It takes a village to build a brand-new coffee product. Thi Lam, who founded the sparkling coffee brand Keepers with co-worker Brent Lagerman in 2016, is quick to acknowledge those who have helped them along the way. “Without Pilotworks and their expertise, there's no way we would've made it,” he says of the now-defunct shared kitchen space in Brooklyn, New York where Keepers grew.
The two founders met at work, developed the product in a SodaStream, moved to Pilotworks for the mentorship and kitchen space, and eventually moved to co-packing the product. They've built an unheard-of beverage (carbonated coffee mixed with citrus juices) into much-loved darling with a successful Kickstarter campaign and, now, many competitors in the category. But it hasn't been an easy journey! Both founders still work full-time jobs and have no employees, leaving them with a lot of business and not a lot of time for Keepers.
Lam sat down with us to talk co-packing, challenges, and community.
Had either of you started a business before?
We'd both had fun ideas, but neither of us had applied for an LLC or anything. Brent had his branding agency, and in college I had a radio station/independent record label that was funded by the university, so that sort of counts.
How did you know that you would work well together?
We didn't! We just got along. In a way, we sort of just fell into it! He had a branding agency, I applied and started working for him, and we just got along. The place had a family vibe, and I had a good feeling about working with them.
What was the first hurdle you encountered?
Making the product, even at a small scale. I remember we were bottling on his roof with a friend until 4am, hand-stickering the bottles until super-late just to make 100 bottles.
Had you pre-sold them?
That first round was for a Brooklyn holiday bazaar. That was our first public event. We made 100 bottles, and sampled and sold some. There were reps from Whole Foods and other grocery stores there, who immediately said they wanted to carry our product. That's when we had this “oh, shit” moment, like, “we should probably get our stuff together.” We had to start doing it right.
How long did it take you from that initial event to get Keepers to people?
First was the equipment - we learned everything on YouTube. We had started out with a SodaStream, and then we evolved into a 2-liter recycled Coke bottle with tubing into a gas tank. Literally, we'd brew the coffee, pour it into the 2-liter, cap it, connect it with a hose into the gas tank, and shake it with gas. Then we moved on to a 5 gallon keg, so we could fill bottles. We eventually bought a capper. This is where Pilotworks came into play - we just didn't have the know-how. We Googled “commercial kitchen space” and they popped up, and it just felt like home.
When did you move to copacking?
We when moved to cans, when we got into Whole Foods. We had been doing bottles, because it was affordable and we could hand-fill, but we started to run out of time for it. I do miss the manual labor, because that's when our best ideas came out. It's quiet, no one is bothering you over email and Instagram, and we could actually talk.
But copacking came when WFM wanted us, and they said “we really want you, but we think it would be best if you were in cans. How quickly can you make that happen?” So we said, “sure! We can make that happen. Give us three months,” but we had no idea about the process. We just Googled, like, “where to buy cans.” Pilotworks helped us find our first copacker in Massachusetts, but we had never produced at scale before so we didn't have a recipe. We made it up, because we had nothing to lose.
But that has been a tough relationship, right?
Copacking is hard. We're in an in-between size where we're too big to hand-bottle, but too small to order 300 barrels of perishable liquid. That's a lot of money to roll the dice. We managed to negotiate our way into a smaller canning run, but that only lasted so long.
What other obstacles did you encounter?
The aluminum tariff! Can orders were backed up for over a month. Someone messaged me and asked, “is the Trump tariff going to affect you?” And I was like, “what Trump tariff?” Then I realized cans were delayed.
Do you recommend crowdfunding for entrepreneurs?
It's a great marketing tool. But it shouldn't be the thing that keeps your business afloat. It's too risky - you're investing with other people's money. You have to answer to everybody. I get emails constantly. The #1 thing Kickstarter reps will tell you is to always update, even if there's nothing to update. And that's hard - life gets in the way.
Is there anything you'd do differently if you did it over again?
I think I wouldn't grow as fast. I'd set my own pace, my own rules. I would've taken Whole Foods, but just the Brooklyn stores. That way, I could focus more on quality and sustainability and customer service. Growth can sometimes make those aspects suffer.
Alternately, I'd just make a prototype, set the branding and packaging, and not make a single thing until I fundraised. Because the second that you sell something, you're in motion. You have to go in order to make money and find more investment - because your investors are concerned about those sales metrics.
What makes a good entrepreneur?
Someone who's willing to take risk, and knows the right people to ask questions to and get help from. Without Pilotworks and their expertise, there's no way we would've made it. And not giving up, because it's so easy to give up. There's a fine line - you can be killing yourself for no reason. But there's a lot of pride when you start something, and you have to answer to a lot of people.
Which services make Keepers possible?
We're a QuickBooks company. We use Google Sheets a lot. We also use Trello and Asana a lot, for tasks. Instagram. VSCO for edits. I can take quality pictures on my camera, send it to my phone using bluetooth, and then edit via VSCO. It's super convenient. We tried to have a Slack, but we were only two people and freelancers - it was silly. For shipping, we use Bolt. They make it easier for people like us, because the process is basically “where's your pallet? Where should it be?”
Do you have any advice for aspiring entrepreneurs?
Have a really good “why.” Everyone says that, but it's so real. Without the passion, you're not going to go that far. If you've got a great why, you can go on for the rest of your life. I know people who have been doing this for years, and even if they're not uber-successful, they're so happy.