When I was about 15 years old, I began collecting menus from local cafes to generate ideas for my future business. My dream was to open a coffee shop.
When I moved to New York City from Israel and was juggling between school and work, coffee, as you can imagine, was a must! Unfortunately, I couldn't spend $4 on a Starbucks every time and also didn't have room in my tiny studio apartment for a coffee machine. In Israel, instant coffee is much more common and instead of using coffee makers, most people drink it at home or at the office.
To satisfy my coffee needs, I turned to my old coffee habits and hoped to find a good instant coffee for home and on the go. I tried different local instant coffee brands, but didn't like any of them. The search also made me realize that people in America really think badly about instant coffee. I knew instant coffee was misrepresented here and decided to follow my entrepreneurial aspirations. I immediately started working on the idea of a better instant coffee brand. Better product, online, with a social mission and cause behind it.
I started Waka Coffee with my own limited funds (we never raised money ever since) and without prior experience in the food and beverage industry. I listened to so many industry-specific podcasts and read professional blogs, which have taught me a lot about the CPG industry. I took bits of pieces of information from various success stories and tried to apply other entrepreneurs’ tips to my own business. The interesting part is that it works! I acted on some of their suggestions, such as reaching out to bloggers and journalists and sending them samples of our coffee and this is how we organically acquired most of our early customers.
I had no experience in PR and had no money to pay for it, so I just sent different versions of my pitch to as many outlets as possible. I continued with the versions that worked and started getting coverage in influential coffee blogs, which boosted sales and brought new followers on social media.
Who is your target demographic?
Our customers are looking for an easier coffee experience and realizing that coffee doesn’t have to be complicated to make in order to taste great. Coffee should be easily available wherever they are, be it at home, in the office, or on a camping trip. We want to make coffee easy to purchase and make, without sacrificing the quality and taste. As a direct to consumer brand, we see how more people are going online to look for coffee products that fit these criteria. Our target demographic is naturally people that fall into this category.
People that are buying Waka Coffee are also more conscious about health and wellness, and they are changing their diets accordingly. Coffee already has many antioxidants, but we also see how some customers are also using coffee as the base for other functional drinks. For example, people now mix MCT oil, collagen, vitamins, and even CBD into their coffee. Instant coffee is a great option if you like to mix different ingredients together, as they all simply dissolve in water and can be consumed on the go.
While we understand where the question is coming from, we are still surprised by how many people ask us whether “instant coffee is real coffee?” Which the answer is obviously yes! Instant coffee is made from brewed coffee that was converted into powdered coffee by extracting the liquid of the coffee bean. This can be done in two ways: spray drying or freeze drying. The instant coffee granules are easily dissolved when mixed with water to create a great cup of coffee, instantly. Contradictory to some myths, instant coffee is made of pure coffee beans. Our instant coffee, for example, is made from 100% Arabica beans and freeze dried to preserve the original aroma and flavors of the beans, which makes it taste better than the traditional brands you are familiar with.
What have you learned since creating the business?
Being an entrepreneur is never easy. It was especially difficult because I did not have prior experience in the coffee industry. I had to navigate health permits, suppliers, packaging, and many more issues that I was encountering for the first time. In addition, like I mentioned instant coffee is often perceived as a low-quality product, which requires a lot of consumer education as well.
As with regular coffee, the taste all depends on the beans’ quality and type. But because of this perception, we constantly have to explain to prospective customers why our instant coffee is different and why instant coffee can actually taste good! Fortunately, nowadays we have many professional reviewers and customers that love and support our brand.
To overcome these challenges I use my marketing skills. I have a degree in Digital Marketing and worked in the marketing industry, which helped me understand the fundamentals of creating engaging content, acquiring customers, performing analytics, developing paid and owned marketing strategies. I also see social media marketing from both perspectives — as a brand and as an “influencer” that promote other brands’ products. While most of our traffic comes from organic SEO efforts, we also acquire many customers from social media, specifically Instagram. It requires a lot of work and persistence. I also have a personal Instagram account dedicated to food and lifestyle content, which I use to promote both Waka Coffee and other brands. We create new content almost everyday on our socials. In addition, we invest heavily on our robust Coffee Life blog and weekly coffee newsletter.
My main advice to new entrepreneurs is to save more money. Most businesses require a good cash flow and intensive marketing spend. You need a lot of money to grow your company, develop new products, advertise, distribute, etc. We are trying to bootstrap as much as possible and minimize our expenses while maintaining our growth. Not an easy task, especially being fully self funded.
How do you protect yourself from competition?
Waka Coffee was created to change the perception of instant coffee and bring it back to its glory days. Yes, once upon a time it was popular in the US as well. We do this by offering a quality and easy to make coffee experience. Our instant coffee is made from 100% Arabica beans, which are the same coffee beans used to make your delicious latte at the coffee shop. The Arabica advantage gives our instant coffee a richer, more complex flavor. It is also processed differently. Traditional brands opt for a mass spray drying process that sacrifices taste for speed and cost. Our instant coffee is made using a freeze-drying method that preserves the coffee’s authentic aroma and depth of flavor.
We don’t focus as much about the competition, but how we execute on our goals instead. Even if there are similar products out there, there are no similar companies out there. We believe that the assortment of our products, our vision, mission, customer focused approach and social goal is what makes us unique. We invest a lot in our brand and as another way to protect it, we have our brand name and slogan trademarked in addition to owning many high valuable domain names.
What apps help you run your business efficiently?
As a digital native brand, we of course need to have a good ecommerce platform. Like many other online brands, we chose to have our website on Shopify and very satisfied with this decision. With Shopify, we can easily manage various aspects of our business and integrate other platforms and services to it, which saves us valuable time. We also love reading feedback from our website and Amazon customers and use YotPo and Feedback Genius to collect these valuable reviews. These tools are very easy to launch and manage, so I highly recommend using them if you are just starting out.
What are your goals for the future?
Our goal is to expand our line of products and be the “go to” brand for quality instant coffee and tea. We are very particular about the quality of products we are choosing to sell, their packaging, and also always donating a portion of our profits to clean water initiatives, which makes us very different than the traditional brands out there.
We are now working on introducing new coffee products, opening new online sales channels, investing more in our business wholesale accounts (quality instant coffee for your business program), and providing the best customer support for our valuable customers and subscribers. We hope to introduce at least one more type of instant coffee this year (single origin, Arabica, freeze dried), launch flavored instant coffee and additional instant tea options next year.
I see the company focusing on online sales in the near future and once we have enough data and the financial means to support it, start exploring other physical sales outlets. Waka isn’t a fit for any retailer and we will be very cautious about our offline strategy when the time comes. If you ask me about the possibility of Waka being acquired in the future, I think it is highly likely if we continue in the same growth pace we have demonstrated in the past. The sales of traditional instant coffee brands are declining, while the category overall is increasing year over year. They will have to think of potential acquisitions to protect their place in the category. In addition, the fact that most of our sales are done online gives us so much insight into our customer base and allows us more easily introduce new products to fit their needs.