Dustin Finkel of Ka-Pop!Snacks: “Entrepreneurship is lonely”

Healthy snacking is a way of life for my family and me. I have been essentially paleo since 2008, and the only grains we keep in our pantry are ancient grains. We purchased these grains because they are densely nutritious, naturally gluten-free, incredibly sustainable, and never genetically modified. Crash that with the fact that we […]

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Healthy snacking is a way of life for my family and me. I have been essentially paleo since 2008, and the only grains we keep in our pantry are ancient grains. We purchased these grains because they are densely nutritious, naturally gluten-free, incredibly sustainable, and never genetically modified. Crash that with the fact that we were incredibly frustrated with the available ‘good for you’ snacking options out there that were misrepresenting their real health credentials and had a taste that would NEVER be kid-approved!

As a part of our series called “Meet The Inventors”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Dustin Finkel of Ka-Pop! Snacks.

Dustin began his career as an investment banker and equity research analyst at Goldman Sachs but realized his true passion was for building businesses in the food and nutrition categories. Following his MBA from Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, he shifted into general management, marketing, operations, and sales roles for both large and small companies in the conventional CPG and natural foods space. Dustin worked for General Mills (where he launched the first nationwide Gluten-Free product — Chex), Famous Brands, and Abbot nutrition before starting MacGray, LLC specializing in providing leadership, strategy, marketing, financial, and valuation services to food companies, as well as Private Equity groups looking to invest in the food space. In this role, Dustin has served as interim CEO & CMO, advisor, and board member to numerous natural foods companies for well recognized companies across the country. This experience led him to start his own business, Ancient inGRAINed Snack, Co, and the launch of Ka-Pop! Snacks in 2018. Ka-Pop! is the first national brand of 100% ancient grain salty snacks, and its line of chips & puffs are making a significant impact in the world of natural foods. Fueled by its incredible taste, impeccable health credentials, fun branding, and successful Shark Tank experience, Ka-Pop! is now one of the fastest-growing snack brands in the United States.

Dustin is a community service leader, and participant, a competitor in multiple sporting events, an avid crossfitter and is passionate about food and healthy eating.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dive in, our readers would love to learn a bit more about you. Can you tell us a bit about your “childhood backstory”?

My childhood centered around sports and athletics. All my memories seem to be tied to my experiences on a field, on-court, or in the water. It was year-round sports living in Los Angeles, and very early on, I attended sports camps in both Maine and California. I thrived in the competitiveness of athletics, and it shaped my point of view on just about everything. I learned that the hard work put in outside of practice & games is what enhanced my game. I found that physical conditioning was accelerated through eating healthy. I also learned that I was only as strong as my team and the leadership it required to rally everyone around you. I’m still actively engaged in competitive and recreational sports today — from CrossFit training to coaching my sons’ soccer teams!

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

I have two that I live by. From a business standpoint, I have the following quote quite literally in my email signature by Thomas Edison: “Vision without execution is hallucination.” I think that this is critical as an entrepreneur. What got Ka-Pop! to this point is simply that my team out-executed, out-hustled, and out-worked everyone. We brought that relentless passion for execution excellence to every single aspect of our business — no matter how large or small.

From a personal standpoint, I have re-read many times Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. He talks extensively about this quote: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space lies our freedom and our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” In my younger life, I didn’t allow that space to exist. Now, I spend much of my time finding ways to expand that space. Meditation, breathing, time-outs, and practiced listening has been incredibly influential in my journey to improve my happiness and positive impact.

Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Never Split the Difference by Chris Voss is a fantastic book about negotiation from the previous head of FBI Negotiation. While it is, on the surface, a great book on bringing deals together, there is so much about psychology baked within its recommendations. Active listening, questions vs. statements, adjusting your tonality to match your counterpart, etc. I am always trying to be a better leader, teammate, and friend — we are in negotiations every minute of every day of our life. This book was a terrific roadmap on how to think through these experiences.

Ok super. Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. What was the catalyst that inspired you to invent your product? Can you share the story of your “ah-ha” moment with us?

Healthy snacking is a way of life for my family and me. I have been essentially paleo since 2008, and the only grains we keep in our pantry are ancient grains. We purchased these grains because they are densely nutritious, naturally gluten-free, incredibly sustainable, and never genetically modified. Crash that with the fact that we were incredibly frustrated with the available ‘good for you’ snacking options out there that were misrepresenting their real health credentials and had a taste that would NEVER be kid-approved! So we started experimenting with ancient grains in our kitchen, and we found out that many could pop like popcorn! Our kids took to the popped sorghum and were eating it non-stop. There were trails of popped sorghum all over the house! We kept playing with this idea and realized we could transform this super grain into so many forms — and nobody was doing this! Using our super clean recipe that is vegan, gluten-free, top 12 allergen-free, and non-GMO, we can offer authentic health without any taste compromise. With our fun branding, we’re making health craveable and genuinely accessible to all!

There is no shortage of good ideas out there. Many people have good ideas all the time. But people seem to struggle in taking a good idea and translating it into an actual business. How did you overcome this challenge?

The biggest differentiator for me comes down to experience. I started my first company after working in investment banking for five years and getting trained by some of the best in big & small CPG for 15 years. That training gave me a pretty strong point of view of what defines a good idea and what it actually takes to make it a real business. Watching failures — and successes — within the industry for decades allowed me to pressure test my ancient grain snacks idea through the most cynical lens. More importantly, it gave me a network of experts in the industry to further pressure test it. I sought out so many points of view, and while a few individuals had 1-off “a-HA!” moments, it was the culmination of themes through these conversations that helped to validate and improve my concept.

For the record, I know a ton of incredible food entrepreneurs who had no experience. Sometimes, it’s just the ability to jump off the diving board.

Often when people think of a new idea, they dismiss it saying someone else must have thought of it before. How would you recommend that someone go about researching whether or not their idea has already been created?

Once I felt confident I had a strong core concept, I went to Expo West. Expo West is the single largest congregation of natural food companies with over 3,500 exhibitors and 90,000 attendees. Many businesses go there to pre-launch as well — so you get a deep dive into the industry that is better than any google search. I walked every inch of that floor to see if anyone was near my idea. I also leveraged my network to talk with industry reps across all sides of the industry to see how new and relevant my concept was. Finally, I checked in with my friends, family, and neighbors. They were most likely to be my consumer target, and I wanted to see if my ancient grain chips would be an upgrade to their current snacking experiences. It’s important to note that you don’t have to be first to market, but you always need to be better to market.

Did you have a role model or a person who inspired you to persevere despite the hardships involved in taking the risk of selling a new product?

We are headquartered in Boulder, CO — which is essentially the Silicon Valley of natural foods. The community here is authentic and genuinely interested in seeing everyone in it thrive. It is through this local natural food community that I have developed a smaller, more intimate network of 4–5 other CEOs of early to mid-stage startups. We get on a coordinated call weekly to talk through our businesses, our emotions, and our upcoming challenges. My wife is also a 17-year industry veteran — and is now our CMO — and she has been supportive and a relentless cheerleader through thick and thin. With two small kids, she has also had to have a disproportionate lift for our family while I started the company and couldn’t have done it without her. Entrepreneurship can be a very lonely road, so finding this group of CEOs who deeply understand what it’s like, and leaning on my wife, makes working on this startup rollercoaster possible!

For the benefit of our readers, can you share the story, and outline the steps that you went through, from when you thought of the idea, until it finally landed on the store shelves?

Everything, in the beginning, is about the hustle. I met with every single person in my network and their network and their network’s network. I think I had five coffee meetings a day every day before I launched. It’s 99% dead ends in the beginning, but as you start connecting dots, those dead ends start to open. Suddenly, your momentum starts swinging. It was through this networking that I found my manufacturer and got advice on how to protect my idea. I expanded my network as well by showing up at the doorstep of every single local independent retailer with samples and products until they said yes. Once you get that first YES — everything gets easier. For example, Lucky’s Grocers in Boulder, CO, said yes first. I hand-delivered those early cases, and then demoed for hours to ensure it sold through. I then took that fantastic sales data to Alfalfas. Then Alfalfa’s got on board, and I ran the same play. Soon I had a series of case studies, and I haven’t stopped since. We have a 100% sell-in rate because we are relentless in our support of those who support us. We ensure they never regret that decision to partner with Ka-Pop!

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

When I was first prototyping concepts, I was coming up with a new recipe. It was really thick and sticky, and I’m not an experienced equipment handler. Suddenly the Hobart mixer “paddle” (commercial size) I was using for this recipe completely spun off and broke into pieces. I’m standing there with my jaw — and the mixer — on the floor. I learned the following: Shit happens. Keep the souvenirs. The Hobart mixer picture is still on my wall.

The early stages must have been challenging. Are you able to identify a “tipping point” after making your invention, when you started to see success? Did you start doing anything different? Are there takeaways or lessons that others can learn from that?

  • Entrepreneurship is about a series of tipping points. For us, I see these as our critical tipping point milestones:
  • Getting the first person to say yes across each critical area: investors, retailers, distributors, staff
  • Getting that first BIG win that starts to validate the idea. For us, that was getting distribution in Whole Foods
  • Getting that first significant awareness creation moment. For us, that was airing on Shark Tank. Airing on Shark Tank was our Superbowl moment, and catapulted the business in 2020.

When I first started, I kept saying, “Oh, if we just get through Q4, it’s going to be different.” And then the next quarter it was “We just need to power through Q1, and it’s going to be different”. The reality is the grind never stops, the roller coaster ride is always running, and the unexpected 2×4 is waiting daily. So it’s about being OK with that ongoing guerilla warfare. You can never stop hustling. Sara Blakely of Spanx has a great speech where she talks about going into every single Neiman Marcus — uninvited — to help women find, use, and understand her offering. She created her momentum because of her relentless conviction and built an empire from those early days of 1:1 conversations. I believe in that methodology deeply, and I’m building Ka-Pop! the same way.

What are your “5 Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before I Invented My Product” and why? (Please share a story or example for each.)

1.) The food industry is not positioned for small business

The funny thing is that despite 15 years of experience, I learned more in my first two years of this business than the past 13 combined. A lot of that is how nuanced and fragmented our industry is related to small business. While small food brands are driving growth, collective logistics, retail, distribution, trade, etc. is not well suited or structured for small businesses.

2.) Entrepreneurship is lonely

This is quite true in both the literal as well as emotional sense. For nearly 18 months, it was just me and the idea. Finding and maintaining that emotional and professional support network was key to helping me stay motivated and enthusiastic in those early years.

3.) The hardest thing you will ever do

I was an investment banker at Goldman Sach’s for several years, working 20-hour days, six days/week. It doesn’t hold a candle to what I’m doing now!

4.) Humbling process

I have led multi-billion-dollar brands through incredible growth. I came into this with 15 years of experience and thought I knew it all. It turns out I had only scratched the surface of what I needed to learn, and I quickly turned from an answer guy to a question guy!

5.) Incredibly rewarding

Words cannot describe how you feel when you launch your idea into the world. Unlike anything else you do in your career, this you can say is entirely yours. The pride and joy I continue to feel every day when someone tries Ka-Pop! and you see their face light up with pleasure at the taste & texture is the most fantastic experience of my career.

Let’s imagine that a reader reading this interview has an idea for a product that they would like to invent. What are the first few steps that you would recommend that they take?

A few things! First, validate that you have a good idea. It doesn’t require thousands of dollars of research. It requires going door-to-door in your neighborhood, working the local farmer’s markets, or just getting ‘expert’ opinions. Here’s the thing, though — it’s not always the best ideas that work. It’s those that can get off their rear ends and work through endless disappointments, get back up and keep fighting.

There are many invention development consultants. Would you recommend that a person with a new idea hire such a consultant, or should they try to strike out on their own?

Let’s be honest; a lot of people out there have made a business of taking your money. As a small company, cash is king — so making sure that everything you pay for is punching way above its weight class as far as the return on your investment. So, unfortunately, there is no black & white answer here as to who to choose to bring into your business. That being said, I firmly believe that networking is the key to success — people who believe in you will often time help you for free. I am one of those people.

What are your thoughts about bootstrapping vs. looking for venture capital? What is the best way to decide if you should do either one?

There are three critical questions you have to answer for yourself to help make this decision:

  1. How fast do you want to go?
  2. How much money you’re willing to risk on your own?
  3. How capital intensive is your launch?

For me, I wanted to leverage my experience to go fast. I knew that the food industry is incredibly capital intensive and had put in as much money as I could on my own. That demanded that I make a relatively significant early raise to jumpstart my company.

Ok. We are nearly done. Here are our final questions. How have you used your success to make the world a better place?

We are so proud of what Ka-Pop! is doing on several fronts.

  • Food Insecurity: With the impact of COVID-19, the need for food donations has risen considerably. We have donated tens of thousands of servings of Ka-Pop! to our local food banks, schools, and hospitals. We know that our product is Top 12 Allergen Free and Vegan as well, so it’s thrilling for these organizations to be able to get a product they know is safe for everyone in the community they serve.
  • Planet: Ka-Pop! is also founded on the belief that food can simultaneously be good for your body and the earth without compromising taste. Our core ingredient is sorghum, which we source from our backyard here in Colorado and Kansas. Sorghum is incredibly sustainable, with over 91% of acreage requiring zero irrigation. It’s also one of the few crops that help put nutrients back into the soil, improving the health of the ground in which it grows.
  • Industry: I spend an extraordinary amount of time working with other entrepreneurs and small businesses. I want to share my knowledge and experiences to help others grow and thrive. I know how important getting those meetings were before I launched, and I want to make sure I’m giving back to fuel all of these new and exceptional brands.

You are an inspiration to a great many people. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I hope we can continue to push the message into our schools earlier and more often about what sustainable and healthy eating can mean. The health of our planet and population depends on the early reinforcement that the foods you choose to eat can simultaneously help your body and world thrive. And making those choices can be delicious AND fun! It frustrates me to no end that bad-for-you foods have owned the market to this point on taste and joy, and I believe that brands like Ka-Pop! are going to help break that cycle for this next generation.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

So much pressure! I can’t choose — so shout out to Tony Robbins, Sara Blakely, and Chris Voss. Tony Robbins is an electric charge of “I can do it!” energy that is endlessly motivating. Sara Blakely is one of the most inspiring stories of entrepreneurship that exists. She is a powerhouse that I admire profoundly, and her story is one I go to frequently for inspiration. Finally, Chris Voss, author of Never Split the Difference and the host of the Masterclass on negotiation. I would kill for a beer with him to hear some of his stories of hostage negotiation live and get further 1:1 coaching. I literally took 27 pages of notes that I refer to regularly from his work to help me in my professional negotiations!

Thank you for these fantastic insights. We greatly appreciate the time you spent on this.

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