How Poppi Went From Kitchen Concoction to TikTok Sensation

Illustration by Grey Thornberry.

Allison Ellsworth says speaking from the heart on social media has helped the brand connect with consumers.

Allison Ellsworth started her career on the road, conducting research for the oil and gas industry. After seven years, she felt it taking a toll on her health.

One thing that seemed to help: Drinking shots of apple cider vinegar. Unfortunately, Ellsworth hated the taste. “It was one of those things I was just choking down every day,” she tells Inc.’s What I Know podcast. “It wasn’t something I was looking forward to, but I loved the health benefits.”

Ellsworth took her discontent to her own kitchen. She brewed up batches of tea and prebiotic sodas, aiming for a tasty, fruity, shelf-stable, drink that was low in sugar. “I started just tinkering around for months on infusing different vinegars and simmering down raspberries,” Ellsworth says. Finally, she came to a drink that was a bit like a healthy soda, a bit like kombucha–but a whole new thing. Her husband, Steven, who’d become her co-founder, liked it. So did customers at her local Texas farmers’ market.

After three weeks of selling at the farmers’ market, a buyer from Whole Foods approached Allison.

“It was such a pivotal moment in Poppi,” Ellsworth says. “I was like, ‘OK. I’m not going back to work. We’re quitting our jobs, we’re going to open our own production facility. We’re going to put our whole life savings into this.'” She admits it was a little risky, making this leap just three weeks after Ellsworth had sold her first bottle of prebiotic soda.

But, sure enough, her product made it onto local Whole Foods shelves, and then landed on Shark Tank, where the Ellsworths attracted an investment from Rohan Oza, co-founder and managing partner of CAVU Consumer Partners. Oza helped Ellsworth rebrand what had originally been called Mother Beverage to the catchier Poppi prebiotic soda. Despite the early retail-shelf positioning, Poppi launched early in the pandemic, in April 2020, as a primarily DTC product, selling almost exclusively through Amazon.

Though Ellsworth has given up some control of her company, bringing in outside executives and taking the title of chief of brand, she hasn’t lost her sense of determination when she has an idea she believes in. She’d seen marketing on Facebook and Instagram drive sales quite well, but thought she could do better. “It was working well for us, but it was just old school to me,” she says. “It was a little stale.” She wanted to get her brand on TikTok, but her advisers disagreed. Not wanting to take marketing resources away from what was working, Ellsworth stayed up late one night, filmed herself telling her founding story, and posted it on TikTok.

“I went to bed and I woke up the next day and the video had gone viral with millions of views,” Ellsworth explains. We’d done $100,000 while we were sleeping on Amazon.” While the brand’s strategy on Instagram is more manicured, on TikTok, what really resonates with audiences, Ellsworth says, is just her telling her own story, honestly. “It was hard at first, but I had to just kind of speak from the heart.”

To hear the full episode and interview, click on the player above, or find What I Know on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or anywhere you listen to audio.