exposure for a small business – it’s the SuperBowl commercial we dream of. Although I did not take one of the deals offered to me, the company benefited from being on the show. Additionally, we have appeared on QVC 8 times! I have also told my story for a handful of interviews.
Sales Into Retail Stores
Our superpower is driving relationships with our retailer partners. In the early days, there wasn’t a store employee that we didn’t know and engage with. As we’ve gotten bigger, I take a great amount of pride in building relationships with our buyers, merchandisers, and local store managers. When it’s genuine and authentic, it goes a very long way. These same managers have helped me build relationships with more managers, stores, and the like. One friendship has turned into two, and so on. Even across competitors!
We are passionate about what we do and sell that excitement to our consumers and retailer partners. We are endlessly promoting our products to anyone that will listen. If you are not passionate about your business, how can you expect anyone else to love the brand?
Always be selling – I am always trying to strike up conversations with those around me. You never know what type of opportunities it could lead to.
Innovation is another area that has led to significant growth. We continue to bring new flavors to life – and with each new flavor, we seem to have our next top seller. Our latest – Birthday Cake and Churro are home runs. We also expanded our line and created puffs which have been an enormous success. Having a variety of flavors and textures help our snacks appeal to new customers and keep current consumers wanting more.
How are you doing today, and what does the future look like?
I have noticed a tremendous amount of growth in myself. Running a small but growing company has changed my leadership approach significantly. I still have so much to learn and make mistakes daily, but I’m constantly trying to be the best version of myself I can be.
Similarly, the Companies have grown tremendously over the past few years. We have launched into Kroger, Whole Foods, Wegman’s, and many other retailers. Our online business is growing, and we have recently been named the fastest-growing company in Northern Colorado. You can also find our products all over the world from the middle-east to the far east!
Further, we opened up a manufacturing area to the business that allows us to control our destiny and, as importantly, support other brands in their growth.
I always state that our business runs in 3-month cycles – almost flawlessly. So the future is measured in 90-day chunks. Right now, we are focused on the execution of our strategy and working our way through the constant hurdles that are thrown in our direction.
Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?
The list is endless and would take hours to list -honestly, I constantly state that I have learned more in the years being an entrepreneur than all the previous years combined. I believe the most significant learning I have, though, is that it’s not the best company, product, or leader that wins; it’s those that are willing to get knocked down time and time again yet get back up ready to do it all over again tomorrow.
Always be selling – I am always trying to strike up conversations with those around me. You never know what type of opportunities it could lead to. My first investor was a gentleman sitting next to me on the plane; my place on Shark Tank took place because I started speaking to a few women, who turned out to be casting agents, etc. Opportunities are all around us; most of us are afraid or too clouded to look for them, even if they are right in your face.
What platform/tools do you use for your business?
On a day-to-day basis, my team is using a plethora of platforms. Without these tools, the company would have a hard time running. A few of the simplest focus on better communication – we use Google Chat as an example to quickly ping our peers. I hate being on the phone, but I love in-person meetings. In today’s age, Zoom or similar platforms allow for that experience. However, my main tool is Excel. Coming from an investment banking background, there is not a business area that Excel cannot run.
Another simple tool is Todoist and GanttPro, which allows the team to keep a synchronous eye on the various projects impacting the business. Lastly, I cannot recommend Grammarly enough! I think everyone should have it downloaded onto their devices. Grammarly has altered hundreds of thousands of emails and other documents I have written.
What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?
I love the book Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss. This book is all about trying to optimize the value of negotiation. It’s not simply selling negotiations, but life negotiations. If you think about it, we are constantly negotiating through the chaos of life. These are tools I use in my day-to-day work life.
I also love Change Your Questions, Change Your Life. This book has made me more open to asking questions rather than being only decision-oriented around problems.
While it may sound odd, I find it helpful to take detailed notes while reading. These notes tend to be a range of thoughts and feelings I have while reading. I call them my cliff notes. After I finish a book, I compile my notes and send them to the book’s author. I cannot tell you how many authors I’ve had a conversation with because of this practice. When I am very busy running my company and may not have as much time to read books, I turn to my notes to refresh on essential topics.
Mediation has also changed my life for the better. Things can get crazy with the logistics of starting a company, and learning how to slow down your mind has truly changed my life. It is so easy to become overwhelmed, and having an outlet has been a game-changer. I feel more productive when I start and end my day with meditation.
Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?
I have learned so much after starting my company, and I think I will continue learning for a long time to come. From what I’ve learned so far, I would say that my top tips for starting a business are:
- Understand the business’s financials. Too many entrepreneurs are not inclined to focus on the numbers, but that is where the business story lives
- Get ready to be knocked downtime and time again – it’s the ones that get back up that win
- Bootstrap if you can, but raise more money than you think
- Surround yourself with a great team, great mentors, and people that can share in your journey
The biggest tip – get started. “Strategy without Execution is Hallucination!” – Thomas Edison
Are you looking to hire for certain positions right now?
We are always looking for people to join our team! Please let us know!
Where can we go to learn more?
Hey! 👋 I'm Pat Walls, the founder of Starter Story.
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