A Healthier Way to Get a Shot of Positivity and Productivity
A Healthier Way to Get a Shot of Positivity and Productivity

"I tell people all the time, I'm grateful for the challenges I have. I’m building a business in America with my brothers, we have amazing investors, we're trying to remove sugar from people's diets. It's all good." 

- Jimmy DeCicco

Elizabeth welcomes Jimmy DeCicco, co-founder of Super Coffee, a healthy and delicious alternative to sugary coffee and energy drinks. Jimmy talks about how Super Coffee came to form as a family business, and how he and his brothers used their close friendship and competitive nature to excel throughout the process. He talks about how Super Coffee went from a dorm room dream to being the fourth largest ready to drink coffee in the United States, also being recognized as the fastest-growing food and beverage company in the country by Inc. Magazine. Jimmy shares some business and productivity lessons he has learned throughout the startup journey, the significance of celebrating achievements and showing gratitude, and their dedication to keeping Super Coffee’s ingredients both clean and delicious.


    Elizabeth Stein 00:00
    Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth Stein, founder, and CEO of Purely Elizabeth. And this is Live Purely with Elizabeth, featuring candid conversations about how to thrive on your wellness journey.

    Jimmy DeCicco 00:15
    This week's guest is Jimmy DeCicco who co-founded Super Coffee with his two younger brothers as tired collegiate athletes in 2015. Today, Super Coffee is the fourth largest ready-to-drink coffee in the US. The brand has been named the fastest-growing food and beverage company in the country by Inc. Magazine and is recognized twice by Inc. as one of the best places to work. The DeCicco brothers appeared on Shark Tank and made the Forbes Under 30 list in 2019. And were eWise Entrepreneurs of the Year in 2020. In this episode, we chat about Jimmy's startup story from his brother's dorm room to becoming one of the top beverage brands in the country. Jimmy emphasizes the importance of naive optimism, the influence of sports, and his athletic background on the culture and success of Super Coffee. We talk about his experience on Shark Tank, fundraising, the importance of positivity and motivation, the challenges of balancing growth with profitability, and the importance of celebrating achievements and fostering a positive culture in the workplace. It was so great to catch up with Jimmy keep listening to learn more.

    It's officially oatmeal season and I'm so excited to share that you can find our Purely Elizabeth oatmeal products at select Walmart stores, just in time to get cozy with a warming breakfast. You can find our blueberry flax, oatmeal multipacks, and dark chocolate chunk oatmeal cups in the cereal aisle. Out gluten-free instant oatmeals are made with organic oats combined with five super food grades and seeds for delicious taste and texture. Our packs and cups make for an easy breakfast, snack, or dessert. And they're also perfect to take on the go. Click the Store Locator in the show notes to find a Walmart store near you. Happy oatmeal season and happy shopping.

    Jimmy, welcome to the podcast. It's such a pleasure to spend the morning chatting with you today.

    Jimmy DeCicco 2:28
    Elizabeth, the pleasure is mine. Thanks so much for having me.

    Elizabeth Stein 2:32
    Yeah, so let's start with the beginning of Super Coffee. And first question. Do you remember, I'm sure you do, where you were when you first heard the idea from your brother?

    Jimmy DeCicco 2:45
    Yeah, so I was graduating college at Colgate University. It was like the big graduation weekend and my brother was there. I knew he was working on something in his dorm room. But I thought it was a class project. And he showed up with this little cooler. He had his little stick-on labels for these glass bottles that he made. And he called it Super Coffee. And it tasted pretty good. The formula was different back then. Tasted pretty good. And I was like, “Oh, this is cool.” I was glad to see my little brother doing something outside of class and sports. So that was the first moment, that would have been May of 2015.

    Elizabeth Stein 3:20
    And in that moment, was he like, “Hey, I've got this business idea”, or how was it presented to you? And if it was a business idea, were you like, “Oh, you're onto something?”

    Jimmy DeCicco 3:34
    At that moment, I did not think it would turn into a business or what it is today. I had a job lined up on Wall Street. I was gonna go work for Colgate Guy and Finance and my brothers were all excited about this incubator program accelerator that Georgetown offered where they were going to school. And they were like, “Yeah, we're going to do this program. There's a two or three-month program, we got these academic advisors, these entrepreneurs, and residents.” I was like, “That's awesome. That sounds great.” Like, for me, I thought it was gonna be a very cool summer exercise where they put together a business plan. They did presentations and mock pitches and things like that. It wasn't until August of that year that my brother called me and said, “Hey, I'm dropping out of school to start this coffee company.” And I'm like, “Whoa, this went from class project to big a decision and quickly.”

    Elizabeth Stein 4:20
    And what year was he in school at that point?

    Jimmy DeCicco 4:23
    He just finished his freshman year heading into his sophomore year.

    Elizabeth Stein 4:28
    Okay, let’s take a step back also here where did the idea for Super Coffee come for your brother?

    Jimmy DeCicco 4:34
    I think like most things, it was a solution for himself. As a student-athlete on campus, it was a Pepsi school. So the only energy drinks they had were Red Bull or Starbucks frappuccino. Back then, bottled coffee wasn't for energy. It was indulgent. It was a midday treat. 46 grams of sugar, 300 calories. He was like, “I'm tired. I need something that's going to give me energy. I want it to taste good and be good for me.” So he turned to a blender in his dorm room and started making stuff. And it was all iterations on bulletproof coffee with MCT oil and zero sugar and protein. He found something that worked for him and his teammates were excited about it. And that's how we got going.

    Elizabeth Stein 5:15
    That's awesome. Eventually, he calls you and says he's dropping out of college. And immediately, what did you think?

    Jimmy DeCicco 5:25
    I was like, oh, no, this is crazy. Like, sort of the big brother, parental sort of genes in me came out. And I was like, I got to supervise this thing. I just got to make sure that he's getting off on the right track. So initially, when I decided to join him, my middle brother, Jake, was still in school. Jake didn't drop out of school. But Jake sort of helped his entire senior year, while Jordan fully dropped out. And I was like, I'm going to do this for six months max. I'll help you raise money, I'll help you put together a true business plan, and maybe help you get a contract manufacturer.

    Elizabeth Stein 6:04
    Have you ever done any of this, or you're just like, I could be helpful?

    Jimmy DeCicco 6:07
    I was like, I could be helpful in the arrogant Big Brother way. It's like, you guys don't know what you're doing. I'm gonna come in here and make sure that this thing gets off on the right foot. And there was nothing strategic about starting a bottled Coffee Company. We didn't know what a contract manufacturer was. Our mom works at the YMCA, and our dad is a construction worker. It wasn't like we had an uncle who was going to distribute us nationwide at Whole Foods from day one. So we learned the hard way, the slow way, the expensive way.

    Elizabeth Stein 6:38
    I love that. I too went to my first Expo, not even knowing what a distributor was. I do nothing. It was all a foreign language. But I think you just figure it out. And I think being naive, especially in the beginning is so impactful. Because I think if you knew all the things, they probably would limit you and that fear and that kind of more negative self-talk would probably get in the way. So I do love how you guys, as a brand, are very much about like, yes, and going after anything and everything. So curious to hear like, what was that feeling for you guys in the beginning of being fearless? And where did that come from?

    Jimmy DeCicco 7:23
    Yeah, I think it was naive optimism. We had the pleasure of reaching out to guys like Seth Goldman from Honest Tea and Ben Weiss from Bai and his President Ken Kurtz over at Bai. They would all give us their time for 20 minutes, 30 minutes here and there. And we'd go put their advice to work. And some of the earliest advice they gave us was to go inch wide mile deep. If you're in one store, support that store with everything you got. It's all you got. So you might as well spend a lot of time there. And that mentality proved to be invaluable to us. Because this is an industry for you and us that is all about velocity. Retailers need to see stuff that is not unique and different, but it's selling once and people are coming back and buying it again and again. And beverage velocity is everything. So we said we're not leaving this first store until we're the best-selling bottled coffee in that store.

    Elizabeth Stein 8:17
    What was your first store?

    Jimmy DeCicco 8:18
    It was a Whole Foods in Georgetown. This was before Amazon-owned Whole Foods. So you could kind of go store by store and convince.

    Elizabeth Stein 8:27
    That’s how I started too.

    Jimmy DeCicco 8:28
    Yeah, you get it. And so this guy gave us a shot. And he gave us four facings in this little cooler. And by the end of the first day, we spread out to 12. There were samples.

    We're stocking shelves every day. And he loved it. But he was also kind of annoyed to see us in his store every day. But at the end of the day, he was like, “You guys broke my store's weekly sales record in four hours. Like I love you and keep doing this.” That level of support is not that sustainable. But when all you have is one store, you might as well do it. And we just did that store by store for the first year and a half. And we had a really strong data story that we were able to sell into Wegmans and expand into the Northeast. But that was the critical moment for like, we don't know much about this business. We just know we have to sell a lot of bottles of coffee.

    Elizabeth Stein 9:15
    Yeah, totally. Curious you mentioned raising money. And certainly, CPG is very expensive. And I remember early on someone saying it's gonna cost you a million dollars to get into Whole Foods nationally. And that advice was very accurate. I'd imagine in beverage, it's that much more resource intensive. So what was it like for you? You certainly, as you said, did not have prior experience raising money. What was it like for you originally raising money? And what were those lessons that you took?

    Jimmy DeCicco 9:47
    Yeah, I think early on, we learned that traditional food and beverage funds like the VMGs of the world and Excel Foods of the world, folks that have experience in this space, weren't interested in investing in a pre-revenue cash-burning bottled coffee business. They provided the most scrutiny. And, over the years, we've never raised from a traditional consumer fund. So in the early days, we sort of raised money from whoever had it and was willing to give it to us. It was some of our college teammates, their parents were in big real estate businesses, and we got in front of them. That was a six-figure check. We met a guy, we were pouring samples at Whole Foods, and my brother was wearing his Georgetown football hat. And the guy was like, “Oh, I went to Georgetown, I'm a lawyer here in DC, how can I be helpful to you.” “We're raising money, do you know anybody that we could do it?” And the next week, he had us in front of five of his clients who were bankers and real estate folks, etc. That was a half a million dollars. And always what we did was we'd raise money, we'd go increase sales, or we'd expand distribution, or we launch a new product. Then we'd go back to the same investors first and foremost, and say, “Look, we're doing everything we said we would. Can you help us get to the next phase?” and they'd either introduce us to somebody else, or create that brand momentum, but it was all very organic. And people call it dumb money like dumb money is somebody who doesn't come from the industry and can't help you grow. I don't like that term. But I think it's money from people who can afford to give it to you. And it's up to us to surround ourselves with the right advisors, the right executives, and the right team, to help us grow once we have that money.

    Elizabeth Stein 11:24
    So in the beginning, when you were first raising money, how early was that? And then how much of a “track record” had you had? How much were these people investing because you guys were this like dynamic brother trio that people just loved? Versus like you're getting into this massive category are going up against Starbucks, like, what are you doing?

    Jimmy DeCicco 11:45
    Yeah, it depends on who the group was. VMG would say the ladder or they're like, you're going up against Starbucks, call us when you're profitable doing 100 million in sales, and we'll take about it. And then other people, it was betting on the jockeys.

    They're like, wow, we love your energy. You're fresh out of school, you were all competitive athletes. We love the differentiation, people saw what we saw in terms of the world needing a healthy bottle of coffee because it doesn't exist. And oh, by the way, it's a $5 billion category. If we get 10% of this thing, it's a $500 million revenue business. If we get 5% of the thing is still $250 million. Right? It was it was a really big opportunity, and just getting a very small slice seemed very achievable back then. So, they saw the vision. They believe we were the guys to bring that to life. And they bet on us to do it. It wasn't until the year 2018 that we had some strong data stories. We finally had a track record. We did what we said we'd do. We took that same Whole Foods approach at Wegmans 100 store chain up in the Northeast, and we became the number one bottled coffee in Wegmans. We were like 40% of category sales at Wagman. Our current CEO guy named Tyler Rick. He saw that data and was like, “How do I invest?” So he invested in us back then we brought him on as a board member. And that was all because, if you guys do half of what you're doing at Wegmans, if you could do that at Publix, at Meijer, at H-E-B, at Ralph's, you have a very real exciting opportunity here.

    Elizabeth Stein 13:22
    That's amazing. So you mentioned your athletic backgrounds, and you certainly didn't have a career background that was helping you to like, I know this thing that I did in my prior business to take into launching this, but you had your athletic background, and that, I think, plays so much into the ethos of being an entrepreneur and launching a company. So I'd love to hear how that manifested for you guys and helped influence the culture and just your work ethic and all the things that have helped to make the brand successful.

    Jimmy DeCicco 13:55
    Yeah, I think sports have shaped us both as individuals and as teammates. And as individuals, there's got to be a fire inside. I played football, Jake played football, Jordan played basketball. But if I'm lining up across from a defender on the football field, it's me versus him. I have to want it more than that person, I have to go harder. Some animal instinct needs to take over for me to win that one-on-one matchup. And there's only so much shelf space in this game. You need to have a bit of a fire right and be willing to outwork, out hustle other brands, other distributors, other competitors, and things like that. So that was ingrained in us at an early age, both of our parents were college athletes. And then the second piece is teamwork. You can't do this alone.

    You're only as strong as your weakest link. You need to make sacrifices. It's not about you. Like in a team sport like football, it's not about any one player. We care as much about the person making the assist as we do about the person scoring the goal. And that was also a big part of who we were as young athletes. And to your point, we don't come from corporate culture, we haven't worked at any other companies before. So the culture here at Super Coffee is kind of an extension of our personalities and the values that our parents instilled in us, and not just our parents, but our coaches as well.

    As well as I do, the culture of a brand is a combination of the personalities of all the people who work there. And if you get enough people who are interested in the same things and the same goals, you get a very clear culture out of that.

    Elizabeth Stein 15:36
    Oh, boy. And that must be so powerful to have three of you at the helm of it. Having three, I would imagine would just be so dominating and infectious.

    Jimmy DeCicco 15:52
    Yeah, it was a special story, and people like that. It was like really an American Dream story. And we get it all the time. Like, how do you work with your brothers?

    Elizabeth Stein 16:00
    That was going to be my next question.

    Jimmy DeCicco 16:02
    I thought I could never do it with my sister. And I think we're so close in age. Like today, I'm 36, Jake’s 29, George's 28. We're best friends. But we're also rivals in the backyard growing up, you know. So there's a lot of trust built in. There's a lot of chemistry. At the end of the day, we know that we all want what's best for the business. And if the business doesn't work out, or if it's enormously successful, we're still brothers and best friends. So that's a very unique benefit that we have. Working with those guys has been a blessing. We had to overcome a lot of early emotional challenges. When we were kids, if I was like, “Hey, Jake, you're swinging the bat wrong.” He'd be like, “Screw you. You don't know how to swing a bat, you suck. “And now I'm like, “Hey, man, I want to give you feedback on how you showed up in that meeting.” He'd be like, “Okay, Lay it on me. I know, you're giving me feedback, because you saw how I can improve.” But that came with time and very clear conversations of, let's get our egos away. Let's get our emotions away. Let's coach each other up. Because we must do that.

    Elizabeth Stein 17:07
    How did you learn to do that? I think being an entrepreneur, it's all about the journey personally, not just professionally. It's how you're learning along the way. So we'd love to hear any advice and how you've learned because I'm sure on day one of the three of you working together, you weren't giving him feedback, and at least not doing it constructively in the right way.

    Jimmy DeCicco 17:32
    Yeah. I think day one, was more like Backyard Baseball on one. That was tough. And we realized quickly that like we couldn't be fiery and emotional, especially once we hired people. But I think the big thing that we've always had is recognizing that we've never done this before, and not being afraid to ask for help. So reaching out to the Seth Goldmans of the world was very helpful. And a lot of the people who have been successful and come before us saw their younger selves in us. So they're like, “Yeah, I'm happy to share 30 minutes with you guys.” A lot of this was for free. No, we never really had paid advisors. If people got equity in the company, it's because they invested that's one piece of advice I'd give to any buddy starting is like, don't give away equity for advice. I think there are very valuable people and advice is important. But if you're working 80 hours a week on this thing, you should expect people to make bigger sacrifices with you, if you're going to give them a chunk of your company.

    Elizabeth Stein 18:34
    What was it like the first Christmas that you guys came home?

    Jimmy DeCicco 18:38
    For the first year or two, Mom and Dad were still very helpful in terms of advice. Because there's all practicals. Be good people, work hard. They gave very practical guidance along the way. And it was awesome. But everybody goes through this in their 20s when your parents become your peers. And now my mom is my best friend and not my mom anymore. But in that process, the business got so big and complicated, and the business became very complex, that my parents were like, “We got nothing. You’re on your own.”

    Elizabeth Stein 19:10
    So funny. So as you went through growing the business you went on Shark Tank and had that experience. What would you say is the best and worst thing that came out of that?

    Jimmy DeCicco 19:29
    I think the best thing is, I didn't realize how popular that show is. The best thing is the brand awareness and the effect that it has on people. People are like, “Wow, you guys went on Shark Tank. What was that like? I watched that show. My son loves that show.” It's a ritual in a lot of American households. Yeah, so I think I underestimated the power of that show.

    Elizabeth Stein 19:52
    And have you guys been contemplating for a while going on the show?

    Jimmy DeCicco 19:55
    There was a weird stigma. I didn't want to be a shark tank brand. And not that there’s anything wrong with that, but at the time it felt kind of gimmicky. People kind of went on their infomercial-type stuff. So that was challenging. But you can imagine any demo we did at Whole Foods where it was more than one of us people were like, “You guys gotta go on Shark Tank. This is great.” The odds just aren't great 40,000 companies apply every season and 100 get picked to go in. But it wasn't until the summer of our second year that a producer reached out to us and said, “Hey, we heard about your story, you still got to go through the application process, which is 90 90-page, 10-minute video, the whole deal. But we'll put your application on the top of the list.” So basically, it's like, you're not going to be one in 40,000. We’ll read what you have to say. So that was important. But the second part of what was the worst thing about it, I don't know, I think just from an ego perspective, not getting a deal, we didn't even get an offer. In the end, it didn't matter. But walking out of that show, we're like, dang, we just lost the national championship on television. This hurts. So that was disappointing for a minute, and then we turned it into something pretty good.

    Elizabeth Stein 21:13
    And utilizing that feedback to make any changes in the business.

    Jimmy DeCicco 21:18
    Yeah, well, so that's one thing that people don't realize is that we filmed in June of 2017. And our episode didn't air until February of 2018. So 8 months later and on the episode, the sharks are like, “I don't like the taste”, “I'm not sure about the packaging, blah, blah, blah, blah.” By the time the episode aired, we had a new and improved formula on the market, we had new labels on the market and we made a lot of changes.

    And those changes were inevitable whether the sharks told us that are not, create this product for Barbara Corcoran. But the feedback was valuable, and we moved quickly to make improvements.

    Elizabeth Stein 21:52
    Well, you've certainly come a long way from that Shark Tank till now and have created this incredible brand size of business. And I think it's really interesting how you've taken an approach to talk about, I think, taste more in your product, then like you have all these amazing benefits of MCT oil and, and protein, but it's not in your face that someone who is a more conventional shopper might not be turned off from. So I'm curious to hear what your approach has been in building the brand scaling the brand and getting you to where you guys are today.

    Jimmy DeCicco 22:34
    Yeah. Good question. So in the early days, we were very much on the side of functional and healthy. On the front of our labels, it said, Super Coffee, protein plus MCT oil.

    We're leaning in heavy to medium chain triglycerides, and the keto diet and good for brain health. And what we realized is that was a very small market. A big question we have is what is MCT oil? Why should I care about this? Why are there four grams of fat in here? Where did that come from? And I think with beverages, we need to be available in 100,000 stores to get to that critical mass. And of those 100,000, maybe 2000 of them are the Whole Foods sprouts, like healthy Kroger type stores that that people care about those ingredients. And those are early adopters. So they're going to embrace it, whether you're calling it out or not. The people who read the back of the label, see monkfruit, they see MCT oil, and they say let's go on with that. But in convenience stores and gas stations in the middle of the country, the moment you tell that shopper that it's 70 calories, zero sugar is the moment he says to himself, that's a diet product, and it must not taste good. That dude wants full flavor and full energy.

    He's not looking at the back of the label. So we just launched this Super Coffee extra. This is for him. We call him Bubba. He is blue-collar in collar middle of America, like the backbone of our country. And this is still zero grams of added sugar. It's half the calories of a Java monster, but it's sweetened with sucralose. So a little bit out of the natural channel for us. And it uses real milk instead of protein. But it tastes like a freakin milkshake. And it's still better for you. It gives you the energy. And this is what's going to work in that channel. So I guess Long story short, we evolved from very functional forward messaging into a more mainstream flavor, yet still better for you functional, but just a different type of marketing approach.

    Elizabeth Stein 24:35
    I think that was smart. And it's something that I think even for us, we just did a rebrand this past year. And before that, while we loved our packaging, it was pretty clinical looking and didn't have that taste appeal and now bringing on a photograph of the food and having that taste appeal, I think has made such a big difference. I'm curious to hear from you about how making that change and just reaching those consumers has been.

    What does that journey look like for you? How have you thought about like building community? And what's been that thing that has resonated most and helped you accelerate your growth?

    Jimmy DeCicco 25:17
    I wish it was one thing. It's a million things, right? But I think showing the flavor first is important. The good flavor is table stakes. Without it, people don't care that you use mushroom adaptogens. They don't care about MCT. They don't care about any of that stuff. If it doesn't taste good, at least at scale at Erawan, they care about that. But there are seven Erawans in the country. For us, we need to win at Walmart more than we win at Whole Foods. So I think flavors are critical. I think differentiation is critical. Every brand needs to answer the question of why will succeed at first. Basically, what makes you different from what exists? And for us were the zero sugar, low calorie option in the sweetened latte category. So we taste good, we're good for you. But then you still gotta cut through the noise. And the brand needs to mean something. And for us, it's positive energy. It's the energy that our products give you. But it's also this motivational encouraging tone that the brand takes. If you have a job to do, grab a Super Coffee, because it's going to help you get that job done. And that shows up in a variety of ways. We don't own any platforms. We're not the official coffee of CrossFit or anything like that. But we show up at Spartan Races, we show up at local 5ks, and local marathons where people are trying. We're not there for the folks who win the race.

    We're there for the folks who want to finish the race. And I think if we can be that, that tool that helps people get the job done, that's where we're going to focus and lean into in 2024.

    Elizabeth Stein 26:56
    Nice. Well, I love that positive aspect of the brand. And probably coming back to the earlier part of the conversation, the culture, stemming from the three of your personalities has been optimistic. So I'd love to hear a little bit about how you managed to stay optimistic on this journey. And what's helped you especially when things are not so easy, which is a roller coaster, and it's not always easy.

    Jimmy DeCicco 27:24
    Yeah. So I think entrepreneurship is about energy. All the entrepreneurs I know, at least the ones who have been doing it a while, have more energy than other people. And I think for me, if my energy is waning on any particular day, I look at both of my brothers and chances are one of them is feeling good so I have that. I have a good support system and a good team. And honestly, it's the basics. It's got to be a good diet. I don't eat any added sugars or too many added sugars. I don't drink a lot of calories, like certainly no sodas, no Gatorade, things like that. So having a good diet that's high in protein, and high in veggies, that's important. Eight hours of sleep every night is sort of non-negotiable. A lot of nights, it turns into seven hours. But I think I can't do any less than seven. And that requires saying no to things. Like sorry, I'm not going out to dinner on a Wednesday night. I'm not going out to the bar on Friday. There are certain things like that, that I have to stay true to. Physical activity every day, whether it's going for a walk or running for 20 minutes in the garage. I think a lot of entrepreneurs you and I both know are like, I've been on the road I don't have time to work out. It's like, come on, man. Everybody

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