David Silverman is the VP of Brand + Digital at Brewbike, a mission-driven coffee company that exists to empower young people through entrepreneurial experience. Pre-pandemic, that was accomplished by giving students the keys to their own coffee business on college campus. That all changed in March 2020, when campuses closed and revenue went to zero overnight. Brewbike quickly created a Shopify store and launched a DTC model that remains a thriving sector of their business over one year later. David joined us to share the steps Brewbike took to embrace DTC, the core pillars of a successful subscription service, and what’s next as Brewbike expand to an additional six campuses this fall.

Show Topics

  • Using Shopify as a base will take you far
  • Applying online subscriptions to in-person sales
  • Leverage conversational communication
  • Make subscribers feel special
  • Focus on subscription customization
  • Communicate with subscribers at the right time

Show Links

Show Notes

4:19 - Brewbike’s shift to DTC

Pre-pandemic, Brewbike’s DTC model was close to nonexistent. Then, they came up with their signature cold brew teabag concept that allowed customers to steep delicious cold brew overnight.

“We had tried our hand at selling something online one time before, and that was like direct to consumer in the most pure sense of the definition. It was like by the books direct consumers, a box of cold brew. People would fill out a form online and buy and we’d go to their dorm and bring it to them. So it was direct to consumer, and that did not work super well. But then we were forced into having some product we could sell online. And we ended up coming up with this idea, which is now like everyone does, and trade coffee started doing it, so they're going to wreck us. But it's basically like a cold brew bag. It's like a teabag. And you steam it in a mug, or we have a mason jar that we sell, overnight. And then in the morning you have fresh cold brew you can drink. And we've got these fancy flavors we do on campus. One of them is cinnamon sugar. Students love it, customers online love it. And the flavor has definitely proved to be a big part of it. But we tried to do this Harry's situation, like the razor and the razor handle, with the mason jar and the refillable patches we do.”

8:38 - Using Shopify as a base will take you far

Thanks to Shopify and a few app integrations, Brewbike’s online shop was up and running in a span of two weeks.

“We threw together a Shopify store. We used Debut and we just put up the shop and put up pictures of our campuses where we're like, ‘look how great this was! Wouldn't it be great if we could keep this thing alive?’ I think the hardest part was actually getting the product ready and keeping the product in stock. We were making it all ourselves. We hired students that were out of a job, if they came in during the pandemic. Protocols of doing stuff with food during the pandemic was really hard. Ultimately I think that was the biggest challenge. But we did everything by the book. And in terms of Shopify, there are a suite of apps that as I can tell everyone uses. If you put Shopify, Klayvio, an SMS marketing tool, and Recharge together, you have this really cookie-cutter basic store. And that's what we did. We launched it in two weeks. We had one of our best days ever in company history on the first day, because all the students got affiliate links through an affiliate app. They were sharing it like crazy. And we just went from there. That was rodeo #1.”

10:30 - Applying online subscriptions to in-person sales

In the long game, Brewbike is pursuing a hybrid world where subscriptions are running both online, through their store, and offline on their college campuses. The hope is that when students graduate, they will automatically move to a DTC subscription.

“It’s headless, which we also talked about, which is a whole other ball game. Definitely for us, I think in the long run it’s the right choice. Because there's a lot of interesting things that we want to leverage the website to do that I don't think Shopify is quite ready for. But that was definitely rodeo #2. We're launching an app. I think that's rodeo #3. And that's where the whole idea of subscriptions becomes a lot different for us, and how we want to use the concept of subscriptions or just some sort of recurring charge to make in-person coffee a little bit different. Right now we have subscriptions on our website. I have a framework of how I see subscriptions, how they should work. And we're trying to do that online. But there's definitely an element of, how can we take everything that's great about DTC subscription and the popularity of it now, and apply it to an in-person experience? Especially in such a specific type of community like a college campus.”

14:01 - Subscription rule #1: don't run out of product

As Brewbike scaled, the team had to stay one step ahead of demand. One pitfall arose during the pre-order process, when inventory wasn’t properly synced with the website.

“The number one rule of subscription is don't run out of the products...we started making this stuff in the kitchen in Chicago. Obviously when we scaled, we were like, okay. We have to find a co-packer and a 3PL. We found this great company in Ohio that makes the cold brew bags in the perfect way, and we found a good warehouse to ship them out. But even then, we're playing this ball game of having these really big PO’s and making sure that we're threading the needle and everything comes in on time. And number one, we have pre-order sometimes. The first really big issue we had was with pumpkin spice the first time, where we had a pre-order. It went out and it sold like crazy, but it was not synced correctly. This is a classic DTC ecommerce problem, right? We charged the cards. People bought the product. It should be that simple. But it didn't sync right with the 3PLS software and their app with Shopify. I had to manually move orders from one location to another for 800 or so orders.”

17:10 - Set up a stockout solution

David and his team figured out a simple workaround so that they never oversell product: When the stock goes below 200, David gets an alert and makes it un-shoppable on the website instead of unsyncing sales elsewhere in the pipeline.

“I get an alert when stock goes below 200, and I make the product un-shoppable on our website. And that's a lot of the thing. Our website is headless, like I said. And that's another thing we had to just push a fix to, which is that we couldn't stock it out easily enough. And we couldn't do an artificial stockout, because we have the headless site where obviously right at the front end is different than what's happening in the back end on Shopify. And then we also have this 3PL that has an app integration with Shopify. And that app is automatically changing stock and changing inventory location to the point where if I hard unsync so that I can make the inventory artificially zero so that it's not shoppable, this app will override. Because it knows there's stock. So we now have a really good solution, which is we can manually say the products are un-shoppable on the front end. And when it gets below 200, I turn it off so that our subscribers don't get affected.”

20:21 - Leverage conversational communication

Thanks to Attentive, Gorgias, Kaviyo, and Recharge, David’s team keeps in close contact with Brewbike’s customers. The goal is to keep tabs on where they are in their college journey and the overall sales pipeline.

“We use Attentive for SMS. Attentive has an inbox and you can do conversational things. We're pretty aggressive with how much we leverage the conversational aspect of it. So we do our best. We use Gorgias for customer experience, and that integration with Attentive is pretty good. So you can actually have some two-way communication there. We use Klaviyo for email. We use Recharge. And I think the last relevant part of our stack truly is that we use Square on campus. And it's relevant because in one of your previous episodes, you guys talked about Klaviyo and how you can have custom events. I just figured out through Zapier, you can connect Square and Klayvio so that I can have a purchase event in store, go into the customer's Klaviyo history. Because ideally we'd like to know what year the customer is at school, when they're going to graduate, and then time it so that if they just make a purchase in store and they get the receipt that we can follow up quickly and say, ‘Hey, we know you're a senior or you're moving off campus. You should try this product that you can make at home instead of having to go into the store.’”

21:51 - Make subscribers feel special

David says the goal is to treat subscription customers with white-glove and preferential service whenever possible. Having a rockstar in-house team makes this easy for Brewbike.

“Everything we do is in-house, which is really exciting because we have a lot of control. And also we actually do get to fulfill our mission of empowering young people. All of the content that we put out is written by students, and our customer experience agents are both two undergrads and they are amazing. Consistently our NPS is through the roof. And the number one thing people come back with other than ‘I like the flavor of this coffee’ is that the customer experience is amazing. The team that actually handles tickets and all that jazz, they are super. It's all in-house. It's a lot, but I think as we focus on subscriptions as the ultimate goal of the DTC business, it'll actually get easier to a degree. Because the one-off customers that give us a really hard time with all of their questions and problems, we won't have to spend as much time on. We're really focused on making subscriptions make sense for the customer, have it be easy and editable, and then also really make that customer feel special, and feel like a part of our mission, and catered to like very heavily.”

24:00 - Focus on subscription customization

David says the easier it is to tweak, pause, or cancel orders in real-time, the better a service will make sense for a customer and fit their life. For Brewbike, this applies to both in person and DTC sales.

“It's definitely a concept of mine to have there be this recurring charge for an in-store pickup. So like I can say that have microecon on Wednesdays at 7:45 in the morning outside of the tech building. And I want the coffee ready then every Wednesday. It's actually funny, because it's the same little nudges and same little tweaks to the subscription that you do with DTC, in terms of like pausing or swapping, or editing some sort of little inclusion. For us though, it might be moving it from one location to another on campus. Or it might be again pausing it. I don't need it today, I made coffee at home. And there's an exciting thing with an in person subscription where the timing of it is a little bit more immediate. And it would be really exciting if you could same-day pause your subscription, or even like 20 minutes before.”

31:39 - Native CX integration is missing

When Brewbike needs to pause or cancel a customer’s order, they have to do it manually. David wishes Attentive could build this functionality in, but it’s not available yet.

“They do not have ‘reply to pause’ or ‘reply to cancel.’ We do it artificially, because we have an integration to Gorgias. So we say like reply to cancel, and people do. And then our customer experience agents get an email that says cancel and they go and find the customer. But there's nothing super native. I would say to anyone starting a DTC business that's doing subscription, this is the lesson: that you can really fabricate any sort of experience if you have good people on the receiving end of the requests. For a while, actually even still now, we send our updates from perks@brewbike.com, which is the name of our subscription program. And it's just another email, goes to the same customer service folks, but it's the subscription email. We prioritize those requests. We get to them faster. Even with a super small team, we're able to create this sense of you're a part of a special tier of customer. But yeah, it's something I'm hoping Attentive does soon, is double down on the subscription front. But it's tough to say when that will happen.”

39:54 - Communicate at the right time

Over-communication isn’t a concern for David. What is of importance is reaching the right people at the right time. They prioritize who gets communicated to by setting up separate customer tiers.

“Ultimately for the customer we've had so far, and this is not to offend anyone, but I don't mind sending a customer a lot of notifications. I actually don't think that it's a huge problem. What's much more important to me is that the best notification in terms of conversion gets to them first, and gets them at the most opportune time. And as we integrate another channel like mobile and we get to send in-app notifications, that'll get even more imperative. That the right notification and the right ping is getting them at the right time. And usually we handle that by separating them by days, and tiering customers, and making sure that the first message that gets to them is the best one. And then we're going down the chain of the conversion rate to the next platform and the next platform. But it's a challenge. What I'm thinking about the most is as we get more customers and they're more important to us and they’re more aligned with our brand as a whole, how do we make sure that they're getting the right message at the right time?”