THE TWIST: The Story Behind JustPopIn! Popcorn

16th, 2015
Keyhole - Digital Marketing Agency - Joe Dudeck
Joe Dudeck
President + Founder
Categories: Interviews
16th, 2015
Keyhole - Digital Marketing Agency - Joe Dudeck
Joe Dudeck
President + Founder
Categories: Interviews
Just Pop In Popcorn - Small Business - Indianapolis Success Stories - Part 1

The plot twist…that moment in a story when an event or experience dramatically shifts the future direction of the storyline and all the characters involved. I’ve always found these moments fascinating in real life, and so I started this new, recurring series—called “The Twist”—where I talk to entrepreneurs and explore the plot twist that led them to start their businesses.

justpopin-popcorn-indianapolis-logoIn 2003, identical twins Mandy Selke and Carly Swift ditched their corporate gigs to open JustPopIn!—their gourmet popcorn shop in Broad Ripple Village on the north side of Indianapolis. And ever since, they’ve been popping their personalities and packaging their zest for life inside every bag.

I got a chance in July to sit down, eat some popcorn (obviously), and talk life with this energetic duo — including where we covered Mandy’s and Carly’s thoughts on family, how it is to work together, their love for Indianapolis, and, of course, the plot twist that pushed them toward popcorn — among other things. Read our full convo below and check out all our entrepreneurial interviews.

On Their Family…

Joe:  I remember when I first met you at that Lemonade Day Indianapolis event. You were both so joyful. It’s kind of unreal. Where does that come from? Is that a conscious decision you make every day, or is it just who you are?

Carly, Just Pop In: I love that, that’s a good question. My grandfather, who recently passed, always said that we were born with the happy gene. I don’t know precisely what that means, but I think that we’re just excited about life. We have a lot of gratitude. I think that just comes from life experiences, a lot of sadness, a lot of things that we’ve gone through in our life. We’re just so grateful for what we have.

Joe: Have you had those times where it’s just been tough—not for a moment—but for a season of life?

Mandy, Just Pop In: Absolutely. We had an uncle who passed away with HIV/AIDS. He was 17 years older than us, but our connection was so close. I never even considered age to be anything because we were always together. When we were in high school is when he started getting really sick, so we were making trips back and forth to Chicago often. That’s where he lived. We just watched him live with such integrity and such joy. He was just going through the toughest time, and he never complained. We just watched his struggle and we’re, “We’re healthy human beings. Have gratitude every day.”

Carly, Just Pop In: He never complained. He never once complained about anything and he lived with it, we learned, a lot longer than we knew. He was so full of life even before getting sick. I think that our joy comes from a place of just, we’re lucky because we get to live and we can live the way that we want to. We have our health.

Joe: Does your joy come from other places as well?

Mandy, Just Pop In: We had a really happy childhood. I think that we were surrounded by so much love. Like my grandparents, we were with them probably every day, and they just showered us with love. Some people might say we were over nurtured, but we were so loved. We have loads of humor in our family. I think that our family is filled with the funny gene, so there’s lots of laughter in our family. We were good kids, but we were allowed to make our own decisions. I think our family just really lifted us up and said, “Fly.” And they never really put a thumb on us. I think that their trust in us was a very uplifting thing to grow up with. We’ve always been happy. We laugh a lot because we’re joyful, and we just owe so much of that to our family.

Carly, Just Pop In: I think struggle also makes you grateful for the good stuff.

Joe:  Tell me more about your family.

Mandy, Just Pop In: Yeah, so our family, we’re from Crown Point in northwest Indiana. We’re total region rats. Our parents separated when we were in junior high and then eventually divorced when we were in college, so that was challenging. I would say that our mom raised us mostly and when I say … When I talk about our family, it was just such a group effort. My mom’s side, my grandparents and her brothers and sister, we were just together all the time. It was not just one person raising us, it was this little village.

Carly, Just Pop In: My grandpa was just the most magical, sparkly human being on the planet and he was just so classy, I don’t think we ever heard him cuss. The women in our family cuss like sailors, they just do and they’re fiery.

Joe: And your immediate families?

Mandy, Just Pop In: I have a boy, who is 9, and then my daughter is 7.

Carly, Just Pop In: My little guy is 9 and he turns 10 next month.

Mandy, Just Pop In: Our children were raised by our little village. We’re the only two in our family that live here in Indianapolis, and so they’ve always grown up with us both around. Carly’s son calls me “Mama Mands” and my kids call Carly “Mama Car.” We’re like sister wives.

Carly, Just Pop In: We’re a couple.

Mandy, Just Pop In: Pretty much.

On Working Together…

Joe: Do you bicker at all?

Carly: Oh yeah, we become the Bickersons sometimes.

Mandy: We have so much responsibility in getting our kids from A to B, but also with business choices, decisions, openings, and what not. It’s great because we can chew each other’s heads off and then …

Carly: Yeah, we can, say, “F You,” and then five minutes later, “I need you, Mands, can you come over here to ….” “Well, of course.

Joe: Has it put extra stress on your relationship going into business together?

Mandy: It’s funny because we were encouraged strongly from our business advisor, our attorneys, and people like that who were involved in creating our business. They’re just, “Girls you seem to be really good sisters, and I would just highly recommend reconsidering going into business together. It really, a lot of the times, will drive families apart.” And we were like, “We’re just really good sisters.” Our families and friends were, “Oh yeah, you guys got this.” Yeah, there are times where there’s staff issues and that seem to be probably the one that we … neither one of us love conflict … and there’s just so many decisions in a single day … but most of the time we’re on the same page.

Carly: Yeah, I feel like we’re always on the same page in general. It’s so great to have the yin and yang, because we’re very good at that, I feel like. We’re always, I feel like, ethically on the same page. When it comes to a staff member, and I think our hardest thing with staff sometimes can be if there’s a “Negative Nancy” and it’s hard to address someone’s overall shitty attitude or their personality.

Carly: I think that is the hardest thing is when there is a staff situation. It’s like who is going to address it?

Mandy: When we hire, we really express the culture of our company and ourselves and that it’s a positive, energetic environment. It’s a gossip-free environment. Leave all the shit at the door; everyone has it. On the first page of our handbook, it’s just basically if you can’t play well with others, then you need to go to a different playground. Beat it.

Carly: Beat it, totally, and that’s hard.

Joe: How do you divide up the duties? Who is responsible for what?

Carly: That’s so interesting. We’ve always both done very similar tasks. I think that one of the best things that we did was we went through a process with the company SmallBox. The exercise was to find our North star…who we are. I think it came at a really great time. I think it came at our 10-year anniversary actually. It was decision time. What are we going to do? Where is our next move? We know we want to grow, we love our company. We’v always called it our first born, because she is. And we nurture her like nobody’s business. It was such an awesome process because it was very, very structured and very detailed. The very first time Mandy and I walked out of that exercise, we were both, “Who are we? I don’t even know.” Yeah, but at the end it was just the very best thing. I think that really helped us learn how to balance. I think balance is so hard when you own your own company. And we’re single moms. We have children, and it can be hard. I feel like when we did that process it allowed us to better understand our strengths and weaknesses. And also determine that we woudn’t ever make a decision without each other. That is so super important.

Mandy: It might be the twin-ship in us too. I think it’s just the commitment that we’ve always had to one another.

Carly: Yeah, we’re totally committed to each other.  It’s a very interesting thing being a twin because we’re always each other’s number one. I can always read what Mandy is thinking. I always know what is on her mind. She’s really the same about me too. But I think that commitment helps our everyday choices that we make, because I always know she’s got my back.

On Their Love for Indianapolis…

Joe: Tell me a little bit about Indianapolis. How did you get here from Crown Point? Why did you stay here?

Mandy: We went to school at IU in Bloomington.

Carly: After college, Mandy had gone to Australia, and after college I had gone to Africa and …

Mandy: It was our first time away from each other.

Carly: It was, and it was a very big first time.

Joe: How long were the trips?

Mandy: About a month.

Carly: Yeah, about a month, and yeah, so that was the first time we were ever away from each other and I was in Africa, so it was so awesome, but also hard because there was no texting. I’m in Africa where it was very, very remote. Yes, and so it was great when I would find a payphone. When I came back from Africa, I went back to IU because Mandy was wrapping up her degree. Then I moved to Chicago, because to me that was the most natural choice. Our uncle, Kevin—who we were just talking about—he managed high rises in Chicago so he got me a very inexpensive space, and I lived in his building.

Mandy: It was kick ass.

Carly: It was so awesome. But yeah, so we lived in the same building, which was so much fun, and I just love and adore Chicago so much, like Mandy does, but I just missed her so much. I knew that she wasn’t going to move to Chicago and so after a year I talked to my boss and I kicked ass for them and so I was, “Will you let me transfer to Indianapolis?” Mandy, she was a pre-med major, and she’s, “What am I going to do?” I’m, “Get a job with my company.” She ended up getting a job here in Indianapolis with my company.

Mandy: Our cubes were next to each other. We could see each other through the walls. It was so fun.

Carly: Mandy was in New Jersey for her training, and I called her one night and she was, “I miss you and blah blah blah.” I’m, “Well, you’re not going to miss me for long. I’m transferring to Indy!”

Joe: Tell me again, what was the career you were in then?

Carly: We both worked for ADP—automatic data processing—so we were in sales for them. And we worked for them for six years. The best experience ever. Very challenging and stressful, but it just really taught us how to be disciplined in reaching our goals. And we worked with small businesses—a lot of them entrepreneurs—so it was very inspiring.

Mandy: The business training was just so amazing because neither one of us studied business. The training was so extensive. We went out for two weeks to New Jersey, but then there was a training course every single week. It was like another major. It was just so wonderful. Being able to sit with entrepreneurs and small business was just so inspiring. We’ve always had an entrepreneurial spirit. There are lots of entrepreneurs in our family, so we knew that we’d one day do something but that was just a really cool platform for learning the back end.

On the Plot Twist Toward Popcorn…

Joe: What was your degree in, Carly?

Carly: Speech communication and African American studies.

Joe: Interesting, okay.

Carly: Yeah, so of course popcorn.

Joe: Yeah, clearly. So what was it in that moment? You’d been there six years. You saw those things firsthand. What were the moments in your lives where you just said, “it’s time.” When that entrepreneurial spirit just won over and you just said, “we’re going to do this?” Tell me about that process mentally.

Mandy: We were both our team leaders, and we did really well in sales for the company. But one day I just said, “Hey Carly, I’m making a move. I’m breaking out of jail.” It just got stressful, and people were getting let go in our company. You could just tell the synergy was changing. I wanted to leave when it was still good, and we already knew that we wanted to start JustPopIn.

Joe: How did you know that?

Mandy: Oh, popcorn or our business?

Joe: You said you already knew that you wanted to start JustPopIn. When did you start dreaming that up?

Carly: Yeah, even though we worked for a corporate company, we always did something on the side. Both Mandy and I are painters, we come from a long line of painters. Our grandfather was a painter. We’ve always had an artistic drive, just a creative drive in general. When we were little, we were always doing something. My parents owned a lumbe yard, and a cabinet company, and a door company. We would take scraps and build shelving. Even as little, little girls, we’d paint them.

Mandy: They would let us use all the stuff.

Carly: We would make them and sell them for a quarter, because we were five. But really, our whole lives we’ve always done something else other than corporate jobs. We would refurbish furniture, we’ve painted restaurants, and this is all on the side just to allow our creative outlet to roam free. We always knew that we were going to do something. We didn’t know if it was going to be an interior store or a painting company. We just always knew we would do something. We were painting an ex-boyfriends place in Brown County, and I don’t know, I just feel like it was one of these serendipitous moments. Both Mandy and I were there, and we were, “Of course, it’s popcorn!” We both love popcorn, but it was so nostalgic to Mandy and I because of our grandfather. We would pop popcorn on the stove with him nightly. We lived super close to our grandparents. It was just so nostalgic to us, and it was such a great feeling. And obviously other companies have done it. Garrett’s was obviously doing it. People can make a living on doing it. But we knew that ours would be different. We really were excited to put our own creativity into assisting with the packaging and the label design and branding. Mandy is the chef of our company so she comes up with …

Mandy: The chef, yeah. Witching brew!

Carly: Really, it’s true, we both love food and we love dining. When we developed our company we really thought of three major components to our business. One was obviously having a kickass product and packaging that resembles us. The second thing is we really wanted to have a platform for things that we believe in, like HIV/AIDS. It was extremely important for us to start a company, but we wanted it to be more. Having JustPopIn has allowed us to do a lot with the Damien Center here locally. We do a lot with them, which is super important to us. Third, was really establishing partnerships within the city, really just uplifting our community. That was something that we really wanted to be involved in.

Mandy:  When we left our company, we were living together in this house at the time. And one day, I just said, “I’m quitting today.”

Carly: I’m, “Holy shit. Okay, so you’re going to quit. Okay.”

Mandy, Just Pop In: Yep, I was like, “We need our popcorn thing.”

Joe:  You had narrowed it down to popcorn. Where were you at in the planning process for the business when you quit?

Mandy, Just Pop In: We were really far away from what our goal was. She quit three months after me and we originaly signed a letter of intent for a location downtown around the circle. It ended up falling through, which was the biggest blessing ever. Then we were walking in Broad Ripple one day, and we were, “What is this little place?” There was graffiti and the blinds were all shifty. We looked in there and we were, “Well it looks like storage.” This woman, I guess, had a little small spot in there, and then moved to South America or something and her lease was coming up in a month. We found out who the landlord was, and we were, “We have to have this space.” It’s so small and we’ve been operating out of there for over 12 years now.

Joe: Is this the …

Mandy, Just Pop In: This is the Guilford Avenue store, yeah. Obviously, the rent was much more viable. Initially, our goal was for this to be a passerby snack, but then we wanted to think also on a larger level with corporate gifts. But we didn’t know exactly where that would take us, and popcorn has just been a vehicle to so many different opportunities that we couldn’t even have thought about.


On Their Grandfather’s Influence…

Joe: You talked about your grandfather. How did he help shape you as people, as business owners, sisters, etc.?

Carly: Oh my gosh, I love this! We love talking about him. We did his eulogy at his funeral a week and a half ago and it was just … he helped shape us in so many ways. Our grandfather was a World War II veteran. He was a Purple Heart recipient. He was so beautifully decorated, and we didn’t know all that. He was just our grandpa, and he was just the brightest encourager ever without trying. We just never even thought about how it was just natural. He was so important on so many levels. When Mandy and I were giving his eulogy, I think the biggest thing we came back to was consistency. It so shaped who we are, our loyalty. We’re very loyal people, and I think it was just his demonstration to everything that we did. He was so much fun. He was just so funny and just so much fun. He was just so magnetic.

Mandy: So many people at his funeral talked about his smile. He smiled all the time. He just had a natural smile on his face all the time, and he did. He just didn’t miss anything. He didn’t miss a recital. He didn’t miss any sporting activity that we did. He was there for everything. We were joking how when we went to IU we lived on the sixth floor of our dorm, and he and my mom moved us in. The elevator was broken so no one could use it, and he went up and down the stairs I don’t know how many times. He made sure that we were completely moved in before he left. His dedication is fierce. Just funny, we were both athletes growing up, and I remember at our softball games he would park in center field. And whether we had a hit or we caught a ball or we struck out or whatever, he would honk his horn. I’m here, I’m watching. Just ever supporting.

Joe: That’s so important. And based on the little I know of you, you’ve certainly inherited his spirit. It’s great that you can carry that on to the next generation.

Mandy: Thank you.

On How They Stay Passionate About Popcorn…

Joe: For something that was very nostalgic and part of your childhood, how do you make sure that it stays in a great place? That it doesn’t become just a job? How do you stay passionate about it?

Mandy: Yeah, well there’s a few pieces. I think the human connection with our staff, and then also that we just get to create all the time. Whether it’s new packaging or a new flavor, we’re just constantly creating. Whether it works or it doesn’t, it’s just always fresh. Being able to have a space for other people to live happily is such a joy to watch. We have a great staff and they’re loyal. The reciprocation is just really amazing so that never gets old for us. It’s just mostly fantastic.

Carly: We also get to partner with really energetic people that share the same love and life philosophy. Our friends at Sun King Brewing sent this beautiful bouquet because they knew how much we love our grandfather. It’s the human connection. Just being able to have a business. And yes, it’s popcorn. But we’ve always said that popcorn is the catalyst to everything else that we love, and that’s people. It’s creation. It’s just joyful. I love it! We love it so much.

Mandy: We do. We eat it every day. We still do!

Joe: I was going to ask you why we’re not eating some right now.

Mandy: I know, how rude. I’ll get some right now.

[…Popcorn retrieved from the kitchen. All’s well in the world again…]

Joe: Tell me about moments where you thought, “I don’t know if we should keep doing this? Are we doing the right things? Is popcorn the right business?”

Carly: That’s such a good question. I feel like—and I’m not bullshitting when I say this—we’ve always loved JustPopIn. We’ve never thought negatively about it. No matter what, JustPopIn is going to live. It will succeed. We love it, we’re just so committed…1000%. I think what’s hard for us is that we’ve had people that have wanted to invest in JustPopIn or have said all sorts of really awesome ideas. But ultimately, I think that what’s hard for us is that we want to grow. There are so many things that we know that we could do and that we want to do, but finances play a huge role in a small business. We don’t want to lose control over what we’ve created because our business, again it is popcorn, but it is also a human connector. That’s important to us. So that challenge for us has been the growing pains for sure.

Mandy: At the beginning when we did a website. I always think about this. Our goal was, when we started JustPopIn, we wanted to have a website that went along with it. We made an impulsive decision to go with somebody that probably didn’t have our best interest, and the website never launched. We lost so much money doing that. Then we hired another company. I think we’ve learned so many lessons about just taking a step back and going, “okay, let’s really think this out,” especially when it comes to our finances.

Carly: We’re perfectionists. I think it’s so super important that everything is perfect because our customers are paying for, what we consider it to be, a luxury item. They don’t have to buy popcorn, they can go to Walgreens or whatever and pick up a bag of …

Mandy: Shit. The experience is so important. It’s a huge part of our culture. When you come into JustPopIn, we want you to feel like what you’re viewing. We want you to feel the good. We want you to feel the energy of positivity. And it’s how it should be.

On Perfectionism…

Joe: You said something so interesting about perfectionism. I’d say that I would also fall into that category of being a perfectionist. For me, though, it runs into a place where it can paralyze me in some respects. How do you find that sweet spot, I guess, with perfectionism—providing the customer a good product but not letting it overwhelm you?

Carly: I think it’s because we have each other. I know for a fact that I could not run this company on my own. There is not a chance in hell. We don’t feel like we’re alone. Like if something is happening and we get stressed, we know the other one can help us manage. It’s great to have commitment.

Mandy: Yeah, it’s like like “Don’t worry about this one.” And “Thank you for giving me the freedom to feel like it’s going to be okay.”

Carly: And we’ve learned to have to give somebody the responsibility because I think with perfectionism comes control, controlling every activity. And so it’s just trusting and empowering another person to take that piece off and go, “Okay that’s yours, you own that.”

On Their Kids and the Business…

Joe: How do your kids view the business? How do you hope they view the business? Maybe bigger than that, what do you hope that they see in you?

Carly, Just Pop In: I’ve never really been asked that before. I love it because they ask questions, and they’re engaged. And what I’m most proud of is that, they don’t know this now but I hope when they get older that they see strength like we did in our mom. Having to work and raise children. It’s so important to me that they see my work ethic and they see me in this work ethic. It’s such an important part of our lives. I hope one day that my son will go, “Wow mom, you did it all.” It’s not easy every day to do it but you do it.

Mandy, Just Pop In: Our mom started her life over really at the age of 50. We’ve never seen any person in their entire life work as hard as her. Even when we opened up the airport location, everyone had to get fingerprinted. But she doesn’t have fingerprints because she works so hard, so she couldn’t work with us. She couldn’t come out with us. Just seeing her will and determination and not bitching about it. She just did it. It’s an attitude of “that’s what we have to do.” It’s just innate. That’s what we had to do. We wanted to make her proud. She worked so hard for us, and I think it’s the whole great gratitude piece that comes in. I hope our kiddos can see that in us later, whenever. They might already.

Joe: I know that I don’t think I processed how much my parents worked until later in life.

Carly, Just Pop In: Yeah, you don’t realize what they’re giving up to do for you because it is what it is. You see it and that’s just … you don’t see the sacrifices until you see them. Our mom made every sacrifice in the world for us, she still does. She’s just willing to give up anything. We want to grow and she’s, “I’ll put my house up too.” She just has no doubt in us. Like our grandfather, it’s just so comforting and it’s like we know that we can because …

Mandy, Just Pop In: They told us so.

Carly, Just Pop In: Yeah, they told us so and that’s just what it is.

Joe: Sometimes, until you get that affirmation, it’s hard to really get over your self doubt.

Mandy, Just Pop In: I can’t imagine people that don’t have it because life would have been very different if we didn’t have that. It would have been. I remember rollerskating in my parent’s lumber yard. We were major roller queens. We spent so much time at their lumberyard, and we would play across the street where all these big cranes and machines. They just let us play all day. It’s so fun when we bring our kids to work because it’s, “yeah, this is a family thing, let’s keep this going.”

Carly, Just Pop In: Yeah, and they love our test kitchen. They make their own little concoctions and it’s just so fun.

On What They Hope to Leave Behind…

Joe: What would you hope your stamp would be, I guess, both as business owners but also just as people?

Mandy, Just Pop In: When I think about my grandfather, I think about how he was just such a dignified human. He was so kind to people. It was such a pleasure to observe him treat people. I hope that our stamp is something very similar. That we’re lovers of all things and that we made people feel comforted and significant. Loved.

Carly, Just Pop In: Yeah, I’m with you on that.

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