Why an Olympic gold medalist and former NFL player cofounded a subscription coffee brand
This is an installment of Startup Year One, a special series of interviews with startup founders about the major lessons they have learned in the immediate aftermath of their businesses’ first year of operation.
Coffee has always been at the heart of Shawn Johnson East and Andrew East’s relationship. When Shawn was on the Olympic circuit, she says coffee was an easy cure for her homesick blues. And when she and Andrew began dating, the now-married couple says many of the most memorable conversations early on in their relationship happened over coffee. (He even told her he wanted to marry her over a coffee date.)
The husband and wife team just cofounded UniQorn Coffee, a subscription-based coffee brand, in June, and recently spoke with Fortune about how the first few months are going and what the pair plans to do next.
The following interview has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.
Fortune: It almost goes without saying (especially as someone in the media) that coffee is a ubiquitous product, from the home to the office and everywhere in between. But it’s not the most obvious choice for entrepreneurs looking to launch their own product. What inspired the launch of UniQorn Coffee?
Shawn: Andrew and I absolutely love coffee. It’s been the one consistent thing in our ever-changing lives the past 15 years—different career paths, living in different states, going through different stages of our relationship.
All that is to say coffee means so much to us. It’s really helped us slow down and connect. With UniQorn, we want to help cultivate the same kind of magical moments we’ve experienced over coffee in other people’s lives.
And what kind of personal spin do you bring to your brand of coffee?
Shawn: We took all that we’ve learned about coffee over the years and designed our absolute favorite roasts. UniQorn Coffee is one of the rarest, purest, cleanest forms of coffee you can buy. It’s sourced from some of the world’s highest-quality farms and sun-dried and roasted to perfection.
Andrew: Another unique aspect is that UniQorn is a monthly coffee subscription. You take a quiz that pairs you with your perfect brew and recommends how much coffee you should order based on your coffee preferences. It’s totally customizable—you can adjust, change, or cancel your subscription at any time.
Shawn: It starts with the coffee, of course, but it’s more than that. We do monthly coffee video chats and send weekly emails full of jokes, fun facts, and challenges to encourage community and conversation, too.
Where are the beans sourced?
Andrew: We’re proud to work with some of the highest-quality farmers and importers around the world. All of our beans are specialty-grade arabica coffee, grown in the tropics, in rain forests, and on mountains. These specific climates and geographic locations come together to create truly unique-tasting beans.
We prioritize fair trade, organic, and Rainforest Alliance Certified coffees. We’re passionate about partnering with farmers to improve the lives of the communities where our coffee comes from. In addition, we purchase most of our coffee directly from farmers and co-ops.
What kind of workforce do you have?
Shawn: We work with a small but mighty group of amazing [employees]. Everyone on our team has a passion for coffee and making meaningful connections with people. We aren’t just in the business of coffee—we want to encourage people to embrace their own uniqueness and live an extraordinary life. And as our team grows, so will our mission.
What were some of the biggest hurdles you faced in launching the business? What surprised you the most?
Andrew: We sold out fast. Inventory management has been surprisingly challenging. We had a decent idea of how much coffee we would sell based on our previous campaigns in a similar niche, but because UniQorn is fresh and roasted to order, trying to find that sweet spot of keeping enough in stock—but not so much that it’s sitting on a shelf—has been a learning curve. We’ve been lucky. As far as challenges go, I guess these are good ones to have. We’re just grateful everyone loves this coffee as much as we do.
What kind of feedback have you received from your customers? Is there anywhere you’ve needed to make adjustments quickly?
Shawn: The feedback has been really positive. It’s fun because we’re a brand that, for the most part, gives people their first experience with specialty-grade coffee. So for people to truly taste the difference in quality is something we’re really excited about. It’s fun to hear how much they love it.
Given the pandemic and economic crisis, how does the current business and public health environment affect the future of the business, from product development to raising capital?
Andrew: We’re lucky to be an e-commerce, direct-to-consumer company. But our timelines have definitely slowed. Almost every aspect of our product—from sourcing and packaging to storing and shipping—has changed. But the health and safety of everyone along our production line is one of our top priorities, so we’re taking those measures and precautions and scaling everything accordingly.
Shawn: We realize people’s daily lives and work schedules are adjusting as more people work from home, so we’re happy to provide people with a new, at-home coffee routine to lighten up their day and encourage connection in a new way.
Looking down the road five years or so, what do you want UniQorn Coffee to look like? Where do you hope it will be?
Andrew: We’re excited to expand our product offerings with different and seasonal roasts. We’re focused on our online business for now, but we’re excited to expand into retail when the time’s right, too.
And finally, I can’t not ask: How do you take your coffee?
Shawn: I’m an oat milk cappuccino girl, and Andrew loves an iced almond milk latte. We try to limit ourselves to two cups a day, but we usually fail.
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