If you’ve been around the Columbus startup scene for any length of time, chances are you’re aware of Dawn Dickson-Akpoghene (newly hyphenated thanks to a quiet mid-pandemic wedding). The self-described serial entrepreneur has founded multiple companies, and currently runs Columbus’s PopCom and Miami, Florida-based Flat Out of Heels in addition to co-owning the vegan restaurant Lifestyle Café in Columbus’s Olde Towne East neighborhood. PopCom is back in the news lately thanks to the acquisition of survey software startup Wyzerr, based in Cincinnati. We sat down to talk about Dickson-Akpoghene’s impressive career, her approach to business and her power-napping prowess.
You wear a lot of different hats. How might people know you?
I started my first company, Urban Starr, in Columbus in 2001. It was the first online media, marketing and event source in Columbus, and we did really well with online ads and email blasts. In 2005, I started a consulting company to work with other businesses around central Ohio to develop online marketing strategies. The internet was new then, and websites were very new for businesses. I started Flat Out of Heels in 2011 to save women’s feet from high-heel pain and founded PopCom in 2017.
PopCom and Flat Out of Heels are businesses centered around vending and kiosks — why is that industry attractive to you?
With Flat Out of Heels, the idea is that when a woman’s feet hurt, she doesn’t have time to run to the store or wait for a product to come in the mail. She needs to be able to get them as soon as possible. I believe vending machines are the best direct-to-customer distribution channel possible. While selling my own shoes and vending machines as an operator, I learned about the challenges that exist in the vending industry. That’s what led me to start PopCom and create software that makes vending hardware smarter.
How has COVID-19 affected your industry?
When I first had the idea for selling a nontraditional product in a vending machine, it wasn’t popular. Vending was overlooked and thought of as antiquated. But because of COVID-19 and the need for people to have contactless, touchless and frictionless transactions in retail, there’s been a surge of interest in vending machines and self-service products overall. We’re seeing more restaurants having customers order food from a kiosk, we’re tagging our own bags at the airport, self-checkout is in many grocery stores and more products are moving towards vending machines. The market is moving faster to compete with someone like Amazon for shipping speed, and vending is the future for that.
PopCom’s big news lately is the acquisition of Wyzerr. Why was that an important move for you?
We acquired Wyzerr in July. Natasia Malaihollo, the founder, has been a PopCom advisor since 2017, so she was already on the team and very close with us. And we already use Wyzerr as a survey company. After a customer purchases a product using our software, they get an email with a Wyzerr survey. So it made perfect sense to bring Wyzerr under the PopCom umbrella. Also, Wyzerr has worked with many organizations that PopCom wants to work with — including Procter & Gamble, Google and Unilever. It was just a perfect marriage of two female-owned tech companies working to innovate retail.
What ties together the wide range of all your ventures?
All my ventures were something I was interested in trying, and I’ve learned from all of them. As a serial entrepreneur, I see problems and think, “Can I solve this?” even though they’re all very different. I launched Flat Out of Heels because I felt the literal pain point of my feet hurting. Lifestyle Cafe is a vegan restaurant because the one that I went to in Olde Towne East closed and it left a void in the neighborhood. And then with PopCom, I experienced the pain point of not being able to collect customer data. I looked for years for a solution and I couldn’t find one, so I started PopCom.
What do you consider your greatest accomplishments in your professional or personal life?
The first thing that comes to mind when I think about my greatest accomplishment is being the mother of my 16-year-old daughter. She’s thriving and she’s been a homeschool student since second grade. I’ve been so involved and hands-on with her through her whole life. People always say women have to choose between a family and a career, but I’ve been able to manage a pretty good balance in my life. Every day is not perfect, but having a daughter keeps me grounded.
On the business side, I pride myself in saying that I’ve never failed. All of my businesses that I started are still in business and the only one we shut down, which was Urban Starr, was because my partner wanted to revamp it. I pride myself on finding product-market fit and customers.
You were born in central Ohio but lived in Atlanta, Miami and Los Angeles. What makes Columbus a good home for you and your business?
While I lived out of the state for 12 years, I watched Columbus growing as a tech community and saw that it was booming. We’re the 14th largest city in the nation now and there are so many opportunities. I really felt compelled to move back, leave an impact here and work on building my legacy here. I have found a very supportive community. I’m a part of a founders group that meets monthly with entrepreneurs from around the city in different industries, and I love the sense of community. I feel that Columbus is the best place for me to be right now and to raise my daughter.
Were you always entrepreneurial?
My parents were both business owners. My mother had an in-home daycare and my father had a home remodeling business. So that’s how I got the bug. In school, I was hustling candy or having lemonade stands and garage sales. I didn’t really know the word entrepreneurship because it wasn’t big like it is today. They used to call it a small business owner. Of course my family instilled in me the importance of college, getting a degree and a job. That’s how we were raised.
Do you think your daughter has that same entrepreneurial bug?
My daughter definitely has the bug, but she also sees all the hard work and the sacrifice it takes, because this journey has not been beautiful the whole time. She’s seen the peaks and valleys we went through — I didn’t have a car and spent a few years riding a bicycle; I stayed with relatives while I worked on my businesses. So she’s not interested in the struggle, which is a part of it. But she’s an artist and makes money from art commissions, so that is something that I see her growing.
How have you changed as an entrepreneur?
As a young entrepreneur, I was definitely the type of person to do it all myself. I had no delegation skills and held too tight, like many young entrepreneurs do before you realize you have to delegate to grow. So the skill that I’ve learned over the years is really how to build a team, delegate and trust others with your vision. As a young person, even in my 20s, I held so tight to operations because I wanted things done a certain way. Eventually, you learn there are many ways to do something. Give people the opportunity to do it their way, and a lot of times it’s better than your way.
How do you spend your spare time, if you have any?
I actually have a lot of spare time. I have a great team, so I’m very fortunate to have flexibility. I love to travel. During COVID, I’ve just been exploring Ohio, going to Amish country and Cincinnati and Cleveland and wherever I can. I love to do yoga, work out, take nature walks and cook. I definitely get my rest. I’m kind of a nap pro at this point. But it’s important for me to have that time for self-care. That’s the reason I am effective in running my business and being a wife and a mother.
What’s the most important piece of advice you give to young entrepreneurs?
Success is not an overnight thing. We look on social media and see people who seem like they’re very successful pretty quickly, or you see the tail end of the story. I tell people it takes 10 years to be an overnight success. People are just hearing about me now, and I’ve been working on my businesses for 15 years. So just be patient and trust yourself. Trust the journey and don’t compare your journey to anyone else’s.
What comes next for your companies and you personally?
For me, I want to retire by 45. To me, retirement means not being CEO of anything, which means I need to really grow PopCom to be a company that is either going to have liquidity either through IPO or an acquisition or merger. That’s what we’re working on, to build a very strong company that another company sees value in. I’ve been a CEO since 2001. For me, I really would like to have the time to be an investor, an advisor and a world traveler. But I’m working on that, and I have three and a half years to go.
I feel like we’re on track for that goal. I’m really grateful that I’ve met all of my goals that I’ve set throughout my career. I’ve been very goal-driven since I was in my 20s and I always knew I wanted to retire at 45. Even at 20 years old, I felt like 25 years of work is enough. I’m close now, so I have a lot of things to accomplish in the next couple of years!