SNMag: Where did you go to school and what was your major? How did you get into creating a brand like Popchips?
Keith Belling: I describe myself as a serial entrepreneur. I went to UC Davis and majored in economics. My plan early on was to go to law school and practice Real Estate Law and then go into Real Estate Development. I went from Davis to Hasting in Northern California. I practiced for a firm called Morrison & Foerster, it was a big national firm. I always knew I didn’t want to be a lawyer. I had a business opportunity, one of my clients owned a little chain of coffee bars and the next thing I know, I quit the firm and took over the company. It was before Starbucks.
SNMag: How did that segue into creating Popchips?
KB: I found that I really liked creating businesses. It’s always about passion. You have to do things you like. I’ve always been a big snacker and in 2004 I started thinking I wanted to do something in the natural food industry. I used to take my bag of fried chips and hide them under my sandwich when I was in the deli line. I don’t know if I would hide them from myself or other people. It was a guilty pleasure. There had to be a better alternative. So I started working with a partner who had worked on my internet company for me and we found a manufacturing business that would allow us to make Popchips and we bought it in October, 2005.
SNMag: This is an independently owned company. What kind of money goes into launching a product like this?
KB: There’s no real formula for something like this. It depends on the business, the timing, opportunity. In this case we bought a manufacturing business that afforded us some economies because we had an operating business that we could use to create Popchips. So while it required a higher investment up front, it gave us a platform to build Popchips out of. We spent a year and a half in product development, the packaging, branding, getting ready and we launched in May, 2007.
SNMag: What was your target audience at the time when you were creating the product?
KB: We were looking for people that were anxious for a healthier lifestyle but not necessarily obsessed with it. The people that have active, healthier lifestyles and were looking for an alternative just like we were. Our demographic has evolved and we’ve learned more about it as we’ve gone along but I think we weren’t looking to have a product that was just for women, men, or kids. We wanted to come up with a snack that would appeal to a broader audience.
SNMag: Could you elaborate on your marketing strategies, in terms of distribution?
KB: We look at our distribution in terms of sales and marketing. Being with Virgin Airlines is as much about marketing as sales because it’s great brand association. We also work with hotels and college campuses like UCLA and USC. We’re on corporate campuses like Dreamworks and Google. These distributions have as much to do with marketing because it’s a great way for people to sample the brand.
SNMag: When it comes to creating the flavors, is your aim always to mimic the classic potato chip?
KB: We felt we were already coming at the consumer with something that was pretty different, in terms of being popped instead of baked or fried. What we didn’t want to do is go and give them some unusual, unexpected flavors. We thought it was important to have barbeque, original, sour cream, salt and vinegar and do them really well. A product like ours has to taste good. If it doesn’t, nothing else matters. Unlike some things where you might sacrifice taste for health, clearly snacking is not one of them.
SNMag: Where do you see Popchips growing in these next five years?
KB: We’d like to see it as a real alternative to fried and baked. That people can say some people want fried, some want baked, and some want popped. We’d like to be what you think of when you think of popped chips. One of the ways we put it is we’d like to do to the snack aisle what Vitamin Water has done to the beverage aisle. They created a whole new category.
SNMag: What piece of advice do you wish you knew at the start of your career?
KB: Follow your passions because no matter what you do everything’s a roller coaster. There are days that are really terrific and others that are really challenging, and it’s the passion that gets you through those times and makes you enjoy the great times. I always tell people that being an entrepreneur, it’s going to be twice as fun and twice as hard as you’re ever going to expect.
By Jillian Gordon