Rather, a checked-ego and humble willingness to learn from and partner with others, while still holding true to core values, is the secret to successfully navigating the first few fraught years of building a business, according to Jeff Martin, the co-founder of the heirloom corn-based snack company Pipsnacks, which over the past ten years has not only survived but thrived to become a cult-favorite with high-profile fans, including Oprah Winfrey and Shark Tank investor Barbara Corcoran.
Of course, not everyone who offers entrepreneurs a helping hand does so in earnest or has all the answers, and as more players join a team the risk of losing oneself – or the company’s North Star – becomes an increasingly real threat.
In this episode of FoodNavigator-USA’s Soup-To-Nuts podcast, Martin shares strategies for picking partners, building trust and staying true to Pipsnack’s founding mission while simultaneously navigating unexpected and unprecedented macro trends that are reshaping consumer expectations and the business landscape at a speed not previously experienced by this generation.
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A strong foundation
When Martin launched Pipsnacks with his sister Jen and wife Teresa ten years ago it was out of an abundant passion for heirloom popcorn kernels carefully preserved and grown by an Indiana farmer and an idea that better ingredients are better for people, the planet and the food system.
“What we wanted to do was take some of our childhood favorites that we either weren’t allowed to eat because they weren’t healthy, or we could have once a year – and in my house it was always Super Bowl Sunday … and we would get all the Cheetos and cheese balls and stuff,” Martin said.
“We love those snacks, but they weren’t being done right. They were full of artificial ingredients and artificial colors and flavors,” and so Pipsnacks is recreating those beloved snacks with real ingredients, including heirloom corn, which is the bas of all the company’s current snacks, Martin added.
He explained that the company chose heirloom corn because it is flavorful, and also because it can be more sustainably grown, requiring fewer inputs and labor.
According to Martin, cultivating heirlooms and creating consumer demand for them also could help reinforce the food system, which as illustrated by the pandemic is far more fragile than many people believed a few years ago.
“Biodiversity is so important because we can't control everything, right. Like, if a disease comes and sweeps through general, like the couple strains of corn that are grown at scale, we're in trouble. Or if a disease comes through and impacts if we fill in the blank, whatever crop it is, we're in trouble because there's really isn't a lot of biodiversity on a large scale. We think that it's really important to contribute to biodiversity for reasons like that. We need to
“In years of drought, our corn still grows, in years of flooding, our corn still grows, we need less water, way less water per acre, whatever, whatever measure because it's a super resilient crop. So I think biodiversity is great. But I think increasing biodiversity with heirlooms is even more amazing, because it's just going to make our food chain way more resilient,” he added.
Collaboration opens doors
The weight of such an ambitious, and important mission, combined with such deep passion easily could have led to burnout if team hadn’t had each other to lean on or trusted partners to help them build a reliable supply chain, promote their brand or fund production.
While Martin said that he doesn’t know the secret for surviving 10 years in the competitive food and beverage industry, he did acknowledge that the ability to laugh off the bad days and lean on his partners helped.
The strong internal foundation at Pipsnacks helped overcome two tremendous, but also common challenges building their business – establishing a reliable supply chain and finding supportive investors.
For Pipsnacks, sourcing the heirloom corn at the center of its snacks was the easy part – finding retailers, co-packers, transportation and the other components of the supply chain were harder to establish, Martin said.
“I know we're not alone, last two years have been unique, because everything has been really, really difficult. keeping people safe while doing all of those challenging things is a real challenge,” he said.
Fundraising also was a significant challenge, he admitted, until sever years after launching the team found an investor they trusted and who shared their values in ABC’s Shark Tanks’ Barbara Corcoran.
Martin said that the team knew Corcoran was a good fit because she empowered them and lifted them up – encouraging them in the direction they wanted to go rather than try to steer them elsewhere.
Likewise, he said the Whole Foods’ buyer who took an initial chance on the brand impressed Martin because of the support offered when sales unexpectedly took off and almost put the young company out of business because it couldn’t make the popcorn fast enough.
Even before Whole Foods and Corcoran, Pipsnacks had earned the hearts of fans nationwide, thanks in part to the support from one superfan – Oprah Winfrey, who included the company’s PipCorn on her annual list of favorite things not once, but three times. And each time, Martin said, Oprah’s team offered more than her endorsement, they also helped the company prepare for the influx of orders and make the most of the exposure.
Each of these opportunities would make any entrepreneur’s dreams come true, but Martin said what kept them from turning into nightmares was knowing that each partner shared Pipsnacks’ core values and wanted to see the company succeed as much as the founding team did.
“I always go back to that … idea of having community, and everyone thinks about that differently, but we’ve always thought about it in terms of the expanded broad community, which involves anybody who has touched the product. We’re here because we’ve been supported in so many ways by our friends, our family, the Oprah team, the Shark Tank team, the Whole Foods team. And I could name a million retailers that are doing the same thing for us now,” Martin said.
“So,” he added, “I think these opportunities, the big ones are shiny objects, and it's easy to get distracted. But the ones that want to support you the same amount, they want to see you succeed as badly as you want to succeed, those are the ones that are like we are all over it, versus other ones have not felt as good and we've turned them away.”
Tabasco helps turn up the heat
To further grow the business, Pipsnacks continues to embrace new partnerships – including some unexpected ones, like the most recent collaboration with the iconic hot sauce brand Tabasco, to create a line of spicy heirloom corn based snacks that are hitting store shelves this month.
Through this partnership, Martin says not only does Pipsnacks get to offer bold new flavor combinations, but also reach new consumers who may be fans of Tabasco but hadn’t yet heard of PipCorn.
He also stresses that a collaboration of this calibre wouldn’t be possible without first cultivating a deep sense of trust and mutual respect between the brands.
“This is a pinch me moment. After a couple of months of working with the Tabasco team, we are launching this incredible partnership with Tabasco to launch a spicy cheddar cheese ball and spicy cheddar popcorn using their Tabasco red sauce,” he explained.
Through the partnership, Martin says Pipsnacks is reaching a new set of consumers who know and trust Tabasco but maybe haven’t tried PipCorn, yet.
Building trust and transparency to navigate unfamiliar waters
An essential component of each of these partnerships is trust, which Martin says is built on transparency – which has become even more important in the past two years as the company, others in its supply chain and consumers all navigate the pressures on the supply chain first the pandemic and now inflation.
To maintain this trust as costs increased beyond what Pipsnacks could bear on its own, Martin said the company cultivated open lines of communications with suppliers and with consumers. This included sharing with fans when and why it needed to temporarily raise its prices – a very different strategy than many others in the food industry that either opted to quietly reduce pack sizes but maintain prices to find financial relief or push through incremental increases without warning shoppers.
Knowing that the challenges the company – and industry – face today will ease as the economy and other macro geo-political pressures ease, Martin says he is eager to build Pipsnacks by launching innovating new products that further support biodiversity – including potentially beyond corn. It also wants to improve the sustainability of its packaging and production process to ensure a brighter future for everyone. But, in the spirit of transparency, he adds that he doesn’t have all the answers and is eager to team with innovators in the space.