Renée Israel loves the smell and taste of fresh, kettle-cooked popcorn. When she and her husband Rob spotted mom-and-pop kettle corn makers at a farmers market in Boulder, Colo., in the early 2000s, it got them thinking. How could they bring fresh-popped flavored popcorn to a wider audience?
"We spent the next few years perfecting a unique, fresh-flavored popcorn that could be easily prepared on the spot," she says of their pet project, which they named Doc Popcorn. They also developed a variety of simple and flexible business models for distribution in high-traffic venues. Places such as convention centers, entertainment venues, malls, and stadiums could all sell popcorn from carts, kiosks, or inline stores.
During the first decade of Doc Popcorn, they ran several stores themselves in Colorado, honing and perfecting their model. "Rob and I saw the potential in our popcorn business," she says. "When we were ready to expand outside of Colorado we turned to franchising. Our product was simple, all the flavors could be made with one machine, and with our different methods of distribution we thought entrepreneurs would love popping a fresh, better-for-you-snack in their own markets." Their first franchised location was in the Mall of America in 2010. It was a big hit and they've never looked back.
Israel says part of her inspiration for building a brand from scratch was that she had always been interested in marketing and emerging brands. She had spent 5 years working for Digitas, where she provided marketing and product innovation leadership to senior-level executives at Fortune 500 companies.
The Israels sold Doc Popcorn to Dippin' Dots in July 2014 but have remained actively involved in the business. "It's been a win-win for us," she says. "We are now co-branding with Dippin' Dots, and their widespread presence and iconic ice cream products have opened up a whole new world of opportunities for our franchise base, and vice versa."
Today, Doc Popcorn has 102 locations throughout the country and 8 international locations, and she continues to oversee marketing, brand development, and creative strategy for the company.
"We built a brand around a great product and we built a culture," she says. "Franchising is a wonderful industry and our journey so far has been fantastic!"
Name: Renée Israel
Title: Co-founder, Mama Pop
Company: Doc Popcorn
System-wide revenue: N/A
No. of units: 102 (2 corporate)
International units: 8
Growth plans: 1 year, 120; 3 years, 150
Public or private? Private
Year company founded: 2003
Year started franchising: 2009
Your years in franchising: 6
What inspired you to start your business?
When my husband Rob saw some mom-and-pop kettle corn makers at a Boulder farmers market, we quickly recognized the opportunity to bring fresh-popped flavored popcorn to a wider audience, and do so in a way that had never been done before. We spent almost a decade perfecting a unique, branded offering of fresh, flavored popcorn along with a variety of simple and flexible business models appropriate for high-traffic venues such as convention centers, entertainment venues, malls and stadiums, using carts, kiosks, and inline stores.
What is your background? How did it prepare you for starting your business?
Before Doc Popcorn I was a vice president of marketing for Digitas, a top integrated brand agency, where I learned to create a strategy and then manage a team to execute it. The methodologies I learned working for Fortune 500 clients--which included being accountable for client satisfaction and running a profitable bottom line--were useful in creating the Doc Popcorn brand and the initial systems and processes required to get started.
What's the best and worst advice you got when starting out?
Best: Joining the IFA. We attended our first conference in 2010, a few months after we started franchising. I learned so much at the various sessions. I was also enamored by how much people were willing to help. I went through the attendance list in advance and organized meetings with folks I never thought would return my emails or phone calls. I wound up with a full calendar and received invaluable mentorship. Worst: Since I'm a brander and marketer by trade, listening to those who said to not start a marketing fund from day one. It sounded like a good idea at the time, but if I knew then what I know now, I would have done it differently.
Why did you choose franchising?
In addition to some of the reasons I mentioned earlier, the popcorn industry was fragmented, and a large popcorn franchise didn't exist in the U.S. There were a few players with locations and big build-outs, but our model was simple, replicable, and easier for an entrepreneur to execute. Also, we wanted people to love the business and our vision of creating smiles with our product as much as we did. Having corporate-owned locations and hiring managers around the country wouldn't have accomplished that.
How did you get started in franchising?
We grew the business in Colorado to 11 locations, using a variety of models in high-traffic venues. From 2003 to 2008, we owned three mall locations, kiosks, and storefronts, and operated mobile units at several event and entertainment venues. We knew it was time to grow the business outside of Colorado, but strongly believed in a vision where every location would pop its own product and integrate into its local community. We were excited by the idea of helping people who wanted to start their own business using Doc Popcorn to do it.
Did you have a partner/co-founder when you started? How important was that in building your company?
My husband Rob and I are co-founders. He's the big, audacious idea guy and a serial entrepreneur with a background in retail, real estate, sales, and investing, and my background is brand, marketing, and business strategy for Fortune 500s and start-ups. We make a good team. As far as an additional business partner, we knew our business, but not the business of franchising. So we turned to the expertise of a franchise incubator to get the ABCs of the franchise model, like creating the FDDs and proper operational processes. It was an invaluable step for Doc Popcorn's growth.
How did you fund your company at the beginning? As you grew?
We were entirely self-funding until we started franchising, at which time we took on a franchise incubator as a partner for equity in exchange for expertise and support.
What has been the best and the hardest thing about being an entrepreneur?
Best: There is a real sense of accomplishment in building a business from scratch, particularly one that makes people smile and that creates jobs. Working alongside my husband and an amazing team makes it even better. Hardest: Particularly as an emerging brand, when it's all getting off the ground there is a heavy sense of responsibility. A lot of people are counting on you, from employees to franchise owners, to get it right. It can also be a little lonely sometimes making some tough decisions that you know are better in the long run.
How did you grow the brand at first? What changed as you expanded?
When we first started franchising, we used a lot of third-party providers for everything from lead generation to real estate. They had the expertise and relationships we needed, and enabled us to better manage cash flow. But as we emerged into young adulthood, we brought many of those areas in-house. Another change is how we approach our growth geographically. We're more focused on specific markets and venues than in the past. We know a lot more about where and how we're going to be successful.
How did you transition from founding a brand to leading a brand?
There was a point when we were concerned about growth and getting traction. But once we had 15 or so franchise owners, it was a turning point to start building processes to manage and support the franchise base. We started to hire specialists and trust them to take over a subset of responsibilities that we used to manage ourselves. That wasn't easy. Being more hands-off is hard. But at some point you realize that the business needs you more for a strategic vision versus the day-to-day.
How would you describe your leadership style?
My ultimate goal is to be a coaching leader. I also try to play more of a project manager role, making sure team members are getting the information they need in the most efficient way possible to keep the ball moving in the right direction. What is the key to your company's success? Product and people.
Was being female an advantage or disadvantage for you in building your company? How?
Our business is successful not because I am woman or my husband is a man. It's about the individual skill sets we each bring to the table and how they complement each other. I came from Fortune 500 companies and Rob was a born entrepreneur, so we think a little differently and that makes for a great partnership. I will say, however, that some of our best franchise owners are couples or families. The fact that my husband and I have that same dynamic is helpful.
What has been your biggest challenge as a woman entrepreneur?
Even in an executive position or in owning my own business, sometimes I have felt like I had to prove that I earned my seat at the table. Whether it was truly necessary or imaginary, there have been circumstances where deep down I felt a need to show that I'm worth my value and more. Judging by conversations I have with female counterparts, I'm not alone.
Why do you think there are fewer start-ups with female founders than male ones?
Generally speaking, when it comes to raising money, women have a hard time asking for what they want to get their idea off the ground. I think this is changing, but this is what I have personally observed with women entrepreneurs I have mentored over the years.
What do you think is the biggest issue for women in the workplace?
Communicating in an effective and honest way what we need and deserve is critical, and that goes for both women who own their own companies and for women working for someone else in a more traditional environment. But first we have to convince ourselves we are worthy before we can convince others. This is one of the reasons there is still a culture that includes unequal pay and women with children leaving the workplace. I don't believe we are always comfortable making sure we are heard and that our needs are addressed.
From a woman's perspective, what notable changes have you seen for women in franchising since starting your brand?
I've definitely seen more women becoming the face of leadership at the IFA. When I started it seemed speaking positions and panels were mostly male-driven. More recently I have seen leaders such as Catherine Monson, Shelly Sun, Dina Dwyer-Owens, Jania Bailey, and many others taking on leadership roles and I'm seeing more women speakers on panels and committees. I've also noticed growth in the number of Women's Franchise Networks around the country.
Which female leaders do you admire? Why?
Angelina Jolie, Hillary Rodham Clinton, and Margaret Thatcher come to mind. These are women who aren't afraid to take a stand or make tough decisions, even if the decisions are unpopular. In franchising, there are now many amazing female leaders, and I hope you all know who you are. Many serve, or have previously served, on the Women's Franchise Committee and other IFA-related committees. Each and every one of them inspires me every day.
Has mentorship made a difference in your professional and personal life? How?
Mentorship is a two-way street in my life. It's equally important to mentor others as well as to be mentored. I have several mentors--women and men, including my husband--whom I can trust to help me when I need it. I continue to seek out mentors, too. For example, when I'm going to an industry conference, I make it a point to know who else is attending so I can set up meetings in advance with people I can learn from. I always have three questions ready so I can ask the right people when I have a hallway opportunity. I enjoy coaching others, too, whether I'm guest lecturing at a business school or meeting someone for lunch to talk about a new business idea. I learn a lot from the people I mentor, including my kids. They remind me every day about being playful and present.
Are you involved in any female entrepreneur organizations?
Yes: Women's Franchise Committee (IFA), Chair Taskforce for Women's Franchise Network (IFA), The Women's Foundation of Colorado, and Emerging Women.
What does your typical day look like?
Get up, wake the kids, help them prepare for their day, and get myself ready for my day. I check emails, sit in meetings and on conference calls, check more emails, have more meetings, make sure that somewhere in between I work out for an hour--which is a must for my productivity. Sometimes I get to pick up my kids and go to activities with them, I cook dinner, and generally we eat as a family. When the kids are in bed, I work until about midnight. Rinse, lather, and repeat.
How do you maintain a work/life balance?
I don't believe in work/life balance on a daily basis, but it can be achieved on a weekly basis with well-thought-out planning and the right support. Each Sunday, Rob and I sit down to talk about our plans for the week. Doing that gives us a sense of what we'll be doing and allows us an opportunity to create a balanced plan for business and family. The goal is to make sure one of us is always available for the kids. And if that isn't possible, because sometimes we are both traveling, we make sure to leverage family so the kids feel connected. We also eat with our kids most nights (with cell phones switched off), and when we are in town we have a goal of giving each of our three kiddos present, undivided attention with a "special mission" for at least one hour a week.
What are your top 5 favorite things to do?
Be with my kids. Be with my husband. Run and be athletic and spend time outdoors. Eat awesome food. Read self-development books of all kinds.
What are 3 key words to describe yourself?
Self-disciplined, builder, taskmaster.
What's the most important lesson you've learned so far?
One of the greatest lessons we have learned since we began franchising in 2009 is how important it is to anticipate processes and systems we will need before we actually need them, and getting those systems in place to support our franchise family at the right time. When we began franchising, we established a franchise advisory board to make sure our franchise partners could communicate ideas and have a voice on key initiatives they feel would help grow their businesses at the local level. This concept is truly the cornerstone of how we run our business. We are learning every day how to work together to drive the brand and keep our POPrietors, as we like to call them, smiling. Since we've hit the 100-unit mark this year, I'd say this is the most important lesson we've learned.
What's the best piece of advice you have ever been given?
Learn how to say "no" so you can say "yes." My executive coach taught me to ask myself a two-part question before I agree to take on any project. If I answer "yes," what do I have to say "no" to? And if I answer "no," what do I get to say "yes" to later? It's helped me set boundaries so I can achieve the greatest results for my life outside of work as well as for the business. The questions put me in a position of power that allows me to keep doing more of what I want to do and less of what I don't want to do.
What advice would you give to other women considering starting their own franchise brand?
This goes for both men and women: Ask yourself why you want to franchise and define the goals you are hoping to achieve through franchising, not just for yourself, but for others. What needs do you satisfy by starting one? Everyone's definition of success is different. Also ask yourself if you want to do this alone or with a partner. If you want a partner, make sure their goals align with yours.
What would you like to achieve in the next 5 years?
I want to see Doc Popcorn continue on a trajectory to be a household name with many more points of presence, smiling guests, and happy franchise owners. Ultimately when someone is asked, "What is your favorite popcorn?" The answer will be, "Doc Popcorn!"
What's coming up that you're excited about?
Doc Popcorn, Dippin' Dots, and Crumbs Bake Shop are all owned by Fischer Enterprises, and the organization plans to have more like-minded brands join the family. This provides an exciting opportunity for Doc Popcorn in the way of co-branding. We have already seen early success with the Dippin' Dots/Doc Popcorn co-brand model and plan to continue our co-brand trajectory into 2016 and beyond. Seeing a stronger bottom line for franchise owners with another iconic brand is very exciting.
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