In Conversation with Melanie Kahn of Poppilu

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Describe your business in a few words?

Poppilu makes delicious, better-for-you lemonades

What made you take the leap to start your own business?

I had a fun career in packaged food at companies like Kraft and Jim Beam, but it was my experience creating and nationally launching the fairlife dairy brand that propelled me to become an entrepreneur. Fairlife was such an extraordinary start-up experience that I knew I couldn’t go to a ho-hum regular job after and needed the excitement and challenge of building my own business.  Entrepreneurship is certainly a bit different from being part of a well-funded start-up, but they’re both very fulfilling.

Did you always know you wanted to be an entrepreneur?

I never expected to be an entrepreneur. But I was so inspired by all the people starting food and beverage businesses and the amazing success stories that I felt I could give it a try as well, and I felt like I had a good business background to help me. Besides, who doesn’t want to be their own boss!?!

Take us back to when you first launched your business, what was your marketing strategy to get the word out and did it go as planned?

I didn’t really have much of a strategy to get the word out because that takes money!  I tried some PR and that was helpful but small budgets make it hard to get the word out in a meaningful way. My hope was that a good product that caught shoppers’ attention at shelf and met their needs would result in good sales, and then getting the word out would naturally follow.

We always learn the most from our mistakes, share a time with us that you made a mistake or had a challenging time in business and what you learned from it?

In the beginning, I grew distribution too fast. I was hungry for sales and knew that the more stores the product was sold in, the higher the sales would be. So I hustled and picked up about 550 stores in my first year – it was thrilling! But I hadn’t perfected the product yet and I didn’t know how to properly support those first 550 stores. I ended up losing most of that distribution and had to rebuild, but at least I was smarter the second time around. The smartest, however, would have been to have gone slower and more methodically early on and taken the time to learn before expanding too quickly.

What is the accomplishment you are the most proud of to date?

I’m amazed I’ve made it to four years already with Poppilu and we’re poised to have a huge 2021. There was a time when the business quite literally had $14 in the bank. A few things bounced my way at critical times and now we’re in major growth mode.

When hiring for your team, what is your go-to interview question? Please share any hiring tips you can share from your experience?

Hiring for start-ups is hard because you’ve got to find someone with true entrepreneurial passion. Startups look cool from the outside, but there’s a lot of unglamorous work that needs to happen, there are high risks, and there’s typically not a lot of salary. A lot of people say that’s okay for them, but reality can often be different. Finding the right people is therefore a bit tough, but once you find them, you thank your lucky stars that they’re there.

What’s next for your business? What can we expect to see over the next few years?

2021 is all about big expansion for us. You’ll find our kids lemonades in a few thousand more stores by year end, so this is go-time for us as we hit the proverbial “hockey stick” growth curve.

What is the biggest lesson you have learned in 2020?

Biggest lesson learned in 2020 was realizing how much of our pre-covid lives were filled with stress from overscheduling, particularly for our kids. Life has become a lot more simple, manageable and frankly enjoyable by spending more time at home or outside with our family rather than running to various activities to fill the days. I’ve also learned how incredibly hard it is to try to have kids at home with remote learning while I’m also working. Luckily my kids have been in school in-person for most of the school year, but on those days that they’re doing school remotely, it’s impossible for me to get work done in any meaningful way. I empathize with all the moms who have to balance both work and school-at-home daily and with all the moms who have chosen to give up work because of covid.

What do you know now that you wish you knew when you were first starting your business?

Choose a category with really really high margins!! That gross profit on every unit sold is really helpful and I wish our margins were higher!

Do you believe in work/life balance? What are some of your best tips?

I’m still a bit old-school in terms of work/life balance. I know some people who won’t even check their email after hours or on the weekends – that’s a foreign concept to me. I work whenever I can because the to-do list is never ending and I get a tremendous amount of satisfaction from making work progress, but I certainly take time to be with my kids, to exercise daily, to walk the dog for at least an hour each day, and to get 7-8 hours of sleep. I feel like my business is very much part of my life – my work doesn’t get compartmentalized and shut off. Perhaps that’s a fault. But when you love what you do, it doesn’t feel like a sacrifice. Work and life are blended into one, and I enjoy it all.

What’s something our audience would be surprised to learn about you?

Everyone asks “Where does the name Poppilu come from?”  The answer is that it’s a play on my daughter’s name, Poppy. She sparked a citrus craving during my pregnancy that led me to create Poppilu, so I named it after her when she was born. The problem is I don’t have a brand for her big brother Zachary, which I feel terrible about. #momfail !!!

What are your top 3 tips to stay productive each day?

  • Get good sleep! 
  • Keep a written checklist, not a mental one. There’s NO way someone running a business can keep organized and not forget to do things without being super organized. 
  • Multitask. I often schedule work calls during my daily dog walks so that I can use the time productively.

What does being an Entreprenista mean to you?

Being a Mom-treprenista allows me to show my kids what it’s like to have the guts and the work ethic to start and run your own business.  I want to inspire them that they can grow up to do and be anything they want, including being entrepreneurs.  And of course with my daughter in particular, I want to ensure she knows she can be a woman-boss if she so chooses when she grows up.  It’s all about empowerment, knowing you have choices and acting upon them to craft your destiny.

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