Meet The Disruptors: Matt Bachmann & Ben Gordon of Wandering Bear Coffee On The Three Things You Need To Shake Up Your Industry
Ben Gordon: Hire people before you need them. We learned this early on, and then we’ve re-learned every six months or so. It’s easy to overestimate your ability to stay on top of things, but if it’s something important — like, say, bookkeeping — and something that you don’t need to be the one doing and can hire for — like, say, bookkeeping — you should probably hire for it immediately and spend your time doing things that only you can do.
Matt Bachmann: Just get started. Less talking and more doing; this one could sometimes be a struggle for me and Ben early on. The best learning you get is by doing and the power you hold as an early stage company is the ability to test things quickly and cheaply without huge repercussions. That’s often your only advantage. Use it.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Bachmann & Ben Gordon.
Matt Bachmann is the Co-Founder and CEO of Wandering Bear Coffee. Bachmann manages product development, marketing, retail relationships, and more for the brand, and holds an MBA from Columbia University and a BA from The University of Michigan.
Ben Gordon is the Co-Founder and President of Wandering Bear Coffee. Gordon manages the company’s retail and office sales channels, new business development and more for the brand, and holds an MBA from Columbia University and a BA from The University of Michigan.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
Matt Bachmann: Coffee has always been a key part of my life. For as long as I remember I loved the taste, the smell and just everything about it. In 2013, I walked into class in grad school carrying a travel mug of homemade cold brew coffee, and met Ben Gordon (Co-Founder & President, Wandering Bear), who was sitting with a leather-wrapped mason jar filled with his own homebrew. Shortly after meeting Ben and connecting on our love for cold brew, that friendship became more of an informal competition to see who could make the strongest coffee, which led to creating the perfect recipe for our cold brew. Shortly after perfecting the recipe, we launched Wandering Bear in 2014, hand-delivering cold brew across New York City, and embarked on whats become a years-long journey to perfect the best-tasting, strongest coffee products — packaged uniquely to suit the full range of caffeination occasions, whether at home, at work, or on the go. Fast forward to today, Wandering Bear products can be found nationwide at retailers such as Kroger, Whole Foods, online on our website, Amazon, FreshDirect and Thrive Market, as well as on tap in thousands of offices across the country.
Ben Gordon: I thought I wanted to be a film producer. So after college I started working in film production — doing freelance gopher work on tv shows and movies. You know that Hollywood trope. Real low-level stuff. I had a roommate at the time who was very into third-wave coffee; I have him to thank for my coffee education. He sparked my interest in coffee, and then I really leaned into it. I started experimenting, started cold-brewing, making stronger and stronger stuff, hoping that if I made the coffee strong enough I might be able to feign excitement about standing around on the set of a Lifetime Movie of the Week for 16 hours straight. But in the end all I got excited about was the coffee itself. So after about 4 years of spinning in circles I decided the entertainment industry wasn’t my path. I decided to go to business school. Within days of arriving on campus, I met (my now co-founder) Matt, we started talking coffee, and we never stopped.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
Matt Bachmann: Our coffee has always been extra strong. It’s always been smooth. And we were the very first company to put it on tap in a box. Now that a majority of coffee consumers are skipping the commute (which means that expensive coffee shop habit) and are working from home as opposed to the office, we decided to pivot our model, which prior to COVID had focused primarily on the boxed and kegged multi-serve cold brew for office spaces. We want our consumers to be able to enjoy Wandering Bear’s extra smooth, extra-strong brew wherever and however they want, so we launched Extra Strong 96 oz. Boxed Cold Brew made perfectly to fit in any fridge, Coarse Ground Coffee to make “extra strong” cold brew at home, and certified-recyclable Extra Strong Coffee Pods that are the strongest caffeine content available on the market — equal to three shots of espresso per pod! For those who still prefer on-the-go single-serve cartons, we have those too, and they’re recyclable, phenomenal at preserving flavor, and resealable.
Ben Gordon: As the first company to make boxed cold brew, we’ve had plenty of time to perfect the bag-in-box format: our packaging is 100% recyclable, and keeps the coffee fresher, for longer. Our stay-fresh bag keeps the brew safe from the elements even after opening. We’ve expanded from the boxed options to on-the-go single-serve cartons, which are also recyclable, phenomenal at preserving flavor, and resealable. More recently, we launched Extra Strong 96 oz. Boxed Cold Brew made perfectly to fit in any fridge, Extra Strong Coarse Ground Coffee for customized cold brew, and certified-recyclable Extra Strong Coffee Pods that are the strongest on the market.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Matt Bachmann: When Ben and I were running the brewing operation without any experience in manufacturing, there were tons. But they weren’t funny. I almost got physically crushed once! So funniest? On our very first box, refrigerated was misspelled (“refigerated”). Even worse, the font we had chosen to print in was so barely-legible that we did not catch it for months. My mom still has one of these original boxes in her kitchen.
Ben Gordon: Did Matt use the story about us misspelling “refrigerated” on the first run of packaging? I bet he did. That’s the one that sticks out. The morale of that story: take a minute to proofread.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Matt Bachmann: Countless. It takes a village to raise a bear. That’s the saying, right? One of the best things we did in year one of the business was form a formal Advisory Board. We created a job description and hit LinkedIn to start recruiting. That’s how we met Eric Skae, known in the industry (from everything I’ve ever been able to glean) as one of the best guys in the business. He’s a mentor, a friend and one of the smartest people I know. We met for the first time in a park in New York City; we sat on a bench and I knew quickly that we needed him on our team. As Eric would say, I harassed him until he agreed to join our Board. That was in 2015. He’s had an impact in countless ways, but the biggest (and admittedly least specific) among them is being a sober, rational, experienced sounding board. He’s quick to tell us when we’re over-thinking and point us in the direction of action. That’s invaluable.
Ben Gordon: There have been — and continue to be — so many people at each step who have supported, guided, advised, admonished, inspired and influenced us. There are those that have been in our corner since day one, who are involved with just about every major decision we’ve made as a company. Then there are those that have played critical roles at certain pivotal junctures in our company’s history — like Mike Schwartz, the founder of the Organic Food Incubator (“the OFI”). The OFI is the first commercial kitchen we ever manufactured in; Mike let us rent space by the 8-hour shift. We had no idea what we were doing. We poured more than a few batches down the drain. It was humbling-bordering-on-demoralizing. But Mike took such joy in watching all of it — not joy in like a sadistic way, laughing at our failures — but joy in watching us try, fail, learn from it, improve a bit, repeat. He taught us a lot, he was a sounding board for those early experiments, and no matter the setbacks he always encouraged us to keep going.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Matt Bachmann: I agree with the implied premise here, which is that “disrupting” is overused and oversold. There are some over the years who have tried to say that we are “disrupting the coffee industry” in one way or another — we are not. That’s hype. The word disruptive has acquired a positive connotation in part due to our collective, decades-long obsession with technology and innovation as the primary means to deliver ourselves a better future (sustained and uncapped economic growth, equality, elimination of poverty, etc..). Because disruptive innovation implies progress from the status quo into something new, it is seen as generally good. The reality is, of course, much grayer than that. And I’m not sure we can neatly group things into “good as-is / bad disruption” and “bad as-is / good disruption” camps. There are certainly positives and negatives, depending on your perspective, in each case. Among our great assets as a species is our ability to imagine the future. And as a general principal, I believe in fair competition. So if an industry finds itself on the receiving end of true disruption, it would appear self-evident that the status quo was not capable of withstanding “the test of time”. I think where things can go off the rails is when those doing the disrupting make competition and rapid growth the main focus, versus a focus on sustainably replacing an old way of doing business with a new one.
Ben Gordon: While I agree that “disruptive” has had a positive connotation in recent years, I also think it’s been overused. And to me, that over-use has diluted the meaning and the impact of the word a bit. When is disrupting an industry good? When the status quo has led to complacency, stagnation of forward progress, a bloated value chain that leaves consumers worse off. I think of the first wave of breakout direct-to-consumer companies (Warby Parker, Harry’s, etc.) — they disrupted massive, entrenched industries by removing the layers between manufacturer and customer, leading to better pricing, a better user experience, and a ripple effect of innovation across consumer goods categories.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
Hire a bookkeeper. As soon as you have revenue for sure, and perhaps as soon as you’re spending money out of your company bank account, you should invest to hire a bookkeeper, ideally one that knows your industry. They should be fluent in QuickBooks and able to set up a good Chart of Accounts with the right level of detail. Getting this right on day 1 will save you countless hours and cost down the road. You’ll also have the benefit of real information you can use to make decisions in your business.
Just get started. Less talking and more doing; this one could sometimes be a struggle for me and Ben early on. The best learning you get is by doing and the power you hold as an early stage company is the ability to test things quickly and cheaply without huge repercussions. That’s often your only advantage. Use it.
Go to sleep. Not always easy given the amount if caffeine I consume, but I’ve found that there’s very little a good night’s sleep can’t fix. Prioritize rest.
Hire people before you need them. We learned this early on, and then we’ve re-learned every six months or so. It’s easy to overestimate your ability to stay on top of things, but if it’s something important — like, say, bookkeeping — and something that you don’t need to be the one doing and can hire for — like, say, bookkeeping — you should probably hire for it immediately and spend your time doing things that only you can do.
Don’t be afraid to say “can I get back to you on that?” There’s an instinct to want to know all the answers, or to at least be able to speak extemporaneously until you arrive at an answer. But it’s ok to take a beat, to sleep on it, to let it marinate…however you want to describe it…organize your thoughts and answer with intent. In the end, it’ll probably even save you time.
Drink plenty of water. We’re a coffee company. It’s important to stay hydrated.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
Ben Gordon: Look for good company. Who else is the lead doing business with? If they’re the types of brands/companies you want to be associated with, or aspire to be yourselves, that’s a pretty good indicator of a qualified lead.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
Matt Bachmann: Coffee consumers are looking at their daily caffeine ritual a little bit differently as we move into the future where work from home and flex work spaces become the rule instead of the exception. With so much uncertainty in the world, one thing we want our consumers to be able to depend on is a strong, great-tasting cup of coffee, however they enjoy their brew. So we have completely refreshed our website, dedicated to servicing the at-home coffee consumer with products for both cold brew and hot coffee drinkers. We have pivoted our focus from offices to direct-to-consumer growth by offering more products to be shipped directly to the consumer’s door, for a customized coffee drinking experience that’s consistently extra strong and surprisingly smooth.
Ben Gordon: Our main focus used to be stocking offices with Wandering Bear. Especially for me, I oversaw our office sales channel. But as we all know, offices haven’t really been occupied since March 2020. We knew we needed to shift to target direct consumers now that everyone is working from home. Our site went through a complete refresh and we now have products available to be delivered right to at-home coffee consumers’ doors.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
Matt Bachmann: The first that comes to mind is a recent read, Jill Lapore’s THESE TRUTHS. It’s an ambitious book… the entire story of The United States from Christopher Columbus to present day in a single narrative. Reading it was a real “zoom out” experience, to look at the history of America with such a wide lens. It’s a good reminder that there’s a lot more to American history than most of us learn in school. Our story is messy, contradictory and grossly imperfect. It’s a perspective that is helpful during these crazy times.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
Matt Bachmann: My grandma was an incredible teacher. She would often coach us to “act ourselves into a new way of thinking.” From an early age I think that ingrained in me a foundational belief in the power of attitude and, more importantly, my control over it.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Matt Bachmann: Honestly, right now? Wear a mask.
How can our readers follow you online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!