Melanie Kahn, 40, is a beverage entrepreneur based in Chicago, an unlikely place to start her lemonade business Poppilu®.
She has two small children, ages 1 and 3, who are not only her biggest Poppilu fans and consummate taste testers, but who were also the driving force behind the brand, as they gave Kahn an insatiable pregnancy craving for citrus that she wasn’t able to satisfy with the unhealthy lemonades on the market.
Prior to launching her own business, Kahn developed and nationally launched the fairlife® dairy brand, one of the best-selling new food/beverage brands the year it launched.
When she’s not working — and often when she is — Kahn can typically be found outdoors at Chicago parks, beaches, playgrounds, running trails and tennis courts, most often with her kids and schnauzer (and sometimes with her husband too).
What motivated and inspired you to start your own business?
I had the incredible good fortune of working at a start-up that allowed me to create, develop and launch a very successful consumer brand.
That experience shaped me professionally more than any previous corporate experience and left me hungry to try my hand at entrepreneurship.
While I was trying to find the right idea that I was really passionate about, my pregnancy craving for citrus kept coming to the forefront of ideas. I love lemonade and I just couldn’t find anything that I wanted to drink with a tart and tangy taste, high in citrus, and low in sugar.
It just didn’t exist, and so I created my business around that personal need, hoping that others would have the same interest.
Tell us about your business.
Poppilu® is a line of refreshing antioxidant beverages harnessing the power of native-to-the-Midwest aroniaberries, the highest antioxidant fruit in the world.
Our first product, lemonade, features a distinctly tart and tangy flavor, an excellent source of antioxidants including Vitamin C and polyphenol antioxidants from Aronia, and 2/3 less sugar than the leading lemonade.
Poppilu allows consumers to love lemonade again and gives them a delicious introduction to an emerging domestic super-fruit.
Poppilu was selected in May 2018 to be in Kraft Heinz’ inaugural incubator class. I am the only woman in the class composed of 12 men who run the four other brands.
Where is your business based?
Chicago – the most unlikely location to start a lemonade business, but also the center of the Midwest where our aroniaberries grow.
What were the first few steps you took to get your business up and running?
I tried to do some cheap consumer research to see if consumers liked my idea of a healthy lemonade featuring aroniaberries.
The research wasn’t very positive — I definitely thought twice about whether or not to launch. But I was (and still am) so passionate about it that I recognized there can be limits to consumer research and sometimes you just need to trust your gut instinct.
What has been the most effective way of raising awareness of your business and getting new customers?
Raising awareness in the beverage business takes a lot of money, so it continues to be a struggle as we don’t have the funds to support a big ad campaign or any ad campaign for that matter!
We’re hoping consumers see our eye-catching packaging and give it a try. On weekends, I can often be found at various grocery stores throughout Chicago, offering samples to shoppers so they can taste Poppilu and hopefully buy it too!
What have been your biggest challenges so far?
Raising money is really hard, especially as a woman, and an older one at that! The venture capital statistics are staggering: women entrepreneurs earn cents for every dollar men entrepreneurs are able to raise — add to that the age factor, and it gets even harder.
Age bias is just as alive in raising capital as it is in getting hired, so I’ve got two strikes against me.
How did you overcome these challenges?
It has yet to be seen! The support of Kraft Heinz was a huge win, and hopefully, that momentum will help me in raising capital.
How do you distinguish yourself from your competitors?
Poppilu is a health-forward lemonade brand. Our competitors are all pretty much the same: big brands, high sugar, trying to emphasize the simplicity of their ingredients. They don’t stand out, and they don’t offer anything healthy.
What is the best advice you have received recently?
“Think like a man.” At first, I thought it was sexist, but I heard it both from successful businessmen and businesswomen.
Women are often humble and set realistic expectations, but we need to tout our accomplishments more and say we’re shooting for the moon.
What advice would you give to other entrepreneurs?
Know some reliable sources of capital who can fund your business before you get started. I wish I had known that!
What are your favorite business tools/resources and why?
LinkedIn and Quickbooks are my go-to’s. I think that makes me sound pretty boring though! 😉
What is a good article or book you have read recently?
How to Use Psychology To Get Investors to Close When You Want Them To on Entrepreneur.com.
What are you currently learning about for your business or looking for help with?
Poppilu is currently participating in the Kraft Heinz Springboard incubator program, selected as the only woman-led brand alongside 4 other food/beverage start-ups. We are drinking from a firehose of knowledge and revising our go-to-market strategies.
When you have the tremendous resources of Kraft Heinz at your fingertips, it’s really tempting to expand really quickly, but unfortunately, we’ve got to be smart about our working capital and can’t overextend ourselves too fast.
What are your goals for the next few months and how are you striving to achieve them?
Over the next few months, I’m focused on planning the future, although, truth be told, I’m always thinking about the future.
The growth trajectory start-ups hope to achieve is the “hockey-stick” and to see such change means you can barely pay attention to what’s going on today, but rather are always looking at what’s next as things move really fast!
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