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More than a story about a successful small business, Anu Menon and Suyog Mody’s tale is about love, commitment, and a darn good cup of coffee. While Suyog is from Mumbai, Anu grew up in the Middle East, and the couple first met as undergrads at Georgia Tech. They then went on to work at the same tech company for years, before giving up the stability of steady paychecks to launch a self-funded small business in a brand-new category they were completely unfamiliar with. Eight years on, what started as the two of them roasting beans on a tiny roaster and working out of their small kitchen in Brooklyn, has grown into Driftaway Coffee, one of the most popular coffee subscription services that delivers freshly roasted beans across the United States.
With their backgrounds in technology, design, and brand building, the couple firmly have their sights set on making Drfitaway Coffee the ultimate pick for coffee lovers.”But it’s been challenging growing a brand without capital,” says Suyog of their shoestring budget, which led them to embrace old-school marketing techniques of building genuine relationships with customers rather than just targeting their social profiles. “In our own way, we’ve built something that we are so proud of,” he adds.
We chatted with Suyog and Anu about career pivots, building a brand with your significant other, and savoring success in a very strange year.
- 1 What compelled you to start Driftaway Coffee?
- 2 Neither of you had a background in coffee; how did you go about exploring this completely new space?
- 3 What makes the Driftaway Coffee experience unique compared to other coffee subscription services?
- 4 What are some of the biggest struggles you faced over the years?
- 5 Has it been challenging working with your significant other?
- 6 What was 2020 like for Driftaway Coffee?
- 7 What’s next for Driftaway Coffe?
What compelled you to start Driftaway Coffee?
Anu: Once I became a manager, I had reached this point where I started asking myself if this is what I wanted to do forever. Around that time we moved to New York from London, and I decided to take a six-month sabbatical. Suyog and I used to read and watch a lot of inspiring people who had quit and started their own businesses, and we came across someone called A.J Leon and his wife, where they talk about how they started working together, which gave us the motivation to start a company together. In London, we had been spoiled with getting fresh roasted coffee delivered to our house, and in New York we tried out a bunch of different subscription companies and even roasters, and didn’t really find one that met all of our needs. So we figured… why don’t we just start there.
Suyog: One thing we took away from our experience working a corporate job was that we didn’t want to be a link in the chain, we wanted to be the whole chain. So that meant starting something of our own.
Neither of you had a background in coffee; how did you go about exploring this completely new space?
Anu: We spent 2013 learning about coffee, brewing, roasting, the basics. The big thing is that you need to train your palette so that when you taste coffee, you can actually identify distinct tasting notes. So we would practice roasting a small batch, buy roasted coffee from other roasters, and then compare it to ours. We also bought food acids to taste individually to better understand how to get that nuanced taste in coffee.
Suyog: There’s no better place than New York to dive into the coffee world. We plugged into the community and just spent a lot of time self-learning. There’s no way for someone to teach you something. You just jump in, start, and do it over and over again.
What makes the Driftaway Coffee experience unique compared to other coffee subscription services?
Anu: We’ve never had a retail space, which is unusual for coffee roasters. And on the other side, online only-brands don’t roast themselves. We don’t offer a quiz, but rather a highly personalized Explorer Kit that has four different coffees and each has a specific profile — fruity, which is usually a light roasted coffee from Africa; classic, which is usually South American coffees; a balanced roast, which is more Central American; and bold, a slightly darker roast. The idea is that you can taste these roasts side by side, then tell us which profile you like. We also do a new coffee every month.
Suyog: We’re a very sustainably minded company. This year we’re trying to get all of our suppliers to stop sending us plastic. Even a compostable label company sends their labels covered in plastic! So it’s just a shift that we’re trying to make. Right now 80 percent of our product is completely compostable.
What are some of the biggest struggles you faced over the years?
Suyog: The ongoing perennial struggle of growing your brand without external funding. It’s always just been the both of us who have put in capital into the business, so not being able to spend to grow, or spend ahead has always been challenging.
Anu: When we launched, Suyog would tweet at influencers, offering coffee samples, and one of them was tech influencer Marco Arment. We were roasting coffee at home using a tiny microwave-size roaster. We sent him some coffee and he loved it so much he tweeted out to his followers and literally overnight 200 people subscribed. So we added another tiny roaster at home and we would take shifts roasting coffee. Suyog would do some before we left for work and then I would take over for the rest of the day.
Has it been challenging working with your significant other?
Suyog: Not for me! I feel we have very good complementary skill sets. Anu’s strengths are design, attention to detail, whereas I focus more on big-picture thinking. After the first two-three years, we decided we would never work weekends again. The other thing is that we basically got different teams. Anu has the tech, design, and a lot of the product-related work. And for me, coffee ops and customer service, primarily.
Anu: When you work with other people, if you don’t agree on things, you find a more tactful way of letting them know. But with your partner, there’s a bigger chance of being like, “no, you’re wrong.” The good thing is that it speeds up decision making, there’s no tip-toeing around each other, and we’re very honest. At the same time, even if we get annoyed with each other, we kind of leave it separate and try to not bring Driftaway into post-work hours. Which is hard, but we don’t mind since we love what we do. We also have proper date nights where we let ourselves talk about Driftway for the first hour or so and then stop.
What was 2020 like for Driftaway Coffee?
Anu: When the pandemic started we didn’t know if coffee would be considered an essential business, so we had the same fears as many small businesses did. But thankfully coffee is considered essential so we were able to keep producing. This past year we grew quite a bit, especially since people were looking to build their at-home coffee routine. But specifically for 2020, we came up with virtual tastings. We hired a coffee educator and launched a new product where you can try all the coffees with your loved ones while virtually hanging out with coffee educator who will teach you what it’s like to smell and taste the coffees. This has grown to the point where we’re looking to get one more person to do virtual tastings.
Suyog: We’ve switched our thinking from being just about us and a handful of employees to a more team mindset and how the team is growing. We want to ensure that everyone who works for us is taken care of.
What’s next for Driftaway Coffe?
Anu: We are getting our own roaster so we’re pretty excited about that. Over the years, we’ve either roasted at a shared roaster or different coffee roasters. Now we can roast daily, which means fresher coffee and more control over the quality. Additionally, cold brew season comes up in May, and last year we had one whole season of cold brew, so this year we’ll be doubling up on our production levels. But make sure to get your orders in ASAP.
Suyog: The theme for 2022, is growing up a little bit. The roaster is just one example. Putting these systems in place will unlock things for us to do over the next few years. Plus, we’re going to expand our virtual offerings. Lastly, watch out for us on social platforms. We’ve been awfully late on social, so growing our social presence is another big goal.
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