While working at his Saratoga Springs coffee shop Mike Brown G’07 came up with the idea to invent the world’s strongest brew. Brown, who earned his master’s in accounting, had taken risks before, leaving a state job to become an entrepreneur. His new idea led to Death Wish Coffee, the now-ubiquitous brand sold in black bags with the skull and crossbones logo. Now, a decade later, Brown, who continues to run the business and roast the beans in the Saratoga County hamlet of Round Lake, understates that his adventure has had its share of ups and downs.
An up was in 2013 when “Good Morning America” touted the hyper-caffeinated beverage, drawing the customers who rescued Death Wish from, well, possible death. Then, there was a down in the struggle to meet demand, annoying customers (along with Amazon and eBay). Another up was when Brown regained respect by refunding customers, getting them their coffee and rethinking his strategy. Then came the biggest up of them all, a free 30-second Viking-themed commercial aired during the 2016 Super Bowl, which Death Wish earned by winning the Intuit QuickBooks Small Business Big Game Contest. It was a half-minute worth millions of dollars in coffee sales.
Today, Death Wish is sold in more than 17,000 supermarkets, appears in liquor stores (a coffee-blended vodka,) on social media (including podcasts on loyal customers), on beanies, t-shirts and coffee mugs. Death Wish has produced comics, sponsored NASCAR and the Special Olympics.
Now the company is expanding, thanks to a private equity investment from Boston-based TA Associates. The investment followed a years-long process of self-evaluation and search for just the right investment partner.
Here, we talked to Brown about his latest venture:
Your coffee, in the small black bags with the skull and crossbones logo, is perfect already. It’s everywhere – hot, cold, in brownies and blended with vodka ¬– but still really cool. Why change anything?
Thank you. Death Wish Coffee is close to perfect, I agree. We are really proud of this amazing team that we have built, and our priority is to maintain this momentum, so we’re not changing much, if anything. The best part about working in a company that is so customer obsessed is that we always have our customer on our minds. We try to pay attention to when the customer drinks the coffee, why they drink it, where they drink it, what they put in their coffee, what food and drinks they put the Death Wish Coffee into, what do they drink their coffee out of, how long do they drink their coffee, what’s their favorite way to make coffee, do they do anything weird with the coffee, etc. … the list goes on. The more we know about our customers and how they interact with Death Wish Coffee, the better we can innovate to make their lives easier. That’s what it’s all about. Continually innovating to fuel our favorite people’s lives.
What is the relationship between Death Wish Coffee and TA Associates?
All private equity is different in my opinion. I’m no expert, but I’ve done some studying on the different types of private equity companies out there and they are across the board. They all do things differently with the same goal; to create value for their investors. Although finances play an important role, the DWC and TA relationship differs in a big way.
DWC is not an average company. We have a unique team culture, work atmosphere, and customers with specific needs and uncompromising values. There’s sort of an art in helping us maintain “the great” while improving “the good.” Having TA’s experience, network, and knowledge resources has helped us make large leaps in short order without any negative impact on the magic that makes Death Wish Coffee what it is today.
Once, you dreamt of just making $5,000 a month at your coffee shop. What is your dream today?
My dream today as it has been for the last 10 years, is to build Death Wish Coffee into an iconic brand. A brand that stands for more than its products, lasts the tests of time, is widely available, does good for the world, and transcends generations. We’re getting there. We do this by hiring people who are responsible, accountable, see good in others, and make smart decisions.
Finally, what is the most out of the way place you’ve seen your coffee sold, or someone wearing a Death Wish t-shirt or beanie?
I had a friend of mine in Singapore send me a picture from a coffee shop there. They had Death Wish Coffee beans in a glass jar on the shelf for their customers to order. That store had to have gone out of their way to acquire it. Also, I’ve seen many people now have our logo on their bodies as a tattoo. I’m always inspired by their passion and love of the brand.