Taking a small business and hitting the big time is no easy feat—but when you’ve got a captain and a dedicated crew rowing forward on caffeine fumes and passion, potential can become reality.
Super Bowl 50, and its estimated 112 million viewers, took Mike Brown’s dream of creating the world’s strongest coffee, and then putting it in the homes of caffeine-lovers nationwide, to a higher level. Twenty times over.
During a 30-second ad spot on February 7, a ship full of Vikings bravely defied death, sailing on stormy waves of coffee to deliver fierce caffeine direct down a customer’s throat. It proved a hit with viewers, generating more than 100,000 hits to Death Wish Coffee’s Website at the time the commercial aired, according to Brown.
“We’ve had a decent online following until now,” Brown says. But that ad—the culmination of an eight-month journey, beating out 15,000 small businesses as part of the Intuit QuickBooks Small Business Big Game contest—changed everything.
Valued at nearly five million dollars, that ad meant “huge, absolutely huge exposure,” Brown says. “We had a big spike in sales and ended up doing 20 times what we typically do in a day.” Super Bowl 50 was the third-most watched broadcast in American television history.
It was a sign he’d made the right artistic decision, and chosen the right pitch from among Intuit’s ideas. Aside from the connotations of strong and fierce, what really sold Brown was a dream he’d had just nights before, featuring a Viking horde.
“Honestly, when we came back from San Francisco, it was like coming back to a whole new business,” Brown explains. “There’ve been a lot of changes, but good changes.” Brown and some of his team celebrated their win at a game watch hosted by Intuit QuickBooks in San Francisco, so he got to share the experience of seeing the ad on air with many of the people who helped make it possible.
“The whole thing went off way better than we could have imagined,” Brown says. “We didn’t run out and nobody complained.” Although faced with a 2,000 percent increase in single-day sales, the entire Death Wish team—now 12-people strong—rallied together and pulled it off.
But getting there took a lot of planning. Brown had thought about what it would mean if Death Wish scored the win, and had fortunately put the right people on call. “We found out we won in late November, but had to keep it a secret,” Brown says, until the news went public in late January. It’s a good thing he and his team had the heads-up—they needed to source, roast and package an insane amount of beans to get ready for the big day, and the big sales to follow.
Which meant that Brown had to add another roaster to the mix, bringing on an outlet on Long Island to supplement efforts by the two local roasters he had been working with. “But even now, we’re still using 100 percent New York State-roasted beans,” he says.
The beans themselves come from the literal ends of the earth: Peru, India, Guatemala, Honduras and Sumatra. But it’s the way these beans are roasted that results in a cup of coffee with twice the caffeine of a traditional cup. Death Wish beans are also fair trade, organic, all-natural and kosher. There are three blends: the flagship, a dark roast, Valhalla, a medium dark roast, and a barrel-aged “spirited” version.
The idea for the “world’s strongest coffee” came to Brown in 2011, although it didn’t become a reality until 2012. Since then, his team has worked hard to get their product out there, and into the hands of customers.
Sales for the Round Lake-based business have doubled each year for the last three years, and with good reason, Brown says—it’s because of his team and his fans. “The quality of work this team puts out blows me away. They’re just completely dedicated.”
Everything from marketing, to graphic design is done in-house, and Brown likes it that way. Going forward, he says he would like to keep as much in-house as he can.
“We’ve worked around the clock, seven days-a-week,” says Kane Grogan, who joined up with Brown in 2013 to handle advertising and customer service. But even though the pressure remains high, the last several months were even harder, he says: “I think that the contest was more stressful, honestly. It was the hardest thing we’ve ever been through.”
That’s because Brown and his team had a “don’t leave anything to chance attitude.” Which meant get out there, talk to people and grow the customer base. That’s how they scored big—by winning the popular vote. Fans voted them to the top.
“The local community drove voting home for us,” Brown says. “The quality of the fans made the difference.”
But the grassroots love for Death Wish has been strong from the get-go. “We had to be likable, get out in our communities, reach out to influencers, friends, family,” he says. “We constantly had to get out of our comfort zone. It was almost like a marketing experiment.”
And it paid off, in more ways than one.
“We’re so much closer now,” Grogan says. Not only that, Brown’s team seems to enjoy what they do: “Mike has a very west coast approach to how much fun you can allow yourself to have.” Which is a lot, and has done wonders towards keeping spirits up, in spite of long hours.
“Morale is good,” Brown says. “We’ve been under a lot of pressure, but it’s good pressure.”
As far as what’s next, Brown says it’s a matter of figuring out which opportunity is the best one, and diving in. Whether that’s a retail outlet like Target, or a grocery chain like Whole Foods, has yet to be determined. “We’re looking to move into some national distribution, and want to act soon while our name is still in people’s minds,” Brown says.
It’s a decision he and his team are not taking lightly, although they’re trying to enjoy the success so far. “We’re happy with where we are now. Things are good.”
Death Wish should be on target for something truly epic in 2016: “We’re still waiting for it to level out, but when it does we think we’ll be somewhere at about four times what we were doing before the Super Bowl.”
“Which is awesome,” Brown says.