CHKN Not Chicken CEO on leveraging popchips and Nuun successes to build another household brand

Brian Pope reflects on his time as a senior exec at multiple global consumer brands and the skills he has brought to his latest venture
CHKN Not Chicken
Source: CHKN Not Chicken

Hot off its $4.5 million Series A, plant-based chicken brand CHKN Not Chicken has ambitions to become a household brand. Having helped build out the now well-known Popchips and Nuun brands, co-founder Brian Pope’s experience with fast-moving consumer goods will surely provide the company with a leg up as it seeks to enter the retail and foodservice channels.

Speaking to NutritionInvestor, Pope reflects on his past experiences growing consumer brands. Key for Pope is establishing a unique brand image the presents CHKN Not Chicken as a lifestyle opportunity instead of just a product. Engaging the fast-growing flexitarian community will play a significant role in growing that brand recognition, Pope believes.

Here, the co-founder also discusses the most appropriate timing to consider an exit strategy as a small business and his future plans for further funding rounds.

How did CHKN Not Chicken come about?

We founded the company as three friends, myself, Marc Marano and Ryan Choy and each one of us had decided for a range of reasons, from health to the environment, to focused on the idea of reducing the amount of meat in our diet.

The truth was we just didn’t love a lot of the plant-based options that were out there. Beyond and Impossible have done amazing things for ground beef replacement but other proteins, in particular chicken, just didn’t really deliver from a taste and experience perspective so we set out to create one. I’ve always been drawn to opportunities based on the mission that they can achieve and I do fundamentally believe that trading out meat for plant-based meals is the most impactful thing that we can do for humans and the planet combined. By going plant-based one to two days a week, we can have a really profound impact on not only our individual health but on the environment.

For the last couple of years, we’ve been working to create not only the product that meat eaters would love to incorporate into their diets but also the brand that would welcome them to the flexitarian lifestyle and give people a great taste experience. Of course, it turns out making that product has not been nearly as easy as we were hoping it would be. We have probably gone through seven major iterations of the product. We’ve evolved the product to the point where we really do think that it can be embraced by consumers.

How did you go about finding investors that really shared the same ethos as you?

Exactly that, it’s about funding investors that share the ethos and can embrace the mission, with as much passion as the founders have. I have been in CPG for many years and my co-founders have all built and sold very successful businesses. We each had a lot of contacts and funding was never the part that we felt was very stressful. We probably could have raised the whole round just with friends and family and business colleagues but we really wanted to put together a portfolio of investors that really lived the mission and it wasn’t just about the return on investment, it was about accomplishing something special.

We were introduced to a number of venture funds that shared that mission and had really positive feedback across the board but the one that we just felt that greater connection with, from a personality perspective and from a values perspective, was the team at Stray Dog Capital. We were really honoured to be able to bring them on as the lead investor for the round. And then we were able to supplement Stray Dog with some other family offices and a few friends and family that really wanted to be a part of the adventure. But Stray Dog was the one that really unlocked the round and allowed us to present the brand and the opportunity in the context of the mission and really added a lot of credibility to the offering.

And beyond just the investment, I think the insight and the experience that the Stray Dog team has had with their range of portfolio companies was hugely beneficial. I think it’s also a reflection that plant-based meat and even plant-based chicken is not going to be a winner takes all situation and we’re creating a movement that will include a number of successful brands in the space. So, we’re excited to be alongside the other really cool brands that are in their portfolio.

The funding round featured fellow plant-based B2C brand founder David Israel as an investor, what is the value of having other consumer-facing brands offering financial support?

Firstly, it’s that valuable experience from the people that have been in the trenches and built what you’re trying to build before you. Anytime you’re creating a start-up, you’re building a lot from scratch and our ambition is to learn from as many people as we can so we can reduce the number of mistakes we make and find those little growth hacks.

David Israel of Good Planet Foods is a quintessential start-up founder and he’s one of the folks whose advice I value the most. We can secure funding from a lot of people but we can’t get that same level of real-world practical advice as someone who went through the same process a couple of years ago. We were looking for like-minded investors and advisors that shared the passion for the mission and David counts as both.

CHKN Not Chicken packaging

How much did you raise in your Series A and what attracted you away from the world of global CPG brands to the start-up world?

We raised $4.5 million in the round. I’ve been involved most of my career in building early-stage companies into brands that consumers love, although never quite as early as CHKN Not Chicken and never as one of the founders. I was part of the snacking brand popchips, which we built from a little over $10 million when I joined to over $100 million in retail sales. We launched that not only across the US but also in the UK, Canada and other parts of Europe.

And then I worked within the portfolio company of a private equity group called TSG Consumer Partners and was part of the growth driving efforts for a range of relatively early-stage brands that grew up and many had successful exits. Most recently was a vegan hydration brand called Nuun which was just acquired by Nestle Health Sciences and will quickly be growing internationally. I’m certainly not a stranger to helping establish new categories and build true lifestyle brands that can connect to consumers in an emotional way.

I’ve always been drawn to products where little changes in behaviour can be really meaningful to people’s lives. Popchips was a brand that offered a better-for-you potato chip that could deliver the same great taste without the fat and the calories of fried chips and Nuun was helping to find a way for people to stay hydrated and keep moving. CHKN Not Chicken is a natural extension of that and I’m excited to be able to do it from the ground up and be surrounded with such an amazing team.

It’s pretty rare to be able to attract the level of talent as early as we have, including people that have both been involved in building things from scratch, but also scaling them to become huge brands that millions of people interact with every day.

With that experience in mind, how are you planning to build out the brand to become a household name?

We’ve got a core group that’s been working on this for the last couple of years and we’re hiring quickly. The way we built popchips and Nuun was by creating passionate, loyal fans one consumer at a time and being a brand that felt more personal than a company. When we think about marketing, we see it much less as this quantitative exercise of performance marketing and optimisation of media spend and more as creating unique opportunities for engagement, whether that be in the physical world or the social media world where we can put ideas or recipes or lifestyle content into people’s newsfeeds that they naturally want to share.

It’s that building of a tribe and inspiring them to help tell your story on your behalf that that I think is the linchpin of creating a lifestyle brand versus just a company. When we think about the pillars of our marketing strategy, foodservice and getting product onto the menus of cool restaurants will be a key part of it. We also envision a mobile pop-up kitchen that can feature at events and retail stores while we’re introducing the product. Then of course we’ll curate a fun group of influencers and ambassadors that can help tell our story.

Looking back on your time at Nuun, how you determine when the best point for a business to seek an exit strategy is, whether it’s M&A or IPO?

What guided the founding of the company was the belief in the mission that flexitarianism as a lifestyle can dramatically increase the number of people that are eating plant-based and that’s going to have a big impact. That’s the same way we think about everything that we do for the business and we think about the exit, although I don’t even want to call it that, as turning the brand over to right group that may be more capable to extend the mission than we are.

We believe that the team we have in place and the investors that we’ve brought in for our Series A are well equipped to take this into the next phase. Then it will likely look for a Series B round of investment. I think the guiding force will be ‘what are the resources and the talent, the reach, the distribution and capital that will allow us to attain the mission that we do?’ I don’t really see any of the guideposts changing from what we’re using right now. We really do look at this as creating something for the long-term.

When will you start to consider another funding round?

This Series A will allow us to build a team and create proof points that prove to us that we’ve got the right product that consumers will embrace across multiple channels of trade in the United States. We want to prove we can launch CHKN Not Chicken in both retail and foodservice to a significant part of the US and that we can deliver the velocity that our channel partners want to see.

That velocity will be an indication that we’re serving the consumer in a way that’s bringing people into the lifecycle. We think that will take 18 months to two years. Once we have really proven that we’ve got all these pieces in place, Series B will be what allows us to really scale that strategy across the US and then start looking at international opportunities.