Mike Brown Death Wish Coffee build ecommerce brand

How Death Wish Coffee Doubles YOY, Builds An Ecommerce Brand Worth Tattooing, and Compounds Incremental Gains into Big Wins

by Allen Burt
October 12, 2016

I have ZERO tattoos on my body. There isn’t anything I can think of that I want to permanently label myself with.

But if I were to choose something to place in ink on my skin, my favorite coffee brand’s logo would not be my first choice.

That’s crazy, right?

Not for fans of Death Wish coffee.

This brand has cultivated the most cult-like following of a coffee brand I’ve ever seen. Learning that customers are getting tattoos of the Death Wish logo is all you need to hear to realize that this brand is packing some serious fan-base power.

It’s that power that has allowed the company to consistently double YOY and beat out another brand famous for its fan base, Chubbies shorts, for a spot in the 2016 Super Bowl halftime show.

In today’s episode I’m talking to the CEO and founder of Death Wish, Mike Brown.

What I love about Mike’s story about scaling Death Wish is how the company has stayed consistent and improved incrementally, watching those “small, incremental wins” turn into a bigger win: GROWTH.

In this episode of the Blue Stout podcast, Mike and I discuss:

  • How Death Wish went from being a bootstrapped startup to doing $14 million in revenue
  • How they landed a commercial in the 2016 Super Bowl for FREE
  • What tactics enable them to consistently double in growth YOY

…and, yeah, we’ll get into the tattoo thing.

As usual, this post will only cover the highlights of the actual interview, so to hear the full goodness of the Death Wish story, check out the audio above. I really encourage you to give it a listen.

Now let me kick off this post with an introduction into Death Wish coffee:

Making The Strongest Cup of Coffee in the World

Mike started Death Wish with the intention of being purely ecommerce. He was currently running (and still does) his coffee shop, Saratoga Coffee Traders, when customers began to repeatedly request “the strongest cup of coffee”.

“So I went on to Google and at the time there really wasn’t any super strong coffee. I knew I could put one together. I guess that’s when the light bulb went off, and that was the birth of Death Wish Coffee.

I just started blending together the strongest beans I could find until I found a combination that provided a lot of energy and also tasted great.”

Validating the Idea & Hacking Together An Ecommerce Site

Since Mike was intent on selling purely online, he knew he needed to validate the idea.

“So I sat down with a beer and started making this website. I actually made it on Weebly at the time. It was the first website I ever created and it’s changed a lot since then… it probably wasn’t my best work, but it worked – it got the job done.”

Now he had the coffee together and the website, but no packaging and no sales.

“I made the website before I had the packaging. I ran some Facebook ads and started to get a little bit of traffic. Facebook ads weren’t too expensive then (2011) and were pretty fun to play around with. I got my first sale through a Facebook ad. The customer left a great review.

Actually when I got the first sale, I had to put together the packaging. I went down to Staples, bought some labeling software, printed up this label and created the packaging in about an evening – then shipped it out.”

Death Wish Goes to the Super Bowl

Fast-forward to 2016 and that little Weebly internet coffee company has a $5 million dollar commercial spot during the Super Bowl, putting their brand in front of millions of viewers.

Intuit Quickbooks has created a contest called the “Small Business, Big Game Competition” where small businesses enter and compete with fan votes to win a commercial during the Super Bowl, the most-viewed TV event in the United States.

“When it came down to the Final 3, it was my company, and then there’s Chubbies – they had probably about 5x as many fans as we did (so we thought they were definitely gonna run away with it), and the third company was Viddlers, a small brick-and-mortar store out of Buffalo New York. They don’t have an online store. They don’t have much of an online presence.”

Leveraging Influencers to Beat Chubbies Shorts

It’s pretty incredible that Death Wish made the top three, especially since they entered the contest a month after it had already started. Now competing with Chubbies, Mike knew they needed to call in some help:

“For us to get votes, we asked our fans online to vote, we went to every community event in the area, we got on the news up here, we ran some FB ads pushing people to our voting link. We reached out to influencers.

We reached out to Zakk Wylde, head of the Black Label Society. We got his community involved and got them voting for us:

Zakk Wylde Death Wish Coffee building ecommerce brand
We reached out to Lisa Kelly and Todd Dewey from Ice Road Truckers. And they were able to help us out, too.

Lisa Kelly Death Wish Coffee building ecommerce brand
I think reaching out to those influencers and having them push our brand really helped out a lot.”

Watch the video of Mike learning they’d just won the ad spot:

2X-ing Growth & Using Omnichannel Retail to Diversify

Prior to the Super Bowl spot, Death Wish was already consistently doubling in growth.

“We were about doubling in size every year, leading up to the competition. But then winning the Super Bowl commercial put us over the top. It took us to a whole other level that we wouldn’t have go to on our own. At least not for another 3-5 years.”

Leading up to the Super Bowl, Death Wish was doing about $6 million in sales selling through their ecommerce site, Mike’s coffee shop, and in a few local grocery stores in his area.

“In the beginning it was all ecommerce. That was 100% our focus. Now I’m to a point where I’m realizing that getting in more channels, being more balanced – it really reduces your risk. Any day any one of these online channels could falter…anything could happen”

Mike also says a reason for getting into more channels is to be more convenient for his customers:

“I know when I want a bag of coffee, my first thought isn’t: ‘go online and order’ – it’s ‘run to the supermarket and get a bag right away because I need coffee – NOW!’

Does Going Into Big Box Stores Affect The Death Wish Brand?

Getting into new channels is sometimes dangerous for companies because it can affect the way their customers or fans perceive the brand.

Which is dangerous territory for Death Wish who touts a fan base of customers with their logo tattooed on their body!

Mike’s been presented with more than one opportunity to get into big box retail and he remains cautious.

“I think about every day. Me and my team have talks about it every day. We’ve turned down some deals that could’ve been lucrative just because it doesn’t seem like a good fit.

Bed Bath & Beyond wanted us in a few of their stores. And I’m like, ‘Bed Bath & Beyond? That doesn’t really fit with our brand, with our identity – it might work against us.’ But, we want to stay true to the brand. Put us in a store has the right feel, the right fit. That’s not really easy to find.”

Solving The Challenges of Growth & Leveraging Technology

Getting up to their 2X YOY growth rate wasn’t easy. Mike and his team had their share of mistakes. One of the first things they tacked to start growing faster: outsourcing fulfillment.

“We decided to stop fulfilling our own orders in-house and we started working with a fulfillment center. That helped us out a lot.

Back in 2013, before we really were up and going, Good Morning America opened their show drinking DWC and told everyone how great it was. Which was great, but we didn’t have enough bags. We didn’t have enough coffee. We didn’t have enough labels. We didn’t have anything! We got thousands of orders in when we were only used to doing 50 orders a day.”

Mike needed to figure out how to make the company more scalable and make some changes in their technology stack.

“We went from Weebly to Shopify – Shopify helped us out a lot. [They currently run on Shopify Plus] We started working with a lot of different third-parties to help us grow. Up until a year ago, we were still just a 6 person company. Now there’s 14 of us. So we use a lot of third-party help.

We just implemented a system now called Skubana which is a really cool inventory system. At least now we know where our inventory is all the time.

I feel like we’ve tried every single app out there!

We had this saying in our office: whatever problem we had let’s try to come up with a system to solve that problem and then, if we could, automate as much as possible. I think that’s why we were able to do a lot with minimal resources.”

How To Stay Focused & Make Incremental Gains that Add Up

I asked Mike to think back to 2012-2013, right as things were starting to kick off: what would be a piece of advice he’d give himself back then? Or what would he tell another entrepreneur who have found themselves in the same situation?

Do something for your business every day.

I think that’s probably the most important thing that kept us going.

I think that consistency – every single day – that really helps and creates a winning business.”

Even though Mike had no experience in marketing, he knew exactly how he needed to learn:

“I went online and I read what was working for everyone else. I kept doing those things. And you do one of those every day for a couple of years – those little wins, compiled over a couple of years, helped the business grow.”

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Allen Burt Allen Burt is the CEO & Founder of Blue Stout. A design and development agency that builds applications to power commerce and drive user engagement. Follow him on Twitter.