CZ: Could you share your career path? What were your initial career aspirations and hopes? What fascinates you about the marine ecosystem and the food industry? When did you realize that you would be able to merge them into a single career?
BG: When I was in college, I studied film, communications and American culture, and I thought I wanted to be a film producer. When I graduated in 2009, I went right into the film industry, initially working on film and television sets. I did that for about two years after college and realized that it wasn’t the path that I wanted to head down. So then I decided to stay in the same general industry of media and entertainment space, but go into more of a business function. At that point I moved to LA and went to work for Lionsgate, the film studio, and joined their corporate development and strategy group, which was really interesting for me and really educational and definitely a totally different look at the entertainment industry. It made me realize that if I really wanted to have a career in business, I needed to learn all the basic fundamental skills that I had never learned before, like finance and accounting and other core business disciplines. I was also still a bit weary about staying in film. So all of these things led me to make the decision to go back to graduate school.
I decided to go get my MBA, and I knew that I wanted to live in NYC in my 20’s. When I was accepted to Columbia business school, that was a done deal for me. I went into graduate school thinking that I might go back into the entertainment industry eventually, but take some detours along the way, maybe through management consulting to learn how to apply the skills that I was learning for the first time and it would allow me to keep the options open for a little bit longer. Once I got on campus, within the first few days I met my now co-founder Matt Bachmann. He and I initially bonded over a shared love of coffee and cold brew specifically. Pretty soon, inspired by the environment, by the fact that we were back on campus as students thinking creatively and independently for the first time in a couple of years, really got us talking about our own cold brew brand. We were also seeing the category start to develop in a commercial way, but were not really impressed by the products or the brands we saw hitting the market. It felt like there was an opportunity and a gap in the category that we could come in and fill.
First it was some casual conversation, but it gradually grew into something more serious. This was all over our first year of graduate school, and it became very clear to us very quickly that it was by far the most excited we had been to work on anything in our professional lives. It was the first time both of us had felt deeply passionate about a project in our careers, and we took that to heart. We wanted to stay up late and work on it and wake up early, and skip parties. We really wanted to throw ourselves into it head first. This all happened while we were students, when we could form this idea entirely and come up with a business plan and launch the idea with relatively low risk, without leaving jobs to pursue this opportunity, so our circumstances definitely helped support the decision to do this in a real way. From a product level, we love the simplicity of it. We love that it’s something you can easily talk about when you go home for Thanksgiving, which made it all the more fun.
CZ: I really appreciate that you bring the risk factor into the picture, because it’s something that really does play a big role when trying to decide whether to launch a project or not. And the perspective of being a graduate student and how that liberates you in a way to take steps that maybe you wouldn’t have had you had a full time job.
BG: I actually interned at Booz Allen while in grad school, and I think that if either one of us had been full time in one of those roles, it would’ve been really challenging to make the decision to leave our jobs to start this company. We weren’t paying ourselves salaries for a long time, but that was ok because we had already taken the loans out to put ourselves through school, so even things like that played into the circumstantial context.
CZ: How long did it take you and Matt to take the project from being an idea into a reality? What obstacles did you face in transforming the vision into an actual business and how did you overcome those obstacles?
We had our first casual conversation about Wandering Bear in November of our first year of business school, and then over Christmas break that year, Matt and I along with a larger group of friends went to South America for a couple of weeks. We went to Colombia, actually, and it was on that trip, partly inspired by the environment that we were in, we were in this great coffee-producing country and sitting around the pool or a cafe drinking a ton of coffee that we started to think through in a little more detail. What does the strategy look like? What does the market entry look like? What we decided then, which was between first and second semester, was that we were interested enough in answering these questions in a real way, so we decoded to work on it as a class project. We enrolled in a class called Launching New Ventures, which is the intro entrepreneurship class at Columbia. You work on a startup idea through the whole semester. Through that course, we started answering basic questions, doing some customer discovery and market analysis. Then about halfway through that second semester, there was a shark-tank-like competition hosted by the business school. We had, by that point, figured out a little bit how we wanted to differentiate our product. We made the decision that we were going to go into bag and box packaging. We were going to be the first ones to bag and box cold brew and with that we would be putting cold brew on tap at home and office refrigerators. Then we made the decision to go after alternative sales channels by focusing on surveying business and delivering directly instead of trying to get on grocery store shelves immediately.
With these insights and core decisions made, we entered the competition under the concept bracket. We were fortunate enough to win! It was really exciting, and there were some winnings – we got $7,000 in prize money, which we really put to work. Beyond that, we got some really good validation and access to a great network in NYC. We had senior business people telling us that we had a good idea, and that was really all we needed to get going. The goal that we set for ourselves was to be in a position by the end of that semester (by May or June) to put a product in the market and start selling to offices, and we were able to hit that goal. That involved finding commercial kitchen space and other things, which we were really fortunate to call upon the NY ecosystem because at the time there were these co-working kitchen spaces that you could rent out a permitted code-compliant kitchen space either by the shift or the week or the month to keep your overhead really low and also draw on the collective knowledge of others working there. We found a space to produce out of, we found a coffee supplier, a packaging supplier, and a local logistics company. So we had all those pieces in place and we worked with a freelance designer to come up with the logo and branding. We iterated a lot on the different variations of coffee until we finally hit upon one that we loved and you could replicate and keep consistent. Then it was off to the races.
The first exercise was coming up with a large list of companies that might be the type to order cold brew for their office or subscribe to cold brew for their office basing it off of reputation, really. Once we had a starting list, between our collective networks, we were able to find someone that we could contact at all of those companies. We reached out to all of them and offered them a free sample for their office. Thankfully, people were super responsive to it. We were very fortunate that whenever we reached out to anyone, people generally just wanted to help in whatever way they could. Essentially we started in January of 2014 and made our first sale to a hedge fund NY office by June 2014. After that, it took as a while to figure out how to scale up manufacturing and other things, but we felt like we had figured out enough to get it going. We viewed that first summer as our beta test to see how well we could do.
CZ: What would you say was the biggest challenge in this whole lifecycle of turning Wandering Bear from an idea into a reality?
BG: Scaling up manufacturing was a big one, because that kind of stuff was not really covered in any of our classes. I think beyond that, it was just moving quickly. We knew cold brew would be a big category, but I don’t think anybody anticipated how explosive the category would become. It still feels like there’s a new cold brew brand entering the market every other week. It’s an incredibly fragmented and is getting to be a pretty crowded category, so the challenge is figuring out how to meaningfully differentiate ourselves from all of these other brands and try to keep up with them as well. We had a great out of nowhere underdog story, but how do you go from being that cool, fun cottage business to actually be a major player in a fast-growing category on a national scale, which is ultimately what we’re working towards.
CZ: What do you hope to achieve/transmit with Wandering Bear? What role do you think food, and coffee in particular, can play in influencing our environmental, economic, and political landscapes? What does Wandering Bear hope to change in the food industry?
BG: I do hope that we continue to advance this trend of small or food/beverage startups really carving out a position for themselves and driving innovation for categories. Innovation has been made at the grassroots early stage startup level rather than at the large CPG or strategic level. While we’re not necessarily vastly different or innovative. I do think that some of the choices that we’ve made around packaging and our route to market and product formulation have been non-traditional. And I think that trend overall will only continue to serve consumers well, and I think it will push big brands to put out products that are healthier and different than what we’re used to and really opening up consumers’ eyes to both variety and what we’re putting in our bodies.
CZ: Can you explain the non-traditional aspects of Wandering Bear?
BG: First thing I mean by that was our sales channel strategy. We decided early on that we were not going to go on grocery store shelves until the brand was built in other ways in other channels and we felt confident on our supply chain and our ability to scale up. What that meant for us is that the first two years, we focused on office delivery and our online grocery partners sales, like FreshDirect. What that did meant that we carved out our niche in those channels. We were able to really develop a loyal customer base without fighting it out on the grocery store shelves against a half a dozen other cold brew brands, so that approach and that timing around going into the more traditional grocery channel has been one example.
Beyond that, I think our packaging. We definitely wanted to do something different in terms of packaging. There are many ways brands try to differentiate themselves, but one of the most tangible and visible differentiators is packaging. We knew that we didn’t want to put out a glass bottle, not because we think there is anything wrong with that packaging, but it seemed like everyone else was doing that. We also considered the ease of use of the product, which led us to a non-traditional option of bag and box packaging. In the U.S., bag and box have been a little bit stigmatized from things like boxed wine and as a result, you don’t see many beverages packaged in that format. It’s a great marketing format for a lot of reasons including shelf-life and for environmental reasons, but because it’s not as prevalent, it’s harder to find the right equipment to scale up.
CZ: The beans that you source as from Peru and they’re organic; they’re also Fair Trade. Is that something that you guys did from the beginning? What were the motivations behind getting those specific beans.
BG: It was not something we did in the beginning. We actually just transitioned to that in early spring of this year (2017). Before that, we were using these really delicious, high-quality beans from Colombia, but they did not carry any of the Fair Trade or organic certifications. The beans we were carrying from Colombia had documentation on the fair practices from the cooperative that we were purchasing from, but ultimately the decision was driven by retailer buyers. We realized that going into the grocery store segment that retailer buyers were concerned with the certifications or the equivalents, maybe more so than the end consumer.
We think it does communicate that these are the values that are important to us, and we will do what we can as a small brand to do right by the communities involved in our supply chains as well as the environment. If we were a bigger company with more resources or had more of a background in coffee, we would like to set up our own direct trading and supply chain with our own roasting – this is what we strive for in the future. For where the company is right now, we opted for the widely recognized and trusted labels to communicate our values.
CZ: What does a day in the Life of Ben: What does your work usually involve? What do you find most rewarding about your work? What challenges you most about your work?
BG: It varies a lot. We now are a team of nine full time employees, including Matt and me. I oversee all of our sales, so under me I oversee a sales team of five that is split by channel: two focused on retail, two focused on direct office, and one focused on larger sales. A lot of my day is spent on managing the sales team, and driving towards long and short term goals. I also spend a lot of time managing high-level relationships with our distributor and broker network, and also part of that is going after large key accounts, such as large retail chains. As the team grows, I also oversee HR (Human Resources), which has not taken up a huge amount of time in the past, but we’re currently growing and looking to hire more people to our sales team. So I spend time looking for talent, new candidates, making sure employees are accomplishing their own professional development. We care a lot about our team and putting them on a path to success, whether with Wandering Bear or somewhere else.
CZ: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges we face as human beings? How do you think we can solve them and what role can food or coffee play in solving these challenges?
BG: That is a big question. My instinct answer is climate change, which terrifies me, and I will be the first to admit that I don’t know much about it. I’m constantly trying to learn more about it, on what’s happening and what we can do to try to change the course of things. With each new major natural disaster, it’s a constant reminder that if we don’t change the way we interact with our environment, it’s not going to look anything like this anytime soon. That scares me a lot.
From a food & beverage industry perspective, I think there are a lot of little things that we can do to help, from evaluating what kind of fertilizers we use to grow our coffee, to what degree do we have nitrogen and other chemical that we’re putting into the ground, and I wish I knew more about the details. This is one big area that scares me and I wish I had more knowledge about it. I think that the change has to start at the individual or small company level, if everyone starts to make those small, but responsible decisions, it will sum up to positive collective action.
CZ: If you could change one thing about the world, what would it be?
BG: I wish we could eliminate hate. Period. There is so much violence and anger and divisiveness. It’s terrible. And it’s really challenging right now to see how we can overcome it in a large societal way, so if there is one thing I could do to change the world, it would be for everyone to get along.
Ben Gordon and Matt Bachmann founded Wandering Bear while they were getting their MBAs at Columbia University. The two of them first bonded over their love of cold brew, which was the beginning of Wandering Bear. Ben and I chatted over the phone, and he very candidly shared his experience with me.
Matt Bachmann and Ben Gordon. Picture taken from Wandering Bear's website with permission from Ben.