Angie Bastian’s ultimate goal in the early years of her popcorn business was to become a vendor at the Minnesota State Fair.
Her kettle corn was already available at Minnesota Twins and Vikings games and was in a growing number of grocery stores around town. But then, the State Fair turned her down.
“If we would have gotten into the Minnesota State Fair, we would have thought that we had made it,” Bastian, 58, told a room full of entrepreneurs Thursday during Twin Cities Startup Week. “But if we stuck with that goal and said, ‘OK, we just failed,’ where would we be?”
The unexpected setback prodded Bastian and her husband, Dan, to shift their focus to go full force into stores instead. A decade later, her namesake popcorn, Angie’s Boomchickapop, is a ubiquitous sight with its yellow, pink and purple bags of popcorn in multiple flavors found in grocery and convenience stores in all 50 states and around the world. In 2017, the couple sold the company, Angie’s Artisan Treats, to packaged goods giant Conagra Brands for $250 million in cash. Bastian continues to be a consultant and brand ambassador.
“Innovation happens though pivoting, through change, through shifting and adjusting your goals constantly,” she said. “It’s all about problem solving.”
Bastian shared her journey full of do’s and don’ts for other founders just starting out during a day full of panels on retail startups sponsored by Minneapolis-based Target. Twin Cities Startup Week, which kicked off on Wednesday and runs for a week, includes more than 200 workshops, dinners and pitch events across Minneapolis and St. Paul.
Asha Carroll, 30, is from St. Paul but now lives in New York City. She came to town for the Twin Cities Marathon and decided to stick around for startup week. She was especially eager to hear Bastian’s story because two weeks ago she launched her own food startup, Phasey, which provides snacks for women having their period.
“It’s really affirming as a young founder to hear stories of people who have been through it all and to share it so candidly,” said Carroll. “In the food space, it feels very daunting. It feels like there’s not one clear path.”
Bastian told the audience she didn’t expect to become a startup founder. She was a psychiatric nurse and her husband was a schoolteacher. They started popping kettle corn at fairs and festivals, launching a business out of their garage in Mankato in 2001 as a way to start a college fund for their young children.
They didn’t have money to spend on a marketing agency in the beginning, so they did some scrappy outreach on their own, sending 120 free bags of their kettle corn to the Minnesota Vikings training facility in Mankato, an effort that led to a partnership with the team.
In 2004, food co-ops around the Twin Cities and Lund’s began carrying their products, then called Angie’s Kettle Corn, in a handful of stores. Then they got picked up by big-box chains such as Target and Costco.
Bastian said part of what made the product stand out was the convenience, because it was already-popped ready-to-eat popcorn. And part of it, she said, was that it was the first branded non-GMO popcorn on the market — something that was important to her and, it turned out, to consumers as well.
Bastian chuckled at some of their early steps such as putting her husband’s cellphone number on every package. They would get calls from shoppers standing in the aisles of Costco or Target asking, for example, if it was gluten-free.
“It was confusing at first,” she said, “because popcorn is naturally gluten-free.”
But it made them realize that consumers wanted to trust in not only the ingredients, but in how they were packaged and stored, so they sought out gluten-free certification before it was as common as it is today.
“We said if it’s important to people, then it’s important to us,” she said.
When the first investor got involved around 2011, he suggested it was time to take their personal phone number off the packaging.
When they started accepting outside investments from firms that reached out to them, they wanted to make sure their employees benefited, beyond just bonuses, if the business succeeded. So they decided to set up an employee equity pool.
The best part of her career was in the days leading up the sale of the company, on two occasions when they sat down with employees and showed how much they stood to make. Employees — even an otherwise stoic Marine in the technology department — broke down in tears when they saw what they would receive.
“So bring your people along,” she said. “Find a way. Fine, tell them they’re awesome. But give them some money. Because it matters.”
One woman in the audience asked Bastian if there were challenges in connecting her name to the brand.
“Oh my goodness, yes,” she responded frankly. “Had I known, I would have never put my name on the package because technically Conagra owns my name now. A lot of founders don’t think about that.”
But she negotiated with Conagra to make sure she would still own her story and be able to tell it.
“It still feels like it’s our baby, even though it’s not our baby [anymore],” she said. “It feels like we’ve created something that now has a life of its own, sort of like a child in a way, and it went off to a really good college.”