Gabrielle Mustapich
Gabrielle Mustapich

Gabrielle Mustapich: There’s an Incredible Startup Culture Here. Arguably, One of the Best in the World

Gabrielle Mustapich of Hardpops.

Tell us about yourself?

As far as entrepreneurship goes, I come by it honestly. I was lucky enough to grow up with parents who encouraged my entrepreneurial sprit.

From helping me build a hot dog cart at age 10, to letting me run a car washing side-hustle in the driveway. During my university years, I’d sit in my lecture halls and build websites for companies, instead of take notes.

This didn’t help my GPA a whole lot, but it taught me more than any of my business courses ever did! My first taste of the startup life came towards the end of my academic career. I was asked to join a tech startup, co-founded by a university friend.

Here, I had a chance to lead the company’s marketing and marketplace growth, learned how to hire and build a team, and got an intimate look at the cogs that make a startup turn.

That was it, I had the entrepreneurial itch… I just didn’t know what that was going to mean for me yet. All throughout my school and startup adventures, I dabbled in freelance work as a web/graphic designer, and photographer.

I didn’t know it at the time, but this was all building my tool set for launching Hardpops. When the time came to start building our boozy ice pop biz, we were able to keep everything in house. From brand design and content creation, to sales and marketing.

Even manufacturing (but that’s a whole other story). Outside of Hardpops, I’m a big outdoorsy person. I love being outside, especially on our gorgeous West Coast. Back home in Vancouver BC, there were many days where I’d be paddle boarding for sunrise, and skiing at sunset.

I think it’s this lifestyle that initially drove me into self-employment. My greatest passion though (outside of Hardpops, of course), is photography. I’ve been photographing my outdoor adventures for as long as I’ve been going on them.

What do you think is the single biggest misconception people have when it comes to startups?

The capital required. I think it’s easy to assume that in order to launch a startup, you need to raise tens or hundreds of thousands, or even millions of dollars.

That’s just not the case. In fact, building a brand “on a shoestring,” as they say, will make fundraising much easier when the time does come.

Investors love a scrappy, fiscally responsible founder who knows how to stretch a dollar, and prove their concept before accepting external funding.

My co-founder and I started Hardpops with under $10K in personal savings and a line of credit.

What lessons has being an entrepreneur taught you?

1. Perseverance is the only real differentiator when it comes to success. Entrepreneurship is a marathon, not a sprint. There is always a way forward, sometimes you just have to get creative and be willing to get your hands dirty. Hang in there, and when the going gets tough, just know that it’s supposed to be that way. If it was easy, everyone would do it.

2. During the startup phase, don’t spend money on anything that’s not producing immediate (or at least very short term) ROI. Learn how to say no to shiny things. Your best growth hacks will likely turn out to be the creative ones, not that fancy booth at the trade show “everyone else” is at. Keep your runway as long as possible by protecting your cash position, and being crafty.

3. Conduct small, controlled experiments to see what works (this goes back to focusing on immediate ROI). You’re going to have sales people pitching you left right and centre, promising you the moon in exchange for “just” $3K/month, or whatever it is. If you see value, negotiate month-to-month terms, or a trial run of some sort. If their value is real, this will be an easy negotiation.

4. Don’t be too shy to ask questions. Forget about looking good, or like you already know it all. It’s simply not true, and no one who actually knows what they’re doing will ever expect you to have it all figured out. People, for the most part, love a chance to help out and share what they know.

So show up, send that cold email, Tweet, or DM. Just ask! 5. Trust your gut. It usually knows best.

If you could go back in time to when you first started your business, what piece of advice would you give yourself?

Just begin. It doesn’t have to be perfect, or polished – that part will come. I think a lot of us 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. And think BIG! The worst that can happen is you land half way.

Big goals and big confidence produce big results. 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 exists, that will lead you to your goals. Build the path, and follow it one day at a time.

A lot of entrepreneurs find it difficult to balance their work and personal lives. How have you found that?

It’s an art for sure. “Balance” might not be the best way of looking at it, though. I really believe that finding something you’re totally in love with, is a non-negotiable precursor to entrepreneurship.

Whether it’s the product/idea itself, or simply the process of building a business, you have to love it. As an entrepreneur, your work and personal life should be able to come together in a lot of ways.

Use your calendar, and schedule time for social/non-work-related things as much as you do your Zoom meetings. And remember, when you’re your own boss, sometimes you get to say “I’m taking the day off,” even on a Tuesday. That’s a perk worth taking advantage of every now and then.

Give us a bit of an insight into the influences behind the company?

The idea came to us one hot summer night back in 2017, while wishing for a cool-down 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 as we know it today, in Southern California.

What do you think is your magic sauce? What sets you apart from the competitors?

Now more than ever, customers are looking for “something new.” And with that, comes key requirements such as: uniqueness, cleaner ingredients, flavors they haven’t tried before, and lastly but certainly not least – a story behind the brand.

Hardpops offers all of the above as a frozen cocktail (aka, ‘boozy ice pop’) for grown ups. Our customers grew up with ice pops (aka freezies, otter pops, icys), and look back on those childhood memories as some of the best of their lives.

The first time someone enjoys a Hardpop, we usually hear something along the lines of “this is so nostalgic.” That’s what it’s all about.

Aside from the nostalgic effect, and being the perfect cool-down cocktail, some of the other “reasons to love” that we’ve heard from customers are that Hardpops offers a tamper-proof drink option, or a way to participate without committing to a full cocktail. We love that.

How have you found sales so far? Do you have any lessons you could pass on to other founders in the same market as you just starting out?

Persistence is key! Don’t be demotivated if it doesn’t happen overnight. Creating brand loyalty is something that we’ve spent a lot of time and effort on, and has translated to sales in the long run.

Sponsor events with product, show up in the community, offer free product/services to niche groups.

This is how you’ll earn REAL, genuine ambassadors of your brand who will advocate or you, and the fiscal return on these social investments is very real.

What do you consider are the main strengths of operating your business in California over other states in the US?

There’s an incredible startup culture here. Arguably, one of the best in the world. Being around other founders and startups makes a huge difference while building your own.

There’s something to be said for for that “California brand identity,” too.

And of course, sheer numbers. While expensive (relatives to other states), the population alone makes California an excellent test market for most opportunities.

What (if any) are the weaknesses of operating your business within California?

It’s not cheap. Cost of living, taxes, pay-to-play opportunities, and high competition make California an expensive state to start a company in. But if you do it right, it’s more than worth it.

We are currently suffering through a cost of living crisis. With California already being one of the most expensive states to live in, how has this impacted your business?

It’s definitely a challenge. Like I said before, being willing to get your hands dirty, be creative, and learn how to stretch a dollar will make or break your business in the long run.

If you can make it in California, I really believe you can make it almost anywhere.

It is no secret that California is the birthplace of innovation. But that also makes it incredibly competitive. How have you found the competitive environment of California?

It’s incredibly competitive out there, for sure. Innovation is key – you have to find a way to set yourself apart from the rest.

I really believe that there are more than enough seats at the table for anyone/any brand who’s creative enough to demonstrate that unique value proposition.

Be thoughtful, and take the time to figure out what that looks like for your business.

Have you considered moving your company to another state? If so, which state and why?

We’re expanding, not moving per se. South Florida is an excellent market for us, and we’re taking steps to enter the market there this Fall/Winter (2022).

Where do you see your business in the next 5 years?

We have a lot of plans and goals for the next five years, but in sum: Profitable, operating at a sustainable pace, and having grown beyond our expectations!

And finally, if people want to get involved and learn more about your business, how should they do that?

Connect with us on social, or reach out via our website! My co-founder and I are also fairly active on LinkedIn. Happy to connect.

Follow Hardpops on Twitter or Linkedin.

Ziad Makkawi

Ziad Makkawi: We Operate in the Area of Venture Capital, Innovation, Technology – California Is the Global Mecca of All of These

Kai Marshland

Kai Marshland: California Provides the World’s Strongest Ecosystem of Engineers, Investors, and Innovation