Episodes > Season 3 Episode 3

Super Coffee card

How Super Coffee overcomes adversity and prioritizes subscriptions

Ben Knox, SVP of Digital @ Super Coffee

What's in this episode?

In this episode we’re chatting with Ben Knox, SVP of Digital at Super Coffee, a better-for-you beverage brand.

Ben’s been in the ecommerce game for years, working with brands like Red Bull and Soylent before landing at Super Coffee. Along the way, he founded his own brand, Keto Farms, which gave him a firsthand perspective on bootstrapping and facing adversity head-on.

Super Coffee is founded on resilience, passion, and hard work—from their origins in a college dorm room to Shark Tank rejection in 2018. Today, those values have paid off: The brand is now valued at over $400 million dollars and won 2021’s Brand of the Year award from BevNET

Ben takes us behind the scenes on the many ways that Super Coffee prioritizes subscriptions, from improving the user experience on the website, defaulting to subscriptions on the product page, and utilizing RechargeSMS so customers can seamlessly manage their orders with a quick text message.

There’s a lot to get into, so let’s get started. Ben, thank you so much for joining us.

Connect with Ben on LinkedIn. Check out Super Coffee.

Episode transcript

Scott Meiklejohn: Hey, thanks for listening to Hit Subscribe, a podcast by Recharge. I'm your host, Scott Meiklejohn and in this episode, we're talking to Ben Knox, SVP of digital at Super Coffee, a better-for-you beverage brand. Ben's been in ecommerce game for years, working for brands like Red Bull and Soylent before landing at Super Coffee. Along the way, he founded his own brand, Keto Farms, which gave him a first-hand perspective on bootstrapping and facing adversity head on. Super Coffee is founded on resilience, passion, and hard work. From their origins in a college dorm room to their rejection in 2018 on Shark Tank, today those values have paid off. The brand is now valued at over $400 million and won 2021's brand of the year at award from BevNET.

Scott Meiklejohn: Ben take access behind the scenes on the many ways that Super Coffee prioritizes subscriptions, from improving the user experience on the website to defaulting to subscriptions on the product page and utilizing RechargeSMS so customers can seamlessly manage their orders with a quick text message. There's a lot to get to. So let's get started. Ben, thank you so much for joining us.

Ben Knox: Hey, Scott. Nice to be here. Thanks for having me.

Scott Meiklejohn: Could you tell us a little bit about yourself and a little bit about Super Coffee?

Ben Knox: Absolutely. So my name is Ben. I am the SVP of digital at Super Coffee. Super Coffee, for those of you listening to this podcast who don't know, is it better-for-you beverage brand founded in 2015 by three brothers, student athletes seeking a better coffee product that both tasted delicious, but didn't have all the sugar and nasty ingredients that Starbucks and Dunkin and energy drinks of the world had at the time. So they created the world's first Super Coffee and Super Coffee is a delicious zero sugar latte that tastes just as good as a frappuccino, but does a lot more for you in terms of health benefits and how it makes you feel after the fact. So that's Super Coffee. My role at Super Coffee oversees the range of content marketing, influencer marketing ecommerce channels, customer experience, and all acquisition retention and tech that supports those for the business.

Scott Meiklejohn: I want to get more into ... it's the DeCicco brothers, right? The founders. I want to just get more into their story, because I think that's a really cool origin story. But let's focus on you for a sec. Ben, could you tell us how you got into the ecommerce game?

Ben Knox: Absolutely. So I found my way into the beverage industry, consumer package goods almost by accident. I actually studied finance in undergrad in Indiana and thought for sure that I would be going into the finance industry. I'd maybe be a banker. Best case, I'd moved to Chicago, and lo and behold, I found this really interesting and unique opportunity to join Red Bull in Santa Monica, California at their U.S. Headquarters, and I actually joined in the brand marketing team. So doing a leadership development program at Red Bull focused on consumer marketing, so sampling, collegiate programs. Was really excited to learn more about that in the business and leverage that into an opportunity to join the strategy team. So really helping from a central planning perspective and a company development perspective.

Ben Knox: Went from that to a specialty focus in distribution of all things. So distribution route to market, off-premise distributors, DSD distribution, really riveting stuff. At the time I was kind of seeking a role within the company or a next focus for my career that was more aligned to my personal interests, and I was very interested in tech in the time. I was following ecommerce closely. So I really developed a love for branding and consumer products and was really intrigued by what was happening in the world of commerce. At the time Red Bull was really interested in understanding how to approach ecommerce and specifically for Red Bull at a time that really meant what do we do about Amazon? How do we position ourselves to succeed on Amazon?

Ben Knox: So I raised my hand, I said, "I'll do a short project here and sort of help set some strategy and make recommendation for how to move forward, both domestically as well as to inform kind of international strategy for Red Bull in Western Europe." Part of that recommendation-

Scott Meiklejohn: Just a short project. Yeah, just that expansion there.

Ben Knox: It was, yeah. Actually just a three month project, brought some consultants in and got as quickly to recommendation as we could. It wouldn't be right if I didn't recommend they sort of establish a full-time head count to focus on the ecomm channel and as a result, I think I'd be excellent for that position. So that's really what started my career in ecomm. It was really built around the cornerstone of Amazon in the beginning of my career, but had a deep desire to go further in ecomm. Red Bull wasn't interested or not positioned to develop a DTC business at the time and still is not, so I felt the need to leave the company in order to get some DTC experience and that kind of propelled the next steps in my career.

Scott Meiklejohn: What was that ... not chasing, but what was the thing that wasn't fulfilling that you saw in DTC that you were like, "I want to do it there. I want to go hustle over there."

Ben Knox: Yeah. Just loved everything about social media, about technology, programming, sort of the internet, digital technology, really everything around that. It was such a far cry from everything that I had been doing at Red Bull, which was really related to people on the ground sampling product to individual consumers and merchandising shelves at 7-Eleven and Kroger and things like that. So it was really within the company and the brand that I felt very strongly about ... I felt at home there at Red Bull. So I said what's a way that I can find a closer match to my interests that could be supported within this company, so without having to leave the company at the time. Ecommerce was definitely the strongest match for what to do next.

Scott Meiklejohn: Totally. Then from there you jumped to another pretty well known, reputable brand. I know there's some other stops along the way, but you ended up at Soylent as well, right?

Ben Knox: Yeah. Soylent was ... Yeah, it was a really exciting time to join the Soylent team. Soylent was moving from being just this amazing homegrown sort of founder, PR-fueled DTC darling and looking to move into Amazon, move into traditional retail. So I joined the company first and foremost to really help them round out their Amazon strategy, and then on the understanding that once we were kind of set up and moving in the right direction there, that I'd be able to really start leaning into more of the DTC product ownership of soylent.com and some of the other sort of acquisition efforts of the business at the time.

Scott Meiklejohn: What was one of your biggest takeaways that you can remember from helping them grow and scale there? Anything that stands out?

Ben Knox: Yeah, it was really interesting. When I joined the company, we had sort of a full team of engineers and designers in house. The website was a custom web app developed without any real sort of modern ecommerce technology, I would say. What we ended up learning through that experience was as Shopify, as the app ecosystem, as Recharge and others really taking off and lowering barriers to entry and allowing others to move to faster in the market, trying to build every little detail in all the features ourselves was kind of an impediment to keeping up with the Joneses there. So actually we self-reflected and identified an opportunity to re-platform onto Shopify Plus and move from a technology and software provider, Chargebee, to Recharge at the time. So we made those migrations and developed what largely is the site that you see today with a partner in Culver City.

Scott Meiklejohn: So cool. Then I did want to touch on, Because I think it's very interesting. You're an entrepreneur yourself. You started your own brand. I'd love to just talk a little briefly about Keto Snacks.

Ben Knox: That's right. Yeah. So a colleague of mine at Soylent, so his name is Brandon, we were working very, very closely on the Soylent brand. He was in finance, I was in marketing, so we constantly battling over ... I wanted to spend more, he wanted me to spend less, but we built a great friendship, a great working relationship. I had become really interested in the keto diet and had been a practitioner following the keto diet for about a year and finally got Brandon to start trying it with me. He did and many weeks later he was feeling all the benefits, we were kind of nerding out on it every day in the lunchroom.

Scott Meiklejohn: I love the "many weeks later", because we all know how the keto goes. It's the many weeks that it takes.

Ben Knox: [laughs] It takes a little time, yeah, yeah, yeah. First timers, it takes a little time.

Scott Meiklejohn: [laughs] Yeah.

Ben Knox: But it's like this fame story of your boss pulls you into a meeting room at 5:00 PM and draws up something on the whiteboard and asks for it at 8:00 AM in the morning the next day and says, "Oh by the way, I got to go run to a tennis lesson and good luck," kind of thing. I'm dramatizing it, but it was kind of one of those situations and we went to the break room, grabbed a LaCroix, went back to the meeting room, cracked it, and instead of getting started on the project, we started talking about life and what we wanted to do with our lives. "Boy, it would be a shame if we didn't attempt to become entrepreneurs ourselves."

Ben Knox: So we actually made a handshake deal that night to meet up on the weekend and start exploring what it might look like to bring a keto product to the market, sort of built on our passions for keto, developing some passion on entrepreneurship and kind of furthering our friendship. We met that Saturday and really just got so excited by it. We were formulating products that next week and I think three weeks later we had given a healthy ... we gave notice to Soylent and we're going to be deciding to move into bootstrap startup plan.

Scott Meiklejohn: Love it. Wow, that's so cool. I love that. Then like many entrepreneurs, many people, and then March 2020 rolled around basically. I presume this is all happening before the old pandemic reared its ugly head.

Ben Knox: That's right. That's right. Yeah. So as I mentioned, we'd just wrapped Keto Farms. We made a conscious decision to do it on our life savings, not rely on any venture capital or have really any true outside influences that might influence the direction of the business or our intent for the business. In the end, reflecting, that probably wasn't the right decision. It's one of the biggest learnings we've had to this day, especially around something like keto. Very trend-driven, moving very, very fast. Because we were bootstrap, we didn't have enough capital. We weren't able to move as fast as we needed to, to really gain that market share early on. So while we developed incredible products, we didn't have the biggest budgets. We weren't able to spend like the others were in acquiring customers.

Ben Knox: But all of that being said, we developed incredible products, had an amazing customer base and we were really starting to reach what we would call kind of our escape velocity, if you will, or really for us, what that meant was we were making enough money and had enough revenue that we could start paying ourselves a salary.

Scott Meiklejohn: Sure, yeah.

Ben Knox: That was quite literally in February of whatever the year was that the pandemic started.

Scott Meiklejohn: 2020.

Ben Knox: Of 2020. February was 100% over January and January was 50% over December, so we were really on a good trend. Then, of course, the world turned upside down. We pretty quickly learned through that experience that the products that we were creating and the problems that we were solving weren't quite a match for the consumer mindset at the time. So people were reverting to nostalgic foods, comfort foods. They were definitely going off of their diets, at least for a period of time. So it made it difficult in the business and essentially forced us to experiment with other ways to earn an income. At the time I started doing a little bit of consulting for Super Coffee and things snowballed a little bit there, and that takes us kind of to the next step in my journey.

Scott Meiklejohn: Ben, crushing this segue. Great segue to Super Coffee. We teased it off the top. I'd love to hear more about one of the DeCicco brothers sitting in his dorm room thinking, "I should start my own little beverage company here."

Ben Knox: Yeah. So it's actually the youngest brother. They go by youngest, middle and oldest brother, which is amazing, and they sign their emails like that still to this day. Jordan DeCicco is the youngest brother and the true original founder of Super Coffee. He was a D1 basketball player and literally started make a healthier version of kind of a protein MCT oil latte in his dorm room in his blender and would drink it before practice, started making some for his teammates and everyone was giving him some really positive feedback, so he was inspired to go further. I think he entered an Ernst & Young case competition or something like that through his university, was awarded the winner, the grand prize, got a little check to take a picture with and show friends and family.

Ben Knox: But suffice it to say he was kind of on a mission at that point, really inspired by others in the industry that have come before them and disrupting major categories with healthier, better-for-you beverages and products. So he was so passionate that he dropped out of college and he was able to convince his two older brothers to join him in the pursuit of building kind of the world's better-for-you coffee brand competing against Starbucks and Dunkin. That was in, I believe, 2015 and fast forward to today, Super Coffee is in over 40,000 stores nationwide. We're talking 7-Eleven, Whole Foods, Costco, CVS, Kroger, Walmart, and all the like. We have about 150 employees spread across country with some hubs in Austin, Texas, and New York and the rest remote, and the company's on a tear, just doing really great stuff, making amazing products, exciting consumers. Notably, we won number one brand of the year by BevNET last year, which is a major sort of beverage industry publication. So very, very exciting time for Super Coffee.

Scott Meiklejohn: I've been talking a lot about adversity in chasing your passions, and so in knowing all the success now, that's incredible, but could you take me to 2018 when youngest, middle and oldest walk into the Shark Tank and what happens next there?

Ben Knox: That's a really good, really good question. I cannot believe I missed the Shark Tank appearance because ... and I can't necessarily say because I wasn't there, but I think that was one of the greatest catapults to, I think, both what you're alluding to here, but also kind of some national exposure, some beginnings of national awareness around the brand. Yeah. So they entered the Tank, and I don't know if you've seen a recording of the episode or if anybody listening has either, but they were declined. Nobody saw the vision, they got five nos, and instead of walking out of the tank embarrassed or demotivated or deciding to give up, it was completely the opposite. If you knew these three gentlemen, and you might be able to suspect with athletic backgrounds, sort of high performers in life and in attitude, that was just what they needed in order to really start taking it to the next level. So I would say if anything, that was probably one of the biggest contributors to their success.

Scott Meiklejohn: I always love a, "Oh, you don't think we can do this? Just watch us," story. That's always great.

Ben Knox: Yeah. They have this whole thing about turning nose into yeses and it's definitely cauterized in the company culture to this day.

Scott Meiklejohn: Love that. I love that so much. Well, we've been jumping all over the place of time, but let's go back just a little bit more to you start consulting, and then you come on board Super Coffee in the middle of a pandemic. What's one of the first things that you set your eyes on tackling? "This is what we got to do for the brand, for the products."

Ben Knox: Yeah, absolutely. So I think two things, a bit related to one another, but obviously there's a lot of analysis and a lot of identification of where the business is and where the customer base is and how it's performing, but built on top of that and some of the learnings, one of the clearest things that we could do was improve the user experience of the website, and part and parcel to that really focused the website toward a subscription point of purchase rather than a one-time purchase.

Ben Knox: With a total redevelopment and redesign of the site that we launched in December of that year, as well as even leading up to that, simple shifts such as introducing subscribe and save as the default shopping option, making some simple tweaks to the product detail pages and information architecture of the site, and then solving some of those conversion killers that we all know that are kind of sometimes hiding in plain sight, but very important to look into, all of that combined and then launching the new site that winter, we were able to really, really accelerate the development of our MRR, monthly recurring revenue, business, which is subscribe and save, power by Recharge.

Scott Meiklejohn: Love that. What were one of the causes for churn that you guys started to notice, and how did you kind of find that out? Did you talk to customers or did you just go through the experience yourselves?

Ben Knox: Yeah, I think a lot of what they call in the tech industry dogfooding was a key contributor to just identifying what was going wrong or going right through first person experience. There's almost never a better substitute for always using your own product. So certainly encourage the entire team to constantly be checking out and shopping through the website and then flagging and elevating any issues or concerns, not just assuming that everyone's aware of these things. So I think that's a major contributor. Then otherwise, post purchase survey, sort of smaller focus groups with loyal customer base, things like that, as well as some of the cancellation reasons, working on those and really sort of applying a focus to those and trying to identify and improve one by one, and then seeing the response to results based on that. Sorry, my dogs are going nuts.

Scott Meiklejohn: [laughs] My dog was three steps for me, ready to bark at me, so don't you worry. It was going to happen to one of us, so that is all good. Don't worry.

Ben Knox: [laughs] Love it.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yeah. Little Rosie was staring me down. Speaking of one of the reasons you saw for churn, I'd love to talk more about customer portals and how, if you don't got a customer portal that's easy to navigate that your customer can't skip swap at a one time purchase, it's just a no. People are going to leave that program.

Ben Knox: Yeah. 100%. So I think the cancellation reason of difficulty managing my subscription really was always sitting as number one, which we don't like to see because that's within our control. It's not that the product doesn't taste good or I stop using the product because I like a competitor better. It's totally within our control within the technology and the environment that we're creating for our customers to interact with us. So definitely that became a very critical and large focus for the brand and for the tech team. So simple things, we're a headless site, which creates complexity and makes things a little bit more difficult to implement than a standard Shopify Plus instance integrated to Recharge.

Ben Knox: When you have that environment, things just work better out of the box. Since we had determined, we wanted to move the headless route, that did create a requirement to manage some of those connections more manually through the APIs and whatnot. So it did require a steady and applied focus to making sure everything was working as affected. Then I think the second and potentially equally impactful development last year, or I believe it was maybe a little over a year ago, was the introduction of what was then ElectricSMS and what is now RechargeSMS, was enabling our customers to do essentially everything that they would be able to do by logging into a web and customer portal through text message and do it seamlessly, do it without frustration.

Ben Knox: I think a lot of that value that we were able to deliver to our customers was the value that Recharge saw and likely the value that caused Recharge keen interest in acquiring that product. So, yeah, RechargeSMS is something that we always hear from our customers they're very delighted by, and that alongside some of the steady improvements toward accessing the customer portal and solving some of the more sort of nuanced issues related to managing subscription, we've seen that drop from a number one churn reason to a number five churn reason.

Scott Meiklejohn: Love to hear that, love to hear the success of RechargeSMS, ElectricSMS. Yeah, just like you said, we've seen the success of transactional SMS and this isn't like you're sending your customers a discount code. It's nothing like that. This is through text, hitting them up on their phone and then they can manage. Do you want to skip? Do you want to try this new flavor? Do you want to swap this out? Yeah. More and more people jumping on that and it's just so convenient. Just takes away the friction to jump on your computer and manage your order from there. So love to hear that.

Scott Meiklejohn: It's funny. That was right in my notes as the next thing I wanted to talk to you about. So that's so exciting that you went right from there. Something else I think you guys do a really good job on, and I'd love to talk more about, is your content and finding on social media so what resonates with our audience, with our customers, and for you guys to take the words out of your mouth, but then I'd love to hear more about it. You mentioned part of it was recipes.

Ben Knox: Yeah, absolutely. So for our customers, it's interesting, right? Because I started a keto snacks brand and for all intents and purposes, Super Coffee was also started on the exciting trend of a keto diet, of instead of having a lot of carbohydrates as sort of energy or fuel to power you in these beverages, switching that paradigm into fat as fuel. Super Coffee to this day still has MCT oil, which is probably the most popular fat source on the keto diet, and so you can see a lot of the legacy of the keto diet in the Super Coffee brand and the product recipes and formulations. So we do find that a lot of our loyal customers still sort of ... they might not be keto dieters per se, but they are certainly prone to a more higher fat, lower carb mentality when it comes to lifestyle.

Ben Knox: Really to this day, yes, there's a lot of products that you can buy off the shelf that are now kind of speaking to that nutritional paradigm, but when you're left by yourself in your kitchen and looking to grab something or make a tasty creation, you're still kind of left without the tools and the understanding of how to recreate some of these things without all of that sugar. So we find that it's a really strong match with our community to empower them with recipes that essentially follow the same thesis that Super Coffee does, which is taste as delicious as the real thing, but has essentially none of the sugar. So when we're able to create amazing recipes that follow that and share them to our audience, they love it. They eat it up, quite literally, and I think it just adds value to everybody all around. So we're excited to be doing that.

Scott Meiklejohn: Totally. Yeah. We've been doing a lot of research and writing stuff about outlining why your customers, why your subscribers, aren't going to your competitors, why they're aligned with your values, what brand values do you share and then building the community and content around that. So it's so great to hear you guys are having that success with that. This is going to come out still in the first month. If you're listening to this, this is in the first month of 2022, January. So what's next for you guys at Super Coffee? Is there anything you guys really want to focus on as you continue to roll out this year in Q1?

Ben Knox: Yeah, absolutely. We're going to be focusing and doubling down on retention and loyalty. As we all continue to deal with the impacts of iOS 14 privacy changes, now iOS 15 privacy changes and looking forward into the abandonment of the internet on the third party cookie, there's things that are constantly changing, but especially changing with regard to the acquisition side of the funnel, filling the funnel with new customers, new high quality, high potential customers. It's just getting harder to do and it's especially getting harder to do at a reasonable cost. So what that really does is it focuses the attention more than ever on retention loyalty and lifetime value. So you're going to be seeing a lot of stuff out of us this year to continue to nurture our customers, steer more customers into a delightful subscription experience, and then reward with deeper loyal, exclusives, drops, merchandise, things like that to continue to build a community around Super Coffee brand.

Scott Meiklejohn: Love that. Yeah. Despite these privacy changes and the limitations on data from people outside of your customer base, just like you said, you've got this data internally building up in the community, making sure that they're satisfied, that they're not churning out of your program. It's all great news. As we're looking to wrap up here, and you've got so much experience all over the place from various different brands and doing it yourself, I'd love to know what advice would you give to a subscription brand that's just starting out.

Ben Knox: Absolutely. So I think really important, especially for brands starting out, is to get a good analytics foundation under you and allow that to enable you to focus on your customer and focus on your customer by focusing on the metrics. That being said, at the end of the day, you can only solve so much with tech, user experience and fancy unboxing. Like I said, we moved difficulty managing subscription to essentially the bottom of the list. After that everything relies on the product itself. So never, never, never forget to make incredible products that people love.

Scott Meiklejohn: Would that advice change if you were to go from trying to scale a subscription brand from like 10,000 to 100,000?

Ben Knox: I don't think that would change at all.

Scott Meiklejohn: Yeah. Just stays the same.

Ben Knox: Because at the end of the day, there's only so much you can do in terms of the web experience, offers, promotions, things like that. At the end of the day, people just have to love the products. The products have to sell themselves and they have to solve real problems in people's lives or else no reason to buy.

Scott Meiklejohn: That's right. All right. Ben, how about just for yourself personally, what physical products do you subscribe to?

Ben Knox: Yeah. I've been, this year especially, I feel like, really on a subscription kick and I guess I'm smiling and laughing because I've built a lot of my subscription this year on Amazon, which is funny to say that as a consumer. But I think that's great because it allows me, I think it allows us to self-reflect and recognize, "Okay, what is Amazon doing really well there? Why is that an enticing proposition?" Anyways, so it's a lot of sort of consumer staples. It's some of my vitamins, nutritional supplement supports, toilet paper, paper towels, trash bags, deodorant, stuff like that. So nothing super fun and fancy, but solving a good problem for me and saving some good money too.

Scott Meiklejohn: That's right. Just the essentials, just taking care of all of that.

Ben Knox: That's right. That's right.

Scott Meiklejohn: Well, Ben, we've loved this conversation with you and we just want to wish you and Super Coffee the best luck moving forward into 2022.

Ben Knox: Amazing. It was great to be here. Thanks for having me.

Scott Meiklejohn: We want to thank Ben once again for joining us. If you're interested in Super Coffee, head over to drinksupercoffee.com, and if you're looking for more of our episodes, check us out at getrecharge.com/hitsubscribe.

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