Kitu Life: An Exclusive Interview with CEO & Co-Founder Jim DeCicco
Jim DeCicco and his two brothers, Jake and Jordan, were recently named to Forbes 30 Under 30 list in the Food & Drink category for the company they co-founded, Kitu Life. Kitu Life also appeared on Season 9 of Shark Tank as the three brothers pitched their product, SuperCoffee, a healthy, performance-motivated energy drink. In this exclusive interview with the oldest of the brothers and Kitu Life CEO Jim DeCicco, we discuss the company’s founding and early days, Kitu Life’s current and future focuses, and advice for aspiring entrepreneurs.
Jim and Kitu Life’s story is one that is jam packed with valuable business and life lessons for individuals and entrepreneurs alike. So if you are are an ambitious individual with even the slightest entrepreneurial bug, we encourage you to read this and learn as much as you can from a true go-getter who’s out there living the dream!
Blog Shark Tank: Jim, thanks again for speaking with me today. Why don’t you tell me a little bit about your background personally and how you and your brothers founded the company you’re working with now?
Jim: Happy to. So I’m the oldest of 3 brothers. We were all college athletes. We’re super close in age. Today I’m 26, Jake’s 25 and Jordan’s 23. I graduated Colgate University in 2015 where I studied philosophy and was captain of the football team. My first job out of school I was working for The Blackstone Group as a financial analyst. I was getting started in real estate and understanding finance that summer while my two brothers were working on this project.
Jordan was a basketball player in college and he was tired. He had early morning practice, late nights in the library, and his school store offered only sugary bottled coffees and energy drinks loaded with calories and artificial stuff. So that summer he made a recipe that was working really well for his teammates, his classmates, and his coaches. It was just coffee with protein and healthy fats with coconut oil and was sugar free. So that summer, me and my brother Jake, who was playing football at Georgetown at the time, we got together and started putting together a business plan and really thinking about turning this recipe for what Jordan called SuperCoffee into a company.
After that summer, going into Jordan’s sophomore year, Jordan hit me up and said “Hey I’m dropping out of school and starting a coffee company.” And I was shocked. I told him “What are you talking about? Basketball’s your dream. You’re a full scholarship kid.” He goes “Yeah but if I go back to school and Jake goes back to school, this company’s going to fail. It’s such a big opportunity and people really need this healthy alternative.” And I said “Well you can’t do this alone”. So the three of us started the company back in the Fall of 2015 really, but 2016 was our first year selling coffee.
Blog Shark Tank: That’s pretty crazy. I didn’t know he (Jordan) had dropped out of school for this. When you find an opportunity like that and a marketplace for it, you really just have to attack it. It can be a big risk, but it sounds like it’s worked pretty well for you so far. Now had he had experience making recipes or working with ingredients like that before, or was it something that he saw an opportunity with, self-educated himself a little bit, and just went for it?
Jim: Yes, definitely self-education. He was always looking for vitamins or supplements or food products that would give him an advantage or make him feel good. We were raised in a healthy household so we always had organic vegetables and healthy foods around the house. It was a part of who we were to be healthy. Jordan’s not a chemist or science major or anything like that. He just put together ingredients that were good for him and also tasted good. Now today, he’s still our Chief Innovation Officer and he works with different labs and food scientists to get our recipes ready for commercial use.
Blog Shark Tank: That definitely makes a lot of sense. Once you get to the level you are at, when you’re able to bring in outside help, I’m sure it helps expand what you’re able to do beyond SuperCoffee too. But we can get to that in a little bit. So you founded the company in Fall 2015, start selling in 2016. And you chose the name Kitu Life, am I saying that right?
Jim: Yeah, more like Key-To-Life.
Blog Shark Tank: Okay great. What was the decision behind branding it that way? I feel like you’re better known as SuperCoffee. Is there a reason behind that name? Do you have a bigger picture in mind? Maybe you can tell me a little bit about how that name relates to your company’s vision.
Jim: So Kitu Life is a name we came up with as a play on one’s key to health, key to success, key to happiness. And it’s also intentionally similar to the ketogenic diet, or keto. That is a very hot trend right now in food. But Kitu Life is just a holding company. Everybody knows us as SuperCoffee, but we named the company Kitu Life because we are launching so many more products. We already have a SuperCreamer on the market. We’re launching a SuperEspresso in a few months. So Kitu Life is the makers of SuperCoffee, SuperCreamer, and whatever else we plan to innovate and launch in the future.
Blog Shark Tank: Okay that makes sense. I have a few friends of mine who are big on the keto diet, so definitely aware of the growing trend. Talk about those first couple months. You have an idea, your brother drops out of college, you join your two other brothers. What were those initial months like?
Jim: I think the big thing is that we’re not entrepreneurs; nobody in our family has ever done anything like this before. For us, the whole idea was this new concept. We didn’t know what a startup was, we didn’t know what a pitch deck was or a business plan or anything like that. We were really coming into this thing blind. And it was our background as athletes that’s prepared us to figure it out and run through walls and not be discouraged by challenges or barriers.
So in the first few months, I think our naivety was our secret to success. Ignorance truly is bliss because we didn’t know how difficult it was going to be. And without having that idea of how hard it was, we just attacked different problems every day. The advice I always give is don’t wait until you’re ready, don’t wait till you’re qualified, just get out there and start. Because it all comes back to the Mike Tyson quote in that everybody has a plan till you get punched in the face. And I talked to countless entrepreneurs who asked “How’d you get started? Can you review my business plan? I’m not going to be able to do this until I get my MBA or until I’m ready?” Dude you’re never going to be ready. We were not ready.
The first account we got into was Whole Foods. We showed up with this dorm room blend of SuperCoffee and said “Look, you guys carry nothing like this. Give us a shot.” And one store in Washington DC brought us in, and the rest is history. We showed up, we started pouring samples. We quickly became the best-selling product in the store. And then we did that in two stores, then 20 stores. Now, today we are in over 3,000 stores doing the same thing. I think we’ve learned very quickly just by doing.
Blog Shark Tank: That’s pretty inspiring to a lot of people I’m sure. People have ideas all the time, right? But it really takes execution and being willing to tackle challenges one after the other to separate yourself.
With that one store, were you actually in the store yourselves pouring samples and out there pushing product that way initially? How has your strategy evolved once you picked up some steam and got into more stores?
Jim: We absolutely were. In that first year, we did everything from making the product to waking up at 4am and making deliveries from DC to Baltimore. Stocking the shelves, pouring samples, getting in the front of the customers. It was a new brand and not much money. We didn’t have any money back then. It was up to us to sort of will this thing into existence.
What we were able to do was pour samples, educate customers, and prove sales. We needed to get this thing selling. And once we became a high selling item in many of these stores, we took that selling story to the next store. And then the next store. And said “Look, we help sell the products that you carry.” And that was all earned through effort, showing up, and hard work. Now we have 27 employees and that same mentality, that same scrappiness, has just been scaled. It’s not just the three of us anymore. You can catch me in grocery stores every weekend pouring samples today. But the benefit is that there’s 26 others now doing it as well all over the country.
Blog Shark Tank: It sounds like you’ve kept the same strategy, just expanded it as you’ve been able to bring in more people. What else are you doing besides that to increase the brand awareness and continue to grow the company? What’s the next phase for you now that you’re at this new level where you aren’t doing everything yourself?
Jim: We’ve certainly outgrown having to make all the deliveries ourselves. That was grueling for sure, but it was the only way we could get started. But now we have distributors, a state-of-the-art manufacturing facility, and the plan to scale is to keep hiring like-minded individuals, We’re very bullish on college athletes. We love that mentality. I think that’s a big key to our success so far.
We’ll also be expanding to part-time employees. We have what’s called the Positive Energy Project, which is basically our brand ambassadors on a national level. They’re in stores building out shelves, building displays, pouring samples. Some of these guys are working 20-30 hours a work. That’s how we are going to continue to scale in 2019, and I think we are going to shift some focus to e-commerce as well. I think that can be a big part of our business this year.
Blog Shark Tank: Let’s go back to your two brothers. It’s difficult to live with family at times, let alone start a business with them. How have you been able to manage your personal and professional relationships with your brothers. How were you able to define roles for each other and not step on each other’s toes?
Jim: In the very early days, that was kind of tough because we were all working on any piece of the business. We weren’t really defined by a specialty or role. Whatever needed to get done, we did it together. Since our youngest brother was the founder, he was the CEO initially. But today, I’m the CEO and we made that decision so Jordan could go back to school. We sent him back after we got this thing running and stable. So once he was back in school, I took over that role, but we still all share the same responsibilities and have the same decision-making power as before. But now I’m the one dealing with investors and marketing and all that.
But working with brothers, it’s totally unique. I think a lot of people who have siblings see us and say “Oh I could never work with my siblings”. My brothers and I are super close in age. We all come from the same mentality, the same background with sports and competitive spirit and desire to win. And those commonalities drive us toward the same goal. It’s also unique in that we each bring something unique to the table.
Jordan is the innovator and the visionary. He’s the one with the bravery and the courage to take an idea and risk everything to bring it to life. I could never do that. Jake is the optimistic, high energy sales guy. He’s out meeting with Target, Wal-Mart, Walgreens, and Rite Aid, closing down the biggest accounts in the country. Me, I’m more of a big picture guy, making sure we have enough money from investors, making sure we’re hiring the right people, and promoting the brand whether it be through Shark Tank or Forbes 30 Under 30. Working with brothers is definitely a lot. We live together, we work out together, we spend a lot of time together. But I believe all that time together has been necessary to get the business to where it is today.
Blog Shark Tank: It’s probably safe to say that you relied on the commonalities that you all have to get this thing off the ground, but once you picked up steam, it was easier to define roles amongst yourselves after recognizing each other’s strengths.
Let’s talk about your experience on Shark Tank. I believe you came out with a deal on that episode. Talk about your experience on Shark Tank, what the impact on SuperCoffee was from that, and how you were preparing the company for the aftermath of appearing on Shark Tank.
Jim: In that first year in 2016, most people who saw us during that first year in stores pouring samples would say “You guys should go on Shark Tank.” And we kind of laughed it off like “Oh that would be cool”, but we always saw it as a distraction because every year 40,000 companies apply and only 100 get to be aired. We didn’t like those odds, and it’s a gruesome application process. So we decided to focus on running the business.
But in 2017, I was surfing on LinkedIn that one of my 2nd degree connections commented on my buddy’s post saying “Hey this [SuperCoffee] is cool, you guys should go on Shark Tank”. In the comments, he told me to hit him up about Shark Tank because he had a connection. So I sort of slid into his DMs and right away he introduced me to a producer for Shark Tank. I got on the phone with him and told him our story. And he said he would put our application at the top of the list for the show if we applied. We filmed in June 2017, it happened so fast. The episode didn’t air until February 2018.
Once that aired, we saw a huge lift in sales online. It allowed our sales reps to have leverage in building displays in stores, getting all of our retailers and accounts excited. We urged them to take bigger orders and store displays in the weeks leading up to our episode. Once that [Shark Tank] happened, we really used it to our advantage. Shark Tank was a catalyst to a huge selling year for us.
Blog Shark Tank: For sure. You see it time and time again with people who go on the show and get a lot more visibility, which can turn into more sales if the product is good.
Let’s talk about where you’re going from here. The space you’re in is definitely crowded. You’re competing with energy drinks, coffee companies, and supplements. How do you try to distinguish yourself amongst your competitors with SuperCoffee and other products that you’re launching?
Jim: So a couple things. America’s food paradigm is shifting from this tolerance of carbs and sugars to healthy fats and proteins. Our products taste as good as other name-brand products, but also have zero sugar and are only 80 calories versus other products with much more of each. I think that is definitely appealing to a lot of people.
We also have more nuanced items like MCT oil from coconut oil. We use monk fruit, which is a natural sweetener that’s sugar-free and calorie-free. Those two things appeal to the ketogenic audience. I think we have this nuanced bio-hacking to our products. But priced at $2.99, being 80 calories, and having zero sugar, we also appeal to the masses. That’s what separates us. We don’t want to be the niche, natural brand. We would much rather be an everyday brand for Walmart and 7-Eleven instead of being exclusive to places like Whole Foods.
Blog Shark Tank: It sounds like you check off a lot of boxes for a lot of people. You have some people that are looking for something that’s keto-friendly. You have some people who don’t want sugar. You have others who want low-calorie. You can check off those boxes to widen your reach. That along with a low price point that can attract new customers, people who have never tried SuperCoffee can say “Oh, three bucks? Friendly to my diet? Sure, I’ll try it.”
Shifting over to the bigger picture, tell me a little bit about the overall vision for the company. What’s next for Kitu Life in the next 6-12 months?
Jim: I think the theme this year, and what our company ultimately stands for, is positive energy for positive change. We fundamentally believe that if you change your energy, you can change your world. And it’s as simply as putting down a sugary cup of coffee and picking up a SuperCoffee. But it’s also greater than that, right? It’s beyond just changing your drink of choice. Change your energy, change your mentality, go make somebody’s day. Go smile, pay a compliment to a stranger, spread good vibes. We think that’s going to be why this brand succeeds because it’s more than just selling products, it’s a cultural movement. We are always going to be a positive energy company and our products and culture are going to reflect that.
In February, we are launching a line of SuperEspresso products. From a corporate responsibility perspective, we partnered with Under Armour to eventually launch what’s called the Positive Energy Project. On our website, we are going to be selling these Positive Energy Project uniforms which consist of an Under Armour hat, shirt, and LIVESTRONG wristband that all say “Positive Energy Project” on them. We haven’t figured out all the details on this yet, but we’re not going to accept any profits on the uniforms or the Positive Energy Project. At the end of the year, we will donate any money we earn from this to inner city schools to help kids get athletic equipment. We’re going to be buying Under Armour cleats, balls, shirts, shorts, whatever kids need to play because sports have been such a big impact on our lives. We want to afford everybody that opportunity.
Blog Shark Tank: That’s incredible that you’re able to do that. Especially for a young company too. A lot of other companies wouldn’t think to launch a social responsibility arm on top of trying to grow the business. That really shows the commitment you have not just to the business, but to the audience you’re trying to appeal to as well.
In closing, what are some takeaways you can give to today’s entrepreneurs or to people who may have an idea, but haven’t made the decision to pursue it yet?
Jim: I think resilience, your ability to withstand change and issues that you’ll face every single day, is important. Things aren’t going to go your way, I promise. How can you weather that storm without giving up? Brands come and go all the time because the founders don’t have the energy to keep fighting these battles. We face different, debilitating issues every single week and having the fortitude to power through that has been key. And that was forged at a young age through sports and the lessons we learned on the football field, the weight room, the basketball court. Resilience is key.
Second is leverage your network. Build your networks. We fundamentally believe that our team is not just the people we have on payroll. Our team is everybody from alumni at our colleges to our connections on LinkedIn, our friends, our investors, mentors, anybody like that. We have the benefit of being young on our side because a lot of people who have been in this situation before are happy to provide guidance or coaching to us. I can’t emphasize that enough, don’t go into this alone. Reach out, ask for help. I’m certainly available to anyone who reads this and wants guidance or wants to pick my brain, I’m happy to help.
And I think the last thing is don’t wait. Just get going. You’re never going to be ready, there’s never going to be a perfect time. If I were you guys, I would dive in head first full speed and figure it out as you go.
Blog Shark Tank: I think those are three very important things as well. I’m sure you’ll get a few people to take you up on your offer. That’s really generous of you to offer up your guidance.
Okay last question, I like this question because it means something different to everyone. What does success mean to you personally?
Jim: I think for me, it’s happiness and fulfillment along the way. Sometimes for example, you’ll hear NFL players or coaches say “Yeah we won the Super Bowl, but I’m not really happy.” And that’s something a lot of people only dream of ever doing. So if we take this thing public, or sell this thing to Coca-Cola for millions of dollars one day, that’s not success. Success is showing up every day. Finding happiness and fulfillment and excitement in what we’re doing. And being able to impact or inspire others along the way. You have to find happiness in the journey because there is no destination. There’s not going to be one day where you win the Super Bowl or sell your company and life is great because that’s just a temporary, fleeting moment. For me, success is in the moment and I have to enjoy it every single day.
Blog Shark Tank: I think a lot of people can relate and connect with that. Jimmy, thanks a lot, I really appreciate your time. Good luck in 2019.
Jim: Thanks Quinn, same to you!