LAURA PETRECCA | USA TODAY
April 11, 2010 – Karen Ash isn’t the type of person who would typically send a gushing note to a generic company e-mail address. But soon after the Bronx, N.Y., resident tasted a Popchip, she wrote the snack chip’s maker to say how much she enjoyed the crunchy crisp. “I wasn’t expecting anything out of it,” says Ash, 28. “At the best, I thought maybe they’d e-mail me a coupon for a quarter off, and even that I’d be thrilled with.”
Within hours, Popchips CEO Keith Belling sent her an e-mail. He asked if she’d meet with a marketing manager to provide feedback about why she was a fan. The company also donated about 200 snack bags for a weekly trivia night Ash hosts at a Manhattan pub.
“I answer every single e-mail that comes in myself,” says Belling. “People don’t know it’s me because it comes from a ‘snackers’ (e-mail address) but it’s such a learning experience.” (Ash didn’t know Belling was the person who replied to her e-mail until the marketing manager she met with told her.)
That enthusiastic, go-above-and-beyond attitude is part of Belling’s nature, says Patrick Turpin, co-founder of the all-natural snack-chip company. “He is just a very positive person,” Turpin says.
It’s also helped the company build a loyal following at a time when folks are careful with shopping dollars. The rough economy and high unemployment have posed “considerable challenges” for the $30 billion healthy-snack marketplace, according to a June 2009 industry report from Mintel. One in four consumers have cut back on their snack spending, according to Information Resources’ 2010 State of the Snack Industry report.
Yet, people keep reaching for Popchips, which retail for an average of $1.29 for a single-serving bag.
Popchips’ sparsely decorated San Francisco headquarters contains about 35 employees, hundreds of bags of Popchips, and a wide variety of promotional material. Belling proudly points to an ad campaign that says “love. without the handles” and doles out a colorful “principles of pop” booklet that describes the company as “poptimists.”
The company’s leaders and fun brand personality help to lure in “evangelist” consumers who further spread the word about the brand, says Popchips investor Alex Panos, managing director at TSG Consumer.
“Keith has a unique ability to get people on his team,” Panos says. “Not just his employees, but also consumers.” Belling responds to more than 25 customer e-mails a day. He often toils seven days a week to tackle such duties as promoting Popchips’ seven-flavor line and generating new retail sales leads. Company President Turpin is responsible for the bulk of operations, including manufacturing and financial duties.
The duo met in late 1999, when Belling recruited Turpin to work on Allbusiness.com, a small business-focused portal he had helped launch. That venture reaped Belling and other investors big rewards: They made about $250 million when NBC Interactive bought it in 2000 just before the dot-com bubble imploded.
After that sale, Belling took a year off for travel. He spent time in Europe and Aspen, and while in Chile fly-fishing, he heard about an opportunity that lured him back to business three months earlier than he had planned: His friend Gary Friedman became CEO of then-troubled Restoration Hardware. Belling was brought in to help raise money and to try to turn the company around.
In 2005, he teamed with Turpin to look into start-up options in the healthy food market. They found a manufacturing firm that made rice cakes and other snacks and soon discovered that with heat and pressure, they could pop other starchy food, such as potatoes. They bought the plant, and in 2007, the duo officially launched Popchips.
Belling hasn’t taken off more than two days consecutively since.
In addition to being a chip company founder and Internet entrepreneur, Belling has practiced law, been a restaurant owner and a coffee store executive. Even as a kid, he sought entrepreneurial ways to make money. For instance, he and his brother used to pick up goods at garage sales, clean them and sell them for a profit at a flea market.
While the tanned, fit Belling likes to read and relax in front of the TV, he says he dedicates most of his time and energy to his business ventures.
His office is dotted with stacks of marketing material and lined with rows of new flavor samples in silver bags. In the back of the main Popchips office, shelves are crammed with competitors’ products. (And those rivals are many, ranging from industry giant Frito-Lay to smaller brands such as Sensible Portions.)
“You have to have a ton of passion for what you’re doing, because being an entrepreneur is probably twice as hard as you think it’s going to be,” Belling says. “The good news is that it’s probably twice as much fun when it’s going well.”
Which is the case with Popchips.
The snacks, which have the consistency of a rice cake/potato chip hybrid, sell at U.S. stores such as Costco, Target, Whole Foods, Jamba Juice and drugstore chain Duane Reade. The brand also just expanded to Canada.
Belling says success for the chip company has come faster than he expected, but he always expected it to arrive:
“I’m neurotic, so I definitely worry, but I did this because I thought I’d be successful,” he says.
About KEITH BELLING
ABOUT TSG CONSUMER PARTNERS LLC
TSG Consumer Partners, LLC is a leading investment firm with
approximately $5 billion of assets under management, focused
exclusively on the branded consumer sector. Since its founding
in 1987, TSG has been an active investor in the food, beverage,
restaurant, beauty, personal care, household and apparel & accessories,
and e-commerce sectors. Representative past and present partner
companies include Duckhorn Wine Company, vitaminwater, thinkThin,
popchips, Muscle Milk, Yard House, Stumptown, Pabst, Planet Fitness,
REVOLVE, PAIGE, Smashbox Cosmetics, Pureology, Sexy Hair, e.l.f. Cosmetics
and IT Cosmetics.
Meghan Gavigan / Dan Goldstein
Sard Verbinnen & Co
Meghan Gavigan - 212.687.8080
Dan Goldstein - 310.201.2040