College is a place where young people go to study, grow and develop.
Turns out it’s not a bad place to start a beverage company either.
With an atmosphere that encourages entrepreneurship, along with ample access to broad segments of the all-important millennial demographic, it’s easy to see an opportunity for student-run startups. And yet, going from concept to launch to penetrating the college retail channel, in which schools have broad distribution partnerships with The Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, and turning four-year students into lifetime consumers presents a daunting challenge.
In the case of two recently launched college-based beverage startups, Up Dog Kombucha and Sunniva Super Coffee, they have leveraged university resources and their own insight into students’ shifting tastes and demands to create a viable route to market from their dorm room to store shelves.
Like many great ideas, Up Dog was born out of necessity. Founder Olivia Wolff, 22, discovered kombucha as high school freshman, and by the time she reached her senior year at Wake Forest University, her habit was beginning to put a strain on her wallet. To save money, she made her first homemade kombucha in the kitchen of her off-campus apartment last October, and subsequently continued to tinker with different recipes she found online.
Having found her footing as a homebrewer, Wolff published an article on making kombucha in Spoon University, an online food publication aimed at college students. The article found its way to Lauren Miller, 22, a fellow Wake Forest student and kombucha enthusiast. Miller, also a former high school classmate of Wolff’s in New Jersey, quickly got in touch and talked about working together.
“We would talk about what we were brewing, different flavors,” said Miller. “I thought it was going to be a lot of work, an extra hassle during my week to make kombucha, but it was actually a really fun ritual to make it every week. It was mine, and it had variation and variety to it.”
Like Miller and Wolff, Jordan DeCicco, founder of Sunniva Super Coffee, inadvertently found his way into beverages. After being introduced to Bulletproof coffee, an energy-boosting blend of hot coffee, butter from grass-fed cows, and coconut oil, by his father, DeCicco, attending Philadelphia University on a full athletic scholarship to play point guard for the basketball team, began experimenting with formulations in his dorm room for a better-tasting, butter-free alternative that would deliver the same long-lasting, “clean” energy to fuel him through a rigorous schedule of classes, homework and 5 a.m. practices. He eventually settled on his own version of the so-called “super coffee” — a combination of coffee, coconut oil and grass-fed milk protein isolate — that could be easily bottled and consumed on-the-go.
Yet as much as entrepreneurship is encouraged on campus, the actual process of running a production facility out of your dorm room requires a certain amount of discretion.
“When I spoke with my professors and entrepreneurship advisors on campus, I obviously wouldn’t tell them that I was selling [Sunniva] on campus,” said DeCicco. “Funny enough I started a food company the year before in prep school and I got in a lot of trouble for making a lot of money selling burgers and stuff, so I didn’t want that situation to happen again.”
For the team at Up Dog, production was an even more precarious affair. After Miller and Wolff set up their operation in an infrequently used dormitory floor kitchen, it wasn’t long before they hit full capacity and took over the kitchen on the floor below as well. That move won the unwanted attention of the school housing department, but also heralded the company’s growing momentum.
“Honestly, if we had gotten caught earlier, we wouldn’t exist today where we are,” said Miller. “We were really lucky in that scenario because we stayed undercover and then we got kicked out in the end after Olivia had decided to commit to this full time and we decided to take the next step to move into a commercial kitchen and make this a real deal.”
While beverage entrepreneurs typically solicit early feedback from friends and family, both Up Dog and Sunniva had the advantage of being able to draw from the insights of a large and hugely influential consumer base right in their backyard as they developed their respective products.
For Wolff and Miller, being close to their company’s key demographic of millennials provided a sense of direction for the brand in terms of both taste profile (less vinegary, more mild and lightly fruity) and personality.
“Olivia and I, our faces are part of the brand,” said Miller, noting her and Wolff’s commitment to personally engaging with customers and being present at point-of-sale as much as possible. “People know that Olivia and I have started this business, where I find with some other companies, you have no idea who’s behind the business, you just know the brand. What’s allowed us to be successful and grow organically is that we are very present.”
Some of that organic growth took place thanks to the pair’s understanding of how their fellow students use social media.
“It wasn’t like we were visible on campus selling out kombucha — people would come to us to get it,” said Miller. “We would post on Instagram once a week that we are taking orders for two days and people should message us what they want. Then everyone would come on Tuesdays between 3 and 6 p.m. and pick up their kombucha order at the dorm room.”
Meanwhile, DeCicco found his new drink was sparking the curiosity of students on campus, who would ask him about it as he toted the coffee from class to class in a clear plastic bottle with no label. In explaining to them what made his super coffee unique, he also highlighted what is was not.
“I would give them the whole pitch and soon enough people were asking if they could buy it from me,” he said of his early interactions with students. “I would get feedback on energy levels, taste, recommendations on different flavors and sweeteners, but the one thing I made clear was that we are going to be much different from Starbucks. We’ll try to do our best — because students like the taste of a sweet Starbucks Frappuccino. I said we will do our best to make it taste as good as possible, but I will never use more than 10 g of sugar or have more than 10 g of carbs.”
Along with access to students, college-based brands enjoy close proximity to a deep well of university resources, both material and otherwise, to help students get their business off the ground.
Miller and Wolff noted that the start of their business came at an opportune time during which Wake Forest has put a strong emphasis on growing the entrepreneurial environment on campus. This past spring semester, Up Dog participated in the university’s Startup Lab, a class in which seven student-run startups, who must apply for the program, would meet for 2.5 hours every week to work on their respective projects and bounce ideas off each other and a pair of professors with experience building their own companies.
“Startup Lab has been a huge part of our growth just in the past spring,” Miller said, noting the group worked on developing practical skills such as crafting an investor-ready pitch or how to hire and fire employees. “We’ve been able to meet a lot of great people who can help us in the future.”
DeCicco, a business major, also tapped into resources at Philadelphia University for help with things like creating a business plan. But by relying more on student feedback, DeCicco was able to tailor a message — healthy, on-the-go clean energy for a relentlessly busy generation — that could transcend campus life.
“While we sell [Sunniva] in Whole Foods and do well there, it wasn’t necessarily created for the Whole Foods shopper,” he said. “It was created for kids like us who rely on energy drinks, but right now all the mainstream energy drinks and bottled coffees are just not good for you. I was able to have unlimited access to kids for a full year, and I learned how they see the beverage space, what they think when they see knew products and what affects them. Things like, does sugar cross their mind? Does caffeine? What price points do kids get scared of?”
For a further look at established brands developing their presence on college campuses and how Up Dog and Sunniva plan to retain students and their deep connection to the college community after graduation, read part two of this report.