By the time Gefen Skolnick finished college she had already dipped her toes into the world of venture capital, and was well on her way to a tech career in Silicon Valley. But in 2021 she put down the laptop, founded Couplet Coffee, and became an immediately successful CPG entrepreneur. A year later, Couplet is wildly successful in both online DTC and on retail shelves and Gefen is exploring what it means to grow a business intelligently and intentionally, all while having fun and enjoying great coffee.
-Couplet Coffee’s founding story
-Breaking into the saturated world of specialty coffee
-How Gefen decided what kind of product she wanted to sell
-The open space Gefen saw in the coffee market and how she filled it
-Why packaging design is half the battle in some markets
-How taking her time and asking questions influenced Gefen’s business plan
-The way Gefen approaches growth - in advertising budgets, sales, and seeking funding
-How wholesale can stabilize revenue
In this episode of Ecommerce Building Blocks, Jason picks Gefen Skolnick’s brain about why she founded Couplet, how she broke into the saturated coffee market, why package design and inclusivity go hand-in-hand, breaking into wholesale, and tips for founders who are looking for creative ways to self-fund. The most important takeaway from this wide-ranging interview is that Gefen figured out early on how to think in ways that work for her business. She asks a lot of questions, gathers tons of information, and then makes decisions for what works best for her bottom line. Listen ahead for inspiration and new perspectives on marketing, sales, growth, and more.
Gefen's LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/gefenskolnick
Gefen's Twitter: https://twitter.com/chiefgayofficer
🍍Jason’s twitter: https://twitter.com/EggrolI
Sign up for Jason's weekly newsletter: http://news.bbclass.co
Everything that we do is basically home decor, right? Like we're not reinventing the wheel, the people in our community and gen Z, they're into kinda like the heart French press that we have just because it aesthetically just looks better on their counter. You know,
your hot take what's
your hot take in the space
. You can
completely unsubscribe from DTC Twitter and build a very healthy thriving business.
go. There you go.
Hello everyone. Welcome back to another episode of the Building Blocks Podcast. Today, I am joined by Gefen Skolnick, who is the founder of Couplet Coffee. Tell me a little bit more about what Couplet is.
Couplet in a nutshell is, uh, kind of the anti specialty specialty coffee brand. We just wanna make really good coffee, more
fun and approachable for more people.
And how long ago did you guys start that?
started it, um, the idea for it at the end, at the end of 2020. Uh, but I only started working on it full time at the beginning of 2021.
Was this a pandemic idea?
Yeah, I was just having
a crisis, like, oh my God. I don't think I'm following my passion.
When I was, uh, working in tech, I was working at Tesla, um, when the pandemic hit and I don't know, it was like, kind of like the peak best job I could get. I was doing really well there. Um, and then I was living in Fremont too, and right when the pandemic hit, I finally had all my thoughts and everything kind of like to myself.
Um, and not a lot of noise and a lot of running around. And I was just like, oh my God, am I happy doing this? Even though this is kind of like peak of what I would've wanted to be doing maybe a year ago, six months ago. And I just started a side project, started building stuff on Twitter with my friends.
And that's how I started to gain a following. And. Yeah. Couplet was one of those things where I was like, fuck it. Like, who cares? I wanna, I wanna build something fun that I've always wanted to build, and I don't necessarily need to approach it like a startup. It could just be a little project on the
And I mean, I'm looking at the Couplet website right now. It's so colorful. It's distinctive.
It's like pshewww,
It's there in your
You're saying like, this is as inclusive as it gets it's for everyone.. Uh, I was just,
Yeah, I mean...
I love the copy there. And I'm just curious about like, what, what you feel like was missing on the market that Couplet was, you know, filling the void for.
It's funny, because I spent a very long time before actually building Couplet, just kind of getting on calls with random people in coffee.
Um, like in 2021, I would say probably 75% of that year was like, some of it was, you know, building Couplet, trying to get an understanding of like the mechanics of DTC, what are people doing? What do I, what do I copy paste in terms of, yeah, this is definitely how you start a business versus, you know, what are things that my peers, friends and investors, advisors, whatever, uh, would say, Hey, maybe you can do it a different way.
Um, but most of that time was spent learning and so, I asked a lot of first started with like the sample set of my friends in college. Like for the past 10 years I've been everybody's coffee snob friend.
Um, I've just been, I'm just into coffee. Like I don't really care personally for. Like what grade the coffee is.
Like, if it's graded a certain amount, you know, 90 plus for instance, right? If that's the kind of the quality score for the coffee, it's gonna cost, like what, like $40 to $50 a bag. And I like didn't really care about that sort of thing. I like to try it. Sometimes I was broke most of college, so I didn't really actually go out of my way to do that.
But. That side of the industry was really intimidating to my friends when we'd go to coffee shops and they would see on the shelves only products that were, you know, starting at a hundred bucks, like coffee grinders, right. And kettles and stuff like that, that they couldn't afford to even make a cup at home.
They always were like, I you're bougie. Like, I don't know why you do this.
Like, this is like, not for us. Um, but I just realized it's so much more simple than having to get a bunch. A hundred plus dollar products to create an at home set, you know, of, uh, a coffee bar really. And using that, that's always been in the back of my mind, like, damn, why is nobody building?
Like it just a fun. Like a magic spoon, you know what I mean? Yeah. Or like a fly by Jane or something that just caters to so many more people than what those products, you know, were catering to before.
Um, by putting an actual brand and story and something behind it. Uh, I hadn't really seen anyone do that in coffee and, uh, I just waited and waited and waited, never dabbled in DTC, super new to it still, you know what I mean?
Learning every day, but. Uh, that was my whole philosophy was okay. Fun and approachable is number one. So when people see the bag, sometimes they're like, yeah, this is just fun. And I just feel like it's more approachable. I'm gonna pick it up off a shelf rather than like the matte black bag. Um, and even today I posted on Twitter, a photo of, um, Couplet as a selection on a shelf that we're on in Foxtrot.
It was just really funny because it was basically glowing, like literally glowing.
Next to the other bags where those were like you, they could just kind of all look the same. They were all like white and black bags. So that was the number one thing that made me want to differentiate like a true brand versus a roaster and a bag of beans to sell to you.
Yeah, that was actually one of the reasons why I went to Korea to design the dough packaging. For beauty for the longest time, it was very black and white. It was very European. Um, it's like a Vogue a Vanity Fair type of product. It's yeah. you, you know where I'm
Super elevated. Yeah.
like, dude, let's make it fun.
Let's let's make it approachable. And in the same sense, because for lashes, it was always very intimidating. People who don't wear lashes are like, holy crap. I don't know what this thing's gonna do to my eyes. So we're like, let me get you through the door with our nice packaging, and then let us walk you through our story and our journey and I'll teach you how to do it.
Um, and I love that you're you saw that same problem in coffee and you're right. I really don't taste the difference between a lot of coffee. And so I don't know what to get. I feel like I need to get something nicer for it to be good, but I truly cannot tell the difference and
Sure. There a large amount of people who could, but for the majority of the consumer, which is people you're catering to.
Yeah a majority of people don't.
Yeah. We just
want something that we put on a shelf, something then we look at and like, yeah, that's, that's a nice bag of coffee.
and then it's it's I mean, everything that we do is basically home decor, right? Like when we, you know, I sourced some coffee equipment, um, and like every time somebody posts it, we get a bunch of sales or it just goes like randomly viral sometimes.
We have this cow print mocha pot. I mean, we're literally just like, not reinventing the wheel. We're not reinventing the wheel. I bet somebody at some point in life has sold a cow print mocha pot. I've just never come across it. Yeah. And I've never seen it marketed well. Right. So a lot of the people in our community and gen Z and honestly, even people that I didn't expect to be into the stuff that we sell, they're both into the packaging.
Um, And they're into kind of like the heart French press that we have just because it aesthetically just looks better on their counter. You know,
I, I like that.
Um, it's kind of like when I bought Haus for the first time.
I was like, oh yeah, this is going in front. We're gonna talk about this.
I was about to mention Haus.. Like it becomes decor. Like I see people with empty bottles of Haus.
Empty bottles of like Don Julio, you, you look trashy. you look like you're the front couch.
You're like, this is a frat house. Yeah.
Yeah. So I, I get that.
I know a lot of people, especially the people listening to this have always thought about starting a side hobby um, and the pandemic was just a catalyst to push that to the, to the top of the list. You got to work from home, you, um, got to see how everything works. You got some time to breathe, not having to commute. And so people were like, oh crap, I need to start something. And you did that. So I wanted to hear your thoughts on like, what was that first step to starting Couplet like that first, very, very starting point.
So my like not so secret secret was that in college, I spent two years doing venture capital stuff. Um, with a firm that catered to college students. And so, like I was the venture partner for basically most of LA, um, based out of UCLA. And so I, I talked to like hundreds of founders and honestly, very little of them were CPG founders because you know, so many funds just like don't care to invest in CPG, which was a whole nother, you know, topic of conversation.
Like this one was very much focused on, uh, tech, startups, SaaS, you know, very much SaaS heavy. I get it, you know, the multiples and the margins make more sense for a lot of people to invest in that. But I got like pretty bored because, so I, I studied computer science and linguistics. So I thought that one day I would start an NLP startup.
So I was kind of like already familiar with both the process and both, um, sitting on the other side of the table, like what an investor, even if not VC, wants to kind of hear from the founder. And then I just kind of created my own thesis slowly but surely from kind of seeing people who I knew would succeed and people who I felt were gonna fail, like pretty soon. Whether it was based off of the conversation and the chemistry between the founders that I saw.
Um, even if it was like a fantastic product with traction, a lot of the time is what it ended up being was something like that. Right. So I kind of took so many mental notes and was just like slowly. I mean, I was just a lot more passionate about the stuff that I was doing outside of school, so that most of my time was spent either working for startups.
I worked at like 12 startups, maybe 14, if I actually go and count, um, and doing the VC stuff, doing community building stuff. I mean, I was just busy outta my mind, which is why I never took a second to breathe or think, but in a lot of those things that I did, I grabbed a lot of the same skills that I use today.
And, uh, even thoughI was like a consumer product manager, um, and a consumer software engineer and a consumer focused VC. Like I somehow it translated very, very well to CPG. So I kind of knew like, okay, first I need to do something that from like a business fundamental standpoint. um, makes sense. Like something that obviously is a daily drink or like a daily use item.
Great, fantastic. That's I'm a lot more interested in doing that. I like, I don't wanna try to sell single units and then sell nothing ever again, or try to frantically build a product line around something that doesn't really make sense. I saw a lot of that and I was just like, eh, I don't think I wanna do that.
And then two was, you know, even if it doesn't make sense with my background, I need to do something that I wanna wake up every morning and do. I've just been real again, I've been really into coffee for 10 years. Like everybody knows it.
Every time I'm with anybody, they know we're getting coffee two to three times.
It's like a problem for everybody involved. Um, and then the third major thing was okay, so cool. There's passion there. There's a problem to solve. There's a missing gap. That's a major missing gap in the market. Um, execution matters a lot. So for me, I just took that third piece as, Hey, I know nothing about this.
I just, you know, I even, I reached out to you, I reached out to everybody and was just like, Hey guys, um, I'm I can provide value for you one way or another. Like, you know what I mean, with my background, I'll do like free work for you. I'll connect you to my VC circle from college. Like whatever. I really need your help to go from zero to one.
So like, What did you do? What did you, even though you're successful now, I'm sure you made some pretty major missteps in your first, like first two to three years or so maybe your first year was a huge flop. You pivoted, I want to hear like what happened. Um, and then I decided to like take more time than others, honestly, on just learning.
So people were like, when are you launching Couplet, this has been going on forever. I'm like, dude, I'm not just gonna launch something just because I know the playbook. I know what the DTC playbook is from studying it. And I know what other people have done in the past. A lot of that is also based on the past, right?
When Facebook CPMs were dirt cheap and stuff like that, like we're just in a new era.
So those are kind of the three buckets that I took a very long time to figure out. And I still, I really don't think I know anything. I think I only know things because I ask the stupid questions when others are not comfortable asking the stupid questions.
Those are my main three buckets for starting
I love that. It's I, I would say like, I've read somewhere. Like if you really wanna be successful, have the curiosity of a, of a child, like
Ask the dumb questions, ask how
you have to.
Um, And I love the, the way that you frame your questions.
Like, what did you mess up on? Not what you have success with. And I always find that you learn so much more from people's mistakes and on people's success, because the odds of you replicating your success is not as high as you making the same mistakes, because a lot of success comes with timing. Comes with the people, you know, the opportunities just coming at the right place.
We recognize that like, when we have our wins, I don't go out and preach this is exactly what we need to do to win. Yeah, man, I cannot guarantee that you'll get the same things that I'll get. And, but. I'm sure that you'll make a lot of same mistakes. I do. So let me tell you about that. Um, so I love that you asked that question.
I think that's very, very important in terms of like learnings now, uh, you know, looking back and like you said, we're still learning. And before we started recording, you said there was a lot of stuff that happened. that really bubbled? What, what were some of the things that come to mind now?
Yeah. I mean, to be honest with you, like key learnings just this year, you know, half the year is just about gone.
And I started this year having a very specific mindset about both how I wanted to get like capital for the business on whatever basis made sense, you know? Right. Like, do I need to raise every year? Do I need to do the traditional funding rounds? Do I subscribe to a lot of the same playbooks, uh, in eCommerce fulfillment and in eCommerce, like, do I have to get the same apps everyone's getting, do I have to run ads?
The same channels everybody's doing?
I don't know. I, I started off like, yeah, a lot of my advisors and investors were like, Here's what you should do and here's what you shouldn't do. But I was just like gut check. Okay. Yeah. I wanna build a profitable business. Right. So if I'm spending like 15 K a month, like my buddies are in a very early stage of their business on just Shopify apps.
Um, I, it, I am making this hard for myself. I need to just. , you know, take down some of those apps , um, focused on getting traffic, a consistent revenue so I'm not scrambling to like make grow month over month. Um, hone in a lot more in wholesale than I thought that I would, we got our first 50 accounts in like two months, and those are just flying off the shelves.
But everybody told me before I went in was one it's gonna be really, really hard for you to get your first like five accounts. I was like cool,, I got that like first week we had five accounts. Why? Because we have both a differentiatable bag. Um, the flavor is just as good as everybody else, if not better on the shelf.
And we also sell coffee equipment that is also flying off shelves because when you see it, it, if you choose the right placement, the right store, like, you know what I mean? You connect with the one on one with the shop owner. You're gonna sell it pretty well because if it's a very, if it keeps going randomly viral on TikTok, like I have have an inkling it'll probably do well on the shelf too.
Um, so, and the bags like are a top selling product in multiple stores already. I mean, people are shocked and I'm shocked because all of my advisors told me they were like, listen, just like focus on DTC. Content is king. And I'm like, hell yeah, content is king. I'm still putting a lot of my eggs in that basket.
But. Um, because it's so expensive. Every avenue that I've explored for content it's expensive, like video right now is what I struggle the most with. I'm like, yeah, I've hired like three different people to try to be the face of the TikTok. And at the end of the day, I'm my face performs better than theirs and I'm not good at it at all.
So what's the best way for me to invest in video. And then there's a bunch of different, you know, just in that realm, that's like one major thing. But the thing that I took gut instinct, like let me try to do wholesale and see what happens and really pour a lot of time and energy into those accounts.
Um, so. That I, because people already have their go-to choices of bags. Um, and they think this is a little bit too playful of a bag. And then also they were saying that coffee just doesn't sell very fast, but we're completely proving them wrong. And it's obviously like a really early data set, but I'm now very focused on just for like, it's just not is it only going well, but it also, you know, brings you some predictability and revenue and how it gives you a baseline revenue to work off of like the more that you, you know, grow your wholesale presence. So that was something I didn't start off the year knowing or thinking, but I just kind of get went against the advice of a lot of people and was like, you know what, no, I really think that I need to invest in this channel. Um, and so that was a major learning.
And then now, you know, the, the major learnings of me in the past two, three months, which is why I've been extra busy, is just trying to get all the information I can from my friends who have not taken VC funding every year for their DTC brands. Um, so that's kind of like what I'm exploring now, you know, a lot of angels are ran, like reaching out to me.
I get random VC firms like, oh, like one of your investors told me, like, would love to chat or blah, blah, blah, or thinking about leading your round. I'm like, that's so interesting because if I have a VC lead day round right now, we're super early, this is, this would be a pre-seed then that means I'm on a trajectory to raise money every year.
Um, and I not only really value equity in the business and I really want a pool, a healthy pool for my employees moving forward, et cetera. I think that there's a lot of other alternatives to, to funding your business and also growing at a sustainable pace where you're growing year over year, but you don't have to grow like X percent year over year to just hit what your investors want, so they give you more money. Like I would rather focus on both sustainable growth, right? Um, like really hunkering down on business fundamentals, making sure our economics make sense more and more over time. Um, and really focusing on the end consumer versus I need to put in X amount into Facebook ads, uh, X ads, this ads, whatever.
And I absolutely must grow this amount month over month. If I had a month that was not as successful in sales, but was crazy in community, maybe the next month will show for that. You know what I mean? Like there's just certain things that I wanna hunker down on and focus on instead of trying to build like what a VC's vision of a DTC brand is.
So that is a recent learning, not a recent learning, but like a, we need to get scrappy about where we're getting our money. And I also don't wanna see a trajectory that doesn't make sense for me and my brand. So yeah, those are the sorts of things that I've been thinking about.
I think the challenge with a lot of VC's, um, is that they, they feel like they know how to run your business.
But at the end of the day, you're the owner. Right. You have, you know, your gut yeah. Feelings, you know what you have to do. Um, and sometimes you just have to trust your instincts. That's why you're the founder , why you're at the wheel. Um, VC's are there for support, but they're not the person who could run your business.
Heck most of them have
never run a business.
That's what I think is funny. Yeah.
So, you know, I have never taken, I've never taken venture money either. Um, so, you know, I'm just taking this from what I assume is, right. Um, but from talking to a lot of people, it just seems like sometimes certifi are counterintuitive and you just have to go with your gut with what you think is right.
Um, want you hear a little bit about wholesale. The the way that you guys were able to grow in wholesale was incredible. 50 stores is great. Um, what was that first step? Did you just make like an Excel sheet of all the accounts? Did you
walk in the store?
It was a mix of...
how did you do it?
...me walking in stores, um, hiring a part-time sales team, um, which to be honest with you, I think I should have just done all sales in the beginning for sure.
And I, I still do a lot of the sales myself, but like, that was one thing where I was like it didn't didn't necessarily outsource it cuz they're in house. Right. But it's like, mm it should probably be me. So that was one interesting learning that I had. Um, honestly, a lot of it, once we got our account on Faire, we actually ended up getting quite a bit of orders pretty fast, which I didn't expect at all.
Um, Very unexpected.
Our conversion made on there is super high. Yeah. I was like, damn, that's crazy. Like I, I thought Faire was just kinda like a vanity thing. You just kind of throw your product on, like maybe you'll get an order here and there, but that's how we really first started. And then I started seeing that we just had more of a presence naturally
in New York. So I was like, cool. We're selling well in New York. I probably need to focus on New York at the beginning because we already have something going there. Um, so we did some cold outreach, Foxtrot reached out to us, and then that helped like that partnership with them. Also them featuring us all the time and being kind of like just big fans of Couplet internally, um, has been putting us more in the limelight.
We like threw out a, um, A BevNET article. And then I just randomly started getting some inquiries. Cause people were talking about like, oh, this is really cool traction, especially for a coffee brand, because it is very significantly hard to get on shelves as a coffee brand, cuz there's so many every year.
So for me it's a mix of literally me personally, DMing stores, shops, cafes, et cetera on Instagram that I think are like the right fit for us. Um, cuz I don't wanna just place us in random things, places, stores that might not mesh with the vibe of Couplet. So I'm being really intentional about like, what am I instinctually thinking is a place that we could sell, but also placement wise, like where are we place in the store, cetera, et cetera.
So there's that. Um, and, and now I'm at the stage where I'm trying to go bigger and that's where I'm like talking to everybody and their mother about how did you do this?. What did you do wrong? And I would say like over 80% of my friends are like, yo, we're spending way too much money on expanding this channel.
Maybe it's because our pace is not right. Or because we're paying so much money for brokers and our margin is razor thin at this point. And it's, we're not hitting price breaks yet. You know what I mean? With inventory to get there. Yeah. So like maybe we should have paced it differently. I don't know. Or invested more in inventory up front, something like that.
Everybody's just telling me a lot of different opinions and I'm like, okay, I'm gonna take all of these opinions, but still fundamentally choose both my gut and try to be scrappier than anybody else. That's kind of always my goal. I didn't raise a lot of money. Um, I took basically only angel investors money the beginning of last year.
And you know, now I'm at the point where we're looking for like a, another small round of funding, um, and I've just kept burn real low and tried to be really intentional with that. So that's why I can't exactly go the route of all of my friends who are paying a lot of money on retainer for different sorts of outsourced sales development teams.
And I have to start thinking about how do I carve out time in my schedule to be someone who is the face of kind of like running this sales operation. And how do I learn from my friends who are expanding very rapidly, but doing it right or learn from my friends who expanded too fast and are now either losing accounts or it just doesn't make sense for their bottom line and they have to scale back.
So I'm kind of finding the happy medium between how much do I stretch myself? Cuz I'm already obviously stretched very thin. How much do I stretch myself and how can I extend that like with my team at Couplet to be a part of the process, but in more intentional ways per location. So, yeah.
And I love that you're able to take a lot of these learnings from your friends again, for any new that you're taking, like playing it safe is honestly.
It's, you know, it's slower, but you're, you're playing it safe because you don't have a
lot of money to throw out.
. I can't just spend like the, you know, I have buddies spending like 15 to 20 K a month on brokers that are like, not really doing much for them or spending absurd amounts on PR firms who aren't doing much for them.
I'm like, dude, if I wanna be profitable, I gotta figure stuff out at the beginning. Even if it's a little bit more slow,
Yeah. And you have the full control over your bottom line. By how many expenses you allow to be in your business. So, you know, good on you for recognizing that it's, it's easy to be chasing shiny objects when you're a founder, because like everyone's doing this, everyone else is using this and you feel like you have to do it in order to catch up.
But in reality, you're looking at everyone else fall in front of you.
And you're learning what makes them trip
that's um, I'm definitely going to have to like spend money to make money. Right. So I'm not like. I'm being risky in some regards, but I can't be as risky. Right. If my, my friends, um, that run bigger brands, or even if it's not a bigger brand, they just raise a lot of money up front so they can like literally make a $30,000 mistake or a $50,000 mistake, 150 K I'm like, I cannot make that big a mistake. Yeah. Yeah. That's not. Yeah.
We can't afford that.
Yeah. It's all, it's all a balance, but it's talking to the right people. I think talking to bootstrapped people, you know, like yourself like that, honestly.
It's been a lot more helpful, not gonna lie because you know, even though we're not fully bootstrapped at this point, we're practically there. Right. Um, cuz a lot of people do end up putting a similar amount into their business up front or less and they figure it out and the people who are figuring it out and also are trying to blow up in scrappier ways or more bottom line friendly ways.
Yeah. Like those are the right people to talk to most of the time.
Love that. .And one last question for you. It's your hot take? what's your hot take
in the space?
I do have a hot take. Um, you can completely unsubscribe from DTC Twitter and build a very healthy thriving business.
There you go. There you go.
Uh, I feel like I made a decent number of mistakes by subscribing to mentalities and getting certain things that I needed. Um, but I felt like a lot of the times it was like very self-serving referrals and maybe people who they hadn't worked with or, you know, like sometimes can be pretty expensive mistakes.
Just listening to, to thought leaders all day, instead of forming your own opinions.
Yeah. Abs-, I mean, that applies to anything like don't get stuck in a bubble.
But no, that is definitely a hot take and I love that. Well, Gefen, thank you so much for making it. It was nice seeing you the other day in person.
Yeah. Yeah, that was great.
I had a baseball game and so. It's pleasant surprise to always see founders. And I love this little community that we've built, and I appreciate you coming onto to the show and sharing your
Thank you so much. You're awesome. And, uh, anytime.
You just heard an episode of the Building Blocks podcast, if you like what you heard subscribe below to keep hearing conversations that I have with brilliant marketers, founders, and innovators on how they built their best ideas.
Now, if you wanna learn how you can turn your best ideas and build something massive out of it, visit my website bbclass.co or follow my Twitter at @eggroli.
Don't miss out and get notified when we release new episodes. Sign up today and get a PDF copy of Build-A-Brand: Your Guide to Starting Your Business Today