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.
In 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. Below’s Part I of our convo and you can read Part II here:
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: 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: 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: 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: 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: I think struggle also makes you grateful for the good stuff.
Joe: Tell me more about your family.
Mandy: 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: 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: I have a boy, who is 9, and then my daughter is 7.
Carly: My little guy is 9 and he turns 10 next month.
Mandy: 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: We’re a couple.
Mandy: Pretty much.
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.
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.
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: 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: 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: 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.
Read Part II where Mandy and Carly talk about the influence their grandfather had on them, how they remain passionate about popcorn, how they work through perfectionism, what they hope their kids glean from them as business owners, and the stamp they hope to leave behind.