Entrepreneurial Magic: Carolyn Phillips' Alchemy Pops
If you had popsicles as a kid, you probably have that one flavor that you always go to. For me it was orange. Nothing beat that sweet flavor on a hot summer day. Cherry and grape were delightful as well. Then there were banana popsicles, the ones that had two sticks coming out the bottom. And nothing said “treat” like a large fudgesicle – except for a chocolate and banana fudgesicle.
Carolyn Phillips was a born-and-raised entrepreneur who loved gourmet popsicles. She founded Alchemy Pops about five years ago to bring the joy and smiles of these frozen treats to events, parties, and gatherings of all kinds.
Her title was “Chief Alchemist.” (This would go nicely along with “Chief Piñata Officer” at a networking event. If for no other reason, become an entrepreneur so you have cool titles like this.) Though the pop shop closed as of August 2020, while in operation its sorcery conjured love and smiles from DFW’s pop enthusiasts.
Spreading Smiles with Pops
The foundation of Alchemy Pops is not simply a passion for popsicles. Popsicles seem only a part of the aura that Carolyn inhabits. She lives in a world of positivity, smiles, and adventures. “There’s room for sunshine and smiles, no matter where you are,” Carolyn told me. She believes in reframing situations to be positive and, whatever adventure she undertakes, she wants it to benefit other people.
This post is part of a series for AccelerateDFW's Storytelling initiative. For more insights on entrepreneurs in DFW and beyond, visit the Storytelling page.
“I'm excited about sunshine and smiles and getting people together and celebrating,” she said. “I think that those little moments are so meaningful and I love being a part of them.”
Carolyn wants to empower others to accomplish ideas. As a friend told Carolyn, you can’t dream what you haven’t seen. So she gives people an opportunity to see success with her example. Her brands, such as Alchemy Pops, share her personality. When customers seek Alchemy Pops, they are inviting that brand into their life, after all.
“I think being an entrepreneur and creating something out of nothing is very magical and it's a feeling that I am obsessed with … you create something and you're making a brand and people are inviting that brand into their lives and that means a lot. And I think that that's a really heavy responsibility, but I think that there's a real happiness and fun and joy that that comes from that responsibility.”
Natural Born Adventurer
For Carolyn, continuous work was life. She experienced this first from her parents. Her dad was a dentist with his own practice and her mom was the office manager there. Carolyn would spend her time after school in his office, and when her dad traveled for continuous education she would tag along.
“There was this very specific link between the life we lived and my dad's business,” Carolyn said. “I didn't make those connections, necessarily, when I was growing up. This was just kind of what we did and how my family operated.”
Her grandfather before them had owned a farm in south Texas. She also was a Girl Scout and sold cookies. In high school, she participated in an entrepreneurship course via Babson College, for which she traveled to Boston and participated in an entrepreneurial contest. There, she teamed up with other students to make a pitch to venture capitalists. It was all for practice and thus fake, but the experience directly informed Carolyn’s future career. She’s still doing pitch competitions.
Her upbringing immersed her in self-work and entrepreneurialism, for which she is very thankful. She had the right character for it, as not everyone would have leapt into such challenges and opportunities growing up, even if they were given them. But Carolyn did, and the road to popsicle alchemy was paved.
Making It Pop
Alchemy Pops was not, as Carolyn told me, a “grand scheme” that she concocted. It came naturally: she had an interest, and, through small, digestible steps, began to build it from her means. As she explained:
“I just became really fascinated with this idea of gourmet frozen pops, and I bought a book on Amazon of some recipes and I bought some silly little plastic molds, and I just was experimenting and having fun, and one thing led to another, as some things do … I just started doing something that interested me that I just felt like I wanted to put all of my energy into and thankfully I was able to do that. And I've had so much fun doing it. So, I actually just turned my side hustle into my full-time hustle and built it from there.”
The key is Carolyn didn’t wait for someone to direct her or for the right time to show up. She just took action.
“Yeah, so looking back on it now, it's a lot easier to think about: that I was coming up with an MVP [minimum viable product] … or I was doing market research and getting market feedback, but at the time I was just throwing a party at my house and making people eat popsicles and telling me what they thought.”
Carolyn distributed a pop quiz to her guests that asked them the flavors they liked and how much they might be willing to pay for it. She bought a used pop cart and a small tip trailer off Craigslist. She setup at her first charity carwash in Fairmount. “Action” was her guide: “I wasn't going to wait around for someone to give me permission to start a popsicle company.”
She also didn’t wait around for funding.
Initially, she ran a Kickstarter campaign called “Bring the Pops to the People” and she and her husband rented out their front bedroom on Airbnb. After the store opened, she also did a crowdfunding campaign. It’s all very organic and grassroots and demonstrates Carolyn’s entrepreneurial instinct to make things happen.
For more on the steps Carolyn Phillips took to found Alchemy Pops, give the accompanying podcast a listen!
Being a pop alchemist requires creativity and experimentation with different flavors and recipes. While Carolyn said “it’s not rocket science…It’s just popsicles,” she still explained that getting every detail right is difficult.
In addition to creating flavors, there’s also building the creaminess of the pop. Then there’s controlling the temperature gauge such that everything is frozen just right.
Still, the crux is the flavor.
“But when we're coming up with flavors, it really was just what was I inspired by,” Carolyn said. “Was there a cocktail I really loved, and what would that be like as a popsicle? The honey cream lavender was one of the very first flavors that I crafted for Alchemy Pops and it was based off of this honey lavender scone that I had eaten … that was just one of the best scones I've ever had in my life.”
From a flavor inspiration like this, Carolyn would research what other chefs, bakers and popsicle companies had done. She looked at how they mixed their own products and studied the most successful flavors they used. She would then think how to put her own spin on it.
She used an old saying of farmers – “what grows together goes together” – to try out a Cantaloupe Mint flavor. They’re two plants that grow together well. Pop enthusiasts didn’t seem to care, though, as the flavor didn’t last long (Carolyn loved it).
“So it really is just about experimenting. It's part of why I called my popsicle company Alchemy. You know, alchemy is about experimenting. Alchemy is the magical process of combination creation and transformation. You turn something into something else.”
And that’s the magic Carolyn used in founding Alchemy. Every flavor was like a microcosm of what her business was: a simple inspiration and a simple combination that made a pop.
Making Pops and Living Free
When I asked Carolyn what the greatest daily reward of entrepreneurial life has been, she immediately said, “Freedom.” Carolyn runs her business – it doesn’t run her. She creates the tasks, the schedule, the goals – it’s all up to her, conjured from her Chief Alchemist’s wand.
This self-owned lifestyle allows for a flexible schedule. Carolyn can take care of her young daughter more. She’s also been able to go on a month-long trip. But the entrepreneurial life, for its freedom, is uncertain and insecure. When Carolyn crossed the chasm between employee and employer is wide, she experienced some of her greatest difficulties.
“It was very difficult for me to kind of make that jump from, ever since I was little, you have your parents, then you go to school, you have your teachers … I went to college, I went to grad school, you always have professors and a rubric for what success looks like. And then I had my full-time jobs and I worked for different nonprofits and you have your performance reviews and you have your job description, you have all these things outlined for you of what it takes, and what you need to be doing to be successful and, quote unquote, get the grade.
“And you start your own business, you don't have any of those things, you know. I make up a brand from scratch. And I call it my dream job because I dreamed it up. But the other side of that coin is that you don't know the path and you don't know exactly what it is that’s going to define success for you and you have to decide.”
Entrepreneurship requires a keen knowledge of oneself and ones’ strengths and weaknesses. Carolyn, always the adventurer as a kid, was ready for the challenge, but not everyone has such a propensity.
“There's a conflation I think with entrepreneurship and the freedom that it is just like having your laptop on a beach somewhere. And that really is not the entrepreneurship that I'm talking about … it really is understanding that every single thing is a mixed bag, but you get to pick the bag. And that's what's most important.”
It’s all about tradeoffs. If you want the security of a typical full-time job, your schedule revolves around the clock the employer sets. But if you want the freedom of entrepreneurship, then you have to be consistently creative and dedicated. Carolyn chose the mixed bag of self-work, but it’s a mixed bag full of pops that she made.
Kindness Is Always An Option In the Pop Biz
As noted in the introduction, Carolyn believes in positivity, smiles, and kindness. Anyone can hold such a belief, but only the strongest abide by it in strenuous circumstances.
In one situation Carolyn’s positive, smiling attitude was tested: a catering event at a large shopping center’s grand opening. Carolyn could have popped, but she kept her cool, thus saving the Alchemy brand.
“We're all set up, we've got everything, we show up there for setup, and they were like, we don't have the paperwork, you can't be here. It's like, well, we've hired the staff … and that's a real bummer on a weekend for us.
“And so I end up, you know, talking to this woman Jill and I was like, ‘Listen, Jill, I understand a lot is going on and we hope this is an incredible opening weekend for you. Here's my card. Please call me, I'd love to figure out what we did wrong, so we don't make the same mistake. And if there's ever another time that we can come back, we would love to do that.’ And I, and I packed up and left. Because that's what they needed.”
Given her investment and opportunity cost for this catering job, Carolyn could have easily exploded. But her brand is positivity and smiles, and she stuck to that.
It paid off.
“Jill ended up reaching back out to me and saying ‘That was just the nicest thing you could have done. We're going to let you set up for free on all of these other weekends.’ … we ended up having a great business relationship because of it.
“But I could have chosen to react immediately of, like, this is not fair. And this isn't how it's supposed to go. And this isn't what I signed up for. But that is different from what's reality, what's happening in real time, and what you can control, and you can still decide to be a kind person and have grace for people that are also having a hard time.”
We want to think that so much of our life is in how we act, but much of it is in how we respond. Carolyn’s response proved the mettle of the Alchemy Pops’ brand, and that is another reason she is a tried-and-true entrepreneur. What she had in place beforehand was a firm foundation – a conviction of her values.
Closing Down, Starting Up
August 1, 2020 is the last day of operation for Alchemy Pops. COVID-19 forced Carolyn to reconsider how she could best serve the world.
The pandemic has made large gatherings, Alchemy Pops’ “bread and butter”, feel unsafe. There are also increased costs of operating, such as required PPE, and new safety regulations. She’s also down to one employee, and can only be open for a certain number of hours per week.
“It just felt like the right thing for me to say, I understand and can see that my best case use in our post-pandemic world doesn't feel like it's popsicles anymore, and that's okay.”
She started another business last June that she can focus on now. Called “Happily Ever in Business”, it’s a professional training and coaching service in Fort Worth. Carolyn has contracts with nonprofits to teach entrepreneurial classes to their clients. She can now grow this and leave the pops behind, perhaps the better use of her skills in the post-pandemic world.
There is still a toll in leaving Alchemy Pops behind. It was her “baby business.” Thus why she chose to remain open one last summer for a grand last hurrah.
As she said, “I'm going to make it the last summer, and I want to celebrate summer, summer’s not cancelled. And I told people it's not a pity party, it's a pop party. I still want to show up for you. The way that you've invited Alchemy Pops into your milestone moments. I'd really like to do the same for my customers and say, ‘Hey, this is a milestone.’ It's not my favorite one ever, but me closing Alchemy Pops is a milestone.”
Just as Stir Crazy’s Robbie Werner enjoyed experiencing her loyal customers’ support during the pandemic, Carolyn has seen regulars come out for her this summer.
“People are telling me things about what the brand has meant to them … I've even had people who are dedicated to coming every single week. And I've seen them every, every Saturday that we've been open since we reopened, and I think emotionally for me that has been really, really helpful and important.”
Alchemy Pops’ last weekend is intentionally set for when summer begins transitioning to fall – August 1 – and it will be the weekend of watermelon. Previously this would mark the start of the school year, though this year the celebration will mean something else for Alchemy Pops.
Alchemy Pops was Carolyn’s first business. It was the for-fun, summer and smiles company of about 5 years ago that was founded based on a whim and created to spread the positivity Carolyn always believed in. Now she will continue to spread all that in another endeavor. Thus, while one venture closes, another begins, and Carolyn can continue to be herself and pursue her entrepreneurial dreams, just in a new way.
Note: The quotations may have been edited for grammatical purposes and to remove chit-chat phrases ("you know", etc.) or repeated words ("and, and", etc.). The audio in the podcast may have also been edited to remove chit-chat phrases, repeated words or long periods of silence.