Sometimes the best ideas come to you in the strangest places: The shower, the gym, the commute to work. For Kristy Lewis, the best idea came to her years ago, but the motivation to jump in head-first came during maternity leave with her first son, Quinn.
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That’s when her eight-year-old dream of finding a way to make microwave popcorn safer to pop and healthier to consume came to life. In 2010, Lewis and her husband Coulter launched their dream and called it Quinn Popcorn.
Now, they share it with millions of people through hundreds of stores nationwide from Whole Foods (WFM) to Gourmet Garage and many specialty food retailers in between.
It’s an accomplishment Lewis says is still surreal.
A Leap of Faith
Lewis wasn’t always the queen of microwave popcorn, though she did love to pop it.
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“I grew up eating microwave popcorn, I popped it at my best friend’s house on sleepovers; it was kind of that iconic American snack for our family, like many other families,” she said.
Despite her love of the salty, buttery snack, Lewis had different ideas for her career. Before she launched her own snack line, she worked as an executive assistant to the co-founder and CTO of Harmonix, a video game developer.
The best part, she said, was working with the company through its development of the popular Beatles RockBand game.
“That was a really, really hard job to leave. I loved that job. I learned so much,” she said. “We got to play Beatles RockBand through the week; it was just a really fun environment to work in.”
But she said when she took her three months of maternity leave when her son was born, something shifted in her life, and she took that as the opportunity to dive right into entrepreneurship.
“It took literally just a few days. Quinn came home from the hospital, and the first week I just wanted to jump in,” she said. “I felt it was a brief moment when I was home on leave and the perfect time to see if this would work.”
Despite the change of career heart, Lewis said her boss at Harmonix was supportive of the idea, and encouraged her to follow her dream.
And it’s a decision on which she’s never looked back.
Believing in Quinn
For Lewis and her husband, the hardest part about starting their own business was they didn’t know exactly where to begin.
First, they needed funding in order to begin thinking about making the dream a reality. They put the campaign on Kickstarter, a crowdfunding website, with a goal of raising $10,000, but they ended up raising nearly $28,000 from people who not only believed in the idea of the campaign, but couldn’t wait to see it on store shelves.
From there, the challenge for the Lewis’ was reaching out to other entrepreneurs for advice – everything from how to get started and get the business off the ground, to sourcing ingredients, where to find the best corn, the best packagers, and the best place to find herbs and spices for flavoring.
“The biggest challenge has been stepping into a food industry that we have zero experience in and trying to convince bag manufacturers and corn suppliers to work with little guys like us,” Lewis said.
To make their popcorn one-of-a-kind, the Lewis couple pulled out the chemical coatings in the microwavable bag and what’s left is a unique paper bag pressed tight enough to make it grease proof. Plus, the bag is also compostable.
For the popcorn itself, which comes in seven different flavors, Quinn never uses genetically-modified ingredients or preservatives, and the product is all organic.
One of the hardest parts of growing the business is also one of the best parts: Getting feedback from the consumers. But it isn’t always so easy to hear the negative aspects of a dream you brought to life.
“We had a lot of feedback. A lot of positive feedback, and a lot of critiquing, a lot of negative feedback, as well, in terms of flavoring,” she said. “We just take all that and evaluate what we can do better going forward.”
Kernels of Wisdom
Though a self-described foodie, Lewis wasn’t always a firm believer in reinventing the way American consumers look at their food. It wasn’t until her mid-20s when she said she started to become more aware of how food was produced and manufactured.
Now that she runs a small business on her own, she understands the difficulties that come with getting it off the ground, and the sacrifices that have to be made. She said she didn’t realize just how difficult it would be, on a personal level, to raise children and launch a business all at the same time.
But she never regrets the leap of faith she took, and says with 100% certainly she would do it again a thousand times over.
“I think if I had known more, I probably would have been too scared to do it,” she said. “Being a little naïve and green in the space has been beneficial because it’s extremely challenging to get up and running. You have to believe in the dream, go for it, and not listen to those who say it can’t be done.”
For other would-be entrepreneurs, Lewis said the best guidance she can offer is to ask for advice and never be afraid to seek someone else’s opinion.
The Lewis’ get a chance to receive feedback about their products through the Quinn Popcorn blog, which they also see as an opportunity to connect with other business owners who share in the same struggles, sacrifices, and triumphs they faced. And they use it as a platform to give advice to others and share their own story of success.
“Right now, we have lots of young entrepreneurs who are thinking about starting a food company, who contact us all the time – phone calls, emails, we’re always very open to sharing our story and our path, and our learning experiences so they can learn as well,” she said. “I think the biggest advice to other folks, whether you’re starting a clothing company or a food company, is to reach out to other people in your industry and learn from them and learn as much as possible.”
Lewis said it’s what helped her get Quinn off the ground – and she considers herself lucky to have been able to have learned from such a friendly and inviting food manufacturing community.