Ian Bernal: Founder, Santo Coffee Cubes

Ian Bernal grew up in Colombia and when he finished High School came back to the US to start College and working. He went to Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Orlando, and has a Bachelors Degree in Culinary Arts and Culinary Management. He traveled the world working online and cooking in Australia, Italy, Colombia, etc. His passions are to travel, cooking, coffee and being an entrepreneur and recently began working on an online specialized in Digital Marketing and E-Commerce. His family members have been coffee growers in Colombia for over 2 generations. Ian travels within the Coffee and Colombian culture, and meets with people who work every day in the fields to make one the best coffees in the world to be exported all around the globe. As of today, Ian has helped over 5 farmer families in Colombia supplying many of their first needs and education for their children. His goal is to help farmers around the world in many countries.

How did you get into the industry?

I was born in the United States to parents from Colombia, South America. My extended family still in Colombia have grown and produced coffee for three generations. From a young age, I was introduced to the business. I know what good coffee is, and for me, it’s part of who I am. I remember the first time I traveled to Colombia; my parents were so excited to show me everything within: the magic, the people, the weather, the food, the culture. It was at that time I fell in love with Colombia, with all the amazing things that I found in that country, but specially with their indescribable coffee—the flavor, texture, and the intoxicating aroma born in the Colombian mountains.

Any emerging industry trends?

I have researched the decreased use of instant coffee within the United States, which puzzled me since so many Americans are looking for faster, more convenient options for their morning cup of coffee. With the increasing use of single-pod coffee machines (think Keurig and Nespresso), I recognized that people are looking for coffee that can be made quickly, but so often, they then have to compromise on taste and quality.

Any industry opportunities or challenges?

As Americans continue to add activities, work, meetings, and family to their schedules, the need for “convenient” persistently increases. People hate waiting in line (or waiting for anything!), especially when they’re on a tight schedule. Instant coffee, as sold by the top three producers of the product, Folgers, Maxwell House, and Nescafe, haven’t turned their business heads to look at instant coffee options much for years. Because instant coffee currently does not fulfill consumer trends like “organic,” “fairtrade,” “single-sourced,” and “natural,” many coffee-lovers scoff at the coffee powder, even if the idea of an instant coffee is attractive.

Inspiration for the business idea, and your vision for the Business?

I was sitting in my living room after a long day of work, drinking the last one of my three daily coffees. Three coffees are like a ritual to me. Suddenly, I heard this weird noise coming from my kitchen. It was my single-serve coffee pod machine. The actual machine that I had bought only six months before was going crazy. It began making weird noises while pouring water out. When it refused to turn off, my last option was to disconnect the plug from the wall. I had spent over $200 on this machine and at least $20 every month after buying the pods! I sat in my kitchen looking in frustration at my damaged coffee pod machine and my old drip coffee maker, trying to figure out how to either reverse engineer these machines or design a better way to enjoy coffee without the mess, the waste, and the extravagant money spending.

So, I started contacting my family members in Colombia. I traveled, investigated, tasted many different types of coffee, and got into an "I Could Come Up with Something Brilliant" mood.

Then my epiphany: “What if I just made a simple, easy, and delicious coffee brought directly from Colombia?” To make it simple, we needed to eliminate the pots, the machines, the plug and all of that. To make it easy, consumers needed to be able to make it in three steps or less. To make it delicious, it had to be grown and hand-picked in Colombia and contain absolutely to chemicals or weird ingredients. I had heard that sometimes, big coffee companies use “fillers” in their coffee, which could be a variety of different grain products like corn, barley, or wheat, among other things. This makes the coffee weigh more, and companies can then sell it for more. I chose to discard this idea and focus on including only natural and organic parts to my newly-forming coffee idea.

I knew there were already other "instant," "easy" coffee products on the market, but none of them satisfied my desire for high-quality coffee that involved all of the aromas from Colombia and made drinking my cups an experience. I wanted to make a coffee that would be delicious enough to not taste instant. I wanted something that anybody could prepare and drink at anytime, anywhere—something to carry with you to work, or camping, or any place you where can imagine yourself drinking a cup of coffee.

Taking care of the environment and being healthy and eco-friendly is very important to me. That’s why all of Santo Coffee Cubes are made without chemicals or preservative and compacted and sweetened with an amazing product originally produced in Colombia called panela (pah’-nela). This evaporated unrefined sugar cane, which is healthier than regular white or brown sugar, is full of immunological benefits, a lower glycemic index and higher micronutrient content, and is easier to digest. Also, we plan to move all of our packaging to be biodegradable by 2019.

What's next for the Business in the near future?

On October 16 at 11:00 am (EST), Santo Coffee Cubes will launch a 30-day campaign on Kickstarter (www.kickstarter.com). We have a quickly-growing private Facebook community of coffee lovers who are itching to pre-order the cubes at the launch. Our immediate goal is to raise $30,000 within the 30 days our Kickstarter campaign is live. This will jumpstart us into production and allow us to begin shipping to our first customers before the New Year. Our overall, mega-goal is to reach 1.5 million dollars to buy an official Santo office and begin official and fulltime work.

After our Kickstarter campaign finishes on November 16th, product can be found on our website, santocubes.com, and probably on Indiegogo Indemand products. We will also be selling on ecommerce sites like Amazon.

In the next year, we are pushing to move our manufacturing facilities from Colombia to Orlando, FL, where I currently reside. We are looking to add new flavors, including a sugarless option that was much requested in our tester feedback. Within the next 18 months, we hope to open shipping options outside of the United States and begin selling to retail grocery outlets, like Whole Foods, Publix, Walmart, Costco, etc.

Your key initiatives for the success of the Business?

We are giving coffee-loving people what they want: affordable convenience that tastes incredible. Through our use of natural and organic ingredients in our hand-picked Colombian coffee cubes, we are giving customers the best we have to offer. Taste and quality are key sources of success. If we don’t cut corners, our customers will notice. Over this 2018 summer, we sent out several thousand prototype samples to customers. We listened to their feedback and made improvements to the taste and quality of our cubes. When asked in a general survey, 78% of our testers stated the cubes didn’t taste like instant coffee. We’re showing coffee lovers they don’t need to compromise on taste and quality for convenience’s’ sake.

Buzzwords like “small-farm” and “giving back” all turn the heads and open the ears of potential customers. We support small-farm coffee growers in Colombia and seek to donate a portion of our proceeds back to those families to improve their livelihood by building schools in those coffee-growing communities. A successful business plan must include thinking of others and giving ourselves to serve others.

We have also created a consumable product, which means we are able to maintain a foundational base of support for ourselves—our returning customers—while always looking to grow. Because we have a product capable of changing (in flavor, roast, and even ingredients—we’re looking at making tea cubes, too!), we can continue to shift with current trends and fit peoples’ needs and desires.

Your most difficult moment at the Business? (and what did you learn?)

One of our biggest challenges in our Business so far has been to fulfill more than 6000 orders within a matter of weeks to all of our tasters. Our experience was based on a dropshipping business model, where us as digital marketers are only in charge of selling products online and not having to fulfill or ship any items, since many of our suppliers and factories do it for us. However, with the  tasting phase for market validation for Santo Coffee Cubes, we wanted to try and learn how to do fulfillment on our own. But tasters were ordering more samples than expected and our “Office” became a fulfillment center in a very short period of time, having to buy supplies, boxes, printers, tags, labels, bubble wrap, envelopes, etc. This unexpected experience made us realise that teamwork is important and having an operation flow and great communication within your business can determine your success.

Ideal experience for a customer/client?

A customer purchases his ideal coffee cube package on Kickstarter (and some of them come with some pretty sweet Santo memorabilia that shouldn’t be overlooked!). In the middle of December, the customer receives a box on his doorstep. Inside are his highly-anticipated coffee cubes. He needs only milk or water in his house to make himself a delicious cup of coffee in whichever of the flavors he’s most craving at the moment—caramel, cappuccino, amaretto, mocha, vanilla, hazelnut, light roast, dark roast, or decaf. He heats up his liquid of choice and picks one or two flavors (you can mix and match!) and stirs his cube into his cup. Within thirty seconds, he’s sitting back on the couch to soak up the aromas of fresh Colombian coffee. Now he’s hooked because those cubes can go with him anywhere he goes. He can carry them around his backpack at college, stick a few in his pocket for a camping trip, or stash some away in his desk at work.

How do you motivate others?

As an entrepreneur and digital marketer have had the opportunity to teach and speak on stages in front of more than 300 people in several events I organize myself with my team and partners. I have been able to inspire more than 700 spanish speaking students with my story of how to become a successful entrepreneur, who follow me as one of their mentors. I have been able to do events in Colombia, Puerto Rico and Orlando among others, impacting the life of many people that need guidance and motivation to be able to quit their 9 to 5 and pursue their dreams. Currently I  have a community of more than 30K digital entrepreneurs and students all around the world that engage with me on social media every week. One of my goals is to change as many lives as I can, sharing my experiences and  knowledge.

Career advice to those in your industry?

Treat people as if they always deserve the best. Don’t cut corners. If you don’t want to buy something that is cheap, don’t sell something that is cheap. Allow your worldview of the value of peoples’ lives shape what you produce and how you produce. Pursue what you are passionate about, and people will be able to see the heart behind your work. You will be less likely to give up, and i will be your passion that drives you to push through the hardest moments to achieve the greatest outcomes.