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Driftaway Coffee: The Courage to take a risk and start a business

By Barbara Quick | Small Business

“We were looking for courage—” says 31-year-old Anu Menon, co-founder with her husband Suyog Mody of the Brooklyn-based Internet start-up, Driftaway Coffee. “Courage to quit our comfortable jobs in favor of something altogether risky.”

Upon earning caffeine-powered engineering degrees from Georgia Tech, both Anu and Suyog landed jobs in Atlanta with the highly innovative, super-hip international marketing giant SapientNitro. They levitated their way up the corporate ladder, from entry-level tech jobs to project management and business strategy. Twenty-something Anu found herself a creative project manager entrusted with some of the company’s highest profile brands: Coca-Cola, MetLife, NASCAR.

“I worked at SapientNitro for six-and-a-half years,” she told Yahoo. “Suyog was also there, in business strategy, for ten years across three offices.”

After a decade in Atlanta, the couple jumped at the chance when Sapient offered both of them jobs working out of the London office. They packed up their wedding presents—including a fancy espresso machine one of Suyog’s cousins had given them—and moved to England for the year of the Olympics, in 2012.


More than Success

Like a lot of bright and accomplished professionals, Anu and Suyog were hungry for meaning as well as success. They longed to tether their work ethic, intelligence and creativity to something smaller and more personal than Sapient’s international roster of corporate clients.

Inspired by A.J. Leon’s “Misfit’s Guide to Changing the World,” the young married couple did an exercise in which they wrote down what they didn’t want their life to be, alongside a list describing the life they wanted to live. Suyog told us, “That’s when we looked at each other and said, ‘Maybe we should start something together!’”

The two spent much of their free time, during their fourteen months in London, brainstorming possibilities for starting a business. They were moved by Steve Jobs’ landmark speech at Stanford, intrigued by Chris Guillebeau and his website promoting “The Art of Non-Conformity” and empowered by the tale of another young couple who found the courage to leave the path they were on to pursue an unconventional goal.

“We always knew we were very compatible personally,” said Anu. “But after watching countless TED talks and interviews, doing research and discussing everything we saw and read, we came to realize that our values also matched at the most fundamental level when it came to work.”

Even though they were both part of the vast and vibrant team at SapientNitro, their paths almost never crossed there. The prospect of working together—pooling their creativity and passion in service of a common, personally meaningful goal—set both of them on fire.

“We didn’t want to keep making excuses, to be ‘wantrepeneurs,’” Anu told us. “We didn’t want to wait forever for the perfect idea. But, still, the idea of cutting those ties was really scary.”

And then a concept took hold of them—something having to do with their own cherished morning ritual they’d developed together: the perfect cup of coffee, brewed at home from world-class beans chosen to fit every individual customer’s tastes.


From Instant Coffee to Coffee Connoisseurship: A Round-the-World Journey

Suyog took us back in time to where the couple’s coffee connection started. “When Anu and I met at Georgia Tech, we were both addicted to caffeine, but didn’t pay much attention to our coffee.” Born and raised in Mumbai until he left for college at age 18, Suyog’s morning drink at home was a cup of warm milk “with a dash of instant coffee, added for flavor.” Anu also grew up drinking instant coffee, mixed with milk and sugar—but, unlike Suyog, she was a world traveler from the start.

Born in Surat, India, Anu moved with her father’s work in the oil industry from one exotic locale to another throughout her childhood, from Nigeria to Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Muscat, Oman. She grew up speaking English, as well as some Hindi, French and Malayalam, the language of the Indian state of Kerala, where both her parents were born.

Anu and Suyog each started to drink more and more coffee to meet the demands of their engineering curriculum at Georgia Tech. Long hours and little sleep were the norm for students in their program—at least for those students who hoped to land good jobs after graduation, or a place in graduate school.

The espresso machine, once unpacked in London, called for an expertise and knowledge neither Anu nor Suyog possessed—but were suddenly determined to acquire. They invested in a burr grinder, and tried out some coffee bean delivery services, analyzing what they liked and didn’t like. They realized that coffee beans are as different and varied in their flavor profiles as wine—and yet all the mail-order services they tried used a one-size-fits-all approach for their customers.

The idea for starting their own mail-order gourmet coffee bean company was nothing more than a glimmer in their eyes when Suyog came across Michaele Weissman’s book, God in a Cup: The Obsessive Quest for the Perfect Coffee. “That’s when we really got into high gear with our coffee,” Suyog told us. “We started paying attention to where it’s from, the roast level, the freshness and so on.”

Anu quit SapientNitro in 2013 to start learning everything she could about the business of coffee beans. “There was so much to do, in terms of learning about coffee roasting, developing our packaging, figuring out shipping, designing and implementing the website…” Anu worked on the project full time while Suyog, who didn’t quit his job for another year, helped out on weekends.


Collective Sponges

They launched Driftaway Coffee in 2014, a year after they packed up once again and moved to Brooklyn. They roasted their first batches of coffee in a modified popcorn popper, moving on from there to electric ovens, then a gas-powered Huky roaster. When they built up enough of a client base, they signed on at the Pulley Collective, New York’s coffee co-roasting facility, which allowed them to rent time on commercial equipment without the overhead that would otherwise be entailed. At Pulley they’ve also been able to meet and learn from mentors—a process that connected seamlessly with their jobs at Sapient. “We started working at Sapient fresh out of college,” Anu told us. “We were like sponges, absorbing everything we could from the amazing and creative people all around us. You can see the signs of it, I’m pretty sure, in everything we’ve created at Driftaway.”

Suyog says that one of the best parts of their experience at Sapient was working in multi-disciplinary teams, which has caused them to set uniformly high standards for themselves as entrepreneurs. “As we started working on Driftaway, we sort of channeled the different people we had worked with. Designing the site, we thought of how our creative teams worked—and applied the best of what we learned.”

“Being happy is easy,” said Suyog, “once you meet your basic needs for survival and a little bit of comfort. Once you get past that happiness level, though, it’s very difficult to feel fulfilled.” Fulfillment, for this couple, comes from—gradually, creatively—building something together. “Money is important, but the money doesn’t drive us. It’s the feeling of, ‘Wow, today was a good day. I did good work.’”

Driftaway seems to us a natural outgrowth of Anu’s childhood travels, which carried her to some of the most exotic corners of the world. “We loved the name ‘Driftaway,’” she told us, “because it conveys two meanings. The emotional part of it is how coffee allows you to Driftaway to a far-away land.” They waited until they could launch their web site with a dot-coffee domain, “which lets us tell the world who we are and what business we’re in.” Check out the packaging, designed to evoke vintage airmail tags. “On the rational side, coffee travels from really far away to get to us. Even the closest coffee-producing countries are thousands of miles away—and some are almost 10,000 miles away. We wanted the name to acknowledge that this delicious, necessary beverage has come to us from really far away, and to pay our respect to everyone who makes it possible.”

Eventually, Anu and Suyog hope to expand Driftaway’s capabilities on the sourcing side by forming strong relationships with coffee producers and farmers—and to do socio-economic development projects in those regions.

“Creating this meaningful life for ourselves, building this team and growing this company has been hard,” says Anu. “It’s tougher than anything we have done before. The ups and downs are crazy. But we love every single moment of it.”

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