After two decades as one of the leading innovators in the world of music and entertainment, Jonas Tempel was trying to figure out what was next. An off-handed comment to his friend Bradley Roulier about making popcorn cool led them to Opopop. I sat down with Tempel to learn more about Opopop, the pivot the company made during COVID, and the first question he asks any entrepreneur.
Dave Knox: What is Opopop and where did the name come from?
Jonas Tempel: The name Opopop is related to the origins of the company itself. We wanted to reimagine popcorn from the beginning and so we invented a name that would match the core ambition. To reinvent popcorn sounds very ridiculous, admittedly, but we felt like the category, and especially in the microwave sections, had lost some of the allure of what it was meant to be. And, having a long history in entrepreneurialism, I just really fell in love with the idea of the category.
The name randomly came to me in a dream even though it sounds a bit cheeky to say that. I’d been trying to work on this name for so long. And I ended up having this kind of half awake, half asleep moment where Opopop came to me. So I jumped out of bed, went to GoDaddy, and looked to see if it was available. It felt like it was the craziest word I’d ever seen, but it had a tangent to popcorn. When I did a little deeper dive, I learned that the word could be attributed back to the Greek word “opallios”, which is the term for celebration. You’ve probably heard “opa” a million times, and we really loved that anchor in celebration. The true meaning of that word is to see a change in color. We feel like that name manifests itself brilliantly when the kernels go from gold to white.
Knox: You’ve had an amazing entrepreneurial journey. What led to Opopop?
Tempel: After my time at Beats by Dre, I didn’t have a plan for myself. But I never thought I’d change industries. I love music, design, and technology, so I just assumed I’d do something in that vein. Then, out of the blue, I was sitting at home watching a football game with my co-founder of Beatport, Brad Roulier, and he started asking me all these questions, “Hey, don’t you think we should start another company? And, do you think you have it in you?”
Inspired by his big bowl of popcorn, I randomly remember saying, “Maybe we should make popcorn cool again.” It was a simple little comment, but with a brain like mine, I just kind of locked onto it.
At first, it wasn’t anything we took seriously. But after a year or so of tinkering with the idea, I had enough data that I was convinced this was worth pursuing full time. In late 2017, we had a big meeting at my house where I called all these people that I trust together. In the meeting, I presented this idea and said, “This is what we would like to do, and would you want to be involved?” As you can imagine, it was a crazy moment and we decided to just go for it. The clock started ticking in January of 2018. We got an office space, raised a little bit of money from some friends and family, and got to work on this big idea.
When I step back and think about the challenge of reinventing popcorn, it ironically is the culmination of everything I’ve done in my career. Combining my experience as a designer, a technologist, and an entrepreneur, I think it gives me a unique mindset on this stuff where I can put together teams that can achieve the ambitions that seemed far-fetched. But in my heart, I knew we had the team and the grit to make it happen.
Popcorn is such a big category with almost no innovation. So many people love popcorn. But the brands became complacent and really were satisfied with their projects. We saw that complacency as a huge opportunity to step in with something new and see if we could build a business that could attract the hearts and minds of popcorn lovers.
To pull this off, we were going to need a dream team. People that can achieve elite outcomes and are self motivated to see this through. This was never about Brad and I being “The Founders”. Instead, we call everybody that joined in the beginning part of our founding team.
Knox: Once you made that decision with the founding partnership, where did you start?
Tempel: The original mission of the business was to create an office-based system. Fresh popcorn had largely been locked out of offices, because of the risk of burned microwave popcorn. We looked at that as an opportunity to bring fresh popcorn back as a regular snack into an office, and not have to have one of those big kettles set up. We wanted to make it simpler than that to have fresh, flavorful popcorn at work.
To make that happen, we needed to invent a lot of things that have never existed. Things that needed significant R&D and the types of projects that no existing brand would bother creating. We worked tirelessly for three years, but COVID proved to be a worthy opponent. We recognized we’d need to pivot away from offices because everyone was working remotely, but the good news is we had created a tremendous amount of IP during that journey that could be reimagined into a new business model.
In January of 2021, we made the decision to pivot and very quickly transitioned into a direct consumer business featuring our kernel flavoring technology which we trademarked as “Flavor Wrapped Kernels”. We did that with extreme confidence because we had tested those kernels on many people and everyone always loved the flavor and constantly wanted more.
The advantage of Flavor Wrapper Kernels is that the flavor is already coating the raw kernels. When they pop, it’s shocking how good this popcorn tastes. And I’m saying that with full humility. When we started making our own popcorn, we were just like, “Holy cow, this stuff is so good.” And it just really gave us the confidence to take this to market.
Knox: After this pivot, what led your team to focus so much on innovating with new products like Pop Cups?
Tempel: I learned very early in my entrepreneurial journey that you’re never going to own an idea forever. At some point as an entrepreneur, you have to have confidence that what you are doing is better than anyone else could do it. You just really have to believe in your team and it comes down to execution. Could what we’re doing be replicated? Sure, but it would take someone quite a while to figure it out.
I had a mentor once tell me “Jonas, it’s marketing that brings people in, but it’s operations that brings people back.” The lesson is that we might get their attention with our brand design and marketing, but if they don’t love it, they won’t be coming back. When we invented the Pop Cups, it was simply a need we saw to address additional vulnerabilities in our own products. First and most importantly, the coating around our Flavor Wrapped Kernels can melt, like chocolate in temperatures above 90 degrees. And, that presented some limitations to channel partners and our customers who live in hotter regions. The invention of Pop Cups was simply driven by the need for something more durable to ship with any partner at any temperature without sacrificing our amazing flavor. We also made them smaller and snack-sized to give people the flexibility to make smaller portions. The launch was super successful and it’s safe to say that Pop Cups are a huge hit.
Knox: How have those same principles applied to the flavors you launch?
Tempel: We know popcorn brands will be judged on their butter flavor. That’s just a fact. And so, we knew that we had to win with butter, no matter what. The flavor development team spent the better part of a year formulating our butter recipe. They created hundreds of versions, with slight tweaks here and there. A big blind spot for me was my experience in flavor development. I had no idea how complex the process of creating a flavor is. I think we all just take it for granted when we eat something. But the time, craftsmanship, and skill to develop original flavors that people will love is a true art form.
We wanted the flavors in our portfolio to reflect the classic and modern approach to consumer trends. We wanted to push the envelope and bring unexpected experiences to microwave popcorn so we created flavors like our Salted Umami and Maui Heat. Additionally, we’ve created sweet popcorn in interesting configurations including Vanilla Cake Pop and Cinnalicious. To top it off, we’ve done some very successful flavor drops in 2022 with Wasabi and Pickle Monster which is a dill pickle flavored popcorn, these are both loved by our customers and raved about on social media.
Our flavor commitment starts with the raw kernels. Most popcorn brands buy kernels from grain exchanges. At Opopop, that was not something we were comfortable with. There are just too many benefits to farming your own product, and quite honestly, it’s really fun. We have developed a discreet supply chain where we always have ownership of the kernels. To make this work, we source our own seeds, plant them in the perfect climate and soil, and nurture the crop to life. Once ready, we then delicately harvest each kernel, clean and process them,, and finally ship the kernels to our plant for flavoring and packaging.
Knox: What’s the number one piece of advice you give to fellow entrepreneurs?
Tempel: I give a question that was asked to me by a great mentor. The question is super simple but generally results in a feeling of panic. For example, if someone came to me with a “Hey, Jonas, I am thinking about doing this.” idea, no matter what I think of it, I simply ask one question, “Why would anyone care?”
It’s such a brutal question, but it’s really honest and requires a thoughtful answer. Why would anyone care? And if you can’t answer that, then it could be a great idea, but you may be doing it for the wrong reasons. If you can get really clear on why someone would care, then I think you probably can manifest a business out of that. it’s designed to shorten the cycle and force the presenter to have a real answer. In my entrepreneurial experience, that’s about all the time you get from anyone anyway. If I go pitch an idea to an investor, they might give me 30 minutes of their busy day. So, I have to somehow convey why they should care in those 30 minutes. And, you can’t possibly do the job without boiling these things down to their most simple and convincing attributes.
When building a brand, that first shot is really important, because that is where you answer that question, did they care enough to come back? Don’t for a second think we don’t use that question on ourselves as well. When we built this brand, or make major decisions, that’s exactly what we ask ourselves. For Opopop, internally it’s about disrupting popcorn. But from a brand and product our “why” is because consumers care about our mission to make popcorn fun again. We are doing that through our passion for the craft of popcorn, our love of design and packaging, and most importantly, our commitment to flavor and experience. Wrapped up, we call these moments “popportunities” and we hope to inspire customers to eat Opopop again and again.