When Connor Wray started JonnyPops with a group of college buddies a decade ago, the goal was simple: make a better-tasting, better-for-you frozen treat. Connor’s business partner, Erik Brust, and Erik’s cousin Jonathan knew they were on to something when they conceptualized the idea for the “smoothie on a stick.”
Tragically, however, Jonathan passed away from a drug overdose before the project came to fruition. “Understandably, Erik stopped working on the project,” explains Connor.
Sometime later, he and Erik met again with a renewed passion for JonnyPops — seeing it as an opportunity to honor Jonathan, the inspiration and name behind the brand.
So the business partners moved forward with the idea, and the rest is JonnyPops history. Now with a mission to “make the world a better place, one pop at a time,” JonnyPops has distribution at retailers in all 50 states and a handful of international countries.
Recently, Ramon Ray had the opportunity to sit down and chat with Connor about his success. Here are his tips for launching a new brand, finding your way in a competitive marketplace, and staying true to your mission even as you grow and scale.
Humble Beginnings of JonnyPops
Imagine the proverbial entrepreneur getting started in a garage — or, in this case, a basement — and you’ll have an idea of what a business startup looked like for Connor and Erik.
For the first couple of years in business, they made the product by hand; they’d wake up at 3 a.m., throw a freezer in the back of the car, and hustle from one farmer’s market to the next to get their frozen treats directly in the hands of consumers.
“That was a grind. We were throwing products in the back of our car and driving fast. No refrigeration involved, just speeding,” jokes Connor, who acts as the chief financial officer (CFO) for JonnyPops, headquartered in Minnesota.
It wasn’t without its sweet rewards, however. Not only were they pursuing a dream, but they also got to enjoy the product development process. “No one takes a job at an ice cream company without expecting to participate in the taste testing,” notes Connor. “It just comes with the territory.”
As the business partners found continued success, they also began to see that this business model wasn’t scalable. At this point, they wrote a bigger business plan.
They needed to get a more dedicated manufacturing space and equipment to help scale up their batch size but still produce a high-quality product — and find the capital to support their growth plans.
In 2014, they moved into the facility they are still in today. And this year, by Thanksgiving, they plan to move into an even bigger manufacturing facility.
With their expansion efforts in motion, they had the tools to take the brand from direct to consumer into retailers. So in 2014, they launched into retail and began to scale, taking the brand from 30 to 40 local stores to over 10,000 retail outlets across all 50 states they serve today.
Tips for Food Entrepreneurs
For the food manufacturing entrepreneur in the same space and looking to scale up their operations, here are some pretty wise words from Connor:
1. Adjust Your Pricing
Many businesses transitioning from the farmer’s market to the retail model have to adjust their pricing once they begin to scale rapidly. They’ll go from a price point where they capture 100% of the cash sale value and make the product by hand to sharing profits with multiple parties.
They will need many hands to get the product from the distributor to the retailer. And each of them needs a piece of that sale price for that business model to work, from the marketing agencies and sales reps to distributors and retailers. In addition, the price you’re charging at the farmer’s market may not be competitive in the retail environment.
Unlike at the farmer’s market, where you can look at your customers and explain why your product is unique, you won’t be standing at store shelves 24/7 to talk to customers. Your product has to hold its own, and your pricing has to be attractive to the average shopper.
2. Adjust Your Volume
As you scale, it requires a rise in volume and the ability to lean into a creative production process that achieves margin objectives, says Connor. Combined with the pricing adjustments, it can be a tough hurdle to cross over — especially because they all need to happen in a near-simultaneous fashion.
You’re moving from a very intensive, potentially expensive production environment where you’re manually making products to something more sustainable and cost-effective. At the same time, you’re working to drive volume up through retail outlets.
“But they really go together, and it’s critical,” says Connor. For those looking to get into that retail environment before taking that leap, do your due diligence to identify what it looks like today selling that product and what it may look like tomorrow. It may require changes to the underlying business infrastructure to be scalable and successful.
Why You Need a CFO
Because they often focus on the big picture, business founders don’t always have what’s required to guide a business from the farmer’s market to the retail distribution model. That’s why having a CFO is the lifeline you need while your business grows.
Connor advises working with someone who knows what that route to market looks like, who the other players are, and what fair and reasonable compensation is for those parties. Having that intelligence before diving in is super important, he adds, and has been a vital part of JonnyPops’ success.
“We were able to find those resources on our journey, and that’s critical for entrepreneurs,” he says.
Whether it means hiring someone on the team full-time or finding the right go-to-market partners who you trust can bring you that knowledge, it’s crucial that you identify the right people to scale.
Combining Systems and Experience
As you look to scale efficiently, you’re always looking to avoid hitting a limitation you can’t break through, says Connor. The last thing you want is to have something that’s not business-critical be the barrier keeping you from getting where you want to go.
“You would hate to have some pile of paperwork somewhere prevent you from achieving otherwise business growth that you could go after,” he notes.
The complexity compounds exponentially as your business grows, adds Connor. You may go from one item to 10 or one customers to 10. Or you can also go from only needing to work with one supplier to working with multiple to meet your growing needs. “And all those things tend to happen simultaneously as you scale,” Connor stresses.
This is why business processes and solutions are essential as you scale to keep up with the demand. Part of JonnyPops’ success in this regard has been NetSuite accounting software, which Connor says has been critical in allowing the brand to continue to scale.
Consider, for example, the need to keep track of inventory — a common pain point among companies like JonnyPops. Before implementing NetSuite, they relied on manual processes that weren’t scalable.
“We had reams of banker’s boxes, keeping track of everything from shipping and receiving to quality testing,” says Connor. “Being able to put everything into one system in NetSuite got us out of that problem while keeping us out of similar potholes as we continued to scale.”
Even as JonnyPops has grown, the founders have stayed true to their mission while honoring the legacy that began with Jonathan years ago. Part of that effort includes giving back in several ways by supporting addiction research, recovery, and rehabilitation.
They also strive to make people’s day anytime they eat a JonnyPop. A good deed is printed instead of a joke or a quote on each stick. “We encourage people to pay it forward and be a part of making their communities a better place,” says Connor.
Connor reminds those on the basement journey that the path to success is not easy for anyone, including those who seem like overnight successes. “Success looks easy from the outside, but it’s always lots of work for the people who are making it happen.”
Click here to learn more about JonnyPops and the history behind the brand.
Precious L. Williams is a 13-time national elevator pitch champion. She has also been featured on “Shark Tank,” CNN, Wall Street Journal, Forbes Magazine, Black Enterprise Magazine, Essence Magazine, and the movie “LEAP.” Her current clients include Microsoft, LinkedIn, Google, NBCUniversal, Federal Reserve Bank, Intuit Quickbooks, Yelp, Harvard University, and more. Precious is a dynamic international professional speaker, effective corporate trainer, and 4X 1 bestselling author.