Learn how Aucklander Craig Jackson gave film jobs the flick to build an ice pop empire. Launched in early January 2015, his popsicles are now stocked throughout New Zealand.
After 25 years working in the film industry, it was time for something different.
"I wanted to do something that was a business, as opposed to a freelance life which the film industry is," says the founder of Auckland-based popsicle company Dr Feelgood.
Confirmed foodies Jackson and wife Mel knew any new venture they launched would have something to do with food.
“It had to be organic, it had to be healthy and it had to be a sustainable, ethical business,” he says.
“We looked into the probiotic drink market deeply and spent months working on it and testing all the other ones out there. We quickly realised we couldn’t do it.
“And then one night I thought: ‘popsicles’. We thought ‘Great idea’ and started making recipes.”
Eight months later, Jackson had imported an industrial popsicle maker, built a commercial kitchen at home, worked through consent processes and begun pumping out popsicles.
"Dealing with [the city] council was easy. It’s not rocket science, and it’s just something you have to do. The council was awesome and hugely helpful. I had them in a couple times, and they had great advice," he says.
A fortnight before launching, they realised they had to meet Ministry of Primary Industries (MPI) regulations, too.
“MPI was amazing to deal with. I know some small producers have their issues, but I think government departments are super helpful.
“We asked about safety plans and HACCP (Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point) requirements, labelling, etc. We have all that in place now. We eventually intend to export, so it was useful anyway.
“Looking back on it, meeting the food regulations was actually really good for us. It could scare people away from jumping through the various hoops, but it’s actually pretty easy and made our operations better.”
“You need to be totally sure of your product and to make sure you’ve a market,” Jackson says. “It’s really important to ask ‘do people want your product?’ and then ‘are there enough of them to buy it?’”
In the early days, they validated their market with family and friends. Two things came from this research: recipes for their main product line and a lot of their kids’ friends hanging around the house.
“Market validation later included me going around gas stations, cafes, dairies and looking in freezers and talking to freezer managers and people at supermarkets,” he says.
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Jackson has been as meticulous about building the brand as he was about making films.
“Yes, popsicles are our business, but it’s all about our brand as well. We have a great product and a great brand we can build around it. But you have to have both sides to the coin or people won’t come back.”
For Jackson, this means being selective about stockists, packaging, website design and use of social media.
“I was reluctant with our name at first because I thought we’d have all sorts of IP (intellectual property) issues, but we don’t because of our category and classification we’re in,” he says.
“We’ve already trade marked what we do in New Zealand and are now protecting ourselves in other markets. I come from the world of film, so I understand what IP is and what it is worth.”
To build sales, Dr Feelgood took a shop-by-shop approach. “It was all cold calling and knocking on doors, but the beautiful thing about ice pops is that it opens doors,” Jackson says.
If anyone declined to stock the popsicles, he’d leave them some to try. “They’d come back to us a couple weeks later and say: ‘We tried them, when can you deliver?’”
But despite their success, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing. “Places I thought we’d really sell, we don’t, and places I thought we’d never go is where we’re going.”
When Craig and Mel realised they could no longer run Dr Feelgood alone, they decided to hire staff. “I can’t take out the rubbish and do the deliveries and then do the Facebook and marketing. You need help.”
Taking on staff wasn’t risky — it was a necessity, he says. “Growth isn’t just sales. It’s also your resources, and we needed to expand our resources.”
Unlike hiring horror stories Jackson had heard from other small businesses, the company found it easy to get good staff.
“The first person we interviewed was awesome. What would take me a day takes her half… I’ve also now got someone solidly there for accounting and logistics. I knew her from a previous job, so I knew she’d be a good fit. But we’ll only take people on if it strategically works for us.”
Craig says launching Dr Feelgood was one of the best decisions he’s made. But that he was lucky to have had the time and resources to do it properly.
They haven’t had to borrow money, which has given them the independence to run Dr Feelgood their way.
“I’m learning that I’m pretty good at business. I’m liking it. And I’m good at negotiating,” he says. “Growing and building something is so much fun. I’m not beholden to someone else, and that’s really awesome.”