- Insight: If you have a co-founder strategize how you will split roles and responsibilities, have open conversations to gauge commitment, and be flexible.
- Insight: You can experience success with your first startup.
Thursday, July 13th, 2023
You can find Angie's Boomchickapop in the salty snacks section with bright pink lettering on various colors of packaging. Angie and her husband Dan started the business in 2001. Dan quit his job to do the initial sales while Angie, a nurse practitioner, expanded her practice to support the family. They did two raises and grew the brand until their successful exit. Checkout her case study to learn more!
Thank you for bringing a woman to the table! I want this group. I'm choosing this banker to represent us.
When you are in positions to influence you take that opportunity to influence.
How She Started: What was your first entrepreneurial endeavor?
Angie Bastian: It was when we started this business. I was a nurse practitioner before but when we started the popcorn business, I needed flexibility in my job, so I simultaneously started a contracting business. We decided that my work could support the family and Dan could dive in full time building an operation and a manufacturing plant.
HSS: How did you select popcorn?
AB: It seemed easy. Dan was looking at possible things that we could do together as a family on a part-time basis. He discovered a website that said, “Make thousands of dollars every weekend selling popcorn.”
HSS: Once you got some traction how did you get your initial customers and how did you keep them?
AB: The first three years we were licensed as a mobile food unit. We popped outdoors under a tent or out of our garage. We would sell at farmer’s markets, community and amateur sporting events. We then got connected with the Minnesota Vikings where we sold at their training camp and at every home game. That level of exposure gave us a local following that led to an introduction to a specialty grocery chain in the Twin Cities. To sell in grocery stores, we needed to find a commercial kitchen, get scan (UPC code) information, ingredient deck, and nutritional panel. That took us about six months. We started in one co-op and three specialty grocery stores in 2004.
To be in the grocery store we had to find a commercial kitchen, get the UPC codes and scan information and ingredients panel all that stuff. That took about 6 months, and we started one Co-Op and three specialty grocery stores in 2004.
HSS: Do you remember the cost that you incurred when starting in the first few grocery stores?
AB: The first investment as a mobile food unit was about $10k for the tent, equipment, and outdoor kettle. Within a year we purchased a small trailer to help us haul equipment. The commercial kitchen that we rented was probably about 150sqft in a small grocery store kitchen, it was low cost, but we had to purchase indoor equipment. We did everything by hand to keep costs low, but we probably spent another $5-8k. We began delivering popcorn to stores with our minivan and trailer which we quickly outgrew requiring us to purchase a van and delivery cube truck. We made incremental investments in the business as we grew year over year. There was never a time that we weren’t reinvesting in the business. But that was the initial investment.
HSS: How did you handle the competition and how were you able to grow from that initial grocery store?
AB: We understood the question that you’re now asking. We were always told the easiest thing is to get into the stores. It’s harder to stay. One of the priorities we had was to service our accounts. We walked into the back rooms of grocery stores and stocked the shelves ourselves (back in the day when entrepreneurs could still do that kind of thing). Dan got to know the grocery store managers and the people working on the floor. Dan’s cell phone number, which was also our business number, was on every package of popcorn that we sold. That number stayed on the packaging for 9 years until our first private equity group suggested we make it a little less informal. But for us, that phone number was there because if there were any issues, any problems, any questions we wanted to be able to answer those questions and activate immediately to solve the problem. We cared deeply about customer service, and we wanted to be accessible to our customers. We thought if we demonstrated that level of engagement and care, store managers would care about our product, care about us, and care if we were successful. Store managers would call us to say, “Hey you’re getting low, or you need to get some more product up here.” We tried to be as successful and extraordinary as we could at the scale of what we could manage.
We were creative in keeping our costs low and still accomplish as high a level of engagement as possible. When we launched in stores, we sampled our product every weekend and when it became too much for Dan and me, we hired two retired 3rd grade teachers to help us demo. We hired college students that worked to help us pop popcorn. We couldn’t afford more than minimum wage, but we had a cooler of beer at the end of the shift. We didn’t pay ourselves for the first 7 years but paid others to do things we didn’t have enough time or expertise to do ourselves.
In the beginning, we grew sales from 3 to 20 stores quickly. It doesn’t sound like much. But we had success in those 20 specialty stores, food co-ops and natural and organic stores. We began getting incoming calls from other retailers in our community. We thought it was because of word-of-mouth but it was sales data on the buyer’s input sheet. The Angie’s brand sales data began showing up on data aggregator sites. We were intentional in maintaining higher sales volumes on our small line-up as opposed to introducing a broad array of flavors and varieties at that time.
Can you think of the time when Angie's catapulted to the mainstream, and can you pinpoint the time when you thought this is it?
AB: It was the rebrand from Angie’s Kettle Corn to Angie’s Boomchickapop. We had a vision that the brand could be more energetic than what it was on the shelf at the time. In 2011 necessity created the situation for us to review branding because ready-to-eat popcorn was heating up and evolving into its own separate category as a sub-set of salty snack foods.
It’s hard to walk away from branding that people recognize. Our revenue run rate at that time was $30m. We were advised to rebrand carefully, so that we wouldn’t lose our customer base. When we launched the Boomchickapop rebrand in 2012, we got a lot of pushback from existing customers. And we did lose some consumers for a time until they understood that Angie’s is still Angie’s. Because we had an entirely different look and feel, we got a dramatic uptick in distribution and acceptance far beyond our initial customer base. The Angie’s Boomchickapop branding had the energy to stand alone in the marketplace. That beautiful, bright eye-catching bag was advertising on the shelf, capturing consumer’s attention in a way that we weren’t before we made the branding change.
Going into 2014 I know that you sold a majority stake to a private equity firm. I think a lot of early-stage entrepreneurs struggle with equity and how much to give away. What did those conversations look like and how did you come to the number that you came to?
I think the timing of investment was good for us. The company was cash flow positive. We had small but positive EBITDA. We didn’t necessarily need private equity money at the time. We knew, however, that for growth we were always going to need money. What we needed from the private equity firm was their network and their expertise. That was our ask. They delivered their expertise, helped us establish a governing board where we held a majority. They also helped us establish an employee equity pool which we used for employee recruitment and retention, with each shareholder accepting equal dilution to create the pool. We also wanted to ensure that there were some basic thresholds on cash positions before any additional or future infusions of cash. My advice in working through any M&A deal is get the best M&A attorney you can afford and let them do their job to protect you and your business.
Soon after I heard you speak at Emory, I read an article that Boomchickapop had sold to Conagra can you walk me through the Conagra deal?
In 2014, TPG Growth offered a deal that included a full buy-out of all shareholders. That occurred just before I spoke at Emory. Everyone who held equity experienced a full liquidity event including Dan and me. TPG Growth requested that Dan and I remain involved on the board and that we re-invest in the new entity which we did. A new executive management team was created, we built a second plant in Reno, NV and from 2014-2017, and we doubled the value of the company.
Private equity knows how to take an established category and grow it. But new categories are built by new and small food. I think most strategics like Conagra want a mature brand that still has room for growth as well as in a category that’s proven itself. Angie’s Boomchickapop met both of those objectives which made it an attractive acquisition for a strategic like Conagra Brands.
What were your lessons learned as you look back on the business?
First and foremost, I learned that the commitment that entrepreneurs have to their business is valuable. It’s the asset that sets them apart. We learned how to reach deep and find the energy and grit that is needed when things seem dire. We learned how to test our capabilities and confidence without breaking. These are lessons that reach beyond business, they’re bigger than business and absolutely necessary to the success of a start-up. I also believe strongly that you need to teach others how to care about what you care about. Not just to buy what you’re selling. It’s different. We cared deeply about the culture, how people treated each other in our company, about the quality of the product, the quality of everything. Also, a big lesson for me was to never discount my perspective on something. That unique perspective is what created the brand Boomchickapop. Our marketing team took that unique perspective to a creative agency, and they helped translate and bring it to life on packaging and in the brand voice.
Do you have any additional advice for female-founded businesses? Where was being a female an advantage for you and when was it a disadvantage?
Here's what I'd say: I wasn't a lone female building this business. I had no problem inviting people into the room that would help us get an audience with a buyer, investor or whomever. I knew I needed all hands on deck. People tend to relate to people they feel comfortable with and there were times when the guys just talked to the guys, I was fine with that. But I would find a way to make my contribution relevant. I always thought education is needed here and it’s my job to help them (the buyer, the investor, the vendor, the banker) understand the value of who I am as a woman. We used women's empowerment and my leverage of that sentiment, to build a brand.
I also modeled that sentiment in the business and at every board meeting. Many financial institutions never brought a woman to the table. I often found myself in a room with all men, so I made it a point to represent what they didn't know and also to point out “Do you notice there are no other women in this room?” What I realized is that people listen and when they respect you, they act. When I would point out the lack of female representation, subsequent meetings would have women. Sometimes it was in the boardroom, or an investor meeting or a new hire. When we interviewed bankers to represent us in the sale in 2014 there was only one investment bank that brought a woman to the table. All the others were exclusively men. I'm like “Thank you for bringing a woman to the table! I want this group. I'm choosing this banker to represent us” (and she was fabulous). There are so many ways that women can support other women. When you're in positions to have any kind of influence you take that opportunity to influence.
HSS: It's been a pleasure talking to you and thank you so much for your time.
- Insight: If you have a co-founder, strategize how you will split roles and responsibilities, have open conversations to gauge commitment, and be flexible.
- Insight: You can experience success with your first startup, and you can start more than one at the same time.
- Insight: Be visible to make connections that open opportunities.
- Insight: Scaling requires investment.
- Insight: Small businesses succeed from exceptional customer service and a personal touch. Going the extra mile makes a difference for the customer and encourages customers to continue supporting and evangelizing your brand.
- Insight: Leverage your network and implement creative compensation solutions.
- Insight: Data denotes social proof whether it’s ARR, inventory turns, money raised or number of employees. Having data to demonstrate success is necessary for scale.
- Insight: Ensure you are not overextending your brand by going too broad.
- Insight: Be very intentional when you rebrand.
- Insight: Ensure you create a solid support system.
- Insight: Make sure you know what is important to you in a negotiation and what you have in terms of leverage. In Angie's case, her leverage was that the business was cash-flow positive. She wanted governance, professional sales and marketing teams, and an employee equity pool with equal dilution. The other side wanted a higher number of board seats.
- Insight: Make sure you have a great lawyer to review and guide contracts and negotiations to avoid unfavorable or hidden terms.
- Insight: Choose a private equity company and recognize the value that they bring to the table.
- Insight: Being an entrepreneur means being committed to a vision, conveying your vision, and appreciating the value that others bring to that vision.
- Insight: Use assets that you have, and choose business partners that understand your values.
I saw Angie speak in 2017 at an entrepreneur summit at Emory University. I reached out 6 years later