In this series, Open Every Door, Entrepreneur staff writer Nina Zipkin shares her conversations with leaders about understanding what you have to offer, navigating the obstacles that will block your path, identifying opportunity and creating it for yourself and for others.
So much about success in entrepreneurship is doing your best to predict the future. But forecasting what’s coming next is Faith Popcorn’s business.
Popcorn is the founder and CEO of Faith Popcorn’s BrainReserve. The fifth-generation New Yorker launched her company out of a studio apartment when she was just 27 years old. Now, the 70-year-old mother of two and her team at BrainReserve are known for helping companies protect and prepare their products and services, investments and business plans from unexpected reversals in the market — with a 95 percent accuracy rate.
She is the best-selling author of books such as The Popcorn Report, Clicking, Eveolution: Understanding Women–Eight Essential Truths That Work in Your Business and Your Life and Dictionary of the Future. She has been dubbed “The Trend Oracle” by The New York Times, and Fortune Magazine called her “The Nostradamus of Marketing.”
Over the last four decades she has worked with big name entities such as American Express, Bayer, Campbell’s Soup, GE, Johnson & Johnson, Kellogg’s, KFC, SC Johnson, Tylenol and The United States Postal Service.
We caught up with Popcorn to get her insights about not being afraid to tell the truth.
What is a misconception people have about what is required to predict customer and industry trends?
I think the misconception that people have is that we’re in a basement with a martini and a crystal ball. I think that they don’t understand that we have had a consulting company for 43 years. It’s not fluffy. We have a 32-step methodology. We’re reading everything that’s being put out. We have a talent bank that’s 10,000 futurists and we’re in constant contact with them, seeing what they’re working on, seeing what they’re thinking. We do a lot of forward futurism and then we backtrack with our talent bank to see when some of this will manifest.
So in 1981, we said people will be buying from the internet and that supermarkets would be much less interesting. We talked to P&G and others, and to say they laughed at us is an understatement. How did we figure that out? A multitude of interviews with mainly female customers who were going to supermarkets and telling us how much they hated them. We had interviews and conferences with people that were inventing the pre-Amazon pre-delivery services. We could visualize easily a day where everything will be delivered and ordered on the internet. But just getting the timing is always a challenge.
What was a mistake you made and how did you move forward from it?
We were hired by Kodak. Our assignment was exactly this: What is the future of film? We went through our process, interviews, talent town bank, put a big team on it. And we came back and we said the future of film is digital. They said we didn’t hire you to tell us that, we hired you to describe the feature film. I said but digital is the future. And they said you’re fired. That’s happened a couple of times, [where] I’m fired for, I guess, telling the truth. So that was very depressing. But I move forward by saying, am I going to make stuff up [to clients]? No.
Half of assignments from the big consulting companies, the big agencies, even the big accounting firms are to keep clients happy. I feel that I’m in a separate category, which is to save clients from the future if the future is against them. And every client I’ve ever had that’s been a successful relationship with said, it might have been painful, it wasn’t easy but we’re very happy that we engaged and we were prepared. We told John Tyson that vegetarianism was coming. I’m not saying that he was thrilled to hear this, but that was the truth.
How have you grown and changed as a leader throughout your career?
Eighteen years ago I adopted a Chinese baby who was 10 months old and I became a totally different person. I never understood when people would say I have to go to first grade graduation or kindergarten graduation. I was the kind of person that said, “Are you kidding?” Or I would go to a restaurant and kids would be screaming at the next table. And I would think, why would people bring children to a restaurant? I was that kind of person. I didn’t understand why guys had pictures of their families on the desk. I [used to be] a workaholic.
Since I adopted my daughter and then my second daughter, who is also from China, to say it rebalanced me would be not right. It completely unbalanced me and turned me upside down and I became the kind of person that thinks every baby is cute and buys baby presents for everybody and I became a baby nerd. And I’ve helped a lot of people adopt babies since then because I’m really good at figuring out the process.
Over time, how has your view of success and failure changed?
For me, success is now trying to leave a legacy of futurism to try and help my clients, my friends, my fans to understand how to look at what’s coming and how to use it. We started something called Trend University. We’ve done it for GE with teaching upper management how to leverage trends. So advocating for futurism is about legacy, not so much about profits. And I’ve become much more patient in helping people especially to see what’s coming in, not expecting them to be instant futurists.
What is a piece of advice that a mentor gave you that you still take to heart today?
One piece of advice I love is it’s only a “no” for today. Just trying other ways and trying again and again. So I would tell people it’s only you no for today and it’s another form of patience. If you believe in something you just need to keep doing it, keep trying and also to have more fun.
What do you say to yourself to keep going during tough moments?
Let’s go out for a drink. A martini, very dry, dirty with ice on the side. [The other thing I think about is] I had a very, very strong maternal background. My grandmother collected rents in seven languages. My mother was a negligence lawyer in the 1920s. The women in my family are cowgirls. They didn’t even know the word feminist, they just were.