Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart. The experiences you face on that journey are extreme highs and lows, loneliness, obstacles in every form, and constant risks that require relentless persistence and blinding optimism to navigate. As a faith based CEO and founder, I have relied heavily on mentors who could keep me encouraged, centered on life’s truths, maintain perspective, and to celebrate or commiserate through all the challenges and breakthroughs that come with the pursuits of passion. There are several people who I talked with almost daily: prayed with, expressed struggles, received wise counsel, encouragement, and who helped keep me anchored to the source that drives me.
As a part of our series about business leaders who are shaking things up in their industry, I had the pleasure of interviewing Josh Wilbur.
Josh Wilbur, a serial entrepreneur and inventor, lives on the cusp of innovation and disruption. He was previously COO of Kickstarter’s phenomenon Bibliotheca, Founding Team of fintech payments company PayStand, Director of Experience at Vintage Faith Church, and Founder of acquired Axis Web Media. Wilbur is now Founder and CEO of Steeped Coffee, the new standard in single-serve coffee.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”? What led you to this particular career path?
I never had an answer when people asked me what I want to be when I grow up. But as a kid, I remember being excited to see my favorite commercial that actually resonated with something inside, even though I didn’t have any idea what the company did, “At BASF, we don’t make a lot of the products you buy. We make a lot of the products you buy better.” I was like, yes, that’s probably what I am great at — creating better ways to do existing things. I have always been an inventor and entrepreneur, most comfortable outside the box. As a kid, I journaled new inventions that would come out years later. In college I didn’t have a traditional major, I made one up to be approved, including creating several new classes within it highlighted by “travel photography,” which allowed me to travel the world. I don’t typically see boundaries, only new and unique ways to simplify complex problems. And I haven’t seemed to mind the challenge, the risk, and the pressure that accompanies this mindset. I slowly began to identify with entrepreneurship. My mind constantly creates and imagines what could be, and from time-to-time the ideas bond with the passion to see them through.
Along the way, I learned through lots of failures ranging from thousands of half-made leather journals to inventing surf mats that people loved but I could sell. Later I created surfboards that received multiple patents, and also started an online media company that was later acquired. After experiencing some significant spiritual shifts in my life I eventually took a break from my company to volunteer and later join the team of an artsy and innovative church where I was able to be part of life-changing community impact. I saw people’s lives changed frequently, but I also got to pioneer new ministries and then trained others to run them once developed.
With this newly developed taste of pursuing my passions through purpose, I started looking for things that were more worth my investment of time. Projects began taking on new meaning as I transitioned from vocational ministry to business as mission — applying what I believe to be the authentic truths of my faith like loving people, taking care of our planet, seeking balance in life (my most challenging to live out), standing up for those who can’t stand for themselves, intentionally reflecting beauty through craftsmanship and innovation, and so many other truths that bring positive change. I later joined the founding team of a fintech startup PayStand, on a mission to create a more fair and open financial system through payments reimagined for the digital era. After that, I helped launch Bibliotheca, a weekend project of Adam Greene’s that went viral with 2.2M dollars in presales, that simply and elegantly reimaged the experience of the Biblical library and would come to inspire a new experiential format of reading scriptures without distractions — just the story. Once Bibliotheca launched, as the most successful book project ever on Kickstarter, I gained the confidence to pursue physical products vs. digital. Each of these startups took existing concepts and made them more simply.
Seven years prior I had created what would be a minimum viable product (MVP) of Steeped Coffee after attempting to solve the problem of how to have good coffee at the in-laws over Thanksgiving without bringing a suitcase of equipment. Years later and before I started on with Bibliotheca I had journaled the entire business plan during a flight to visit my grandparents in between projects, and it was all just sitting there waiting to come to life. I really wrestled with the decision to start a coffee company. Could I really use coffee to make a difference in the world? After the literal answer to prayer one day (it’s a crazy story), I felt released to start Steeped. We would be a business on a mission to redeem the waste of single-serve coffee, to highlight ethical sourcing, to enable specialty coffee companies to be more accessible for consumers, to be a light on a hill for business without compromise, to model business for good, and to see what journey it would all take us on. It has indeed been a crazy ride so far.
Ideas and dreams are tricky things. You have to find just the right one — test it, cultivate it, and then give your whole life to it to see it grow.
Can you tell our readers what it is about the work you’re doing that’s disruptive?
The Steeped Coffee brewing method is the new standard in coffee — combining quality and convenience. Steeped, Inc. has pioneered the first and only proprietary single-serve coffee brewing method that is fully compostable, made similar to tea, and requires no barrier to entry by avoiding all upfront equipment. Welcome to Coffee Simplified.
Steeped, Inc. is operating in the specialty and single-serve coffee markets, using innovation to bring these high-growth trends together for the first time. Steeped Packs serve as a convenient unplugged alternative to wasteful pods dependent on additional machinery. Steeped Packs deliver craft coffee that’s freshly roasted, precision ground, and triple nitro-sealed in Steeped’s Full Immersion Filters and Guilt-Free Packaging.
Headquartered in Santa Cruz, California, Steeped provides a pre-ground pre-portioned single-serve technology to the B2C and B2B distribution channels under its Steeped Coffee brand as well as providing turnkey packaging solutions to hundreds of top Licensed Partners through its disruptive brewing method and patent-pending processes. Steeped, Inc. is also offering sustainable packaging for its customers, roasters, and CPG companies around the world through its Steeped Packaging arm.
Steeped, Inc. is a Certified B Corp and Benefit Corporation focused on every detail from farm-to-cup and beyond, to bring people the most convenient, high quality, ethically sourced, and sustainably packaged products available. Steeped believes in Coffee Without Compromise and is focused on Purpose Beyond Profits seeing success as the amount of good we can do together.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Back in 2017, we had completed our extensive R&D & QA to finalize our developed materials. We had found our eventual headquarters, ordered machines, and launched a fundraising campaign. In tech you learn to ‘fake it until you make it’, but with physical goods ‘putting the cart before the horse’ is probably more appropriate. Regardless, I booked a meeting before having a product and found myself in a boardroom with a group of well-dressed business people where I was essentially serving stapled bags while explaining the concept. The machine had not arrived yet, so early that morning at 4am I was in my hotel room prepping by grinding, weighing, filling with funnels, and hand stapling sample bags. If anyone had walked into the room they would have thought I was running a full-scale drug operation out of my hotel room. The meeting somehow went well and everyone loved the Steeped Coffee brewing method so much that despite the premature nature, they actually choose to replace their in-room Nespresso set up with Steeped Coffee. Eventually, the deal fell apart when I had to send a stapled bag sample to the one investor who wasn’t at the first meeting. Painting the vision can only go so far, haha, but it was encouraging to know that a premium hotel launching themselves in a desirable location loved the concept so much that they’d be willing to upend all their plans with an industry giant for an unproven startup.
We all need a little help along the journey. Who have been some of your mentors? Can you share a story about how they made an impact?
Being an entrepreneur is not for the faint of heart. The experiences you face on that journey are extreme highs and lows, loneliness, obstacles in every form, and constant risks that require relentless persistence and blinding optimism to navigate. As a faith based CEO and founder, I have relied heavily on mentors who could keep me encouraged, centered on life’s truths, maintain perspective, and to celebrate or commiserate through all the challenges and breakthroughs that come with the pursuits of passion. There are several people who I talked with almost daily: prayed with, expressed struggles, received wise counsel, encouragement, and who helped keep me anchored to the source that drives me. Friends like this, like Joshua Millage, Jesse West, my wife Kristy, are crucial when your facing things like bankruptcy and your life seemingly crumbling around you. If you have someone to laugh with when it’s all hitting the fan, its not so bad. And when I came out on the other end of each trial, it’s nice to have someone who knows what I went through to get to where we are. Surprise, like marriage, entrepreneurship is not a perpetual romantic notion, it’s a constant commitment and life choice. Having the right people to do that with is essential.
In today’s parlance, being disruptive is usually a positive adjective. But is disrupting always good? When do we say the converse, that a system or structure has ‘withstood the test of time’? Can you articulate to our readers when disrupting an industry is positive, and when disrupting an industry is ‘not so positive’? Can you share some examples of what you mean?
Perhaps obvious, but I think about single-serve pods as a major disruptor in coffee. The business model and the product, all very innovative, disruptive, and wildly successful from both marketplace adoption and a financial perspective. But when you look at the cost of that success you’ve got an inventor who’s been quoted that he wishes he had never come up with the idea when looking back, and an environmental footprint of billions upon billions of pods per year, not to mention the machines, which have created an environmental disaster drawing public outcry and concern. The climate crisis is one of the greatest foundational societal challenges we will face. From 2009 — present, enough pods have been used to wrap around the planet over 130 times. And those are now in landfills. Simultaneously, millions of machines are used and discarded as well.
One of the main things Steeped set out to do was redeem the single-serve market. First and foremost to lead with sustainability, not as an afterthought. Steeped Coffee would do its best to leave minimal footprints behind and to re-innovate an industry that had essentially taken over the coffee market but at a great environmental cost. Steeped would come to give an alternative option that avoided plastic waste and the reliance on machines. Steeped would become single-serve 2.0 by cutting the cord and giving people the freedom to have quality coffee wherever they wanted, by just adding water. And because Steeped, Inc. is focused on positive innovation we hope that our impact continues to extend and grow to a variety of other areas with ethics, responsible sourcing, sustainability, compostable packaging, corporate giving, generosity, and more to be discovered. Our innovation is not just our technology but our business model that focuses on Purpose Beyond Profits.
Can you share 3 of the best words of advice you’ve gotten along your journey? Please give a story or example for each.
My dad Dave Wilbur told me something like, “I’m not worried about you, no matter what happens. You always seem to land on your feet smelling like roses.” It wasn’t necessarily what he said, but more that he believed in me to try new things, take risks, make mistakes, and still be OK. The support has stuck with me when I have doubted myself.
My grampie Paul Wilbur always said, “if you are going to do something do it right.” It was kind of a passed down Wilbur thing. I remember watching my dad painstakingly rip up a hardwood floor to redo it right after discovering the first row didn’t go down correctly. I didn’t understand at the time would come to understand that later on in life.
I later adopted, “don’t let the perfect get in the way of the good” but then added, “but you should make it perfect whenever you can.” I’m a bit of a perfectionist and can spot a pixel out of place, but I also don’t mind cranking out the first 80% of a project to get something started. Aaron Hinde at Lifeaid Beverage told me once (in a much better way) that it takes 20% effort to get the first 80% done, then another 20% for the next 10% of effort to get to 90%, and then another 20% to get to 95%, then another 20% to reach 98%, and another 20% effort for that last 2%. I like keeping that mind, but often ignore it when I can.
Lead generation is one of the most important aspects of any business. Can you share some of the strategies you use to generate good, qualified leads?
I just let people try it and see for themselves.
We are sure you aren’t done. How are you going to shake things up next?
We have lots of exciting things coming down the pipeline, but the most basic will be to continue to get the Steeped Coffee brewing method into new places for people to enjoy. We joke that our target market is, “Do you drink coffee?!” We are well suited for the current need of contactless coffee in the workplace.
I also like that the Steeped Coffee method is the great equalizer for any home — it doesn’t matter who you send Steeped to, it’s the only actual coffee product that anyone can enjoy regardless of their coffee setup. And I think I’m most excited about the grocery channel. Steeped offers a product that incorporates all the best of our single-serve competitors while eliminating the problems of each. Steeped has literally innovated a way to translate the simple universal tea drinking experience to specialty coffee. The grocery store shelves are going to continue to fill up with our favorite roasters, now available to 100% of the market for purchase who walks by (vs. only 25% with pod machines), and for the first time comes along with Steeped’s Guilt-Free Packaging. The Steeped Coffee method is quickly becoming the new standard in coffee that represents quality, convenience, ethics, and sustainability. That’s big.
Do you have a book, podcast, or talk that’s had a deep impact on your thinking? Can you share a story with us? Can you explain why it was so resonant with you?
Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business (book), Pat Gelsinger Sermon on Living Your Values at Work (youtube), Cat & Cloud (podcast), the Bible (book/audiobook), Start Something that Matters (audiobook), and The Hole in Our Gospel (book/audiobook) are a couple I can think of.
I had just been to Pat Gelsinger’s house for dinner for a non-profit function. I didn’t really know anyone and I’ve never been good with knowing who’s who. I had no idea who Pat was and that he was CEO for VMWare, but I had a great conversation with him and his wife and just really liked them. I googled them when I got home and learned that Pat was a business leader and a man of faith as well. One weekend while I built my daughter a new bed, I listened to a sermon he preached on ‘Living Your Values at Work,’ and it helped inspire me to view my role differently. That talk encouraged me to see how my faith could be lived out through my own leadership, but in a way didn’t hold others to my own beliefs, “The role of the CEO is much, much broader than their own faith perspectives,” says Pat in an article but, “Does God care about what you do in your day-to-day? If you just ask that fundamental question I think the answer is clearly yes.” As a marketplace leader I try to live it, not preach it. Pat’s talk helped show me an acceptable path to marry those two parts of my life, which was very helpful in maturing my identity as a servant leader.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
While working with Bibliotheca and Steeped, I’ve identified with, “Simplicity is one of the most difficult things to achieve.” Steeped is Coffee Simplified, which sounds so obvious, but year-after-year the industry creates new machines and fancy gadgets continuing to move further away from true simplicity. Our team knows firsthand that an idea that takes on the form of simplicity is one of the most difficult things to achieve. Steeped Coffee spent nearly a decade perfecting ‘A Simple Cup’ of quality coffee for the world to enjoy. Each detail has a specific purpose to make something that appears this simple, just work. It’s all the details that add up to make the biggest difference.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Generally speaking, if we can inspire people to do Business Without Compromise, to use business as a tool for good… that would have an incredible impact.
As Steeped continues to grow as an organization we want to be good models and stewards of what we’ve been given, and not just measure our success financially but also through our purpose. Steeped considers this our double bottom line. As a Benefit Corporation, Steeped has enhanced our legal structure to match our values. We operate as a for-profit C Corp, but have updated our articles of incorporation with a statement of purpose. This subtle improvement allows us to legally focus on purpose as well as our profits — expanding the measurement of success from a single to a double bottom line company. We have developed a growing Marketplace Missions directive with initiatives like:
PACKS FOR GOOD: An upcoming initiative built specifically to support nonprofits with branded organizational web pages on Steeped Coffee’s website, where all sales generate a 20–25% donation (on top-line revenue) back to that non-profit to support their mission.
GIVING FUND: Through success, Steeped has begun an initiative to give back through an initial minimum 1% giving program (of revenue, not profits) through our Steeped Giving Fund. We are excited to see how this develops, but I’m excited that we didn’t figure this all out first, we just started. Revenue immediately takes on a whole new meaning, shifting from what you get, to what you get to give.
Accountability and measuring impact are at the forefront of our activities and another way we can lead through our unique approach to business. We are currently tracking and reporting through our B Corp Certification, which is monitored by the third-party non-profit B Lab. Putting action beyond words, Steeped is proud to be part of a community of leaders, driving a global movement of people using the power of business to solve social and environmental problems. As a Certified B Corporation we are a business that meets the highest standards of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, legal accountability, and bold company policies, to balance profit and purpose.
Again, in a different light, there are a bunch of little things here that add up to something greater. I don’t know what things we are doing will have the most impact, but I think it is most important that we are postured towards pursuing purpose. Ideas grow. If one idea triggers a movement of people, business owners, companies, to focus on the positive impact their businesses could have (or even better ways to avoid negative impact) then it would be a good direction to go. We hope to be a part of that conversation for others.
How can our readers follow you online?
To follow along with the story, check out:
Instagram: @steepedcoffee / Instagram.com/steepedcoffee/
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!