Want to learn from DTC founders and entrepreneurs shaking up their industries? Check out the other entries in our Lunch with Littledata series.
Making the leap to start an ecommerce store is a challenge. Doing it while pivoting from a strictly brick and mortar business at the height of a pandemic is a whole other challenge.
That’s exactly what Grind did when launching their DTC store offering compostable coffee pods. Theirs is a story about finding value in your customers’ passion, relying on your team’s adaptability and resolve, and learning from your peers to drive exponential revenue growth.
In this installment of Lunch with Littledata, Grind CMO and Creative Director Teddy Robinson sat down to talk through how the company launched its DTC store, as well as the data stack and promotion methods that combined to help them scale to 50x revenue in just a few months.
Ari from Littledata: When we first met a few years back you were just transitioning into the online world. But I used to drink coffee from Grind in London years before that! Could you tell us how Grind launched?
Teddy Robinson: Yes! It feels like kind of a long and winding journey now. The story goes way back to coffee shops in East London in 2011. It was such a profound year of change for coffee. For most of the 10 years previous you had Starbucks as the star, and then all of a sudden you had a boom of small indie coffee shops.
That boom for us came at a really big time because it also followed the integration of social media for business. When I started at Grind in 2012, it seemed strange that you’d have an Instagram page for your business, because the thought was “people have Instagram, not businesses.” It’s phenomenal the way that’s changed — now Instagram is the way that we market anything and the way we acquire customers.
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Before lockdown, we had 11 cafes and restaurants around London serving coffee and cocktails, with some of them doing a thousand cups of coffee a day just in take away. Our brand became a bit of a backbone to the startup culture in East London and Central London that arrived around us. People would have their product launches and funding rounds celebrating in our little coffee shops.
At the same time, we stopped meeting people in real life for the first time and increasingly found ourselves meeting them online and then bringing them into stores. Digital content began leading the business to a point where when we were building a restaurant, we’d be going “oh, my God, this is going to be a great photo for Instagram.”
So what kept you focused on growing from standalone coffee shops to finally going online?
Over the years we built an incredible brand through brick and mortar stores and newsletters. We became a part of people’s lives in a really meaningful, authentic way.
As time went on, we realized increasingly that the business model of trying to get our hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers — often from around the world — to one of nine brick and mortar locations was really, really unsustainable. But at the same time, we built an incredible pedigree for being able to serve great coffee. People saw themselves as being a Grind customer rather than a Starbucks customer.
At about the end of 2018, we started working on what would be become our first DTC project. At that point, DTC was in full swing. So we set up a Shopify store offering compostable coffee pods for Nespresso machines. The sustainability aspect was really important to us, and after being in the coffee industry for ten years, our expertise about coffee and roasting helped us say, “wow, we can do something different and really meaningful and use our supply chain in a way that other businesses just can’t.” At the same time, we’ve got this brand pedigree that we can leverage for helping people make better, more sustainable coffee at home.
That’s great you were able to adapt and introduce an online version of Grind coffee so quickly. Do you feel the Grind community is still growing on the ground in London as well?
Running a hospitality business in London is really difficult and has become much more difficult in the last 10 years, let alone the last year. The idea of selling coffee to people at £3 a cup is nothing short of a volume game.
But with that said, now there’s much more of a self-sustaining coffee culture. It was all twenty-five-year-old art students ten years ago, and now my mum won’t drink a coffee unless they’ll give her a flat white.
And obviously, the big thing with the storefronts is the pandemic. We went into lockdown last year and — although we were able to move all our staff on furlough — effectively the business as we knew it just kind of evaporated overnight. We were closing the doors on all these locations in a way that we would never have ever considered doing in the past, and it just felt like the end of the world in a lot of ways.
How much of Grind was already online at the beginning of the pandemic?
I think less than half of a percent. Before lockdown, we had a business of about three hundred people. The only ones who were working on the DTC project were me and the founder. For us, it was really just good fun and a bit of a side project.
That was also a point where we’d never spent a penny on ads. We were really just leveraging a tiny number of our customers. Basically, when people asked about our ecommerce store, we’d send them to it. It was a long time of just finding a few hours a week together to figure out setting up Shopify, setting up Littledata, and pulling all the pieces there to allow us to grow it bigger.
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How did you begin to build the audience for your ecommerce site? Did you already have an email list?
Yes, and I think we were really lucky in that so much of our CRM was already built. We had a quarter of a million people’s email addresses and 150,000 Instagram followers before we even had a Shopify site. We used things like the good old-fashioned WiFi email sign-up form to build the list.
And then obviously lockdown arrived and we came to a point where around 95 percent of the business went into furlough. We gave those remaining on staff the option to choose furlough or pivot to help us with roles we needed to get the Shopify store up and running, things like email automation. And actually, we had a really incredible response in terms of the number of people who re-skilled in the last year. People were willing to try on a different hat and have become really passionate about something they never imagined doing a year ago.
Also at that point, we were already working on what would what our first Facebook ads would look like. Once we’d closed all the physical doors and revenue went to zero, immediately the plan went from taking a two-month run at starting Facebook ads to two days. And they picked up really quickly. In terms of revenue, we went from doing £10,000 a month in February to doing £500,000 a month by May or June.
Without DTC, this business would have died in lockdown.
The fact that we went 50x in three months I think was down to loyalty. That was also a sink or swim moment for the business. I’m certain the funding that we’ve been able to secure since then has very much come off the back of that revenue growth — it genuinely saved the business as a whole. Without DTC, this business would have died in lockdown.
Wow, it’s incredible you were able to scale conversions so quickly. Was your social promotion mostly concentrated on Facebook? Or were you also doing Pinterest and other channels?
We hit the ground running and had to figure out Facebook, Pinterest, and Google to begin with. Then we had the challenge of figuring out what our ads should look like, while at the same time building the data stack underneath to track attribution.
The ability to plug in off-the-shelf services like ReCharge to offer our subscription service, then build very strong Shopify store themes and plug that all together with Google Analytics by Littledata was really the foundation of the entire ecommerce business. We certainly couldn’t have done it without that. The ability to remain agile at the point where we most needed it was entirely built on a foundation of attaching these various off-the-shelf tools together with Littledata.
It’s great to hear our GA connection was such a big piece of your growth. As you started to learn those different promotion channels like email marketing, did you look at any specific top-level stats?
For subscription orders, definitely measuring the differences in customer LTV for subscribers versus “one-time purchasers.” In the early stages, though, revenue and return on ad spend (ROAS) were really the biggest top-line metrics for us. The challenge of having to build a data foundation while also building the house (the store) on top of it felt almost like life or death. The plug and playability of Littledata’s reporting tools is really what allowed us to do it.
Is the main chunk of the business still going through coffee subscriptions?
I’d say although we’re not a “mono-product business,” a huge amount of our revenue is just through our compostable coffee pods. We’re roasting a huge amount of our coffee ourselves and we can then grind that for people. I guess you could say the coffee pods are kind of our hero product; it’s just an incredibly convenient way to to to make a really great, sustainable coffee at home.
And since you’re roasting it all yourself it’s always high quality.
Oh, yeah. We have a high level of control there. Investing significantly in things like our supply chain and roasting equipment definitely allowed much of our growth in the early stages.
There’s a lot of bad advice out there on how to bootstrap a business in 30, 90, or 120 days. But actually, it just comes down to getting on with it, finding the right tools, and gathering people smart people enough to figure those tools out. With DTC as a whole, there’s a bit of a roadmap now, right? People have done this thing before. And there are so many tools, whether it’s you guys at Littledata, or Shopify, or ReCharge, people have walked through these issues before. And in our experience, the people building those tools have always been happy to help out and to make things work for us.
Bootstrapping a DTC brand just comes down to getting on with it, finding the right tools, and gathering people smart people enough to figure those tools out.
Do you have any kind of advisory board or do you talk with other brands to help your growth? I know some people do and some don’t.
It’s funny — when you’re spending so much time looking at growth metrics, it’s really easy to look at everyone as competition. But actually, there’s an incredibly interesting community of people (in DTC) and we’re all on quite similar journeys. So I wouldn’t say I’d call what we have an advisory board, but there’s certainly a lot of people around London or even the U.K. who are at different stages on the same journey as us.
Because this process is so online, it can sometimes feel solitary. But actually, there are people in the same place who are really keen to help out. And then the competition helps fuel the conversation.
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