The making of... Hardpops
Welcome to The making of... blog series. To start, can you give us a bit of a background into who you are and where you’ve come from.
Hello I’m Gabrielle Mustapich, Co-Founder at Hardpops. As far as entrepreneurship goes, we come by it honestly. Sheereen (my Co-Founder) and I come from entrepreneurial families, so the idea of starting and running a business has always been as familiar as it was appealing. We have been self-employed for several years now, even prior to starting Hardpops. Between us, we have some pretty diverse and helpful experiences in the books! Everything from diplomacy and tech startups, to real estate and adventure photography. Long stories, so I’ll leave it at that.
We’re getting a fun vibe from you, and we can see this has had a big impact on what you’ve created. So, how did you both come up with the idea?
The idea came to us one hot summer night back in 2017 while wishing for a cool-down ice-pop solution that was perhaps a little more… grown up. Not 24 hours later, Hardpops was born. Originally founded in Vancouver, Canada, Hardpops kept the good people of Alberta smiling and refreshed for two years, before relocating to Los Angeles to re-launch the brand in Southern California. We’re proud Vancouverites, but ultimately, Canadian liquor laws just weren’t quite ready to accommodate our dreams of expansion beyond Alberta (the only province to approve Hardpops’ packaging format). With a bigger vision in mind, we relocated to Los Angeles in mid-2021, to re-launch and re-vamp the brand as we know it today.
We started this business with a $10k small business loan between us. We bought a ‘liquid filling machine’ on Alibaba, sub-leased some production space in a distillery, and manufactured everything ourselves for two years.
Fast forward to 2022. Now we work with a co-manufacturer, producing hundreds of thousands at a time. It’s a surreal feeling.
The saying “walk the talk” comes to mind… and it’s exactly what you’ve both done. We absolutely love that. What about the research and testing of your product-market fit? How did you arrive at what you have today?
Our original recipes and flavour concepts were all created at home. We were ultimately designing our idea of a “perfect” product. From there, we got the help of a food scientist who took what they had and tweaked it for scale. We used Alberta as our sandbox, to test our ideas and gather as much feedback as we could. Through in-store tastings and social media, we received a ton of feedback. This solidified the fact that we had created a product people really wanted and offered insights into how we could make it even better.
We’ve since adapted our packaging design, product flavours, and brand positioning to reflect the research and feedback we’ve gathered.
A quick note to entrepreneurs who are looking into research, this is a great example of how it’s done. Now you’ve ticked off the research and product-market fit, what were the first iterations of your product like?
Our first runs were produced on a little ‘liquid filling machine’ about the size of your standard refrigerator. It arrived from overseas with no manual and a digital interface that was entirely in Mandarin. So, you can guess how that went! We had a friend translating for us via FaceTime, and I made a little cheat sheet so that I could (somewhat) navigate the menus.
After some fiddling, a few minor breakdowns (us and the machine), and some MacGyver-isms, we were finally in business.
Our original flavours were Grapefruit (reminiscent of a frozen Greyhound cocktail), and Yuzu Plum; something unique, and a personal favourite flavour combo that was ultimately our greatest hit.
That is a classic. Ok… you mentioned funding earlier, can you tell us how you initially went about financing your startup?
Our first two years were entirely self-funded. We were able to keep all of our operations in-house. And I mean ALL. Production, sales, marketing, product development, you name it. Because of this, our overhead was quite low, and we were able to recover our investment within the first month of sales.
In early 2021, we raised our first ever round of pre-seed capital, before relocating and relaunching the brand in the US.
And what about your branding? You briefly mentioned it early. Can you share your process and how you arrived at what you have today?
We have a really nostalgic product, and it was important to us to never lose that element of “fun” and “playfulness” that’s so reminiscent of the ice pops we all grew up with. At the same time, we’re grown up now, and this isn’t a kids’ product. That has to be made clear too.
Our packaging has evolved a couple of times since our first print run, but it’s certainly consistently “poppy.” Our boxes flaunt bright, vibrant colours and sleek, modern curves, in a minimalistic signature design. And of course, our signature metallic gradient on the Hardpop packaging itself. Everything we put out has been designed in-house, and we’re really proud of that!
Agreed, it looks playful, poppy, and has a modern sensibility. What about awareness? How are you getting the word out there and how are you scaling the brand?
Community presence is a huge part of our awareness strategy. We’ve been collaborating with other brands and businesses, which is proving to be an incredibly powerful vehicle for brand awareness.
Most recently, we’ve worked with brands like ResortPass, CorePower Yoga, Triller, Soho House/Soho Works, and so many more awesome local events here in LA. We see the direct correlation to e-commerce sales, and a growing social media following. This has been an incredible way to gain real, engaged customers and followers.
Collaborations are a great way to grow and build awareness… particularly for relatively young brands with limited exposure or even older brands wanting to gain some freshness. We see it as a win:win. And what about your future challenges? What's the biggest challenge or challenges you think you'll face moving forward?
It’s a very capital-intensive business to be in. So far, we’ve been able to stay quite lean, but of course with growth comes cost. I’m confident in our ability to keep up with demand, but this is of course one of the greatest challenges for any founder.
We hear this a lot from founders. Irrespective of category. With that in mind, knowing what you know now, what advice would you give another entrepreneur who’s embarking on their own startup journey?
Just begin. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or polished - that part will come. I think where a lot of people get blocked by the feeling that something isn’t “ready” yet. Just begin - you’ll be surprised by your own momentum and pace once you’ve taken that first step.
Believe in what you’re doing, and believe in the outcome you want. Then, just go out there and do it. There is a sequence of events and choices that exist which will lead you to your goals. Build the path, and follow it one day at a time.