MachinePix Weekly #6: Jake Miller, CEO of Fellow Products
Coffee tips from Jake Miller, the man who builds equipment for the best baristas in the world. Also a surprising way to sew pockets onto jeans.
This week I sit down with Jake Miller, the CEO of Fellow, which makes the coffee equipment used by both the World Barista Champion and the World Brewers Cup Champion.
The most popular post last week was a CNC jig for sewing pockets onto jeans. As always, the entire week’s breakdown is below the interview.
I’m always looking for interesting people to interview, have anyone in mind?
Interview with Jake Miller
I know you started in marketing - how did you decide to start Fellow?
My undergrad degree was in marketing and my first job was at an ad agency, and I moved into brand marketing at Caribou Coffee. I didn’t even know what speciality coffee was, I just loved the cafe experience. At that time in my life, coffee was just the price of admission to squat for a couple of hours.
At Caribou I was assigned to the coffee category as a brand manager. I ended up working with the roastmasters and traveling to coffee farms. I was in the role for 3-4 years and developed a deep appreciation for the craft and everything that goes into specialty coffee.
Since I was 5, I knew I wanted to start a physical product company. The idea of making something that someone else valued enough to trade their hard earned cash for was always appealing to me.
When I left Caribou, I moved to California for grad school and thought this was my chance to figure out what I wanted to start. I didn’t think in my wildest dreams it would be coffee related. Me and my friends threw a bunch of ideas at the wall over two years at Stanford, including Fridgestagram, which was a camera for seeing what you had in your fridge. The final idea I had, in the fall semester of my final year, was when the Duo Coffee Steeper was born.
What was the problem you were addressing when the Duo was born?
The idea was to combine the simplicity of a French press with the cup quality of a pour over. We iterated on multiple prototypes and received positive feedback. However, I still wasn’t sure if it was enough—should I try to turn this idea into a company or take a job to pay off school debt?
I did what a lot of uncertain product founders do—I turned to Kickstarter shortly after graduating. The Duo Coffee Steeper raised just short of $200,000 and was one of the top 3% of campaigns ever at the time in 2013. I had come from marketing, not product manufacturing, so I thought I was rich. I remember thinking this product stuff is easy. The reality was I was selling the prototype, and I still had to figure out how to produce it. It took me twenty months to go from prototype to production. Just to fulfill the initial units for Kickstarter it cost me $300,000—right out of the gate I was in a massive hole.
What happened? Where did that $100,000 gap come from?
I can’t tell you how much I didn’t know at the time. I had never been in a factory. I had not done any DFM (Design for Manufacturability) nor knew anything about the NPI process (New Product Introduction). Going from idea to mass production was far harder than I ever imagined. For starters, I needed to select a factory. I was lost so I blindly called a bunch of other product companies that had done work in similar materials. After a ton of calls someone agreed to help me out.
Do you remember who helped you out?
Schmidt Brothers cutlery in New York! Our first product had drawn stainless steel, so I was just calling anyone that made products with stainless steel.
They introduced me to a family-run factory in Taiwan. Fast forward eight years, we’re still working with that same family. I’ve hosted them countless times at my home in California. When I get married they’ll be there, they’ve become family to me. It’s hard to describe the relationship we’ve built over the past eight years to make Fellow work and I struggle to even describe the important of the relationship to our success
What was it like visiting the factory for the first time?
I was a solo founder who should have had a cofounder with an engineering background. It was completely overwhelming. It was a very painful 18 months, a lot of time alone in the factory. Looking back, I’m glad it happened. It was my master’s degree in engineering.
Now we have an excellent team of engineers and designers, all of whom are much better than me at what they do. I do think those first two years alone trying to figure it were priceless.
What are some of your craziest stories from running Fellow?
I can’t tell you how many times we thought we weren’t going to make it, and we somehow did. We came so close to failing so many times in the first few years. A couple that come to mind:
Very early on, when we just had our first product—by the way, this product tanked, we discontinued it—we weren’t selling well, we were in a bad cash position, we were trying to finance our next product, the Stagg Pour Over Kettle, which became a huge hit. I went home thinking we were toast. I didn’t know what to do.
That same weekend, we got into the NYT Weekend Edition as one of their “Top 50” favorite products. Our website, which wasn't even doing $50K a month then, did $50K over the weekend. I have no clue how we ended up there. We have that newspaper framed in our office.
Another time, I remember driving to the East Bay in year two or three, and got one of our angel investors to give us an emergency loan to help make payroll. It was basically a piece of paper that said “Jake owes Jerry $50K”. It was comical. At one point we owed $1.7M to our supplier in Taiwan, but they had faith in us and kept shipping. They didn’t have to and 99.9% of suppliers would have cut us off and killed us. We sold through all of the inventory and paid them back.
Last year the World Barista champion and World Brewers champion used our products to win the championships. It’s just so cool.
Another funny story, every Kardashian owns one of our products! Kim owns three. I don’t know why. It was organic.
What’s hard about running a consumer hardware company?
I think I bit off too much complexity from day one. It paid off because we were able to execute, but if you think about our business: we operate a website and sell through Amazon and other marketplaces. We have wholesale accounts and sell through speciality and big box retailers. All in 40 countries.
Any one of those channels is complicated, and for most of our life we were a team of less than 10 people. It was really hard to manage. We bit off too much, too early.
The knockoffs just drive me crazy. There were times when I would get physically upset and have trouble sleeping every time I saw another knockoff. There’s a company that looks like the Minecraft version of our kettle. It’s just crappy. With maturity I’ve realized we’re just going to move faster and be better than these competitors. It’s just whack a mole, there’s nothing you can do. I’m more relaxed about it now.
What’s your favorite product you’ve created?
The product that we’re shipping soon that I’m super excited about is our Ode Brew Grinder. It’s been 30 months in development. We’ve had one review site claim that it’s the best grinder they’ve ever used. We’re against grinders that cost 10x more. Building these products is really hard and there were certainly months of despair and struggle over the past two years. But hearing that feedback is just amazing—it’s just like “yea, we did it!” I can’t wait to get it into the hands of our Kickstarter supporters.
What’s something people don’t appreciate about coffee or making coffee?
A lot of people who love coffee have their specialty coffee “moment”. My moment was back at Caribou when one of our brewmasters made me an Ethiopian natural in a Chemex. It was a wild coffee with hints of blueberry and strawberry. Up until then, coffee was all kind of the same to me. This really opened my eyes to the broader presentation of coffee across the palate, even more so than wine or craft beer.
I wanted to try different beans, different washes—what did it all taste like? It was this moment I knew coffee was a craft, something you can't ever fully master. Eight years later we’ve worked with some of the best roasters and brewers in the world and I still feel like I’m just scratching the surface of coffee.
How do you get to that “moment” if you don’t work in industry?
At the cafe, order by origin if possible. Get the pour over if they offer it. Lots of cafes will have their blends ready to go, but order the pour over and wait the seven minutes. Ask for recommendations and their flavor notes on the beans. Talk to them about it! Getting into pour over at home is pretty straightforward and doesn’t require a lot of equipment.
What’s your personal favorite coffee these days?
I’m still a big single-cup pour over fan. That’s my go-to every time.
We’re pretty blessed at Fellow to get great coffee sent to us at all the time. Recently we got a Brandywine La Chiquita Mandarin Natural—it was fermented 100 hours with dehydrated mandarins from the neighboring farm. It had this crazy chocolate covered orange taste to it. Purists will say that’s cheating, but it was so different and I really enjoyed it.
What about your favorite cafe?
I don’t know if I can even answer that - we sell at over 1,000 cafes globally now, it’s so hard to pick. This isn’t necessarily my favorite, but the most memorable. There’s a roaster called Percent Arabica in Kyoto, Japan, and their logo is just a percent sign. They have a tiny standalone box cafe. It’s as big as a room in a house. It’s right on a river. A few years ago, I was able to take my dad with me. I remember we both got coffees from this cafe, and walked along the river in Kyoto. It was my most memorable cafe experience. The barista had a Stagg kettle at the cafe. It was a really cool moment.
Who’s doing the most interesting new work in coffee?
Onyx Coffee Lab in Arkansas just continues to push the envelope. They are the gold standard in my book.
Any cool side projects you’re exploring now?
Man, I literally was talking to my girlfriend recently that I need to figure out what I like outside of work. With COVID I’ve gotten into running and cycling which has been really meditative for me. Unfortunately I don’t have a side project I’m cranking on right now. Just a lot of coffee.
What’s your favorite simple (or not so simple) tool that you think is under-appreciated?
I don’t know if this counts, but it’s a recent purchase of mine I’m really obsessed with. I got a Traeger Grill—it’s a wood pellet smoker and griller. I can set it at noon between meetings and by dinner I have perfect tri tip or ribs. I hope we do this to our product design as well, but they make what can be a very complicated process easy. The education is all there, they’ve built a great community. Even the unboxing experience is great. You can turn the box inside out, and inside the package looks like a cabin. If you have kids it’s like this little fort. Even the screwdriver that came with the box was branded. Extremely thoughtful all around.
Any last thoughts?
Right as COVID hit, we made ComeTogether.Coffee with our partner Mage to support roasters and cafes affected by the pandemic. Check it out. We make no money on this—this is solely to support the industry that makes all our work possible ☕️
The Week in Review
Some back of envelope math: a small family farm is ~230 acres or ~10M sqft. Each of these irrigation guns covers ~1M sqft and uses 235 cubic meters of water an hour. Enough of these irrigation guns to cover a small family farm (10) will use about an Olympic swimming pool of water (2,500 cubic meters) every hour.
Manufacturer: Komet Irrigation
Textile handling remains a huge automation (and social) challenge—this factory has built an automated jig to use with a “normal” sewing machine by simulating human hands moving the material on the machine bed. Denim automation has previously made an appearance on @machinepix.
The dynamics of tilt-rotor aircraft can be a doozy, and the V-22 has the unfortunate reputation of being very easy to crash.
Manufacturer: Bell Boeing
I couldn’t find much about this unfortunately, so I assume it’s craft-built.
This is not the first, and definitely won’t be the last time ice cream makes an appearance on @machinepix. Like many followers, I was surprised that there’s still a human-in-the-loop here. More complex ice cream processes have been fully automated.
Manufacturer: Sicilian Ice Cream Co.
I’ve been having too much fun this week naming custom engine maps with Zero’s companion app 💩
If you enjoyed this newsletter, forward it to friends (or interesting enemies). I am always looking to connect with interesting people and learn about interesting machines—reach out!