How Death Wish Coffee Earned a $7 Million Spot In The Super Bowl

How Death Wish Coffee Earned a $7 Million Spot In The Super Bowl

You probably wouldn’t characterize the guy about to give you the equivalent of $7 million dollars as mean…

Or the situation awkward...

But that’s exactly how Kane Grogan initially interpreted a series of questions being asked of his boss, Mike Brown, the founder of Death Wish Coffee, an ecommerce company that offers cups of joe with double the amount of caffeine ordinarily contained in an ordinary 16 oz. cup.

“The questions were almost mean,” Grogan says of the repeated inquiries being made by a representative of the Quickbooks Small Business Big Game competition, which offers small businesses a chance to win a free Super Bowl commercial. “It was awkward, they just kept asking what we’d do if we actually won.”

The problem was, no one at Death Wish Coffee actually had the time to stop and think what they’d do specifically if they won. How could they? The 12-person company based in upstate New York had been working around the clock for six months trying to win the competition by persuading people to vote for them.

Death Wish Coffee was now one of three finalists...

“We were super stressed out,” Grogan recalls. “The voting was really close.”

But what Grogan and the team didn’t know was that the 12-person camera crew, throng of reporters, and Quickbooks executives weren’t really there to do a “preview interview”, as Grogan was told would be the case with each of the finalists.

They were there to surprise and crown a winner...

One that looked like anything but just a few years earlier...

A Near Death Experience

Less than four years prior to competing against 15,000 other small businesses for a Super Bowl ad, Death Wish Coffee nearly met its maker.

“I was 30-years old and had to move back home with my mom,” Mike Brown, the company’s founder remembers. Brown took a gamble and opened a coffee shop after discovering he hated sitting behind a desk as an accountant. It was 2010 and the idea of making the world’s strongest coffee hadn’t yet dawned on Brown and the store was hemorrhaging money.

“I was out of money, and we were going under,” Brown admits. “I had to sell my home and borrow money from my mother just so I could make payroll.”

Eventually, after struggling for a couple of years and repeatedly hearing early risers ask for his strongest cup of coffee, Brown did a quick search and noticed a gap in the market. Nothing on the market was being touted as the world’s strongest coffee.

There was a good reason though...

It’s tough to blend enough caffeine to make the world’s strongest coffee and still have it taste great. It’s one reason Brown’s search for such a coffee turned up empty. Great tasting coffee with insane amounts of caffeine just don’t go together.

Eventually, after much experimentation in his mother’s basement, Brown had what he thought was just the right balance. “It’s powerful stuff,” Brown boasts. “What’s really unique is the way we blend and roast the two types of beans, sweet & bitter, to create a coffee with not only a lot of jolt but also a lot of body and great taste.”

Customers agreed and eventually Brown began selling coffee to caffeine lovers all over the world who quickly fell in love with the brand, demanded Death Wish merchandise, and proudly displayed their affinity for Death Wish Coffee:

“It’s insane how our customers have become die hard fans,” Grogan boasts. “People from Iowa to California show up out of the blue at our warehouse just to get a behind-the-scenes peek at how we make Death Wish.”

In 2015, the company says revenue spiked to $3 million as tens of thousands of customers ordered Death Wish Coffee & merchandise online.

It’s an impressive feat…

But to put it in perspective, consider that industry giant Starbucks generates $14.7 million dollars in sales every day...

Competing Against Gods

“We’re definitely the underdog,” Grogan says regarding the company’s place in the coffee industry. “We’re hungry though and eventually want to challenge the industry’s leaders but it’s really competitive and we’re competing against gods.”

A Super Bowl commercial would provide a much needed tailwind. In fact, Death Wish says winning an advertising slot in Super Bowl 50 would make it the smallest company ever to run an ad during the big game. Here’s some back of the napkin arithmetic Death Wish and others have provided:

  • 2016 Super Bowl ads can cost as much as $5 million
  • It costs approximately $1 million to produce a Super Bowl ad
  • Death Wish estimates a week and a half of publicity is worth roughly $1 million

It means, according to Death Wish, a Super Bowl commercial is worth approximately $7 million dollars which is double the company’s 2015 revenue. It may actually be worth much more when you consider a record number of people, 114 million, tuned into last year’s game.

“It would be enormous for us financially,” Brown says. “If just one-percent of the Super Bowl audience became Death Wish customers that’d be more than one-million new customers.”

“To think we were packing coffee by hand in a basement just a few years ago to having a chance to be in a Super Bowl commercial is unreal,” Brown says. “Winning the contest would mean the world to us and would let everyone know we’re here to stay.”

Preparing For The Best & Worst

“It’s really scary, Super Bowl commercials are scary for websites,” Grogan says, referring to the potential spike in traffic. “You only get one shot and you can never be totally prepared no matter how hard you work.”

Grogan, the company’s customer service chief, knows the curses of success as well as anyone. In March of 2013, Death Wish Coffee was approached by ABC’s Good Morning America which wanted to profile the company. But what seemed like a blessing from the coffee gods turned out to be something that once again nearly killed the company.

“It was a nightmare,” Grogan recalls. “We got crushed by all the orders, and people actually thought we were a scam when we couldn’t deliver.”

The patchwork web site Brown had built couldn’t handle the demand created by the GMA news story. Before the site crashed, Death Wish received ten-thousand new orders but had no way to fulfill them on time.

To repair its reputation and earn back customer trust following the GMA debacle, Death Wish partnered with Shopify Plus, an ecommerce platform for high volume businesses, to power its online presence.

“Shopify has really been able to grow with us,” Grogan says. “We’re not just a check to Shopify, they provide a lot of extras they don’t have to and we are super pumped to be involved with a company that cares so much.”

Besides relying on Shopify Plus, Death Wish has put third party roasters, distributors, and packaging providers on alert so everyone is ready to handle a potential spike in Super Bowl traffic. “I’m confident we’re ready because we have a Plan B, C, D, and E,” Grogan says. “There’s always something lurking out there in the shadows and you’d love to be able to control everything but we’re really proud of our preparation.”

It’s a good thing Death Wish is ready.

Remember those awkward feelings Grogan initially had about the questions Brown was asking?

They changed in an instant...

The Good Kind Of Tears

“There were a lot of tears and a lot of jumping up and down,” Grogan says of the moment when the man questioning Brown finally revealed Death Wish had won. “We just broke down, I mean it was six months of stress that instantly turned into a full day of celebration.”

Initially, Grogan might have been a doubter but Brown never wavered in his conviction that Death Wish would be Super Bowl bound. “He was right all along,” Grogan says. “The politically correct thing to say is that it’s an honor just to be selected as a finalist, and it is, but we wanted this so badly and worked so hard, we really feel we earned our stripes.”

It’s why not much got done at Death Wish Coffee the day of the announcement. Imagine a day long celebration flush with champagne, whiskey, and plenty of camaraderie. “There were lots of hugs,” Grogan recalls. “It was kind of hard to work at that point and we just wanted to enjoy the moment.”

The commercial, which has a Viking theme and a surprise at the end,  was unveiled live on CBS, the network broadcasting the Super Bowl.

The ad ran in the third quarter but you can see it here:

“It’s hard to actually appreciate what we’ve accomplished,” Grogan admits. “This is a lifelong thing that we’re all going to share forever, it really brought us closer.”

Between Big & Huge

“We’re expecting something between big and huge,” Grogan says of the impact on sales the commercial is expected to have. “It’s hard to put a number on it but we expect to be very busy.”

Grogan and Brown spent Super Sunday in San Francisco, the market hosting the big game, at an Intuit Quickbooks-sponsored release party celebrating the win. Back in New York, Death Wish employees celebrated at the office and prepare to work around the clock fulfilling orders.

The Shopify community rallied around Death Wish Coffee, voting for the company and helping to push it over the top. It’s a success story Grogan hopes will inspire others to push past limitations and do the seemingly impossible.

“This is an unimaginable win for us,” he says. “No one gave us a chance against these companies run by people with huge connections and Ivy League degrees. It just shows that your dreams can come true, it just boils down to how hard you’re willing to work for it.”



About The Author

Nick Winkler is a contributor to the Shopify Plus blog. He helps individuals & organizations generate new leads, make more money, and ignite growth with story. Get more from Nick here.