As a child, Eduardo Umaña enjoyed experimenting with coffee, under the watchful eye of his grandfather, who tasted his concoctions and offered encouraging feedback. Eduardo’s passion for brewing the ultimate cup of coffee continued into adulthood.
Baristas have long known that the foam which ground coffee releases when it comes in contact with water is aesthetically pleasing, but bitter, which can impair the coffee’s flavor. The trick is to efficiently and easily remove the foam before it mixes with the liquid coffee.
Eduardo spent two years tinkering with various product designs, in an attempt to extract the bitter foam. After much trial and error, he realized that a vacuum pump separated the foam from the liquid brew, while achieving faster brewing cycles than conventional methods. An additional happy accident was the realization that the vacuum process also enabled cold brew coffee to be made in minutes, rather than hours.
Through mutual friends, Eduardo met Otto Becker, a Guatemalan who comes from several generations of coffee growers. The meeting proved fortuitous, as Eduardo’s product development skills were a perfect match with Otto’s sales and finance expertise. Together, they founded VAC.
Complimentary Founders: Industry Expertise + Product Design
John Greathouse: Eduardo and Otto, thanks for making the time. I love Founders’ stories – so you initially connected through mutual friends?
Otto Becker: Yes, Eduardo and I met in Guatemala City through friends in common. One of our mutual friends had a VacOne at home and asked me if I wanted to make cold brew with coffee from my farm which I had brought with me. At the time I thought this was impossible because cold brew takes a really long time to make. But the VacOne delivered a really nice glass of cold brew in just four minutes which made me curious to talk with the inventor…
Eduardo Umaña: After talking with Otto over the phone, we decided to meet during my next trip to Guatemala. Otto initially was interested in distributing VacOne in Central America and I thought that could be interesting. But when we met, we realized that we had many personal qualities and similar goals that really complemented each other as entrepreneurs. After several conversations, Otto quit his job and joined the company.
Greathouse: That’s great. Complimentary Co-founders are key to a venture’s success. Sole founders can obviously make it work, but it’s more difficult, on a variety of fronts.
I’ve read that the design process involved “several hundred prototypes” over more than two years. Can you give us a bit more color regarding your product/market fit discovery process – along with what you could have done, with the benefit of hindsight, to move faster?
Umaña: Growing up in Colombia, my grandfather and mom were always looking for a more delicious cup of coffee. I remember, even as a small kid, meticulously measuring and making coffee to later ask my grandfather what he thought about the cup.
Many years later, after graduating in mechanical and electrical engineering, I started designing a coffee maker for personal use. The “aha” moment came while having a cup of coffee in Bogotá, Colombia with some friends who are in the industry. It turns out that the foam or “bloom” that ground coffee releases when it combines with water is actually CO2, which is trapped during the roasting process. The bloom has an unpleasant taste and can infuse undesirable flavors to the final cup, this is why “blooming,” which is the process of letting the CO2 escape from the infusion, is so important when brewing with traditional methods.
After learning this, I thought, “What if I could design a brewing method which separates the bloom from the finished cup of coffee? Would I turn out with a smoother, sweeter cup of coffee?” After experimenting for a while, we discovered that it did. The result was compelling, sweet, with a silkier after taste and more “round” body.
The coffee was so good that I started working on a commercial version of my brewer. The first prototypes were difficult to use since it takes quite a bit of pressure to separate the bloom from the coffee. The first prototypes were manual and were really difficult to use. This is where I got my second “aha” moment, what if I use an air pump?
This is how Air Brewing came about — a different brewing method which uses an air pump to brew coffee — up until now, all coffee makers had a water pump and a more simple brewing principle. Air brewing separates the bloom from the finished cup and applies a bit of pressure to better extract the coffee. This new brewing method also has other benefits: it’s fast, it’s forgiving with brewing parameters such as grind size and time, which means you don’t need to be a professional barista to brew a good cup, and it’s flexible because it also makes cold brew in a really short amount of time.
Greathouse: Your tinkering on a better solution certainly paid off. Once you created your initial design, you executed a successful Kickstarter campaign. What tips do you have for startups considering crowdfunding to propel their initial product’s launch?
Umaña: People decide whether or not to pledge based on the product. So, I would encourage startups to think about, “Would they want it?” Is it new/cool/useful? And to present it with enough credibility in order to make people feel comfortable pledging to the campaign.
That’s what worked for us — a cool product that offered clear benefits and a campaign that looked competent enough that people felt comfortable pledging. If these two things are aligned, product and presentation, people will talk about it and news outlets will want to write about it as well.
Greathouse: Why did you rebrand from FrankOne after crowdfunding? I’m curious, because I’m an advisor to CLIQ Products, which also had a very successful crowdfunding launch and then rebranded after the campaign was fulfilled.
Umaña: We decided to rebrand because we felt that we needed to better communicate the product. So, we changed the company’s name from Frank De Paula to VAC and FrankOne to VacOne. This way, our name really relates to our technology and competitive advantage, which is our air or vacuum brewing technology. This is what makes our brewers and the coffee they make different. We don’t think of ourselves as coffee makers, but rather air brewers.
Becker: After doing several branding exercises we noticed that “Frank de Paula” wasn’t such a good name and we knew that the brand was going to be a very important part of the company, so we decided to start looking for a new name. We needed something which was memorable, easy to spell, legally defensible, and descriptive about our unique technology. VAC felt into our lap after making a list of those things that were important in a name.
Greathouse: Naming can be vexing. It’s hard to abandon the work put into a brand, but it sounds you rebranded for all the right reasons.
It’s also difficult to be innovative within a mature market, but you’ve created a new sub-category in the coffee brewing world. Speed to market is obviously important, as is protecting your IP (intellectual property). What have you done to move quickly, while making it difficult for imitators to knock you off?
Umaña: We have a utility patent pending for VacOne, which is the traditional approach for protecting an invention. However, we are more interested in building our brand. We have two unique differentiators which together make for a very compelling story — we created a new way to make coffee and we are doing it while innovating from the Origin. We are in a unique position because as a company, we have roots in coffee producing countries with centuries worth of experience and expertise which we use to create air brewers that deliver a more authentic experience and a better cup of coffee.
Becker: Moving fast is very important. We have a very clear go-to market strategy and we are very efficient executing it. Another important way for us to protect our product is with the story behind it. Our products are created in tandem with the expertise that very talented people have developed in coffee producing countries over hundreds of years. No one knows coffee like we do at the Origin. Our job is to bring innovation to this expertise to create products never before seen in the equipment category.
Greathouse: You mentioned “the Origin,” which ties in with your mission to, “Innovate from the Origin.” What does this mean and how has it manifested itself in your operations?
Becker: Eduardo and I both come from coffee producing countries, something that has given us a deep connection with coffee and its culture. As entrepreneurs we noticed that there is a lot of value in the form of knowledge and expertise locked in our countries, passed on for hundreds of years growing this beautiful crop. We want to unlock that value and use it as competitive advantage to innovate toward a better cup.
Umaña: Another aspect of growing up in coffee producing countries is realizing the lack of opportunity our countries face. We wanted to do something about it, so we partnered with Funcafe, the non-profit sister organization of Anacafe which is Guatemala’s National Coffee Grower’s Association. We invest through Funcafe in education for future generations in coffee growing regions across Guatemala. We give 1% back with the goal of creating opportunity and driving innovation in the coffee industry — we want to see more innovation in coffee coming directly from the source.
Greathouse: That’s great. I always encourage emerging entrepreneurs to “make meaning” and tie their mission to something bigger than just making money and creating value for their stakeholders.
WAH (work at home) employees have taken to your product, as they are not picking up coffee on the way to work, nor are they drinking their company’s coffee throughout the day. I assume that since you developed the product long before the pandemic hit, that your initial target demographic was people on-the-go, leveraging VacOne’s portability? Correct?
Umaña: Actually, VacOne is designed for use at home, anywhere at home. You can take it to the dining table, your studio, sofa, anywhere… it’s free to roam the house. It is also meant for kitchens with little counter space. VacOne does not plug to the wall so you can easily store it out of sight without having to plug and unplug. I used to live in a very small apartment, where space was very limited. So, I thought… how can I make a brewer friendly for anyone to own?
Greathouse: In addition to WAH users, another use case is camping, which also increased significantly during the pandemic. Have other surprising use cases emerged since your launch?
Umaña: Since VacOne is portable, it can definitely be great for campers. I live in Miami, so I’ve been surprised to see people making cold brew in their boats which has turned out convenient with the VacOne given it’s size and portability.
Becker: One that has surprised me a lot is barista labs… some very skilled baristas use the VacOne to identify and highlight the sweeter notes of the coffee. This helps them to recognize a better profile of the cup thanks to the way VacOne extracts. Baristas also use it to dial-in cold brew roasts and recipes without having to wait 24 hours before knowing if their cold brew recipe tastes how they want it to taste. With VacOne they can make several tests and create their perfect cold brew profile within minutes.
Greathouse: Some coffee aficionados fetishize the brewing process. It seems your device satisfies the casual coffee drinker who just wants a quick cup of great coffee, as well as the coffee snob who is looking for something unique in which they can dial in the water temperature, granularity of the grounds, etc. This spectrum of user demands is a tough balance to achieve.
Umaña: Well, actually VacOne satisfies both demographics. VacOne is perhaps the only device that will brew ground coffee that is ground as finely as espresso, or as coarse as French Press. Other brewers grind spectrum is way more narrow, so VacOne actually gives the professional barista plenty of room to experiment. The VacOne also allows to fully control brewing time since it is an immersion brewer.
Curiously enough, for the same reason that the spectrum of time and grind is so wide, the casual coffee drinker will find VacOne easy to use. VacOne will brew a great cup of coffee with any grind size or steeping time. This is not the case with other brewers when the grind size and time are not “just right.”
Becker: The VacOne is located in a point of the category that we call “easy specialty.” This is the point in the category where the product is suitable for both coffee enthusiasts, and casual coffee drinkers. Actually, thanks to this segmentation, VacOne works as a bridge between the specialty coffee world and mainstream coffee. Our product helps to introduce new people to the world of specialty coffee.
Greathouse: Like all startups, you’ve evaluated various price points. What can your fellow entrepreneurs learn from your price sensitivity testing?
Umaña: This one was part art, part science. Since we are bootstrapped, we need to sell at a price point which makes sense. That gave us a ballpark of price points at which we could offer VacOne. The second thought was, “How do we want to be perceived as a brand?” We had the idea to be an “attainable high-end” brand, in other words, a price that lets you know you are about to buy something differentiated, but not crazy enough to make you want to think it twice.
Becker: Like you say, pricing is a challenge for many startups. The market will always tell you which price point is the correct one. This is obviously based on the perceived value of the product. We did a few things to define our price point — we ran surveys to customers asking about the perceived value after purchase, we also did small focus groups, and we created a price grid for competitors in the category. After analyzing all this information, making a decision was almost instantaneous.
Greathouse: What advice do you have for entrepreneurs regarding establishing their online distribution relationships? There’s always a balance between gaining incremental sales, without losing sales that would otherwise occur on your own site.
Becker: This depends on a lot of factors and what kind of company they have. Having several channels is very important for us and has worked well for balancing our PnL (profit and loss). We might be losing sales on our website, but because of some other fronts that we have we end up growing and stabilizing sales when we add everything up. This is our case… we would recommend to have all the characteristics of your product clear like pricing, target consumer, and business model, and deciding where you need to be in order to get a bigger reach. In distribution, it’s all about the reach and profitability.
Greathouse: You plan to launch a coffee subscription service later this year (2021). What else can we expect from VAC in the years to come and how can folks keep up with what’s new at VAC?
Umaña: We are very excited to launch our monthly subscription service, Quintal Coffee. The idea is to offer our clients the possibility of trying extraordinary coffees that are rated 90 points and up by the Cup of Excellence and are roasted directly at the origin by an expert. The first edition is roasted by Raul Rodas, World Barista Champion of 2012.
Other than that, expect more air brewers. We are just beginning to develop this exciting technology. You can keep up with VAC by following us at @vac.coffee.
You can follow John on Twitter: @johngreathouse