Mike Baxter shakes up the snack food industry with The Popcorn Ball

A kernel of genius

We recently chatted with Mike Baxter of East Jordan, Mich., about his experience taking his product, The Popcorn Ball, from idea to market. Read on for the Q&A below, check out the website, and follow the startup on Facebook and Instagram to keep tabs on the growth of The Popcorn Ball.

Q&A with Mike Baxter, founder, The Popcorn Ball

Tell us about your business and what makes it stand apart from the competition.

Popcorn is the world’s No. 1 snack food. It’s the go-to snack. The Popcorn Ball is a 7.5-inch round ball made of BPA-free, food-grade plastic. It’s dishwasher-safe and microwavable. You can put about half-cup of raw popcorn kernels in The Popcorn Ball and microwave for about three minutes, or add already-popped popcorn, and use the ball to season and mix. It thoroughly distributes popcorn toppings.

The Popcorn Ball will give you perfect popcorn.

 

I think everyone can relate to my product — when they see it, they get it. It’s unique. It’s one of those “why-didn’t-I-think-of-it” products. It makes popcorn more enjoyable than it already is.

What inspired you to start your own business?

I’ve always been a thinker, a creator. There’s money behind every product, and I wanted to make something. I’m the guy who says, “why didn’t I think of that,” every time I see something. I literally have a notebook where I have ideas and then I go out and research it to see if it exists.

In December 2010, I was watching my wife make homemade Chex mix. She was having a tough time mixing it using a spatula and a mixing bowl. It got me thinking about a new mixing device, but my first idea was complex and rather costly to make. … I was learning about molding and making things, and reading a lot of books. One book said to make your idea as simple as possible.

Around the same time we found out we were pregnant with our first child, and I put the idea on the back burner. Fast forward about two years, and my 18-month-old daughter and I were rolling a ball around the living room floor.

When she picked the ball up and start rolling it with her fingertips, I had a visual of popcorn getting mixed in the ball — and that’s when the aha moment for The Popcorn Ball happened.

In 2014, we raised almost $26,000 on Kickstarter. All of 2015 was spent finalizing the prototype and lining up the manufacturer, getting tooling made for the plastic injection molding, and running a sample of the first retail-ready product. At the beginning of 2016, we got the first product and began shipping to backers.

The Popcorn Ball Founder Mike Baxter
Inspired by his daughter playing with a ball, Mike Baxter invented The Popcorn Ball, which he plans to sell for between $10 and $20. “I’d rather keep it cheaper and sell more.”

What obstacles did you face as a startup, and how did you overcome them?

Financial. Just to get to the prototype was a little over $6,000, and that was a lot with a new family and sometimes in between jobs. We literally drained our savings to build the prototype, but you’ve got to have something to make a little video of it.

I wanted a licensing deal, so I spent about a year searching for consumer product companies, primarily in kitchen products. I got a lot of responses back saying it was a great product, but it just doesn’t fit our portfolio.

I decided to use Kickstarter. I figured, what could I lose? But it was more difficult than I thought it would be. I actually failed on the first Kickstarter campaign, then I lowered my goal a little bit and surpassed my goal on the next campaign. Without the Kickstarter I would not be where I’m at. It landed me my licensing deal.

Within 24 hours of my campaign ending, I had an email from a licensing company. They have the rights to manufacture the product and sell to their network of retailers, and I get a royalty off the wholesale price. They’re going for the mass retailers; I’m interested in the business-to-business market.

I want to sell this cheaply to movie theaters. I want to get it into Disney World, Six Flags and Sea World — all these big theme parks. And then I want to get different molds made, so go back to the tooling portion and head of design. Design like a basketball and a baseball, football, hockey puck and the respective sports. I could shape it like Mickey Mouse’s head or a Death Star ball. There are so many different design possibilities. Even private labeling with the movie theatres’ names on it. Promotional items. That’s the goal, anyways.

It took a little convincing to get my wife on track, but she wasn’t that far off from where I was going with it.

The biggest obstacle was getting the prototype made.

 

We literally spent almost $6,000, draining whatever savings we had. I think when I convinced her too was when the Kickstarter helped out a lot. … She basically said if you can do good enough on the Kickstarter, then she was on board.

You gotta have something to make a little video of. Luckily mine was a pretty easy product. I’m sure there’s some prototypes out there that get into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. I contacted probably 12, 13-ish companies, all U.S., and I had quotes from $30,000 all the way up to $750,000 for my molding.

This licensing company, that was the other thing they brought to the table. They had overseas manufacturing lined up ready to go from a trusted source. … They estimated the tooling cost right around $20,000, and we got the quote back and it was $9,800. They split it 50/50 with me.

Where have you found success with marketing and where have you struggled?

Oh, search engine optimization. SEO. So when you go online and you type “popcorn” or “popcorn ball,” you usually find 1,000 recipes — of marshmallows, sticky popcorn balls. You’ll never find a plastic container for one. I’ve just got to work on my SEO. I actually did a big thing on YouTube. There’s a group of kids out there that started their own little YouTube page and they review anything. And I’m like, here, take this product. And they had, like 2 million subscribers. So they did the video and it’s got, like 1.4 million hits. So now you type “popcorn” or “popcorn ball” or anything on YouTube, and I’m usually in the top five search results.

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What strengths do you bring to the table as an entrepreneur?

Once I get the idea, I’m persistent. I don’t give up easily on things. As an entrepreneur that’s probably the best quality you can have.

I like thinking outside the box and approaching things at different angles.

What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned since starting the business?

Persistence. Just never giving up.

And don’t be afraid to reach out to people in your networks. I’m in a great entrepreneur group on Facebook, where people share their frustrations and accomplishments. There’s a lot people out there who are willing to help you. It’s not as easy for people to take your idea as you think it is. Don’t be afraid to talk about it.

Thanks for taking the time to tell us about your startup, Mike, and best of luck as you bring The Popcorn Ball to the masses!


Also published on Medium.

Andrea Rowland
A former small business owner and newspaper journalist, and a published nonfiction author, Andrea Rowland helps craft compelling communications for small businesses and web pros through her work as managing editor of the GoDaddy Garage. When she's not writing or editing, she likes to experiment with baking, travel, read, and dip her toes in the ocean.