Q&A – Adam Sopher, Co-Founder, Joe & Seph’s Gourmet PopcornLast Updated: February 1, 2019
“We want to be recognised as the producers of the best-tasting popcorn!” Adam Sopher, co-founder and director of successful family-run gourmet popcorn brand Joe & Seph’s, spoke to AGENT about his life in business.
“My headmaster closed down a tuck shop I was running from a locker in my classroom because it was undercutting the school shop!”
The snack brand is one of the UK’s big startup success stories, and if you think that popcorn is a simple snack, you’re in for a huge surprise…
Joe & Seph’s has a range of more than 40 flavours, and the search for innovative flavour combinations is never-ending. Salted Caramel and Gin & Tonic are two of the more conventional Joe & Seph’s flavours!
It’s with product innovation such as this that Joe & Seph’s has positioned itself on the cutting edge of the European popcorn revolution, which is part of a huge sea change in consumption of and demand for bagged snacks on the European side of the Atlantic.
In 2016, The Telegraph noted that in the UK alone there had been a £3.3bn spend on bagged snacks during the previous year.
This demand is echoed throughout Europe, and Joe & Seph’s is well positioned to capitalise on it, stocked in more than 2,500 outlets across 19 countries.
With approximately a quarter of its multi-million pound revenues being generated from exports, Joe & Seph’s, which also manufactures a range of caramel sauces for use in home baking, has ambitions beyond the EU.
As Adam Sopher revealed to AGENT: “Our ultimate mission is to be recognised as the producers of the best-tasting popcorn and be available in stores all over the world.”
It’s an extraordinary position to be in for a family firm established in 2010 by a mum, dad and son partnership whose primary gourmet popcorn product was dad Joe’s own recipe.
Even when used on family occasions, Adam Sopher knew the popcorn was “unlike anything else you could get in the UK”.
The speculation turned into hard fact after the Sophers tested the product at a trade show, and sold out their batch within two days. Adam Sopher left his job in retail and joined his mum and dad to establish a business that, seven years on, holds such a commanding position in the bagged snacks sector.
11 Questions for Adam Sopher of Joe & Seph’s
Adam Sopher firmly believes that young entrepreneurs starting out in business should ask more established operators for advice, as anyone who has been through the startup mill is more than happy to pass on advice. In that spirit, Adam agreed to answer AGENT’s questions, telling the story about how he came to be a director in one of the UK’s most successful startups and many other aspects of his life in business.
1. Briefly tell us how you first got into business, and describe your business goals.
My Dad used to make this amazing popcorn for friends and family, which was unlike anything else you could get in the UK. After taking early retirement, he wondered whether he could make a business out of it. At the time I was working for Dixons Retail, after three years at Deloitte as a consultant. I was getting ‘itchy feet’ in my job, and decided that if we could prove there was a market for gourmet popcorn in the UK, then I’d leave my job and join the family business with my Mum and Dad.
So one day, we decided to trial it at a food show and it was a great success – we sold out in just two days! That’s when we realised we had a business opportunity and Joe & Seph’s was born. Our ultimate mission is to be recognised as the producers of the best-tasting popcorn and be available in stores all over the world.
2. What age were you when you realised you wanted to run your own business?
Since school, I’ve been pretty business-minded and entrepreneurial. My first realisation of this was when the headmaster at my school closed down a tuck shop I was running from a locker in my classroom because it was undercutting the school shop!
3. Who are your business icons and inspirations?
Richard Branson and Steve Jobs are both really inspirational.
4. What has been your biggest challenge in business, and how did you surmount it?
Our biggest challenge, particularly in the early days, was proving that there was a market for a premium popcorn in the UK. At the time we launched, the popcorn category was dominated by large, packaged popcorn brands in supermarkets and cinemas that was either sweet or salty. We sought to disrupt the market with a premium, flavoured popcorn focused on taste. Obviously this meant that buyers were taking more of a risk with an unproven product, but we overcame this by relentlessly sampling the product at shows and in-store to give people the chance to try it. Generally, once people tried our popcorn they appreciated our better tasting, innovative flavours (including Gin & Tonic) and packaging.
5. Work-Life balance: is it possible? How do you achieve it?
Yes; it’s important to be strict with yourself when working in a start-up. When you love what you’re doing and there’s always so much going on it’s easy to get carried away and work 24/7, which is what was happening when we first started Joe & Seph’s. I’m pretty guilty of being glued to my phone and checking my emails all hours of the day, but I’m getting better at giving myself time away to completely switch off. This year I went to Australia for three weeks over Christmas and New Year, which was a great chance to refresh and come back with a clear head in January.
6. What is the first thing you do every day?
Boring answer, but I check my emails! With the export side of the business, a lot of our customers are in different time zones so there’s always stuff coming in overnight. I have a strict rule of always eating breakfast to set me up for the day. I used to be terrible at this, but working with my Mum every day it’s not worth the argument!
7. What screen saver picture is currently on your phone?
My girlfriend and I on holiday in Australia.
8. What is the most important app on your mobile phone, and why?
Twitter. It’s the first app I check in the morning and last one at night. I love interacting with all our popcorn fans, because without them, we wouldn’t be where we are today!
9. What is the last thing you Googled?
‘Food labelling laws’. We’re in the process of updating our packaging so there were a few details I needed to check!
10. What item do you never leave the house without, and why?
I am incredibly reliant on my iPhone for emails, social media, Dropbox, and phone calls of course, so I never go anywhere without it. A bag of popcorn accompanies me all the time as well! I never know who I may bump into on the way to meetings or when I’m out and about, so I make sure I always have a bag, ready to hand out. If it’s not needed, then I tend to eat it on the way home anyway!
11. What advice would you give to your younger self starting out in business?
Ask more questions. People from smaller businesses in particular are generally really happy to help, because they’ve been in a similar position. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.