Lessons from launching a ‘cool’ new popsicle brand

Didi and Tim Deane are the dynamic duo behind sorbet and ice cream brand POPCO that has grown rapidly since its inception in 2018. Their popsicles are low on calories, low on sugar, made with real fruit with zero colourants, and are now stocked in more than 150 outlets countrywide. So, how did a chemical engineer and a retail exec with a Yale MBA end up founding SA’s ‘coolest’ new brand? We spoke to Didi and Tim about developing their product, launching a new start-up, and the lessons learnt along the way:

Q: What was the motivation to venture into the ‘unknown’ world of entrepreneurship? 

“For some time already, Tim and I had been looking to take our 20+ years of experience in the corporate world and start a business together. We were ultimately drawn to the challenge of building something from the very beginning – build a brand, team and everything,” says Didi.

“While we were on holiday in South America, we discovered the real-fruit sorbets and ice-cream popsicles sold on almost every corner. We could not understand why there wasn’t an equivalent with the same amazing taste and light, smooth mouthfeel on the SA market. We realised that this was what we’d been looking for!”

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Q: Developing, perfecting and launching a new product in a market is no easy feat. Tell us a bit about the process.

“We did a great deal of research on international brands and local offers, and spent a lot of time on our business plan refinement and financial projections,” explains Tim.

The couple also flew back to Brazil to learn recipe development and to procure the required equipment and machinery.

Back in Cape Town, they got to work using Didi’s kitchen blender and fresh fruit bought at the local market. “The study became our prep kitchen, the dining room table – our workspace, and there was fruit everywhere you looked. Once, when watermelon stocks were about to run out, Tim returned from the market with half a ton of them!”

“We did twenty-plus iterations of each recipe until we were happy with each flavour and mouth-feel. However, we knew that the best research we could do was the feedback that we’d get directly from customers. As a result, we got our first versions of the pops out as quickly as possible and started testing them with customers at markets.”

Within just 8 months, volumes and demand had increased to such an extent that the business moved into a professional production kitchen in Salt River.

The couple had been building a strong following at the Biscuit Mill and other local markets when the pandemic struck. Agility is often cited as a success predictor and enables companies to adjust to market shifts. Fortunately, Didi and Tim were able to very quickly pivot to retail and direct-to-customer sales.

The growth has been impressive. With over 150 stockists, from SPARs to cafes, POPCO is actively building out their presence nationwide. “To achieve a national footprint, we focused on building key distribution partners to ensure our popsicles could reach stockists across the country,” says Tim.

“I think it’s key to be patient when building a brand. You need to establish a track record with customers before you can expect established stockists to take a chance on a fledgeling brand. Once you’ve established some positive stockist relationships that are working, leverage those successes to get into the next stockist, and so on. At the end of the day, it’s as simple as getting great customer feedback and building trusted stockist relationships.”

Despite the exponential growth, POPCO has stayed true to its founding principles and hands-on values. The pips of those watermelons and the eyes of every pineapple are still removed by hand. The old blender has now been retired, but the ice creams are still handmade and packaged one by one, by hand, in clear wrappers. “We want our customers to know that what they see is what they get,” Didi explains.

Q. What valuable lessons did you learn in your early days as a start-up?

“We learnt humility!” Didi admits. “We spent a lot of time hustling pops behind the freezer, even if that meant sitting in the Cape Town rain trying to sell ice cream! Those experiences were tough, but key to getting the customer feedback that we needed to learn and build on. We also were complete novices and welcomed any industry feedback that we could get.”

“In our corporate environments, we had a team and support. However, in a startup, we became everything from the sales person, to the financier, to the accountant, strategist, techie and production head… and chopper and peeler. This means that we never, ever, had enough time and prioritisation quickly became critical.”

“The other lesson that jumps out is how high the highs are, and how low the lows are. It’s a rollercoaster as you jump from the most recent win, to the next loss, and back to a win again. Tim and I relied on the support of family and friends these ups and downs. And we were reassured by the fact that this is normal in an early stage start up!” Didi says.

Q. What are your goals and future plans for the brand?

“We’re actively growing our list of stockists with a specific focus of expanding our reach in Gauteng and KZN. We’re also working on our range and have some exciting new innovations up our sleeves! Other than that, our goal is more of the same – to continue to delight our customers and support our retail stockists in every way that we possibly can.”

Q. What’s your top lessons learnt and advice for fellow entrepreneurs?  

  • Build a product that you believe in. You can only really sell a product that you believe in. And this belief is critical to self-motivate through the inevitable tougher times.
  • Get the economics right. In any new business, cashflow is a challenge. Make sure that your economics are working in your favour to support your cashflow as you scale.
  • Keep it simple. It’s always tempting to complicate things. However, if you find something that works, double down and then look to simplify even further.
  • Teamwork. Tim and I are so fortunate to be able to team well on POPCO. Startups are unbelievably challenging, and it has been imperative to be able to bounce ideas and team well.

 

 

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Didi and Tim Deane are the dynamic duo behind sorbet and ice cream brand POPCO that has grown rapidly since its inception in 2018. Their popsicles are low on calories, low on sugar, made with real fruit with zero colourants, and are now stocked in more than 150 outlets countrywide. So, how did a chemical engineer and a retail exec with a Yale MBA end up founding SA’s ‘coolest’ new brand? We spoke to Didi and Tim about developing their product, launching a new start-up, and the lessons learnt along the way:

Q: What was the motivation to venture into the ‘unknown’ world of entrepreneurship? 

“For some time already, Tim and I had been looking to take our 20+ years of experience in the corporate world and start a business together. We were ultimately drawn to the challenge of building something from the very beginning – build a brand, team and everything,” says Didi.

“While we were on holiday in South America, we discovered the real-fruit sorbets and ice-cream popsicles sold on almost every corner. We could not understand why there wasn’t an equivalent with the same amazing taste and light, smooth mouthfeel on the SA market. We realised that this was what we’d been looking for!”

- Advertisement -

Q: Developing, perfecting and launching a new product in a market is no easy feat. Tell us a bit about the process.

“We did a great deal of research on international brands and local offers, and spent a lot of time on our business plan refinement and financial projections,” explains Tim.

The couple also flew back to Brazil to learn recipe development and to procure the required equipment and machinery.

Back in Cape Town, they got to work using Didi’s kitchen blender and fresh fruit bought at the local market. “The study became our prep kitchen, the dining room table – our workspace, and there was fruit everywhere you looked. Once, when watermelon stocks were about to run out, Tim returned from the market with half a ton of them!”

“We did twenty-plus iterations of each recipe until we were happy with each flavour and mouth-feel. However, we knew that the best research we could do was the feedback that we’d get directly from customers. As a result, we got our first versions of the pops out as quickly as possible and started testing them with customers at markets.”

Within just 8 months, volumes and demand had increased to such an extent that the business moved into a professional production kitchen in Salt River.

The couple had been building a strong following at the Biscuit Mill and other local markets when the pandemic struck. Agility is often cited as a success predictor and enables companies to adjust to market shifts. Fortunately, Didi and Tim were able to very quickly pivot to retail and direct-to-customer sales.

The growth has been impressive. With over 150 stockists, from SPARs to cafes, POPCO is actively building out their presence nationwide. “To achieve a national footprint, we focused on building key distribution partners to ensure our popsicles could reach stockists across the country,” says Tim.

“I think it’s key to be patient when building a brand. You need to establish a track record with customers before you can expect established stockists to take a chance on a fledgeling brand. Once you’ve established some positive stockist relationships that are working, leverage those successes to get into the next stockist, and so on. At the end of the day, it’s as simple as getting great customer feedback and building trusted stockist relationships.”

Despite the exponential growth, POPCO has stayed true to its founding principles and hands-on values. The pips of those watermelons and the eyes of every pineapple are still removed by hand. The old blender has now been retired, but the ice creams are still handmade and packaged one by one, by hand, in clear wrappers. “We want our customers to know that what they see is what they get,” Didi explains.

Q. What valuable lessons did you learn in your early days as a start-up?

“We learnt humility!” Didi admits. “We spent a lot of time hustling pops behind the freezer, even if that meant sitting in the Cape Town rain trying to sell ice cream! Those experiences were tough, but key to getting the customer feedback that we needed to learn and build on. We also were complete novices and welcomed any industry feedback that we could get.”

“In our corporate environments, we had a team and support. However, in a startup, we became everything from the sales person, to the financier, to the accountant, strategist, techie and production head… and chopper and peeler. This means that we never, ever, had enough time and prioritisation quickly became critical.”

“The other lesson that jumps out is how high the highs are, and how low the lows are. It’s a rollercoaster as you jump from the most recent win, to the next loss, and back to a win again. Tim and I relied on the support of family and friends these ups and downs. And we were reassured by the fact that this is normal in an early stage start up!” Didi says.

Q. What are your goals and future plans for the brand?

“We’re actively growing our list of stockists with a specific focus of expanding our reach in Gauteng and KZN. We’re also working on our range and have some exciting new innovations up our sleeves! Other than that, our goal is more of the same – to continue to delight our customers and support our retail stockists in every way that we possibly can.”

Q. What’s your top lessons learnt and advice for fellow entrepreneurs?  

  • Build a product that you believe in. You can only really sell a product that you believe in. And this belief is critical to self-motivate through the inevitable tougher times.
  • Get the economics right. In any new business, cashflow is a challenge. Make sure that your economics are working in your favour to support your cashflow as you scale.
  • Keep it simple. It’s always tempting to complicate things. However, if you find something that works, double down and then look to simplify even further.
  • Teamwork. Tim and I are so fortunate to be able to team well on POPCO. Startups are unbelievably challenging, and it has been imperative to be able to bounce ideas and team well.

 

 

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