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Couple has an ear to crowd

Popcorn start-up taps social media for funds, product development

By Rachel Lebeaux
Globe Correspondent / February 2, 2012
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It might sound corny, but entrepreneurial inspiration can pop up from almost anywhere. Coulter and Kristy Lewis say their venture stemmed from a desire for a healthier bag of microwave popcorn.

The Lewises, both 31, founded Quinn Popcorn in their Arlington home about 18 months ago. Their story represents a thoroughly modern approach to entrepreneurship, where crowdsourcing appeals via social media outlets for both start-up money and product feedback have played a prominent role in their success.

Their initial inspiration arose in a more traditional manner, right around the time of the birth of their son, Quinn, in August 2010.

“We were waiting for someone to make a more pure version of microwave popcorn,’’ said Coulter, product designer at IDEO, a consulting firm in Cambridge. Kristy previously worked as an executive assistant and engineering coordinator at Harmonix Music Systems, also in Cambridge.

Their vision called for using organic, nongenetically modified popcorn kernels, expeller-pressed oils, all-natural spices and herbs, popping bags made with compostable paper, and recyclable boxes.

For more than a year, most of their research and development took place in their home.

“In the early stages, there were signs of what we were trying to do all over the house - kitchen cabinets covered in notes of different recipes, all of these precise scales, and spices, herbs, and salts from every corner of the globe,’’ Coulter said.

But, while big on creativity, the Lewises were short on start-up capital, so last summer they turned to the website Kickstarter.com, a platform for creative projects to obtain donations from individual supporters. Established in 2009, Kickstarter has hosted more than 17,000 successfully funded projects, with more than $130 million in pledges.

Justin Kazmark, director of communications at Kickstarter, said that projects submitted for funding via the website must fit into at least one of 13 categories, such as art, photography, dance, games, food, fashion, and technology.

Individuals proposing ideas for funding on Kickstarter can get the word out via various social media outlets, including Twitter, Facebook, and personal blogs.

“Sharing with your networks and letting the idea spread is an important part,’’ Kazmark said. “Creators that can articulate clearly what they’re trying to accomplish, and share their vision in a compelling way with their audience are going to get people to back the project.’’

Visitors to the website can browse projects by location or creative category, then make pledges and leave comments on individual project pages.

“We had a goal of $10,000; we went to bed at night terrified that it wasn’t going to work and we were going to embarrass ourselves,’’ Coulter said. “In the morning, there was $2,000 there. It was an incredible thing.’’

The Lewises went on to raise $27,880 from 755 individuals.

“A lot of people wanted to back us because they’re foodies,’’ Kristy said. “We had a lot of, ‘Oh, wow, we’ve been looking for this.’ ’’

“The capital was sorely needed, but as an emotional thing . . . it was an incredible lift,’’ Coulter added.

So were the messages left on Quinn Popcorn’s Kickstarter page.

“I stumbled across your project last night and contributed today after watching the videos and reading up on what makes QP different from other popcorn makers,’’ one comment reads.

“I love this idea! Just pledged for my bag and truly hope the funding is successful so I can have a taste,’’ reads another.

While those who give money to projects on Kickstarter are guaranteed nothing in return, the Lewises decided to send thank-you notes to those who pledged at least $5, a box of popcorn to those giving at least $15, and boxes of popcorn and official Quinn Popcorn T-shirts and can koozies to those contributing higher amounts. All donors also received a thank-you mention on their blog.

The Lewises wrote extensively about their entrepreneurial journey on their website, www.quinnpopcorn.com, and asked for feedback on their first batch of proposed flavors.

“For us, it was important what flavors taste good, but also what sounds good,’’ Coulter said. “The blog gave us the first layer of that, and we got a clear signal of what would and would not work.’’

They launched Quinn Popcorn last fall with flavors including Parmesan and rosemary, Vermont maple and sea salt, and lemon and sea salt. Each box comes with oil and spice pouches that allow customers to customize their batch post-popping.

The Lewises started selling their popcorn in September; it’s now being carried in local Whole Foods stores (through which the venture also received a local producer loan), as well as at Wilson Farm in Lexington, Allandale Farm on the Brookline-Boston border, Dave’s Fresh Pasta in Somerville, and other independent stores.

In December, they moved their packaging and shipping operations to a 1,700-square-foot warehouse space in Woburn.

Looking back at their journey, the Lewises said that their crowd-sourcing approach was essential to developing a product with a built-in fan base that filled a market need.

“I really believe in using your ideal end user to make a product really good,’’ Coulter said. “When what you’re creating is desirable, people really want it. From there, you’re lucky to have things like Kickstarter now. A platform like that is incredible - not only for the capital, but for the emotional boost.’’

Their next step is to sell their popcorn in more local markets. In addition, “we have a bunch of flavors we’d love to test,’’ Kristy said, and, as before, they’ll post the possibilities on their blog “to help nail that right one,’’ Coulter said.

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