So, Cason Crane. So, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who are you and how did you start Explorer Cold Brew?
Cason Crane: I’m a bit of an explorer myself. Most notably, I was the first openly gay person to climb the highest mountains on each continent, also known as the Seven Summits, which includes Everest. During the pandemic, I was stuck at home in my little apartment in New York. I couldn’t go out, I couldn’t travel, and I couldn’t really do all the endurance activities that I’m addicted to. I needed to channel all of my energy to something else. So, my identity evolved from being an endurance athlete and adventurer to entrepreneur and founder of Explorer Cold Brew.
So, you were stuck at home and you couldn’t go out and do all the things you really love and you decided to start a business. Walk me through that moment in your life.
Cason Crane: To be honest, I was kind of depressed. The pandemic hit a lot of people in varying degrees. I’ve been very lucky that I haven’t lost anyone close to me to COVID-19. But even then, it was still a depressing time. I was talking to my therapist and he said, “Cason, you need to find a hobby.”
Explorer Cold Brew was born out of that push. I’m a goal-oriented person so, I started brainstorming different things that I could make in my own kitchen. I’ve always had an entrepreneurial streak and I found it rewarding to play around with different potential product ideas.
There was an instant ramen idea, there was an overnight oats idea. Coffee wasn’t really one of those ideas, but it was a regular part of my day. I was drinking coffee all the time and, during the pandemic, drinking more of it than before and more throughout the day. At a certain point, my fiance put his foot down. “Cason, you need to stop staying up until 4 am.” And I think the problem was I was taking these 4 pm coldbrews everyday.
So, I started to look for a lower-caffeinated cold brew and it didn’t exist. And I was like, “How does this not exist?” That was it.
That’s how you started Explorer Cold Brew.
Basically, I started Explorer Cold Brew mostly because I wanted the product myself. I’m my own biggest customer.
At Explorer Cold Brew, we combine two things that many people realized tduring the pandemic.
- One: we introduce a mix of caffeine levels. Studies show that millennials and Generation Z drink coffee at more points in the day than any prior generation.
- Two: we bring versatility to the experience of making coffee, for our customers to be able to make any coffee drink they want.
Keurig has really transformed the coffee industry with single-serve coffee. But I think that there’s a lot of drawbacks to the existing ways of preparing coffee.
The amazing thing with Explorer Cold Brew is the versatility of our super concentrated cold brew coffee. One to two ounces of it can make basically anything you want – from cappuccinos and lattes, to martinis and more. That versatility is really fun and useful when you’re making coffee at home during the pandemic.
Explorer Cold Brew offers four bottles with very straightforward categories – No Caffeine, Low Caffeine, Regular Caffeine, and Extra Caffeine.
Cason Crane: Yes! And it’s all cold brewed super-concentrated coffee. They all have the same concentration and they have similar taste. We use slightly different mixes to get different caffeine levels. One to two ounces of each could be added to milk or booze—literally any you want—and you can drink it to your taste. We offer different recipes on our website.
Walk me through these different levels of caffeine. How would I know which one to drink as I go about my day?
Cason Crane: For starters, we have four caffeine levels. Our No-Caf basically has no caffeine, around 0 to 2 milligrams per ounce. The Low-Caf is around 50 milligrams per ounce. The Reg-Caf is 100 milligrams per ounce and the Extra-Caf is 150 milligrams per ounce.
If you are a new buyer coming in, I would recommend our starter pack. That gives you four two-ounce bottles, one of each caffeine level. That’s the most important place to start. At Explorer Cold Brew, we believe that there’s no one caffeine level that is a perfect fit for all occasions. Every person has a different occasion in their day where they might want to switch up their caffeine level.
We believe people should be actively thinking about their caffeine as they make their coffee choices. Like they would in a coffee shop. At a coffee shop, you could get a decaf, a half-caf, an extra shot. That’s the sort of model we’re aiming for.
We want to be your coffee shop at home.
I like the conscious coffee drinker campaign and bringing the coffee shop experience at home.
We’re big believers that you should be thinking about your caffeine levels and making your coffee choices accordingly every day.
Coming in, start with our Starter Pack. Try them out. See how your body responds. And then going forward, you can customize your caffeine. If you get our Standard Box, which is a box of 12 that you can get in a dozen different variations that matches whatever caffeine needs that you have. Whether that’s Caf-Fiend, which includes six Reg-Caf and six Extra-Caf, or the Caff-Sensitive Pack, which is six No-Caff and six Low-Caff.
As you were putting this brand together, what was the most surprising thing you learned about the coffee making business?
Cason Crane: Our coffee was crafted by three of the world’s leading coffee taste makers. They are renowned coffee experts – Dalia Jaffal, David Donde and Mikael Jasin. Together, we’ve created this extremely high-quality product.
What surprised me was the reaction that I got from some people in the coffee industry. Talking to some people about the products we were crafting and the incredible coffee we were making, their reaction was, “Why would you waste money on such good quality coffee when your customers won’t be able to tell the difference?”
I think that was an interesting reaction. And it was surprising to me because to me, it’s a no-brainer. When starting a business, the product needs to be stellar. That was a non-negotiable. Obviously, we’re crafting a premium coffee product so it’s definitely must-have for us.
In the end, I feel justified that we have an average rating of 4.9 stars out of 5. Even in our anonymous feedback survey, our net promoter score is 86, which is very high. So, I believe that we certainly made the right choice investing in and creating this very high quality product.
Launching during a pandemic doesn’t seem ideal. What would you say was the biggest challenge that you’ve had to overcome during Explorer Cold Brew’s short journey, pandemic-related or not? Did you, for example, run into supply chain problem with quarantine and lockdowns being enforced?
Cason Crane: We’ve been lucky so far to not have had major issues. But we did face two challenges.
- First, we sold out.
Which was great, but during an inopportune time. Between the end of November and the beginning of December, we received an overwhelming demand. People started talking about us and we received a huge amount of interest. And we sold out right after that.
On one hand, selling out is great from a marketing perspective. You can run ads saying, “Sold Out Twice in Three Months!”
But, really, selling out actually means that you’re running your business poorly in some way. You’re leaving money on the table. It’s certainly a goal to sell out over a period of time, but you also need to be able to replenish with more products. Because of the pandemic, it definitely took a little bit longer to do production runs and we were delayed for a couple of weeks.
- Another challenge is e-commerce has become increasingly crowded.
It’s hard to stand out and acquire customers. That’s the challenge that we’re still trying to crack. We’re constantly trying to figure out new ways of reaching folks who will love our product. That’s something that I’m still learning how to do on a daily basis. We’re still striving on that front.
Talk to me a little about your team. You work with such an International team – with David Donde from South Africa, Dalia Jaffal from Beirut, and Mikael Jasin from Melbourne. How did you build this team and what’s it like working with them?
Cason Crane: The tastemakers are critical to the product and to our company. They reflect not only the time and the dedication that we’ve invested into crafting it, but also our exploratory streak broadly.
The tastemakers and their coffee shops were actually places that I had visited or stumbled upon through my travels. These are the people who inspired me as I was starting out. As I was thinking of crafting a product that would reflect my life experiences and world view, I made a list of my favorite coffee shops in the world that I’d been to.
I’ve been to David’s coffee shop in Cape Town. It’s my favorite coffee shop in the world. It has been named the best coffee shop in the world—twice. I had been planning a trip to Beirut, where I had previously lived, to visit Dalia, but I wasn’t able to do that because of the pandemic. I had stumbled upon Mikael while researching Indonesian coffee because of a trip I had taken to Indonesia last year.
They’ve expressed a ton of interest in Explorer Cold Brew. They provided a lot of input and advice in crafting the product and the company.
So, basically, you traveled around the world and that’s how you built your super team.
Cason Crane: Yes! Exactly. And I feel very lucky that they feel as passionate about Explorer Cold Brew as I do.
Now, we’ve reached the point where we discuss your branding. I like how everything seems to line up. Even the process of finding the team to build and craft your coffee fits the explorer story very much.
Cason Crane: Thank you! I wouldn’t say that branding is my strongest suit. But Explorer Cold Brew‘s branding—and I think this is a lesson for other founders out there—the reason why it comes off as coherent and natural is because it mirrors my core experiences as well.
I think it’s natural to think of products that you don’t necessarily have an attachment to or to think of branding that you don’t have a personal attachment to. But for me, it’s all personal.
It’s something I created for me and for other people, but first and foremost, for me. The branding is personal because I wanted it to reflect my own story.
Nowadays, consumers, especially younger consumers, just want authentic branding. My advice to other founders is don’t overthink the branding. Think of it as an extension of your passion and your interests, and if you do that, other people will recognize you as genuine and authentic.
I want to break that down. For a lot of entrepreneurs, it can be really hard to tell the right story in a way that is authentic to themselves. As a summit explorer, you used the literal journey of climbing summits to draw attention to preventing youth suicide in the LGBT community. How did that campaign help you tell Explorer Cold Brew’s story? What tools and strategies did you pick up and eventually apply in developing the branding around Explorer Cold Brew?
Cason Crane: That’s a great question. So, I learned a couple of lessons from the Rainbow Summit Project, which was my fundraising initiative for the Trevor Project Suicide Prevention Service. I should be clear that I can’t say that I’ve implemented them 100% of the time perfectly, I’m still working on it.
One—the power of a simple story.
The number one thing I learned is that people really need a simple story. The simpler the better. And this is a “do as I say, not do as I do” scenario, because I tend to constantly over-complicate our story and our product. But I think it’s easy for someone on this kind of journey to take for granted how much time we spend with our products in our own heads. Other people have ten seconds of brain energy to spend on your product and your story. So, it needs to be super simple.
For example, the Seven Summits is not something that a lot of people know about. But a lot of people know about Mount Everest. Sometimes, I just say that “I’m Cason Caron, I climbed Mount Everest for LGBT Suicide Prevention”. Because even the added detail of explaining what the Seven Summits are can lose people because they don’t have the mental energy to spend on every little detail. So, from a branding perspective, the simpler you can make it, the better.
Like, recently, I ordered pistachio milk. It’s “true pistachio milk”. That’s it, that’s the story.
For Explorer Cold Brew, it’s a little more complex – it’s “premium cold brew super concentrate in four caffeine levels”. It’s a mouthful. The simpler version would be “speciality coffee in four caffeine levels”. Frankly, I’m still constantly learning from my own mistakes and trying to improve.
Two—The importance of giving back.
Secondly—and this is a lesson learned just from a personal perspective—I have to give back in some way. I’m someone who grew up with a lot of privilege that I’m so grateful for. So, for me, it has always been a no-brainer that whatever ventures or projects, I make sure to give back in some way.
For Explorer Cold Brew, right now, we’re fundraising for clean water.
Clean water is one of the biggest health and social crises in the world. It doesn’t sound as flashy as some of the other issues out there, but providing clean water can have transformative effects on society and local economies around the world. Accessibility makes an incredible difference.
In summary, giving back is very important to me and in everything I do.
Are there other decisions you’ve done for Explorer Cold Brew that you think represents your creative energy?
Cason Crane: The biggest thing for me that sets my journey with Explorer Cold Brew apart from others was I was very determined to move as quickly as possible to putting a product to the market. Other people would advise to develop prototypes and spend more time with focus groups.
I am obsessed with customer feedback, but I also believe that really great customer feedback will come from buying a product that they’re actually paying for in the market. Until that point, you’ll get moderately useful input.
Obviously, we had dozens and dozens of iterations before landing on our final brew. During that process, it wasn’t just me and the tastemakers. Many people tried it. But I moved very, very quickly in the development process in order to get the product to market sooner, because I think that’s where you can really get the best learnings.
That’s also why I think any e-commerce founder needs take advantage of and be driven by data. That’s the biggest value-add of e-commerce in my opinion. You get so much data when you’re going direct-to-consumer. You can make sure that your product is doing what customers want it to do. And you can understand your customers better, and help them understand you better.
So, we went from an idea in my head at the start of May to sold-out by the end of October. That is a very, very, very rapid timeline. The typical timeline would be at least a year, and, for beverage, it generally takes longer than five months. To be fully launched within five months and sold out within six months, and then sold out again a month later, I think that sets us apart.
I’ve always approached that speed to market as if I were a Y Combinator tech start-up. My Y Combinator advice is: fail quickly, pivot quickly. I make micro adjustments as I go along, constantly getting data from my customers in order to evolve and finetune our offerings. And I think that only comes from having it out there for public purchase and consumption.
Based on your experience, what would be your advice to other entrepreneurs?
Cason Crane: My advice would be to get a product out there sold for real as quickly as possible. Perfecting the branding, perfecting the website—all of which comes with time. I think there’s a natural fear before you launch. You want everything to be perfect because if the website doesn’t look amazing, people are not going to buy. And it’s better to start building that and getting the idea out sooner. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.
You make it sound very exciting. Get the product out there, get it in people’s hands as soon as possible, get the feedback, and grow and change as you go.
Cason Crane: Exactly. And it is very exciting! And it’s easy to lose sight of the excitement. But it is, ultimately, an exciting experience and very cool to be bringing a new product into the world. It’s natural to get discouraged—but starting a business is a roller coaster. That’s where I feel lucky that I’ve experienced mountaineering and ultramarathons.
As an experienced endurance athlete, I draw strength from my past experiences to keep myself motivated, to keep myself going through both the highs and the lows. Everyone needs to find and call on their inner magic to keep themselves going.
Where is your business headed in 2021? Where do you want to see Explorer Cold Brew in a year’s time?
Cason Crane: Great question. Right now, what is Explorer Cold Brew? It’s a super concentrate cold brew in four caffeine levels. My vision for Explorer Cold Brew in 2021 is it’s going to be your specialty coffee shop at home. You can make anything you want with our super concentrate cold brew.
What’s next? We’re developing incredible all-natural flavor elixirs which are syrups in different flavors. We encourage people to explore a world of different beverages at home. And then beyond that, chai! Teas! The sky’s the limit.
When people think of specialty coffee shops, I want them to think of their favorite coffee shops or they can stay at home and be their own barista with Explorer Cold Brew.
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