Transitioning to a Self-Managed Organization: An Interview with Tim Heitmann, CEO of Double Good (Formerly Popcorn Palace)

Tim Heitmann, CEO of Double Good (Formerly Popcorn Palace)

We’re celebrating Entrepreneurship Week with Tim Heitmann, CEO of Double Good (formerly Popcorn Palace). Tim talks to Adam about how his business has changed over time and how his company is moving to a self-managed organizational structure.


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Adam Robinson: Welcome to The Best Team Wins Podcast where we feature business leaders whose exceptional approach to talent management has led to outsized results. My name is Adam Robinson, and for the next 25 minutes, I’ll be your host as we explore how to build your business through better hiring.
Today on the program, Tim Heitmann. Tim is the founder and CEO of Popcorn Palace (now Double Good), a gourmet popcorn company that through its fundraising channel is responsible for raising over $45 million for organizations in the Chicagoland area. There was a case study in the book The Best Team Wins featured in the book and I’m so excited to have him here to share his incredible experience with all of us. Tim, welcome to the podcast.
Tim Heitmann: Hey. Thanks Adam. I’ve been looking forward to talking to you so I’m really excited to be here.
Adam Robinson: Folks, this guy is no joke. Popcorn Palace has been on the Inc 5000 list. Tim, please tell me this is right, an amazing 10 years in a row?
Tim Heitmann: Yeah, that’s true. It’s accurate.
Adam Robinson: That is absolutely amazing. Tim, congratulations.
Tim Heitmann: Thank you.
Adam Robinson: Very cool. Well, we’ll dig into how you made that happen but first, as is the tradition here on The Best Team Wins Podcast, we always start off on the right foot and that’s the best news, business or personal, that’s happened to our guest in the last seven days. Tim, start us off on the right foot. What was it for the last week?
Tim Heitmann: Well, I love that question and I’m going to have to go on the personal side and I would say it was actually yesterday. You know I have a 16 month-old son. His name is Joseph and it’s my first child. All the parents will appreciate that my life changed drastically 16 months ago, but he just started to understand things that I’m saying to him in the last few weeks.
Yesterday I was leaving and I said, “Joseph, go get my shoes! Daddy’s got to go to work,” and I see him look at me, and waddle away, and then a few seconds later I hear my wife say, “Joseph, I don’t know if daddy wants to wear those shoes today,” and he still waddles up to me and throws a pair of shoes down in front of me. One shoe of a set and just looks at me.
I was like, “That’s perfect. That’s exactly what I want to wear today and he waddles back and gets the other pair and he just sat down and watched me put my shoes on and it was one of those moments. I think it was just the fact that now we have this two-way communication going on and it was really special after a long time of it more or less being one-way communication and I wife’s like, “Oh my God, you’re going to have him getting you beers out of the fridge soon.” It was a great way to start the day.
Adam Robinson: That’s great. That’s awesome. Thanks for sharing that. Well, let’s jump right in and talk about Popcorn Palace. Let’s start with “What is Popcorn Palace?” What do you do and a little bit of the origin story. How did it come to be?
Tim Heitmann: Yeah. We’re a gourmet popcorn manufacturer and, like you said, in our 18 years now we’ve helped non-profits and youth organizations raise over $45 million for their goals and their dreams and it’s interesting because Popcorn Palace actually started in the mid-80’s and started by two guys in California. They grew it into a dozen retail stores and I happened to walk into one of the stores here in Chicago that my brother had licensed, and just fell in love with the product, and shortly after that found out that they went bankrupt. Long story short, I ended up acquiring a backup cassette tape. One of those old cassette tapes from the 80’s.
Adam Robinson: Sure. Like a data tape?
Tim Heitmann: Yeah, exactly. All I really got was a list of their customers but I learned that they had some low-hanging fruit in corporate accounts where companies had ordered really sizable orders and sent out gifts at the holidays. I started there and called up all their corporate accounts and secured a little bit of business for that holiday season.
Used my brother’s store, which was still open at the time, at Navy Pier in Chicago, to make all the product. That was pretty much how I started. It was really more of a passion thing. I really didn’t know if it would turn into a business and here we are 18 years later talking to you. It’s been an interesting ride.
Adam Robinson: That’s awesome. Well, before we get into the people side of the business, let’s walk listeners through how your business has changed. I know you didn’t start off in the fundraising business.
Tim Heitmann: No. Initially we were doing corporate gifts for companies and I felt like, “Hey, maybe we can just focus on this and be a great solution for companies to thank their employees. This is 1998 and then right after that holiday season, e-commerce was just starting to really boom, and so we started a website and our consumer business started to do really well. Still was really thinking, “How can I scale this?” Wasn’t interested in retail stores because that didn’t work well for the previous owners and I didn’t have a good feel for it, but starting to think about wholesale.
Pretty much determined that I was going to grow the company via wholesale and we picked up a lot of big accounts and turned about half of our business into wholesale which we sold to Costco, and I went on QVC and went on air sales with them for many years. Sold to Walgreens. At that same time, we also started up a fundraising program which was just basically a page up on our website. As I got into the wholesale business, it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
I really did not enjoy being owned by these really large companies. They wanted me. They wanted to talk to me. They pretty much owned me and I was on the phone one day with Costco and then they were pretty much yelling at me for not moving product off their shelves fast enough, and I hung up the phone with them really frustrated, and I looked on my desk and there was some mail that was opened and I saw a letter that had some color in it so I was like, “What’s this?”
I opened it up and it read, “Dear Mr Heitmann, thank you so much for having your fundraising program. I was able to fly from Seattle Washington to Washington DC, compete in a band competition because I raised $300. I love Popcorn Palace. Thank you so much for having your Popcorn Palace fundraising program.” I said, “Oh my God, this is awesome and I want more of this.” In the business I was searching for more meaning I think at that time and that gave it to me.
Luckily our numbers, our return on dollars spent, was looking a lot better in that industry. We really shifted our focus to helping non-profits and youth organizations to raise money and that was really the turning point for us to go full-blown into that. Over the years we dropped all those wholesale accounts. We’ve dropped Costco, dropped QVC, and eventually dropped all of our wholesale business. We no longer do any wholesale business or allow our product to sit on shelves anywhere. It’s solely for this industry to help people raise money.
Adam Robinson: It sounds like you’re a lot happier for it.
Tim Heitmann: I am. Yeah, it’s funny. A lot of times it’s not necessarily changing what you do. It’s changing what things mean to you and that changed what the business meant to me. It’s been a whole heck of a lot better ever since then.
Adam Robinson: Fantastic, Tim. Let’s talk about people now. We’ve got a sense of what you do in helping organizations raise money. Let’s talk about the team that you have. As your business model has changed, how has your approach to the people side of your business changed if at all?
Tim Heitmann: Yeah. I would say that when you’re starting out, and you’re growing a company, and maybe bootstrapping it, you have a lot on your plate and hiring is one of those things from me that I didn’t make it a priority. Even though I needed a hire, it wasn’t a priority. I made a lot of really bad decisions in the beginning and I think that in the beginning you’re trying to find your place in the world, and you’re selling your product to anybody and everyone that will buy it. You’re all over the place with your strategy, and with your focus, and with your hiring. I made a lot of pretty bad decisions in the early days not only hiring people, but keeping them too long too. I kept people on that I knew were bad hires.
Adam Robinson: Why’d you do that?
Tim Heitmann: I think fear. The thought of “What happens when I let them go? What’s going to happen? Who’s going to do this? What’s going to happen to the company? Oh my God, can I afford to lose them?” It’s so funny because the people that we have parted ways with that have decided to leave on their own in those early days it’s so funny because there’s always fear. And then they left and the business continued on and people picked up the slack. Even the people that we did part ways with, we mustered up the courage to do it.
It’s just amazing what happens. Everyone’s relieved in the organization that this person’s out of the company and the energy that comes from that has always amazed me. I think that over time we’ve developed a lot of patience in hiring. Instead of, “Oh my God, I’ve got to fill this position!” It’s like, “Okay. Let’s take our time and find the right person.” We haven’t always gotten it right, but over the years as we’ve become clear on our own identity and the value that we bring to the world, it’s gotten easier to find the right matches.
Adam Robinson: You’re talking a little bit about culture and its impact, so describe the culture to me at Popcorn Palace. Either in terms of your core values if you want to share those or what you’re trying to build there internally culture-wise.
Tim Heitmann: Yeah. Describing culture I think that’s a really hard thing to do. I think it’s more something that you get a feel for, but I’ll tell you something we did recently. We’re going through a re-branding process and we brought everybody into the room independently and we asked them, “If the company was a person, how would you describe them?” Amazingly, most of the people gave not the exact word, but a word that could easily be categorized in the same bucket.
We asked them just three words. Now give us three words. We really were able to put all the answers into three buckets and what we came up with was fun-loving, caring, and authentic. I think that when I look back on the history of our company, I think that that’s always been there. Even from day one it’s always been a part of the organization. I think what’s happened over the years is that the volume’s been turned up.
If you said the volume dial was a 1 through a 10 with 10 being the highest, I’d say in the early days maybe we were a four. Then as time went on we jumped to a five and six. Now I think we’re operating at a very consistent eight and a half to nine and a half. I think it’s something that is more visible. You hear it more. It’s more visible in the actions of people. I really believe that a CEO doesn’t have control over the culture.
They can influence it by the things they do, and the things that they say, and the priorities that they set for the organization but I think that’s it. They don’t have full control over the culture of the company. They can only influence it. They probably have the most influence, but if you asked me in the early days about culture, I would have been, “What do you been, culture? Culture Club like Boy George?”


I had no idea what the word culture meant. Still to this day I don’t think I can fully describe I, but I can certainly feel it. I know that when people come to our plant, and if they make a comment on our culture a lot we hear, “Oh you’ve got such a great culture.” I feel like that’s one of the best compliments I could receive. More than, “Wow, your company’s growing great,” or “You’ve got a great product.” I think that providing a place where people can learn, and grown, and they feel good about coming to work it’s one of the most important things that we could do.
Adam Robinson: Absolutely. I love that metaphor about the volume and turning it up to eight and a half or nine. I think that’s a great way to look at it and I don’t think you hear often a CEO saying “It’s not up to them on the culture. You can influence it, but you can’t create it,” and I like that approach.
Let’s talk about how do you translate that into an opportunity for a prospective Popcorn Palace employee? Let’s say I’m considering working in the front office at Popcorn Palace and I’ve got your opportunity and I’ve got another one and they’re both similar. What’s your 30 to 60 second pitch for why I would pick your company versus some other opportunity?
Tim Heitmann: Yeah. We really try to take the approach where this is a fit. It’s got to work for the other side too. I think that what’s special about our organization is that when people come to work, we want them to bring who they are to work. We’re not necessarily trying to get them to fit into some rigid system. We’re selecting you and we want you for who you are and what you can bring to the company and what your special talents are. I think that one of the things I’ve heard a lot of our employees say over the years is that, “This is the first job where I really feel like I can be myself at,” and that’s really a cool thing to hear.
Adam Robinson: Yeah.
Tim Heitmann: I think it’s something that the younger generation it’s more than a need or a desire. It’s something that they have to have. I think it’s a place where you can just bring yourself to work and if we’ve chosen you it’s because we believe in you and who you are. Now it’s, “How can you give the most value to the organization?”
Adam Robinson: Fantastic. That’s great. What I’m hearing Tim is you’re not selling people on working there. It either is a fit and everyone knows it or not.
Tim Heitmann: Yeah.
Adam Robinson: It’s not worth pushing something.
Tim Heitmann: I think so and I feel like when we go through the beginning we didn’t have any sort of process and there’s someone coming in, and sitting down next to me, and in between phone calls I interview them. It probably lasted four to five minutes and you’re hired. Now we have a very specific process depending on the position and the level it could last from anywhere from three to six interviews over weeks and months at a time.
I think we want to be in a position at the end where this person wants this role really bad. I look at hiring as marketing. The moment someone reads your ad or the moment somebody for the first time sets eyes on your facility or your office or whatever, you have to try to influence their perception of you and what you are as much as possible. I think that we do look at the process as a marketing and selling process. Not only are we interviewing them, but we’re also selling the company to the right prospect.
In the end, you’re absolutely right. We’re done selling. After they’ve seen everything, and looked under our hood, and we’ve told them that we want them, if they’re not 100% sure that they want to come work for our company, we’re nervous at that point. They should feel like “This is a good fit and this is the company I want to work for.” If they’re not there, then I’m okay with moving on and saying, “Okay, this isn’t a good fit.”


Adam Robinson: That’s great. Yeah, every company differs and one of the things we like to do here on this show is walk our listeners through the different kinds of leadership team structures that companies have. How is your company organized? When you look around and you see your leadership table, what roles are sitting there and how are you making sure that everybody knows what they’re supposed to be doing?
Tim Heitmann: Really interesting question because we’re actually in the middle of reinventing the structure of the organization and we’ve been at it for about a year. We’ve got about six months or so left, but we were structured very much like the traditional hierarchy with a leadership team of five people, and then we have then mid-level managers, and front line supervisors, and front line staff, customer service and production staff. We’re in the process of converting to a self-managed organization. I was first turned on to it by a very good friend and so I studied, and did a lot of research, and visited companies, and learned about all the different methods of self-management. There’s quite a bit of them.
Adam Robinson: Define that for us. Self-management. What does that mean?
Tim Heitmann: Yeah. Self-management for us it means basically it’s rooted in two things. One is that there’s no force used to get people to do things. You know in a traditional hierarchy you have boxes that people report to, and if you’re in the box above me, I’m listening to you I’m telling you what to do. The funny thing is that people make complicated decisions in their lives all the time. They decide who they’re going to marry, where they’re going to live, if they’re going to have kids, how they’re going to spend their money.
There are a lot of times you get into companies and organizations and all of a sudden they’re either not allowed to or they can’t make decisions. Self-management, the common saying is that, “There’s no bosses.” Instead of saying, “There’s no bosses,” it’s more, “Everyone’s a boss.” It’s pretty much about peer accountability. Some of the things the skill levels that are needed in an organization like that is conflict management. You have to, as a peer, be able to bring up conflicts to other peers and that’s not something that everybody is used to doing so there’s a lot of training involved to get people to the point where they can approach and solve conflicts between the people that are having conflicts.
The other thing that it’s rooted in this for us is that you have to keep your commitments. My study on commitments, Adam, shows me that it’s not the end that’s the problem with commitments. It’s not when they get broken, it’s when they get made. They’re made very loosely. If we make better commitments upfront and there’s more of an understanding, and things are laid out, what do you do if you have to alter the commitment or change the commitment?
Then what you’ll find is that there will be a lot less broken commitments. For us it’s really rooted in those two things but it’s not just something you can do overnight. This is something that we’ve been in the process of doing for about a year and it’s going to take us about another six months. We’re hoping by about around the end of June next year that we’ll flip the switch and also going forward we are now a self-managed organization.
Adam Robinson: That’s bold, Tim.
Tim Heitmann: Yeah. As a CEO, essentially what you’re doing is you’re giving up a lot of power. I think that the reason why we’re doing it is that we believe that everybody should strive to reach their highest potential and that you should never give up on that. I think that having this sort of structure will most fully allow people to reach their potential. As an organization you’re always trying to capture more of people’s brains. Maybe you’re tapping into 10% of people, 40% of others, 50, 80%. How do you tap into 100% of 100% of people’s brains? That’s the ultimate goal and I think this can get us closer to that. That’s really why we’re doing it.
Adam Robinson: That’s great. We’re going to have to have you back on to tell us how that’s going in a year.
Tim Heitmann: For sure. I’d love to.
Adam Robinson: Very cool. I always love to hear what entrepreneurs are reading. What’s on the nightstand right now, Tim?
Tim Heitmann: On the nightstand right now is a book called Reinventing Organizations and if self-management is something that’s interesting to you I would highly recommend that you read this book. It gives a very good background, and history, and profiles of nine companies around the world that are implementing self-management and what it’s done for them.
It’s actually three parts. One is self-management, the other is wholesomeness. How people can bring their whole selves to work. The third thing is evolutionary purpose. It focuses on those three different areas, but I believe it’s the modern day Good to Great type of book and if I had to recommend any book to read on business I would recommend this book.
Adam Robinson: There you go. Time for the closing question here. We ask this of everybody. If you were to come back on this show one year from today and report on whether or not you accomplished the most important thing on your plate that you have to get done in the next year, what is that thing?
Tim Heitmann: Let’s see. I would probably say I know there’s some really big things. I know what I would say it’s this thing I just talked about. Making this conversion to a self-managed organization. We’re looking to flip the switch at the end of June, so a year from now I think we’ll have a really good idea of how it’s working for us. I would say that would be the one thing that we have to get right.
Adam Robinson: Listeners interested in more information about fundraising programs through Popcorn Palace, what’s the best place for them to learn more?
Tim Heitmann: They can go to our website, or call our 800 number. 1-800-873-2686. We’ve got some amazing people there at are more than happy to help you.
Adam Robinson: That’s Tim Heitmann, founder and CEO of Popcorn Palace, a gourmet popcorn company headquartered in Chicago. Tim was in the book The Best Team Wins, which you can find on Tim, thank you so much for being on the show today.
Tim Heitmann: Oh, thanks for having me Adam. That was a lot of fun.
Adam Robinson: Okay, that’s the show for today. Thanks for listening to The Best Team Wins Podcast where we feature business leaders whose exceptional approach to account management has led to outsized results. My name is Adam Robinson. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next week.