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Funding Strategies with Dawn Dickson-Akpoghene of PopCom - Startup of the Year Podcast

· SOTY Podcast

On this episode of the Startup of the Year podcast, we talk with Dawn Dickson-Akpoghene, the Founder & CEO of PopCom, which has developed software to make kiosks and vending machines intelligent through data and analytics at the point of purchase. PopCom uses facial recognition, A.I, and blockchain technology to help retailers collect valuable customer insights. We first met Dawn when she participated in the Startup of the Year program with a company called Flat Out of Heels.

The Established team met Dawn in 2014. At the time, she was running her first startup, Flat Out of Heels, and we were running hyperlocal startup events as Tech Cocktail. Dawn pitched her startup at a Miami Tech Cocktail event, and was invited to compete in the Top 100 Startup of the Year at our Celebrate conference in Las Vegas that same year.

Flat Out of Heels has been in business for ten years now. These are rollable flats - stylish, comfortable shoes - that are durable and compact enough to carry along for when your feet get tired of standing in more uncomfortable shoes, such as high heels.

It’s quite an enjoyable story to hear how Dawn iterated on this concept and used her experience at Startup of the Year to evolve her current company, PopCom.

Making it to the Top 5 Finals in the Top 100 competition meant that Dawn gave her pitch onstage and had to answer questions from the judges live in front of an audience.

“It was my first time, really, pitching on a big stage,” she recalls. “They asked me a question I’d never heard of before. That was the first time I’d ever heard of ‘lifetime value’.”

“For Flat Out, my idea was to sell Flat Outs in vending machines. I felt like that was the best, direct-to-customer distribution channel,” Dawn explains. Offering instant relief at the point of friction - this was the idea that she was originally pursuing. “That’s when I realized the real problem.”

Without the data and insights from those vending machines, Dawn found that it would be difficult to scale her product and really understand her customer. Circling back to that “lifetime value” question, how could she possibly know what that is when you can’t track a customer at a vending machine?

“Let me go find a company with, to make my machines smarter,” she thought. But she spent two years searching for this solution before realizing, “This is a really big opportunity to build something big that can scale globally in technology, and to really make an impact and revolutionize an entire industry!”

PopCom develops software to help add intelligence to vending machines, kiosks, and lockers using facial recognition, AI, and blockchain technology.

PopCom went through the TechStars program in Los Angeles, which Dawn also attributes to being a part of Startup of the Year so very many years ago! Networking is so important! As a part of Flat Out of Heels’ third place prize at Startup of the Year, Dawn connected with David Cohen, TechStars cofounder. So when it came time to understand how to build a software company like PopCom, TechStars made a ton of difference.

During and immediately following TechStars in 2017, Dawn raised her first million. Next stop? Back home to Columbus to catch the Rise of the Rest bus and add investors to her round!
Dawn says it was such a blessed coincidence to be able to grab that opportunity and build her business in Columbus.

Not only was Dawn among the first African-American women to raise over a million dollars for her startup, her ingenuity brought her to become the first woman to go on to raise over a million in an equity crowdfunding campaign.

Using StartEngine, PopCom was able to take advantage of this accessible way to raise capital under the Jobs Act. They are still raising, and the minimum entry is $250!

Listen in to hear more about this unique way to raise money for your company, and stay tuned as Dawn explains the fascinating technology product she is developing.

We also hear some segments from some of our Established Team members. Rich Maloy of Established Ventures provides some tips for our startup founder listeners during the “VC Minute.” Also, our Director of Partnerships, Jacqui Dietrich, provides an update about our Partner Programs and specifically discusses the following:

As mentioned in the episode, please join us for our upcoming 8th Annual Startup of the Year Summit which will be held online on November 16-18. The Summit is a curated experience for emerging founders, seasoned entrepreneurs, corporate innovation leads, accelerators, and investors to build relationships that fuel success. Summit is also the culmination of the 2020 Startup of the Year competition, and attendees can expect some of the following:

  • The Top 100 Startups will compete for the 2020 Startup of the Year championship title.
  • Up to $20K in potential investment from Established Ventures for one of the semifinalists.
  • $10K non-diluted cash prize for a U.S. Veteran-led company from sponsor .US
  • Curated connections for the Top 100 with investors and corporate leads.
  • "Ask Me Anything" sessions with VCs, Corporate Leaders, and Seasoned Entrepreneurs.
  • Opportunity to network with expert judges and mentors, such as Phil Nadel, Lesa Mitchell, Erica Minnihan, and more.

Also, at the summit we will be featuring a number of exciting speakers including Tim Draper, venture capitalist and founder of Draper Associates; entrepreneur and author Kara Goldin will discuss her journey in starting Hint Water and her new book Undaunted; entrepreneur Mike Evans will share his candid story behind starting and taking GrubHub to IPO plus his new startup, and forthcoming book Hangry; author and entrepreneur Rohit Bhargava will share learnings from his latest book Non Obvious Mega Trends; author Meredith Fineman will teach us tips from her new book Brag Better; author Whitney Johnson will teach you how to Disrupt Yourself, and more. Learn more about the Summit and register now at:

This year’s Summit will also highlight the special .US Veteran Startup of the Year category. In partnership with .US, there will be a $10,000 non-dilutive cash prize given to a startup founded by a US Veteran, Spouse, or Dependent.

.US is offering our community a free .US domain offer. This is a great opportunity for you to get your idea online - and have your dream domain. You can find more info at: 

Thank you for listening, and as always, please check out the Established website and subscribe to the newsletter at

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Startup of the Year helps diverse, emerging startups, founding teams, and entrepreneurs push their company to the next level. We are a competition, a global community, and a resource.

Startup of the Year is also a year-long program that searches the country for a geographically diverse set of startups from all backgrounds and pulls them together to compete for the title of Startup of the Year.

The program includes a number of in-person and virtual events, including our annual South By Southwest startup pitch event and competition. All of which culminate at our annual Startup of the Year Summit, where the Startup of the Year winner is announced, along with an opportunity at a potential investment.

Established is a consultancy focused on helping organizations with innovation, startup, and communication strategies. It is the power behind Startup of the Year. Created by the talent responsible for building the Tech.Co brand (acquired by an international publishing company), we are leveraging decades of experience to help our collaborators best further (or create) their brand & accomplish their most important goals. Connect with us on Twitter - @EstablishedUs and Facebook -