Best friends Hugh Duffie and Luke Suddards went from baristas to co-founders with Britain’s first cold brew coffee company – but what the startup lessons did they learn along the way?
RSNG You named your startup after Victorian strongman Eugen Sandow – why did he inspire you?
HUGH DUFFIE, CO-FOUNDER ‘We interpret Eugen Sandow’s ethos as “using unusual methods to strive for perfection.” He was the first bodybuilder to focus on holistic strength over pure size. Attention to detail and innovative thinking are the parallels we make between him and our cold brew.’
‘We take a really uncompromising approach to product quality and I think a great example is our determination to use our stubby can format, rather than slim cans that you see energy drinks and pre-mixed cocktails in. It made life a hell of a lot more difficult – we had suppliers all over Europe speaking various languages, none of whom had ever worked on a cold brew so we were all learning together.’
RSNG Did you ever pull a victory from the jaws of defeat in the early days?
HD ‘In our first year we took a stand at a festival here in East London. We figured festivals would be a great place to sell cold brew but it turned out people were in more of a beer mood (lol), so we had to change our plans and sell bottled water (it was the hottest day of the year) to ensure we didn’t lose a load of money. If we hadn’t acted quickly and calmly we would’ve been very close to running out of money, but we ended up making enough to invest in a new coffee grinder, which dramatically increased the quality of our cold brew.’
RSNG What’s been the most important lesson you’ve learned along the way?
HD ‘I’d say it’s the repetition of the core message that’s critical and also that you need to give every single person the same level of enthusiasm in explaining your product. I guess I’d thought there was some sort of secret, really complicated way to succeed in business but it’s just getting the basics right again and again that makes the biggest difference.’
RSNG What are the obstacles to success for a drinks brand in today’s market?
HD ‘It’s so difficult to get the price down low enough to compete with multinationals and also getting the distribution. Supermarket listings can take months, even years, to achieve and as such small, new businesses often run out of cash even if they have an amazing proposition. I think that using scarcity to drive desirability, and therefore pricing, up is always a good way to go but it doesn’t work forever.’
‘Getting going and getting real feedback is a great way to find out if you’ve got an idea that can scale’
RSNG How easy it is to turn a great idea into a commercial reality?
HD ‘We often get the question: “Is it better to plan for years and then execute really well, or to get cracking and learn on the way?” We find that it’s a real mix of both but not all ideas are equal and even with the best execution in the world, some ideas just don’t have wide enough appeal. Getting going to get real feedback and tweaking quickly is a great way to qualify whether you’ve actually got an idea that can scale to commercial success. Then it’s a matter of surrounding yourself with the right people to make that happen.’
RSNG How important has it been to get mentoring?
HD ‘Having a (semi) formal mentor structure where you can talk about what you’re learning and bounce new ideas around is super important. In their book, the Innocent founder Richard Reed says to “keep the main thing the main thing” and that’s always resonated with me, but I think people having a support network that gives more specific advice, more frequently, is what works best.’
RSNG What’s more important, spotting an emerging trend (like you did with cold brew) or executing your own vision for your brand?
HD ‘We responded to what we thought was an opportunity to supply some cafes but I don’t think we ever imagined being where we are now. We had customers coming into the cafe we were working in and not having enough stock because we couldn’t make the product fast enough. We looked a bit to the US for inspiration because the category was a lot more mature there but we haven’t been to visit. I think that’s actually forced us to think about UK tastes and to design something specifically for the UK coffee drinker rather than copying and pasting from a brand we really liked in the US.’
‘It’s important to look at other categories and take inspiration from galleries and museums. There is so much already out there, but executing your own vision comes from synthesising all the visual and experiential references you’ve been exposed to and blending them into something new and unique.’
‘It’s made me more relaxed because I have a greater sense of perspective on what really matters’
RSNG Has your attitude to life and taking risks been altered by your journey with Sandows?
HD ‘In some ways I’ve found it’s made me more relaxed because I have a greater sense of perspective on what really matters. However, it can be hard to really enjoy the highs when you know there are probably equal-and-opposite lows around the corner. I try not to think like that and to surround myself with people I vibe with and who inspire me.’
RSNG What are the three biggest pitfalls to watch out for when starting up a new brand?
HD ‘Not focusing enough on sales. You need cash to do cool shit and ultimately there is no brand if there is no demand.’
‘Not knowing the difference between brand and branding. A logo is meaningless until you fill it with meaning; with the quality you subscribe to in your products and the way you interact with your customers.’
‘Not taking time to look after your own mental health. It’s really demanding and you need to be able to separate the trials of startup life from your own existential doubt. The two together can get you in a really unhealthy downward spiral that isn’t going to help you or your business.’
RSNG How important is telling a story when you are brand building?
HD ‘Storytelling is critical. Like I said about taking on board everything you’ve ever seen and blending it together into something new, the way you talk and tell stories is inevitably coming from a different place to your audience. That’s interesting and people love stories, and are intrigued when you say something differently to how they’d have said it. It’s kind of like when you get advice to ‘just be yourself’ because people will like you more – doing that as a brand and talking about the process is actually the whole point. Seems simple but maybe it just is?’
RSNG Did you find anything surprising or counter-intuitive when you were researching how your customers viewed your products, which helped you to make a breakthrough?
HD ‘Yeah, totally. We’ve always done a lot of tasting demos in Whole Foods and at Selfridges to get direct feedback. A great example is that we started out with really strong coffee because we thought that’s what it had to be — cold brew had a sort of ‘rocket fuel’ connotation in the US. It only took a few people telling us they loved the flavour but that they needed to run to the toilet 15 minutes after drinking it to make us review that. Now we focus on the flavour and aim for a strength that we like to call session cold brew.’
RSNG What’s your process for coming up with innovations?
HD ‘We’re working on this a lot more at the moment but we have an innovation pipeline where we can weigh up all the different aspects that make a good product. Timeliness based on trend research and consumer insight, margins, difficulty, size of the market etc. I think it’s critical to embed this into the day-to-day, not just to make new products but to ensure your existing lines are still relevant and justifying their spot in the portfolio.’
‘The LinkedIn algorithm is pretty amazing – it’s an underrated resource for marketers’
RSNG What have you found is the best strategy for getting your story out there?
HD ‘We’ve primarily focused on social media. Instagram is our biggest channel where we have just under 15K followers. Personally I think that the LinkedIn algorithm is pretty amazing and that it’s an underrated resource for marketers as a channel.’
RSNG What are the benefits of cold brew and are there processes that quality products use that we should look out for?
HD ‘True to style cold brew is sugar-free and super smooth. We make Sandows using directly traded, speciality grade coffee infused slowly without any heat to extract minimal acidity. The result is a light, chocolatey and refreshing iced coffee without the bitterness you’d expect from a black coffee. I think look out for a few signifiers like ‘speciality grade’ and just making sure that it’s clear with no bits in it – definitely shouldn’t have that!’
WHAT NEXT? Check out the Sandows’ c-founders describing their cold brew process.
Follow the writer @mattfitnessray