I didn’t invent popcorn. I’ve heard people lament the lack of some super invention that prevents them from going into business for themselves.
I’m shamelessly acknowledging that not only did I not invent anything, but I’ve spent the last couple years of my life sneaking around other people’s businesses scribbling notes, taking pictures and reverse engineering caramel corn recipes. I refer to these covert missions as “popcorn recon.”
Sounds better than “small business espionage,” and although on first pass you may be thinking that I’m just poaching ideas from other super successful businesses, you’re way off and I’m insulted. (You’re kind of right though). What I’ve actually been doing is ensuring my business is genuinely unique.
There is no better way to flush out an idea than to find someone doing something similar and go check it out in person. Take it for a little test drive on their dime.
Successful business owners can tell you, in detail, about every one of their competitors. They can break down the differences between their business and other more or less successful operations. They have a good idea of what business is teetering on the brink, and more importantly, what idea they are secretly plotting to pilfer. So go find the business that you think is doing something pretty interesting or similar to what you might like to do, and chat them up a bit.
At first, popcorn recon lacked focus. I always carried this little pocket notebook around and I would write really lame comments like “White cheddar or orange?” or “No clowns!!!” I would idle around in some bakery that had a great reputation, and buy the most popular item on the menu to see if it lived up to the hype.
As my little shop came closer to reality though, I found that my recon missions got a lot more specific. I once got busted by a saleslady at after I crawled around on the floor trying to get a picture of the underside of a nut warmer. The soda jerk at Sweet Moses in Cleveland completely shut down when I pressed a little too hard about heat-sealed poly bag packaging. I cracked open the clerk at Nuts on Clark in Chicago to get their cheese ingredients, and I discovered that Garretts Popcorn just opened a new location in Dubai. In New York, I collected paper bags with logos, soda bottles and artisanal chocolate wrappers.
Many of the zillion little details that comprise my shop have been test driven in as many other little and big ventures around the country. I scoped out websites, price lists, packaging materials and regional differences in cheese powder application.
My shop’s aesthetic, my recipes, even this blog are new to the marketplace. By talking to as many people as I can about popcorn, and conducting unscientific blind taste tests, I can tell you that most people prefer the flavor of flaked nutritional yeast over commercial “cheesy” powders. Also, people really hate biting into popcorn balls — they find it awkward and embarrassing. (That’s why I’m making popcorn bars.) Women prefer sweet and salty popcorn varieties and guys tend to go for cheese, but they’re not too particular about white or orange cheddar. (My cheddar is white.)
By continually venturing out on my popcorn recon missions my business will always remain genuinely unique. I may not have invented popcorn, but I’m presenting it in a way that doesn’t exist anywhere else. Needless to say, if you are contemplating your own business venture, by all means feel free to chat me up and poach any idea you find to be particularly interesting or clever — I’d be insulted if you didn’t.