The first surprise is that Joe and Seph are the same person: co-founder Adam Sopher’s dad, Joseph, who first started making gourmet popcorn as a hobby for his children. The second thing you should know is that nine years since it began selling in Selfridge’s, Joe & Seph’s turns over £6m a year and employs 60 people. It’s a truly family business that started around the kitchen table.
Where did the idea for Joe & Seph’s popcorn come from?
My dad Joseph – hence the name Joe & Seph’s – used to go to the US every year for a trade show in Chicago, where he used to bring back popcorn from a specialist popcorn shop. It was nothing particularly special but better than you could buy in the UK.
When we were kids, his hobby was making popcorn and then he retired and started making popcorn more seriously in the kitchen, coming up with some really great flavours. I was bit bored in my job and we thought, why don’t we just see what people think?
In October 2010 we went to a food show and we sold out in just two days. We launched in April 2011 in Selfridges. Today, we’re stocked in in 19 countries around the world in over 3,000 stockists.
And the proof of our quality is that we’ve won 49 Great Taste awards, which are the Oscars of the food industry.
How much experience did you have of the food industry when you launched?
None whatsoever. It really is a family business that started around the kitchen table.
The beauty of the food and drink industry is how accessible it is. Well did online food safety courses but that was about it. We found a rent-by-the-hour kitchen and so we had no overheads really.
One thing that we were clear about was that we wanted to keep production of our popcorn inhouse. We didn’t want to be one of those brands where we outsourced it to a nondescript factory somewhere. It was really important to us that we controlled the whole process.
Do you consider yourself to be a disruptor?
When we launched the brand, the gourmet popcorn category did not exist– there were just Butterkist and cinema popcorn and the flavour offers were really just salty or sweet. We came in in 2010 with flavours as diverse as goat’s cheese and black pepper, gin and tonic and salted caramel. In that regard, we’ve disrupted the flavour profiles of the category and we’ve made popcorn a premium snack, which it wasn’t before.
In terms of our USP within the market, we have one aim, which is to be the best tasting popcorn out there. Others will be the cheapest or the healthiest but we’re all about quality and taste. Our corn is popped using hot air, not oil with all natural ingredients. With our corn every piece is fully coated, so you get a much more indulgent mouthful.
Does technology play any part in your businesses?
For us it’s all about the ingredients, the process that we go through to make the product. It’s all very artisan.
That said, in terms of technology it’s been used to enable more flexible working for some of the team and faster, quicker communications.
Where has the money come from to help you grow the business?
The business was started with a mixture of a £10,000 overdraft and savings and that was it. We built the brand by reinvesting every penny we made in the business. We didn’t take on any form of external funding for nine years but since then we’ve used Funding Circle briefly because we didn’t want to get in a cash flow issue and that was a great way of avoiding it.
Last year we took in equity investment from a private investor to buy lots more machinery and buy more space and to fund the next stage of our growth.
We’ve got some really big things we want to do over the next three or four years. There are some countries where we don’t have any presence at all, especially in the US, which is where we need to grow into. It’s the biggest market in the world for popcorn with nothing approaching the quality of what we do.
What advice would you have for other entrepreneurs thinking about bringing in external investment?
My advice would be to be to wait as long as you can. If we’d done it earlier, we would have had to give away a big chunk of the business and we didn’t – we just gave a small percentage away.
One of our values is that we do a lot with a little and it’s amazing what you can do on a budget. It’s brought us up in the right way. By waiting that long the percentage is small enough and it means that we don’t lose any control.
One of the other reasons why wanted to bring in a private equity investor was that we needed specialist advice. Our investor has experience as well as bringing equity and there’s value in that.
There’s a big difference between do-it-yourself and going wide when it comes to distribution. Was that a moment for you?
The main thing was scaling up the production, going from the batch process we used to do to making many, many batches. That’s something we’ve had a challenge doing because, frankly, other businesses out there are just sales and marketing businesses and leave the production to someone else. That was a challenge but also more fulfilling. Seeing that order come in and loading up the lorry with all those hand-packed bags, that’s satisfying.
How do you define success for the business or for your customers or for yourself?
What makes me proud is seeing how the team has grown with the business and taken on more responsibility. Our very first employee used to be a pastry chef in a five-star hotel and now manages the kitchen. My first employee in the office was with me for about four-and-a-half years and has moved on to a fantastic role with a drinks brand, so that gives me pleasure.
In terms of stockists, it’s not necessarily winning a new account but seeing the product on the shelf, seeing the stock moving faster and faster which means your product is getting more popular.
Doing the right thing for the business is really important. Being true to what we are – family owned, family run – is really important to our brand.
The most important thing for us is that we’re going to create a brand that’s going to be here for a long time. We’re not going to make short-term decisions that are going to jeopardise what we’ve created.
Is there another food brand that’s influenced your attitude to business?
I love what Brewdog have done and the way they’ve disrupted the category. That was something that we looked at. A product like puddings manufacturer Gü credits its popularity with being on board airlines and so we certainly took notice of that. As an indulgent brand ourselves, Joe & Seph’s is stocked on board Virgin Atlantic, Singapore and Qatar airlines.
How do you like to spend your time when you’re not popping corn?
At the moment I’m renovating our house, which is how I’m spending my time.
Adam Sopher is co-founder and director of Joe & Seph’s and a member of the Growth Business Venturers Club. To find out more about becoming a venturer, see here