The Empowered Marketer: Josh Zloof of Sudden Coffee

Customer research is the core of every good marketing strategy. Finding product-market fit is nearly impossible if you don’t talk to a ton of people about your product, test it out, and find the audience who truly loves it.

This is exactly the method that helped Josh Zloof find the right customers for Sudden Coffee. He faced what seemed like an insurmountable challenge — how do you change the bad reputation of instant coffee?

To most people, it’s seen as cheap, fast, and pretty tasteless. In comparison, Sudden Coffee offers coffee snobs everywhere a fast and delicious cup that you can buy today on Amazon or at Whole Foods.

But it wasn’t an easy path to get there! After working at Groupon, Josh was determined to start a company in the food space, but couldn’t settle on the right idea. It took him tons of experimentation, a lot of customer research, and a complete re-brand before Sudden found its identity and core market.

In this exclusive interview with The Empowered Marketer, Josh shares:

  • Why customer research shifted their target audience
  • How Sudden Coffee’s messaging and branding changed drastically
  • The marketing channels that worked best for growth
  • …and much more

Listen to the Full Conversation

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Read the Top 4 Takeaways

1. You tried to build 10 different startups in a year, which is pretty crazy. So why did you do that and what did you learn from that experience?

When I first left Groupon, II just knew I wanted to do a startup in the hospitality or service space, but I didn’t really know what I wanted to do beyond that. The very first idea I had was around shopping for clothes. It was called Shopping Sucks and I hated shopping so I thought, we’re going to have a personal shopper go to your house and go look at your wardrobe and then find clothes for you to buy. I did that for like a few months and realized I really hate shopping, and so it was really hard for me to work on that idea.

But I knew that that was going to be part of the startup journey and so I wasn’t going to give up. I decided to spend at least a year just committed to this process. I call it the wandering through the desert phase of just trying idea after idea. Sometimes I would spend a week on them. Sometimes I would spend three months on them. Working with different people, different teams, and evaluating the idea you know first really mathematically.

It was really just this really painful iterative process of going through 10 different ideas until finding the one that started to work.

2. What worked about Sudden Coffee? What was different about this idea?

It worked on a few levels. I met my co-founder and he had a prototype for Sudden, but had not actually sold any end product yet. When we met we said okay, let’s work on this and see if we can sell it two weeks from now. We did a sprint and got everything together and we packaged it and it sold out. From working on all these other ideas, you know when you get feedback that’s just OK. But when you have a really strong signal like that, I knew there was something here.

There’s been this really big movement towards specialty coffee, which is treating coffee a lot more like wine. People want coffee that’s sustainably grown with supply chain transparency. The coffees also taste incredible and they’re all really different. You might have a coffee that tastes really floral or fruity or one that tastes really chocolatey.

But for specialty coffee, there’s a lot of work you have to do. If you’re brewing it at home, you have to know how to grind it properly; you have to know what water to use. There’s mineralization that people get into. And so if you really go deep into having the perfect cup of coffee, it’s something that people spend a long time learning and figuring out and buying all this gear and stuff. Or alternatively, you have to find a café near you that does this really well.

We wanted to make it so that you could have an amazing cup of coffee without having to do any of that. All you have to know is I’m going to have this amazing coffee. Here’s where it comes from, here’s what it tastes like, and I mix it with water and it’s basically the world’s best instant coffee.

3. How are you fighting back against the impression that instant coffee isn’t high quality? What marketing messages are working?

That’s definitely been the hardest thing for us. It’s really just about customer education. A lot of folks think that instant coffee is just coffee grounds. But instant coffee is actually made by fully brewing coffee into a liquid and then dehydrating it. And so we do a lot through videos and marketing messaging and lately through partnerships with some of the top coffee companies. It’s all about showing people that instant coffee can taste really, really great. How do we reintroduce this thing that people are used to not being good?

I really think about this whole process as a customer journey. That’s really normal in software when you’re making apps — people are always talking about the journey. But it often times falls off when you get into the physical world and ecommerce. But there are things we do where the package now includes an insert that both tells you our story and has indicators of quality that you’d see on bags of beans. Then it also will tell you how to go through coffee tasting, which a lot of folks haven’t really done. It’s very rare that people drink two coffees side by side and compare them. We do things like that to do more education around Sudden Coffee.

4. How are you finding that target audience since tons of people drink coffee? How have you narrowed it down to find people who you think will be most open to Sudden Coffee?

We got this wrong for the first couple years. When we started, we thought this is going to be great for Millennials in cities. Millennials really like good coffee. And so we were marketing to that. We did customer research by going to cafes in San Francisco and were focused on this Millennial market.

But then we were fortunate enough to get a few different press features. When we were in mainstream media, we got all of these customers from all different walks of life, which was great because we got a totally random sample of people who signed up. Our board member at the time told us: “Go through all of the customers who have purchased at least three times. Ignore everyone who’s only purchased once or twice. Only look at people who have purchased a bunch of times and go really deep in researching them.”

We looked up people’s Facebook accounts and their LinkedIn accounts. We have everyone’s address — so this is kind of creepy — but we looked up people’s homes on Google street view to get a sense of the neighborhoods and where these people lived and what jobs they had.

When we applied those filters, we started seeing really powerful trends. We saw that almost all these people were above the age of 35. Almost all of our customers lived in the suburbs. They all had pretty big houses. They were all relatively wealthy. And they had these jobs that were on the go. They weren’t travel-focused jobs, but they were jobs where you’re not sitting at a desk. So it could be a doctor or an architect or someone who owns their own yoga studio. Could be a musician. And they all had these really quirky interests like they were into museums or they were into music.

This totally makes sense. And then after that, we’d get on the phone with our buyers and they’d say, “You know we used to live in the city, I really like good coffee. I live in the suburbs now and you can’t make a pour over when you’re holding your baby in your arm.” And that was how who our target customer became.

To learn more about Sudden Coffee, visit

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