In the Super Bowl of life, Mike Brown was losing badly and time was running out.
“I was 30-years old and had to move back home with my mom,” Brown remembers. His coffee shop in upstate New York, the one he opened after discovering he hated sitting behind a desk as an accountant, was hemorrhaging money.
“I was out of money and we were going under,” Brown admits. “I had to sell my home and borrow money from my mother just so I could make payroll.”
It was 2010 and what had seemed like such a great idea two years ago, serving coffee to early risers on their way to work, was quickly becoming a financial nightmare. Broke and becoming desperate, Brown would drag himself into the shop each morning and hear a familiar customer demand; give me your strongest.
Brown did his best, serving the darkest and boldest he had, but he knew it wasn’t giving people the buzz they craved. For weeks, that sleep-deprived request for the strongest cup of joe rattled around Brown’s head until it caused him to finally ask, “What is the strongest coffee in the world?”
A quick search online turned up nothing.
Except an idea.
It’s extremely difficult to blend enough caffeine to make the world’s strongest coffee and still have it taste great. It’s one reason Brown’s search for such a coffee turned up empty. Great tasting coffee with insane amounts of caffeine just don’t go together.
Or do they?
Brown called a coffee bean importer he knew and ordered some samples. Afterward, he holed up in the coffee shop’s basement and went to work testing different roasting techniques, bean combinations, and adjusting the mix over and over. Brown’s residence may have been his mother’s house but the coffee shop was his home. He opened the store, closed it, and slept there but only after exhaustion prevented him from further tinkering with his brew.
“Deep down the biggest fear in life is that you’re going to be a failure,” Brown says. “I never gave up hope and I stayed tough on the outside, but I always had that fear of failing hanging over my head.”
Image via: Death Wish Coffee
A month later, Brown emerged from the basement with a unique blend he thought just might satisfy his weary customers. They didn’t know it at the time, but Brown’s customers were guinea pigs for an idea that would either land Brown a permanent spot in his mother’s basement, or a place in history as a coffee pioneer.
“My heart was beating fast but it wasn’t due to caffeine,” Brown jokes about the nervousness he felt handing out the first test cup. “The customer said, ‘Wow, it tastes so good I can actually drink this black.’”
Brown’s blend was a hit
Drip by drip the praise poured in.
A death wish had been born.
The Strongest Coffee in the World
Death Wish Coffee, a name fitting of the world’s strongest, is what Brown named the brew he invented and began serving daily. Death Wish contains double the amount of caffeine contained in an ordinary 16 oz. cup. In other words, it’s like drinking two cups at once.
“It’s powerful stuff,” Brown boasts. “What’s really unique is the way we blend and roast the two types of beans, sweet & bitter, to create a coffee with not only a lot of jolt but also a lot of body and great taste.”
Customers loved Death Wish but it wasn’t creating the financial breathing room necessary to keep the coffee shop open. Ecommerce was in its infancy at the time but Brown had what seemed like a crazy thought; what about selling coffee on the internet to make ends meet?
“Selling Death Wish online was my Hail Mary pass; a desperate last chance at making this dream a reality,” Brown says.
His goal was a modest one; sell enough coffee online to generate $5,000 a year to pay the bills that would otherwise go unpaid.
At his mother’s home, Brown created his first web site; a nearly featureless drag and drop site Brown could sync with PayPal and create a small ecommerce footprint. Over the next six months orders began to trickle in. Brown filled the orders manually but set his sights even higher.
“Wow, this is actually starting to work” Brown remembers thinking. “By selling online I can make my coffee available to the entire world.”
Then, out of the blue, an opportunity of a lifetime landed in Brown’s lap; one that would stimulate demand and make Death Wish Coffee king for a day.
Turns out it would also nearly kill the company.
The Curse of Success
Death Wish had breathed new life into Brown’s entrepreneurial dreams. Not only had selling online helped him save his coffee shop, but Brown had been able to move out of his mother’s home and had begun to hire help.
Then came a blessing from the coffee gods.
“I couldn’t believe it when I picked up the phone,” Brown recalls. “It was a producer from ABC’s Good Morning America asking if it’d be okay if we were featured on one of the most popular morning broadcasts in the world.”
Not only did the story air, but afterward the anchors on set tasted Death Wish live, raved about the coffee, and created buzz generally reserved for companies with million-dollar public relations budgets. It was the big break Death Wish needed to catapult it into the coffee mainstream and the financial stratosphere.
“It was a nightmare,” Kane Grogan, an employee hired just before the story aired, remembers. “We got crushed by all the orders and people actually thought we were a scam when we couldn’t deliver.”
Image via: Death Wish Coffee
The plug-and-play web site Brown had built couldn’t handle the demand created by the GMA news story. Before the site crashed, Death Wish received ten-thousand new orders but had no way to fulfill them on time. Despite working around the clock, it took Death Wish more than 30-days to issue refunds and ship all of the orders.
The penalties were severe.
“We were kicked off of Amazon and Ebay and not allowed to sell there anymore,” Grogan says. “We just weren’t ready for that kind of demand and spent as lot of time apologizing to customers and promising we’d make it right.”
For Brown, it was a monumental setback. If there was to be life after this near death experience and a future for Death Wish Coffee, he’d need to take what seemed like a big risk; a leap of faith with huge downside potential.
In reality though, this would be the Hail Mary that was actually caught.
You know you’ve created a brand that resonates when customers are having your logo tattooed on various body parts.
Image via: Fans of Death Wish Coffee
The tattooed gentleman in this picture, who doubles as a walking billboard for Death Wish Coffee, is part of a 1,300 member Facebook Group that raves about all things Death Wish and is propelling the company to new heights and accelerated online growth:
- Death Wish sold out of its first ever seasonal blend in 10-hours
- Death Wish sold out of its first ever ceramic mug in 3-hours
“It’s insane how our customers have become die hard fans,” Grogan boasts. “People from Iowa to California show up out of the blue at our warehouse just to get a behind-the-scenes peek at how we make Death Wish.”
Why does Death Wish, a company on the verge of collapse after it was unable to meet demand following its GMA feature, need a warehouse?
To repair its reputation and earn back customer trust following the GMA debacle, Death Wish partnered with Shopify Plus, an ecommerce platform for high volume businesses, to power its online presence.
“Shopify is absolutely awesome,” Brown says. “We swear by Shopify now and wouldn’t be where we are today without it.”
The company has doubled in size each year since joining Shopify Plus more than two years ago. Last year, Brown says revenue spiked to $3 million as tens of thousands of customers ordered Death Wish Coffee & merchandise online. Other highlights include:
- 39,000 unique customers
- 5,000 pounds of coffee sold each month
- Holiday sales estimated at 50,000 pounds per month
“It’s just so easy it’s almost too good to be true but it’s real,” Brown says. “I can add a product instantly and you don’t have to be an expert coder since Shopify has its own experts to help with the backend if needed.”
One way Death Wish is spurring growth is with a subscription service that allows customers to automatically schedule deliveries based on how frequently they drink coffee. “The Shopify Plus app store is amazing,” Grogan says. “The subscription platform was so easy to set up and has helped us grow faster than we would have otherwise.”
Besides Shopify Plus, Brown has partnered with Pointer Creative for design and development of the store, as well as third party roasters, distributors, and packaging providers and is confident he’ll be ready to meet a massive surge in demand should he be faced with such a challenge again in the future.
He may soon get a second chance.
The Biggest Stage
“We’re the little guy or the underdog,” Grogan says. “But we’re hungry and one day we want to be one of the big guys and compete with the best.”
Challenging coffee titans like Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts requires marketing firepower Death Wish simply doesn’t have at this stage. But the company has a rare opportunity to showcase the strongest coffee in the world to millions of potential customers on the biggest stage of them all; the Super Bowl.
Death Wish has entered the Quickbooks Small Business Big Game competition for a chance to win a free Super Bowl commercial. Of the 15,000 businesses to enter, Death Wish is one of ten finalists. The winner, which will be determined by the company that gets the most votes, will be announced in November.
Image via: Death Wish Coffee
“We would be the smallest company ever to have a commercial in the Super Bowl,” Brown says of his nine person team. “We’re a little stressed but it’s a good kind of stress and we’re working hard to earn every vote we can.”
Super Bowl commercials, which are generally reserved for big brands with deep pockets, cost nearly $5 million last year. This type of exposure, more than 114-million people watched last year, could position Death Wish for hyper growth.
“It would be enormous for us financially,” Brown says. “If just one-percent of the Super Bowl audience became Death Wish customers that’d be one-million new customers.”
Once again, Brown finds himself trading sleep for success. Until the voting ends November 3rd, Brown is working full time on getting people to vote for Death Wish. While he concedes he’s already living the American Dream, he hopes the Shopify Plus community will rally around and be inspired by Death Wish Coffee’s story of perseverance.
“To think we were packing coffee by hand in a basement just a few years ago to having a chance to be in a Super Bowl commercial is unreal,” Brown says. “Winning the contest would mean the world to us and would let everyone know we’re here to stay.”
“It still hasn’t even sunk in we made the top ten out of fifteen-thousand,” Grogan adds. “I never thought we’d make it this far but Mike told us in the beginning we were gonna win. There is no doubt in his mind and he’s been right every step of the way.”
It’s a confidence born of humble beginnings.
“Mom would love for me to move back in,” Brown says with a chuckle remembering the difficulties of earlier times. “The other day I was over there helping her clean up around the house and she said, ‘Oh, does this mean you’re moving back?’”
In the Super Bowl of life Brown is already a winner.
It’s a story fitting of a big game commercial.
Vote for Death Wish Coffee here.