What Happens When Student Athlete Says No To Sugar? A Super New Startup

06/09/2017 07:55 am ET

When this Philadelphia University student and his brothers started their own all-natural energy drink company, they had no idea just how much it would catch on. In this interview, Jordan DeCicco shares how his background in sports inspired him and his business education supported him to take on the journey of starting up.

Debate rages on about whether sugary drinks should be ruled by the same vice taxes as cigarettes and alcohol.

In support of these taxes are studies showing that sugary drinks are particularly lethal in their impact on insulin production and increased occurrence of diabetes, their impact on obesity, and in general, their relationship with greater demands and costs on our healthcare system.

These are great arguments. But, in my opinion, there is something else we could do without controlling consumer behavior that still frees up soft drink industry capital for research and innovation. Why not just offer greater options in the market itself? That’s just what one young entrepreneur is doing with his startup, Sunniva Super Coffee.

Growing up in a family of student-athletes, Jordan DeCicco knows the value of nutrition to physical performance. After overhauling his own sugar consumption, he searched for alternative drinks and came up short-handed. Taking cues from the much-talked about ‘bullet coffee,’ he launched Sunniva Super Coffee, a fortified blend of organic coffee, protein, and healthy fats that is one of the top-selling coffees on Amazon and in Whole Foods Market in the Mid-Atlantic Region. I asked Jordan to share his insights on starting up while in college and innovating in the beverage market.

Jordan (right) and his brothers know the value of a healthy diet to sports performance
Jordan (right) and his brothers know the value of a healthy diet to sports performance

Steve Mariotti: How did you get started with Super Coffee?

Jordan DeCicco: I started as a freshman here at Philadelphia University. I was having a rough time adjusting to being a student athlete. I’d have basketball practice at five in the morning and then business classes at eight. I would supplement with coffee and sugar and sugary energy drinks, yet I couldn’t figure out why I was falling asleep in class.

I started looking into my diet and it turns out that most of these beverages have 35-40 grams of sugar in them--that’s twice the amount you should consume in a whole day.

I also did some market research and I saw that Starbuck’s Frappuccino controlled 95% of the market and was selling $2.5 billion/year. I realized we had a big opportunity.

SM: Did you have any experience in the food industry when you started Super Coffee?

JC: No, but I knew what was healthy and what tasted great!

I started concocting a few health-conscious products in my dorm room and testing them out on my teammates and myself. I was falling in love with what we were doing and I decided to take off my sophomore year to develop the business.

We were working 20 hour days producing it, bottling and distributing it. That's how the original recipe started. We started off in a very small production facility and needed to get approved by the health department, something that required a 20-page report and a lot of food-safety testing on our end. But once we were approved, we could scale production. As distribution gradually picked up, we secured investors. The quality kept getting better and we could afford better scientists.

SM: You’ve had a lot of success both as a young entrepreneur and now with your recipe. What’s in it?

JD: We use organic coffee and 10 grams of lean protein instead of a fatty creamer. We use healthy fats such as coconut oil. Your body burns these fats as opposed to sugar and carbs which are stored as fat. Our product gives a great boost of energy immediately from the caffeine. But more than that, it keeps you going through the day because the healthy fats and the protein burn calories throughout the day.

SM: What about the legal and accounting issues?

JD: You have to be resourceful early on. We approached a Georgetown Law School professor who introduced us to students that wanted to help even without payment. My brothers and I also learned QuickBooks because it was cheap. By the time we outgrew its capabilities, we had funds to hire a firm and they are still with us.

But we knew we had gaps in our skill sets, so we brought in a CMO very early. He was experienced and gave up a job making $175,000 a year to take us on. We paid him $40,000 and stock options.

SM: If you could pick one obstacle that helped you grow, what was it?

JD: I’m all for competition. As an athlete, I’m pushed to win. But a serious impediment is the exclusive contracts that Coke and Pepsi have with campuses and corporations. But I’ll go head-to-head with them any day.

Social responsibility is key to Super Coffee’s business model--from working with fair trade suppliers to partnering in the co
Social responsibility is key to Super Coffee’s business model--from working with fair trade suppliers to partnering in the community.

SM: What is a big challenge for a beverage startup?

JD: In the beverage industry, no one wants to touch you when you are starting up. You don’t have the minimum quantity to make production worth it and it’s assumed you don’t have the money to pay them. We did it ourselves in a culinary kitchen, literally pouring the coffee into containers and putting on labels by hand. It was awful because we hadn’t developed a shelf life for the drink and it would go bad. Now we have the volume and we can use bigger and better bottling plants. By going from the ground up personally, you learn what it takes to make the best product. We now are working with the best supplier in the business.

Additional research and editing by E. E. Whiting

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