A beverage startup created by University of Washington students hopes to make Seattle synonymous with a cooler kind of coffee. Seattle Strong Coffee announced it will now sell cold brew products at retailers across California, Oregon, and Alaska—in addition to Washington. The startup launched two years ago after being conceived in the Foster School of Business entrepreneurship course “Creating a Company.” The founders, who are now proud alumni of UW and the Foster School, wanted to make a cold brew coffee that was both smooth on the palate, and caffeinated enough (330mg) to compete with drinks like Red Bull (110mg) and Energy Shots (215mg).
Seattle Strong won the “Best Consumer Product Idea” prize at the 2018 UW Business Plan Competition (Now Dempsey Startup Competition) hosted by the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship. The startup also successfully completed the Jones + Foster Accelerator program, earning $25,000 in funding without giving up any equity. During the first two years since launch, Seattle Strong established a proven track record selling to corporate workspaces.
We spoke with two of the founders, Evan Oeflein (BA ’18) and Emileigh Thylin (BA ’17, MS Entrepreneurship ’18), about the new announcement and the journey that took Seattle Strong from student idea to early-stage startup.
Q: How many stores are you expanding into?
A: We’ve recently launched with a group of independent PNW retailers putting us close to 100 total retail locations! We’ve been lucky to work with Metropolitan Market, Amazon Go, and New Seasons up until now and are excited to be working with a group of Thriftways, Red Apples, IGA’s, and more. Almost exactly two years ago we got into our first grocery store, so the growth has been incredible.
Q: How did the partnerships you created with some of the biggest tech offices in the region help with this process?
A: Our corporate office partnerships have been instrumental in helping us grow as a company. They’ve been the supportive and consistent foundation of fans who have kept us going and helped us prove that we have a product and flavor profile that people want. We’ve been lucky to work with some of the largest tech companies in the world through their Seattle offices and are now expanding into a wider variety of offices and companies.
Q: What was it like for you leading up to this big expansion?
A: It’s been exciting and a little anxiety-inducing! It’s great to be launching with so many new locations and to expand our reach across the Pacific Northwest so that people can enjoy our cold brew outside of their offices. We’re especially glad to be working with independent retailers for our first wide-scale launch, it’s fitting for us to be working with local retailers and independents. Yet, it’s a little intimidating to be going from several stores locally to so many stores across the region. Keeping track of our product on so many shelves will mean a lot more work and a lot more lessons to come.
How involved have your advisors been (past and present)?
A: We would not be where we are today without the help of our advisors and mentors. Not only is entrepreneurship full of many hurdles and challenges, but the food and beverage industry is a complicated and unique industry to be in. Without our advisors we wouldn’t be where we are or have the trajectory that we have. Leaning on their past experiences and expertise helps us avoid pitfalls and keep things on track. We’re grateful to have tapped into advisors through the University of Washington and Foster School of Business communities that continue to direct us forward and cheer us on.
A: Tons! The most prominent one that has stuck with us and guided us to today, is to ask for help and guidance everywhere you go. There was so much we didn’t know about coffee, about the food and beverage industry, about selling, and about scaling a business. For example, learning to persevere through the slow and arduous sales process and adjusting to treat a “no” as a “not yet.” That has been helping us to this day in closing accounts down the road and not pushing for an immediate yes.
We learned to always seek the thoughts, feedback, and advice of anyone who will spare a moment. This led us to take advantage of the incredible resources UW provides, like the Accelerator, the Alumni network, and the Buerk Center’s network. People want to help; you just need to put yourself out there and ask.
Q: What’s the one thing you know now that you wished you had known at the beginning?
A: For entrepreneurship in general, trust in the process of wins and losses. For each up there will be a down. For each good decision you make you may make a mistake, which is all okay. It’s all part of starting something new and growing along the way. It’s okay to make mistakes so long as you keep growing and keep working to become the best version of yourself. The food and beverage industry is not for the faint of heart. We’re competing with conglomerates that have been around for decades longer than us and have a portfolio of five brands competing with our one. Yet we’re optimistic and tenacious, so we’re something to be reckoned with ourselves!
Q: What can we expect from Seattle Strong Coffee over the next year?
A: It coming to a store near you! We’re going to continue to expand throughout the next year and work on increasing our offerings and product line. We’ll also continue to do office tastings and get the word out about our cold brew, so check out our website to learn more, sign up for our newsletter, and request a free office tasting!
To learn more about Seattle Strong Coffee, head to their website seattlestrongcoffee.com.
For more details about the academic and extracurricular offerings from the Buerk Center for Entrepreneurship, please visit startup.uw.edu.